We applaud Ms. Sarsour’s stated commitment to mutual engagement and respect, a commitment that she has restated in many different ways, and numerous times on her Twitter feed. But all too often, politicians and communal leaders fail to live up to the bold promise of their words. We believe Ms. Sarsour to be no exception.
Everyone's opinion is valid even when you may not agree with it. Respect always.
— Linda Sarsour (@lsarsour) April 4, 2015
With any individual, it can be incredibly difficult to reconcile different aspects of their character, and it can be even more difficult if you attempt to make a determination of whether they are fundamentally “good” or “bad.” Indeed, President Ronald J. Daniels addressed those very same issues in his discussion on former University president Dr. Bowman at last year’s convocation. In President Daniels’ footsteps, we do not seek to define the sum of Ms. Sarsour’s character and actions as either good or bad. Nonetheless, we believe that it is of the utmost importance that Ms. Sarsour’s accomplishments as co-Chair of the 2017 Women’s March be contextualized with what we believe to be deeply troubling insights on her actions and understandings of the value of public discourse and feminism.
What follows is a Tweet, in its entirety, posted by Ms. Sarsour in 2011. Though it is vulgar in the extreme, we feel that its inclusion is necessary to a broader contextualization of Ms. Sarsour’s empowerment of women.
“Brigitte Gabriel=Ayaan Hirsi Ali. She’s asking 4 an a$$ whippin’. I wish I could take their vaginas away – they don’t deserve to be women.”
This comment is all the more striking when one realizes that Ms. Ali is a noted victim of female genital mutilation. To some, this Tweet might be an example of cognitive dissonance. After all, how could a co-Chair of the Women’s March, a march dedicated to gender equality, be so disparaging and want to revoke Ms. Ali’s womanhood? However, this incident, along with others, demonstrates Ms. Sarsour’s exclusionary perspective on feminism and public discourse. It should also be mentioned that Sarsour has not apologized for this six-year-old Tweet, which has now been deleted.
When addressed about this very Tweet, Ms. Sarsour asked that we judge her on her record. It is important to note that the Women’s March has done an incredible amount of good. Unfortunately, Sarsour has demonstrated on multiple occasions that, despite her pleas for mutual respect amongst those who disagree, she does not truly believe in such an exchange. When CNN Anchor Jake Tapper publicly called out Sarsour, and more broadly the Women’s March, for tweeting in support of Assata Shakur, a “cop-killer fugitive” in Cuba and one of the FBI’s Most Wanted, Sarsour had an opportunity to articulate why she believed such an individual was worthy of support and to engage Mr. Tapper’s criticism. While we never did find out why Sarsour would align herself with such an individual, we did find out how she reacts to those who criticize her — by shutting down discussion with ad-hominem attacks. In this instance, Ms. Sarsour stated that Jake Tapper joined “the ranks of the alt-right” who target Ms. Sarsour online. Not only is this an unconscionable attack on Mr. Tapper, but it trivializes actual instances of alt-right abuse at a time when we need to be ever more vigilant.
Another troubling figure for whom Sarsour has expressed support is Rasmea Odeh, a former immigrant and citizen of the United States. Just last month, Odeh had her citizenship revoked and was deported to Jordan. The reason: Odeh hid the fact that she was a convicted terrorist and had murdered two Israeli students in 1969. As a result, she spent ten years in prison, none of which she mentioned on her citizenship application. While Odeh was living in the U.S., Sarsour made her support clear on numerous occasions. She promoted Odeh on her Twitter account throughout 2014, and publicly announced that she felt “honored to be on this stage with Rasmea” while speaking at an event in April 2017, comments that were recorded and posted by the hosting organization.
In the current political climate, it is even more urgent that we vigorously defend productive and respectful public discourse. Indeed, that is one of the many reasons why we admire the MSE Symposium, which aims to be “a forum for the free exchange of ideas,” as stated on their website. While Sarsour has clearly promoted public good, her seeming unwillingness to engage in open discourse, as well as her ad-hominem attacks, are not only unproductive, but challenge the very premise of the Symposium.
It is clear that bringing in the leaders of the Women’s March will result in a lively discussion and will be a thought-provoking experience. That being said, while Ms. Sarsour has every right to express her opinions, we see no reason for the MSE Symposium to fete her alongside the likes of Governor John Kasich and other distinguished MSE Symposium guests. While we encourage Ms. Sarsour’s continued expression of her free speech, we cannot in good conscience endorse providing the podium for her to do so.
Ms. Sarsour, we admire your determination, your courage in being a proudly religious Muslim woman, and your success in promoting gender equality. As conflicted as we feel over MSE’s decision to invite you, we will be attending your speech. We wish to listen to what you have to say because we feel that it is important to listen and engage with individuals across the political spectrum. We only hope that you will do the same.
Michael Leff is a freshman from Highland Park, NJ, majoring in ChemBE. Ariella Shua is a freshman Writing Seminars and psychology major from Livingston, NJ.