In this first installment of Round Corner, four scholars whose work center on American Muslims respond to the controversy surrounding Linda Sarsour’s “jihad” speech delivered at the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA)’s 2017 Convention in July 2017. Our assistant editor Micah Hughes compiled this piece and he opens the debate with an introduction.
For many in the United States the word jihad connotes violence alone. There is no doubt that historically jihad has been declared in times of war, and in more recent decades even used by extremist groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS to legitimize terror attacks – an issue which has received ceaseless condemnation from Muslim scholars and publics worldwide. These uses, however, do not exhaust the meanings of the term nor the religious practices and debates that surround it. Over the course of its semantic history, jihad has been widely used in the context of struggle, both personal and spiritual; for many Muslims across the world, it is this meaning that is most pertinent to their public and private lives.
The political activist and organizer, Linda Sarsour, came under recent attack and criticism after giving a speech at the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) where she evoked jihad in the context of struggling against “tyranny” and “oppression.” Backlash quickly spread through Twitter and opinion pieces proliferated on conservative sites such as Breitbart, Conservative Review, and The Federalist. Sarsour did not remain silent and instead responded to her critics. In the Washington Post, she said:
For people to out of nowhere claim that I would be calling for some sort of violence against the president is absolutely ludicrous… I should be able to speak to my own community, my own faith community, use my scripture and … not be criminalized for being a Muslim in America.
In light of this controversy around Sarsour’s use of the term, Maydan asked four scholars who specialize in religion and media, Islam and America, and Islamophobia to respond to this recent row in hopes of providing new perspectives on what this might mean for the political present.
Micah A. Hughes is a Ph.D. student in Religious Studies/Islamic Studies at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill. He completed his M.A. at the Alliance of Civilizations Institute in Istanbul, Turkey where he lived for three years. His research focuses on the generational shifts in conservative political and religious thought in 20th-century Turkey, with special attention to issues of temporality and the international circulation of critical discourses. He tweets @MicahAHughes.
Linda Sarsour is a fierce advocate for justice who has worked her whole life to combat religious intolerance. Her frank responses to bigotry have been met with rage, bile, and death threats. She has been accused of calling for violence and spreading hatred.
Acknowledging systemic injustice is not—as my colleague Simran Jeet Singh recently reminded us—the same thing as teaching hate. But it is teaching. Sarsour is one of countless women of color trying to teach America how to better itself. Her methods can be provocative, but the best pedagogy always is.
Two recent incidents illustrate her efforts:
When Sarsour called for jihad at the Islamic Society of North America’s convention earlier this month, she did so deliberately. Using a word like “jihad” in a speech guaranteed to go viral—like a well-placed f-bomb in the classroom—disrupts the students, makes them listen more closely. Sarsour’s audience is never just the people in front of her, and she seized this opportunity to educate her listeners. “‘A word of truth in front of a tyrant ruler or leader, that is the best form of jihad’… [W]e stand up to those who oppress our communities,” she insisted. In this moment, Sarsour taught her audience that struggling against oppression is not only necessary: it is holy.
Sarsour’s call for struggle against oppression recalled nothing so much as Bree Newsome atop that Charleston flagpole, waving the Confederate flag she had snatched, and declaring “you come against me with hatred and oppression and violence. I come against you in the name of God.”
When the Women’s March, which Sarsour helped organize and lead, wished Assata Shakur a happy birthday this week, CNN news anchor Jake Tapper criticized her for praising a “cop-killer.” Whether or not Shakur is guilty of the crime for which she was convicted—a point still hotly contested by scholars like Marc Lamont Hill—her work has been hugely influential on racial justice advocates, including the Movement for Black Lives. The Women’s March tweet signaled their broader commitment to radically intersectional work for justice, and recalled Shakur’s arguably most famous assertion:
It is our duty to fight for freedom.
It is our duty to win.
We must love each other and support each other.
We have nothing to lose but our chains.
