Linda Sarsour, co-organizer of the Women’s March on Washington and sometimes-controversial civil rights activist, was inducted into the Order of Margaret Brent at St. Mary’s College of Maryland (SMCM) on Nov. 8, 2017. Upon accepting the award, Sarsour joined the ranks of many influential women — Rosa Parks, Toni Morrison and Barbara Mikulski, to name a few — who share the same honor.
Sarsour was selected to receive this biannually awarded honor by the Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program (WGSX) and the Lecture and Fine Arts Committee.
Associate Professor of Religious Studies Betül Başaran — who teaches a course titled Women Women, Gender and Politics in the Muslim World among others at SMCM — called Sarsour’s work “amazing” while she introduced the guest of honor.
Sarsour’s accolades include a Champions of Change award from former President Obama’s White House and, more recently, a featured spot on the front cover of Glamour Magazine. The Magazine deemed her one of the 2017 Women of the Year alongside the other co-chairs of the Women’s March.
The march, which took place all across the nation on Jan. 21, 2017, was “the single largest day for a demonstration in the US,” with an estimated 4 million participants according to data collected by crowd experts.
The Margaret Brent Lecture Series was formed in 1981 in order to acknowledge women for their distinguished public service. Margaret Brent was an English immigrant in the 1600s who settled in St. Mary’s City. She is widely regarded as an early feminist for her work to advance women’s rights amongst her peers, by becoming the first woman on record to demand women’s suffrage.
Başaran characterized Sarsour as a “relentless” activist against Islamophobia, white supremacy and antisemitism who gives “so many different groups hope.” Additionally, Başaran commended Sarsour for being the first Muslim-American and the youngest woman to receive this honor.
After being awarded a medallion to symbolize her induction into the order of Margaret Brent, Sarsour gave a speech to those gathered in the Auerbach Auditorium of St. Mary’s Hall.
For her talk, Sarsour chose the topic of “Organizing in the Era of Trump.” Sarsour discussed what it means to be an activist and why she does the work she does. According to Başaran, Sarsour’s “radicalizing moment” was the police killing of Michael Brown. That 2014 event, along with Sarsour’s lived experience of being a Muslim living in New York after the Sept. 11 attacks, led her to a career of activism, supporting all marginalized communities.
Sarsour spoke on the importance of intersectional feminism. She has been quoted before saying “If you’re in a movement and you’re not following a woman of color, you’re in the wrong movement,” which are sentiments she reiterated during her talk Wednesday night.
To highlight hope, Sarsour reflected over the previous Democratic victories of the night prior. Democratic candidates, of very diverse backgrounds, had swept elections across the country.
Despite her happiness from the recent electoral wins, Sarsour remained focused on organizing against who she sees as a white supremacist sympathizing, “sexual predator,” the United State’s President, Donald Trump. She also spoke on the continuation of racism in this country.
She spoke against what she saw as Trump’s most egregious actions, the four iterations of the Muslim ban, attempts to ban transgender troops from the military, union busting, rescinding of Consideration of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and raids against undocumented communities, to name a select few off Sarsour’s list.
Sarsour grounded what she said other see as unlikely actions from Trump within history. She spoke of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and Japanese internment camps in 1941 as the precedent for Trump’s possible acts.
According to Sarsour, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) attempted to make a registry for Muslim men. 110,000 Muslim men registered, but they found zero terrorists through this list. Sarsour was referring to the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEER), which was implemented in after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 001. A spokesperson for DHS said that NSEER was dismantled because “more than five years ago, after it was determined the program was redundant, inefficient and provided no increase in security.”
Sarsour continued to say that as a society we must decide how we want history to remember us. In order to combat oppression, Sarsour says that society must take a multi-faceted approach, saying, “There are branches of oppression; intersectionality is about getting to the base of this tree.”
“I am very grateful to be an American,” Sarsour said in response to claims she had heard from the mass media that she is unpatriotic. She argued that she resists the status quo out of love for this country, and that “dissent is the highest form of patriotism.”
The particular brand of patriotism Sarsour subscribes to has made her subject of many criticisms. Carrie Lewis wrote in the New York Post “Sarsour […] defends sharia law [sic] and Saudi Arabia’s legal system.” From the political left, Sarsour has been called anti-semitic due to her pro-Palestine stance on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
One of the people arguing against Sarsour’s patriotism was Maryland State Delegate Mark Fisher, R-27. A Facebook page in support of Mark Fisher’s reelection attempt, “Friends of Mark Fisher” made a post suggesting that Sarsour is a “radical jihadist [and an] antisemite [sic].”
These accusations are ones which Sarsour has heard before, She addressed these in an op-ed for The Washington Post, in which she writes that her usage of the word “jihad” has been demonized. She says that she uses it in a “legitimate yet widely misunderstood” way.
As for Fisher’s claim of anti-semitism, over 100 leaders from the Jewish community penned an open letter saying otherwise. They stated “we are members of the Jewish community from a range of backgrounds, experiences, and political perspectives who are committed to a country and world rooted in justice and dignity for all. It is in the service of this commitment that we condemn the recent attacks on and threats to Linda Sarsour.”
Facebook comments on the “Friend’s of Mark Fisher” suggested parents “pull their kids” out of SMCM and protest Sarsour’s speech. Fisher himself joined into the conversation, claiming that Sarsour was hoping to implement Sharia law.
During the Q&A session at SMCM after Sarsour’s lecture, a member of the audience challenged Sarsour for “taking money” from Saudi Arabia and her controversial tweet about a political adversary, she rebutted.
In regards to Saudi Arabia, Sarsour suggested that the student refers to tax returns of the organizations which she does take money from, suggesting that she does not take money from Saudi Arabia.
The tweet referenced was infamous and since-deleted attack on Brigitte Gabriel and Ayaan Hirsi Ali. In the tweet, Sarsour wrote, “I wish I could take their vaginas away […] they don’t deserve to be women,” according to Newsweek. Sarsour said that she may regret the word choice she used to speak about Gabriel and Ali, but would still condemn their actions.
This is a question Sarsour has answered before. According to Newsweek, she reportedly said “People say stupid shit sometimes, right? I will be judged by my impeccable track record for standing for black lives and immigrants’ rights and women’s rights, […] and LGBT rights, you judge me by that record and not by some tweet you think I did or did not tweet 10 years ago, or seven years ago.” At SMCM she told the audience that perfect leaders do not exist.
Other questions were less combative. None of the people claiming to protest on Fisher’s Facebook page appeared at Auerbach Hall that evening.
At the end of Sarsour’s speech, she gave five pieces of advice to the audience: get to know those around you, vote on issues, show up for causes you believe in, donate to causes you believe in and stay informed.