Muslim activist: 'I am so fired up' when Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib are attacked

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Palestinian-American activist and controversial Women’s March co-founder Linda Sarsour is defending Muslim congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, saying she gets “fired up” every time she sees them getting attacked.

“I think the majority of us, particularly younger women, are doubling down,” Sarsour said in an interview with the Yahoo News show “Through Her Eyes.” “I am so fired up every time I see Rashida and Ilhan get attacked, and I’ve actually been helping to organize progressives around supporting them.”

In the six months since the freshman congresswomen were sworn into office, Tlaib and Omar have been inundated with criticism, particularly for their views on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

“I tell Rashida and Ilhan all the time, ‘Stay unapologetic. Don't let them silence you, don't let them intimidate you, and don't let them tell you what is right,’” Sarsour said.

Like Tlaib and Omar, Sarsour is accustomed to being a target for liberal and conservative critics alike. She says the excessive heckling — and even death threats — that she has received has been difficult to bear.

“It’s been exhausting,” Sarsour said. “I’ve had physical issues, health issues. I've had to take breaks at moments. Depression, you know. There’s just anxiety.”

Omar and Tlaib have also received threats of violence, with Tlaib breaking down in tears during a House Oversight Committee hearing on June 4 as she read aloud death threats addressed to her. Those threats are all too familiar to Sarsour.

“I’ve experienced things that I don't wish upon anybody, even those who don’t agree with me,” Sarsour said. “I've had someone mail me a scrapbook with photos of my children in it. I have been heckled at events. I have had large campaigns led against me by pretty much every celebrity alt-right leader in America. And it’s very scary.”

Sarsour fears that for some women in the Muslim community, the threat of attack may prevent them from being more politically active.

“I think for some women, it is making them retreat,” Sarsour said. “I think there are women who are wondering, do they want to take the next step? Because the next step is going to include being attacked.”

A Muslim-American and lifelong advocate for women of color, Sarsour rose to national prominence when she co-founded the Women’s March in 2016. Her blunt brand of activism and criticism of everyone from President Trump to Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has earned her a lot of enemies, especially in the conservative media. For Sarsour’s children, the backlash against their mother is hard to ignore.

“My children can’t be sheltered,” Sarsour explained. “They’re adults, so they’re on social media and they see horrific messages.”

In February, Sarsour’s daughter told the popular photoblog Humans of New York about the tribulations of having a renowned activist for a parent, and lamented the toll that fame has taken on her mother.

“She thinks she always has to be strong,” Sarsour’s daughter told HONY about her mother. “I think if she could just sit down and say ‘I’m scared,’ it would tear things down. She could be Mom instead of an activist.”

HONY interviewed Sarsour’s daughter anonymously, but the post was eventually traced back to her. After initially denying it, Sarsour’s daughter ultimately revealed to her mother that she was behind the remarks.

“It broke my heart,” Sarsour admitted.

But Sarsour said she also found her daughter’s HONY confession constructive, and that it helped put her work in perspective.

“It made me realize that sometimes I don’t have to be that,” Sarsour said of her activist persona. “The injustice will be here tomorrow, and it'll be here next week, and the year after that. And we’ve lived in a world that has had grave injustice for centuries. And I’m not the one that’s gonna solve the injustice.”

“And so it centered me a little bit. And it gave me the opportunity for self-reflection,” Sarsour added.

Now Sarsour says she’s taking a less active roll in the Women’s March, staying on in what she describes as an “almost like honorary role” and focusing instead on organizing Muslim voters ahead of the 2020 election. Sarsour told “Through Her Eyes” that part of her frustration with the Women’s March stemmed from a desire to synthesize the fight for women’s rights in general with the needs of women of color in particular.

“I think that the women's movement has struggled for decades to build a truly intersectional movement,” Sarsour observed. “And we’re seeing some of those growing pains still today.”

“I want to be part of a movement that talks about racial justice, and talks about the different privileges that we each bring to the table,” Sarsour continued. “Even I, as a light-skinned Arab-American woman, bring a lot more privileges to the table than black Muslim women, for example. And we were having hard conversations that women didn’t want to have.”

The Women’s March has been fraught with discord since its inception, and its leaders have been accused of anti-Semitism and discrimination against pro-life activists. Sarsour insists that the women’s rights movement can be successful by continuing to encourage deeper dialogue on race — especially with white women.

“One of the lessons that I learned in the Women's March is that we have to continue to have the hard conversations, even when there's backlash,” Sarsour said. “The reason why we’re in the situation we’re in is because we were not having these conversations with our counterpart — with our white women counterparts.”