Intentionally or not, Sarsour invited thousands of people to revisit and rethink Shakur’s legacy and its contributions to contemporary activism.
Both instances were calls for nuance in a media cycle largely driven by soundbites – challenges to read more carefully, to critically engage with our nation’s history of homicidal white supremacy. If your response to Sarsour’s lessons is anything but to look for ways you might have contributed to the injustices she has dedicated her life to correcting and to join in her struggle, I invite you, in the immortal words of Jesse Williams, to sit down.
Megan Goodwin is a Visiting Scholar with Northeastern University’s Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program. She recently completed a visiting assistant professorship in race, religion, and politics at Syracuse University and an Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellowship in Creative and Innovative Pedagogy in the Humanities at Bates College. Her work addresses the role of gender, race, and sexuality in American religious intolerance.
Jihad. What can I say about the poor fellow, he’s has had a tough career. From symbolizing the embodiment of sacrifice and piety to becoming a moniker of evil and fear, it is no surprise that in today’s age of rhetorical hyperbole and political polarization, that Jihad—the most misaligned word in the American lexicon of anti-Muslim bigotry—would suffer from gross exploitation, misrepresentation, and manipulation. But given America’s cultural commitment to willful ignorance, the popular reaction, from across the intellectual landscape, to Jihad’s most recent appearance in mainstream American discourse should be equally, if quite tiringly, expected.
Here’s the story: earlier this month, Linda Sarsour the Brooklyn based, Palestinian blooded, community organizer and advocate who was a principle force behind the nationwide women’s march on January 21st, got herself in a bit of trouble by hanging out with Jihad. She was seen, and heard, with him at the annual gathering of the Islamic Society of North America early this month, where she dared to suggest that Jihad might be able to help with this whole Trump, white-supremacy in the White House problem. To do so, she quoted one of the many endorsements of Jihad by none other than the Prophet Muhammad himself. She recounted a popular legend:
There is a man who once asked our beloved prophet … “What is the best form of jihad or struggle?” And our beloved prophet said to him, “A word of truth in front of a tyrant or leader, that is the best form of jihad.” I hope, that when we stand up to those who oppress our communities, that Allah accepts us as a form of jihad, that we are struggling against tyrants and rulers not only abroad in the Middle East or the other side of the world, but here in the United States of America, where you have fascists and white supremacists and Islamophobes reigning in the White House
As videos of out-of-context-portions of her speech were shared, and Islamophobic click bait articles popped up on social media platforms, Linda’s so-called endorsement of Jihad went viral. Since then, Linda has had to hire personal security, repair mended political alliances, and fend off the erroneous charges of opportunism, or worse, that she was calling for armed resistance. There was a spirited, but ultimately disappointing online campaign to support her through the hashtag #IStandWithLinda and although it finally came to her defense, ISNA’s response was, as usual…hmm, how should I say… diplomatic.
It is an interesting thing though you see, because not long ago in a land called “before 9/11” Jihad was a regular at ISNA. He would appear on T-shirts sold by African American Muslim vendors who thought he was a good way to describe their very real fight against deep-seeded failures of the American promise. Things like the symbiotic relationship between the prison industrial complex and inner-city drug violence, or government surveillance and entrapment schemes. Likewise, Jihad regularly showed up on book covers and in speeches documenting the crimes against the world’s oppressed and their universally recognized struggles for liberation. That is, in places like Kashmir, Bosnia, and yes I’m gonna say it, P-A-L-E-S-T-I-N-E. Jihad, freedom, physical resistance…no problem back then, it made sense to have him around. Of course, after some rather monstrous groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS began putting Jihad’s name on their propaganda materials, many thought it was a good idea to leave him out of the picture. Besides he always had a way of dominating dinner conversation you know.
But even back then, American pop-culture knew Jihad was pretty much an ok guy, or at least someone whose behavior could be explained; at the very least he could be talked with in rational terms. I mean, you can remember right, I’m not making this up: Antonio Banderas did a good job playing him in the 13th Warrior didn’t he? And even that eerily prescient Denzel film, The Seige, or that ever-useful replacement of a text-book for my students, Charlie Wilson’s War, explained terrorist violence and its gross misappropriation of Jihad in the simple terms of blowback to American imperial adventures. As a matter of fact, in far off places like the UK and Europe, I’ve heard that it’s still ok to introduce Jihad this way.
When Sarsour was falsely accused of calling for violence and her life was threatened, a lot of people came to her defense, even Time Magazine, arguing that Jihad wasn’t anything like he was being described by veterans of the seasoned alt-right and decorated Islamophobia industry. Instead, repeating a regular post-9/11 refrain these commentators described Jihad through one of his most memorable scenes, his defining performance if you will. We can’t forget the script: Jihad doesn’t mean holy war, it means righteous struggle, personal, intimate, good. Indeed, the Semitic tri-consonantal root structure of the Arabic language conjures conceptual notions of struggle from the sounds of J-H-D. Sarsour’s friends also tried to introduce Jihad this way, through the #MyJihad campaign which rebooted a previous effort to explain that things like modesty, self-discipline, and general piety were at the root of Muslim understandings of Jihad. Indeed, most friends, family, and folk that I know and interact with see only this face of Jihad. Indeed, it’s the only one they’ve ever met or heard of.
Jihad’s peaceful side? It’s true, I suppose. But can we really sit through another typecast?
Jihad, I tell my students, simply means Just War. And, by that I mean it in two senses. First, its just war folks: if a solider kills a non-combatant civilian it is called murder (or maybe collateral damage if you are the Pentagon and its paid private media). Likewise, if a country deploys its military on another without provocation, warning, or legitimate cause (whatever these mean of course), it’s simply an attack, a violation of international law, and so forth.
Secondly, and more to the point, Jihad has an old cousin who we already know all too well: Just War Doctrine. That is, Jihad is simply the equivalent of Just War doctrine in Christendom: don’t salt the earth, harm civilians, and at one point, don’t use crossbows. You get the picture: Jihad, throughout the ages, has simply referred to the laws of legitimate martial conduct, not simply fighting (qital) or war (harb). So, yes it is that simply: don’t kill women, children, or non-combatants. Don’t mess with the plants, trees, and water. And no sneak attacks or actions that will result in your guaranteed death. Oh yeah, and you can’t just declare Jihad because you want to, there needs to be an official declaration by the universally agreed upon Muslim ruler (enter reality: there hasn’t been one for a very long time, which is one of the reasons things are a bit messy these days). Taken together, this is the older, crustier Jihad, who spends most of his time wandering through the last millennium of Islamic legal doctrine and political history, constantly refilling the foundation of the houses of orthodoxy along the way.
But today, Jihad has been torn apart at the seams. Frankensteinian firebrands, pirates, and outlaws took Jihad and put Boko Haram, al-Qaeda, Taliban, and ISIS stamps all over his passport. On the other side of the spectrum, the BBC actually aired a romantic comedy about how he’s the best way to describe the ups and downs of relationship building in the modern age. Meanwhile, Jihad gets nothing but bad dancing partners in the American scene: naïve attempts at redefinition, apologetic inarticulations, or fear-mongering screeches from money-hungry bigots. I’m sure he is as confused as we are.
Sadly, to our loss, there is no room for Jihad in today’s American intellectual and cultural landscape. Although learning about him might tell us a bit about the deep cultural logics undergirding sustained resistance movements and opposition forces in the Muslim world, it looks like he’s simply worn out his welcome. It doesn’t matter that he’s a complex character with an even more complex network of friends that might give us better roadmaps for those places where we always seem to get lost. Even though he’s gone through a massive makeover in some parts and brave friends like Sarsour still vouch for him, and even if those that truly abused him exist only in the dark waters of the deep-web or the dry outskirts of Raqqa, I don’t think he’s getting invited to the dinner-party again anytime soon. In the end, though, I wonder if any of this was his fault? We should probably start planning better parties.
Abbas Barzegar is an Assistant Professor of Religion at Georgia State University and a term member of the Council on Foreign Relations. At GSU he co-directs two interdisciplinary research projects: 1) Civic Approaches to Conflict Resolution in the Muslim World, and 2) the digital archive, “After Malcolm: Islam and Black Freedom Struggle.” He received his Ph.D. in 2010 from Emory University specializing on the Sunni- Shiite conflict, Islam in America, and transnational political Islam. In addition to numerous articles and book chapters, he is the co-author of Islamism: Contested Perspectives on Political Islam (Stanford, 2009). His work has been supported by The Carter Center, The National Endowment for the Humanities, The British Council, The European Union, The US Institute of Peace, The Mellon Foundation, and the Georgia Humanities Council. His public commentary and analysis can be found in a variety of print and broadcast media outlets, including The Hu ington Post, The Guardian, CNN, Aljazeera, and Fox News.
The manufactured crisis over Linda Sarsour’s invocation of the word “jihad” in a speech this summer to refer to the mobilization of social justice activists such as herself against the Trump administration is a telling example of selective outrage. For anyone who has read the transcript of the speech or seen or heard a recording, it is quite clear that Sarsour is referring to peaceful civil disobedience and legal forms of political resistance to Trump, and that she is not calling Muslims to take up arms against the sitting US president. Some critics have pounced on her for simply using the word jihad, given how loaded it is and given the fact that many Americans wrongly believe jihad translates to holy war, calling into question Sarsour’s feminist credentials and suggesting she has Islamist sympathies or could be a fifth column.
But not every American Muslim feminist’s use of the term jihad stirs such controversy. In the course of promoting her book, Standing Alone at Mecca, and her campaign against gender segregation in mosques, journalist and feminist Asra Nomani has referred to her feminist activism as part of a “gender jihad” in several US papers going as far back as 2005. Yet there is no speculation about Nomani’s use of the term among the general public, either how she intends “jihad” (in a military or metaphorical sense) nor whether it was politic for her to use this fraught Arabic word. In fact, Nomani and her colleague Ayaan Hirsi Ali are among the fiercest critics of Sarsour, promoting, for example, Bari Weiss’ outrageous smear of Sarsour, also published by the New York Times, debunked here. Yet they claimed in a New York Times oped that they were the ones silenced by feminist Senator Kamala Harris in a recent Senate hearing on homeland security.
Asra Nomani and Ayaan Hirsi Ali claim that they believe that “feminism is for everyone” yet they fail to respond to critics of their neo-conservative policy positions. For example, they have publicly voiced support for President Trump, his newly reinforced (Muslim) travel ban, racially profiling Muslims, and the wars and security policies associated with the War on Terror. It is their deeply conservative policy positions, neoconservative political alliances, and their racist logic (“Yes, the West does need to save Muslim women!”), which troubles Muslim feminist-scholars such as myself, not their opposition to honor killings, child marriage, polygamy, sex slavery or female genital mutilation, as they claim. Nomani and Ali have made careers aggrandizing themselves as lonely Muslim heroines/pseudo-experts on Islam who dare to speak on such human rights issues and break the liberal taboo of “calling out” Islam, while the progressive liberals supposedly fall silent in our politically correct hand-wringing.
As a scholar who has spent more than a decade researching and writing about Muslim reform movements in the US and the Middle East, I can say confidently that what makes Ali and Nomani outliers among Muslim feminists is not their willingness to tackle human rights issues affecting Muslim women and girls, rather it is their willingness to support policies which target Muslim women and girls in the same breath (Nomani is also a committed Trump-supporter.). Ali and Nomani may be tone-deaf to the intersectional critiques of Muslim feminists but Senators Harris, Heitkamp, Hassan, and McCaskill understand what is at stake in deflecting and resisting Nomani and Ali’s poor arguments. Similarly, the accusation that Sarsour is calling for a holy war is too far-fetched to take seriously even with the low bar set by those determined to smear her.
Zareena Grewal is an Associate Professor of American Studies and Religious Studies at Yale University. She is an historical anthropologist and a documentary filmmaker whose research focuses on race, gender, religion, nationalism, and transnationalism across a wide spectrum of American Muslim communities. Her first book, Islam is a Foreign Country: American Muslims and the Global Crisis of Authority (NYU Press, 2013), is an ethnography of transnational Muslim networks that link US mosques to Islamic movements in the post-colonial Middle East through debates about the reform of Islam. Her first film, By the Dawn’s Early Light: Chris Jackson’s Journey to Islam (Cinema Guild 2004), examines the racialization of Islam and the scrutiny of American Muslims’ patriotism long before September 11 2001.
The Breakdown of the Liberal Ally Model: Linda Sarsour’s Jihad and the New Public Sphere | by Daniel Tutt
The days of the Islamophobia network are behind us. For years, the Islamophobia network—an association of professional bloggers such as Pamela Gellar, pseudo think tanks, grassroots organizations such as Act for America—all existed on the far reaches of the Internet. At times, this network made a victory happen in the public sphere, most notably being their orchestration of the alarm over the Park 51 Islamic center, or the “Ground Zero Mosque.”
In many ways, the Islamophobia network was the best of enemies Muslims could ask for. They were clearly absurd, not as knowledgeable about Islam as most Muslims are, and most importantly, the liberal establishment disdained them. Liberals always had your back in pushing back on the Islamophobia network.
The predictable presence of the Islamophobia network shaped the type of activism that Muslims developed. At the core of this strategy was the idea that by virtue of the absurdity and visibly hateful platform of this network, Muslims are able to re-define the basis of the ally. Allies from both sides of the political spectrum, as well as more conservative interreligious allies can all join American Muslims in amplifying their story and reclaiming the narrative stolen from the Islamophobes and the Muslim extremists!
The My Jihad campaign, founded by Chicago-based American Muslims and launched in response to the Islamophobic bus ad campaign, was a case in point of this liberal ally model. My Jihad called on everyday Muslim activists to share their personal/spiritual jihad with the wider public. Not surprisingly, the campaign developed Tweetable mini-jihad’s from “raising my kids to be brave and courageous,” to “lifting weights.” The Islamophobes cried foul and claimed the term jihad refers to a militant struggle and should be condemned.
But their response was drowned out by the fact that the wider liberal coalition of allies had American Muslims’ backs in the campaign. They saw the logic and reasoned that re-taking the ground of meaning of “jihad” would constitute a win on two fronts.
But we aren’t living in reasonable times anymore. What’s changed?
On the one hand, the Trump coalition has degraded the public sphere, particularly the cycles of the Internet and Twittersphere. The presence of the alt-Right coalition online echoes the same irrationalism and anti-Muslim sentiment of the Islamophobia network, but they have no pretension to mastery of the Islamic tradition. We should remember that the Islamophobia network called themselves scholars of Islam. This admission opened the space for a degree of exchange, even though that exchange tended to end in bigotry and xenophobia.
The Islamophobia of the alt-Right is unhinged, evidenced by their shocking call that Muslims be interned in camps following the Manchester and London attacks early in the summer of 2017. The alt-Right is driven by a vitalist rage at the system that is misdirected and no longer needs the pretension of knowledge about Islam to wage bigoted attacks against Muslims.
The public sphere is now driven by this reactionary tone. Not surprisingly, when Linda Sarsour invoked jihad in a speech at the Islamic Society of North America annual convention, the Internet broke down. Sarsour’s speech tied Trump to tyrant leaders such as Bashar al-Asad and Muslim dictators and then invoked a nonviolent form of jihad to challenge his unjust administration. Her comments were provocative, but not necessarily conflating jihad with the type that al-Qaeda and ISIS invoke by any means. At face value, Sarsour’s comments were as innocuous as the My Jihad campaign, they were not purporting violence and they were premised on the same liberal ally model.
After receiving pushback from the alt-Right as well as the liberal establishment on her comments about jihad, Sarsour fell back on the same logic that guided the My Jihad campaign: the Islamophobes and the Muslim extremists have hijacked the term; it is in our collective interest to have Muslims in American re-claim the term.
But Sarsour’s appeal fell on deaf ears. The composition of the public sphere has changed: Islamophobes are drowned out by the alt-Right and the former liberal allies are no longer what they used to be.
In fact, what worry the liberals most about Sarsour are not her outspoken views against Islamophobia or Trump, it is the fact that she is a Palestinian activist. The Opinion Editor of the New York Times recently called on liberal feminists to consider breaking with the Women’s March in large part for her view that Sarsour is anti-Semitic due to her criticism of Zionism. Before Sarsour became a leading organizer of the Women’s March, she had developed a long track record of forging alliances with progressive causes, from serving as a spokesperson on the Bernie Sanders campaign, to advocating for LGBT rights, to support for Black Lives Matter, to raising funds for Jewish cemeteries destroyed in an act of anti-Semitic violence.
But despite all of her progressive positions, and the admittedly fiery tweets from her past, Sarsour remains a Palestinian activist. The deterioration of the liberal public has led to a new intensification of opposition to the BDS movement. Most mainstream Democrats are considering a bill that would effectively criminalize boycotting Israel over their occupation of Palestine.
Long before the Trump moment, the Palestinian cause has struggled to identify a spokesperson able to penetrate into the wider mainstream of American media and public opinion. Edward Said, the late Columbia University academic and passionate activist for the Palestinians, was the last vocal proponent of the cause of the Palestinian people. Said’s effectiveness was measured by his capacity to drill through the clichés of the liberal academic façade and shed light on the hidden truth of the injustice happening to Palestinians. It was Said’s academic and cosmopolitan credentials and bourgeois-sympathetic aesthetic – he was not only an activist, but also a critic of great literature and classical music – which gave his discourse a wider appeal.
But in today’s social media driven cultural environment, the figure of the intellectual activist who sheds light on what’s actually happening with a given issue such as the Palestinian occupation is something different entirely. The example of Sean King, one of Linda Sarsour’s allies in the social media landscape, an outspoken advocate for police reform and an early Black Lives Matter supporter is a case in point. King spends his days revealing little known injustices law enforcement perpetrates on the black community in America. He has over half a million followers on Twitter and his reach brings otherwise marginal stories of injustice into an outraged social media sphere for further outrage and alarm, with the hope that the given injustice becomes a national story.
Edward Said’s approach to the Palestinian cause was similar to Sean King’s approach to Black Lives Matter; both sought to shed simple empirical facts about the degradation of everyday life in the occupied territories or in the case of King, about the injustices facing black people at the hands of the police. We should remember that Said’s lectures on the Palestinians, to packed academic halls throughout the 1990’s, were not lectures of great theory or political analysis, but were simply accounts of facts not widely reported by the New York Times about what’s happening in Gaza and the West Bank.
The British author and radical George Orwell somewhere said the task of every intellectual is simply to reveal what’s actually going on. This theory of change was premised on a conception of power that is deeply grounded in the Enlightenment project, where reason, facts and argumentation win the day.
Activism today has lost its ground in the reasoned and the ration. It has grown to rely on the obscene and the shocking cycles of the Internet. The public sphere has eroded to a point where the old predictable allies and enemies are now both marginalized. It’s no longer as simple as Said and Orwell had it, one cannot simply show the empirical facts of the injustice Muslims or Palestinians face to wider audience of sympathetic liberal power holders.
In such an environment, we all need to hold firm to our principles and remain steadfast advocates for justice, whether we have allies or not.
Daniel Tutt is a lecturer in philosophy at George Washington University and Marymount University and a longtime interfaith activist with a focus on anti-Muslim bigotry and interfaith relations.