At the 2018 Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) convention, Linda Sarsour’s call to dehumanize Israelis gave Americans another inside look at the hate on which Sarsour builds her platform.
Last year, Sarsour, the Women’s March co-chair and darling of the political left, used her ISNA speech to call for jihad against President Trump — a message she backpedaled on quickly saying she was misunderstood. This year, assuming to speak for all Muslim Americans through one authoritarian message, Sarsour directed American Muslims not to humanize Israelis.
Her message is dangerous to American Muslims, enough of whom are a vulnerable population group. Her message is also against the grain of human dignity and peace building. In short, Sarsour is the very problem she claims to challenge. She’s an angry, erratic public figure who is out of touch with the Palestinians she claims to champion.
In this interview, Clarion Project’s national correspondent Shireen Qudosi speaks with Charlotte Littlewood, founding director of Become the Voice. After three years working for the British government in Prevent and Counter Extremism, she felt a far more grassroots and youth lead approach was required to make a real difference. Littlewood recently returned to the UK from Palestine, where she launched Become the Voice with a grassroots message-building program to help uplift the voices of Palestinian women. Through Littlewood, we learn of what Palestinians really want, and why Linda Sarsour’s message is deeply troubling for real peacemakers.
Clarion: I’m so delighted to speak with you. We chatted earlier this summer, and I’ve been following Become the Voice’s incredible on-the-ground work. Can you tell Clarion readers more about your organization?
Littlewood: Become the Voice is a community interest company that looks to empower, equip and enable young people to speak out on issues that concern them — particularly on issues of hate, prejudice and intolerance. We’ve recently just come back from Palestine working with a group of young Muslim women who were standing up against domestic violence, gender inequality – and for abortion rights; a women’s rights program in Hebron.
Clarion: You’ve heard of Linda Sarour’s recent comments calling for the dehumanization of Israelis. Given that she’s a Palestinian American and you’ve actually worked closely with women in Palestine, how does Sarsour’s comment make you feel?
Littlewood: Sarsour has a pattern of saying borderline dangerous comments. Last year, she infamously called for jihad against Donald Trump. This year, she’s asked essentially for Muslims to dehumanize the other when looking at the Israel-Palestine conflict — all that we work toward as a progressive society through NGOs, community activism and charity work.
We work toward a tolerant, progressive and cohesive community. When we look at Palestine and Israel with the conflict there, we focus on individuals respecting, tolerating and finding common ground with one another. We focus on humanizing the other in a bid to reduce tension, conflict and violence. Now, that’s all we can really do if we’re not in a position to have power over the politics, the economy or any of the big influences over the Palestine-Israel conflict. All we can do as community interest groups is work on building safe relationships between the groups.
Now what Linda Sarsour does is the complete opposite. By dehumanizing the other, she does something very dangerous indeed. She does something that we’ve seen in horrific acts of dehumanization:
- Jews being reduced to tattoos
- Bosniaks being raped, lined up and shot
- Cambodians being marched into the countryside, facing starvation and death.
Time and time again we see history repeating itself, and dehumanization is at the root. It’s at the root of incidences of bullying at school, hate crimes, racism, all the way up through to terrorism and genocide. And all we can hope for with Linda Sarsour is that the likes of individuals who are promoting cohesion and peace building, understanding of the other, people who are working toward interfaith programs [such as Muslim Jewish Encounters, Solutions Not Sides and organizations that are working toward building relations between groups that have difficulties with one another] … we just have to hope that they have the bigger microphone and that they are the individuals and organizations receiving funding and support to do this vital work, and being given access and the ability to do a good job.
We’ve just got to hope that the likes of Linda Sarsour are not being followed and supported.
And what we’ve really got to hope for is that young Muslims — Muslims in the West — who have heard Linda Sarsour speak, are not easily fooled, rallied or enamored by what she is saying, because she is instilling hate. She is propagating a dangerous rhetoric that will lead to greater violence, conflict and could possibly lead to the radicalization of young, vulnerable individuals who buy into this simplistic narrative of hate of “East vs. West” and “us vs. them,” taking on board calls for jihad from a woman who has got the microphone.
Clarion: What advice do you have for young Muslim Americans who are drawn to Sarsour’s message?
Littlewood: If you are concerned about these issues and you want to do something for individuals that are facing conflict, that are facing oppression, that are in these awful difficult situations, then get yourself involved with charities and movements that are about dialogue, cohesion and peace. Get involved with volunteering and activism that is toward interfaith and peace building. There are ways to make a positive difference for individuals out in Palestine. Having just come back, there are an awful lot of groups and people out there working to build dialogue between communities.
If anyone wants to ask me about those groups, please get in touch. My email is [email protected]. I can point you toward brilliant organizations that are doing some incredible work to bring the communities together and find common ground.
Clarion: One of the biggest problems with Sarsour is her tendency to push very binary narratives of “us vs. them” as you pointed out. She presumes to speak for American Muslims while simultaneously presuming to speak for Palestinians. What was your take when you were in Palestine? How did Palestinians feel about Israelis based on what you saw and heard?
Littlewood: In Palestine, I was working around a women’s rights program raising awareness for domestic violence. I got to ask young women what they thought of the Western take on Israel-Palestine conflict, and how they saw a future. It was incredibly interesting how passionate they were about getting their voice heard and saying that they wanted the West to stop using Palestine as a politically divisive tool, and it saddens them so deeply that it’s used as a radicalization tool, and is leading to so much political violence beyond Palestine and Israel.
I was privileged to learn a lot about an organization called Comet-ME. Comet-ME is an Israeli-run engineering company that works in the Bedouin areas of the West Bank to build solar panels, wells and water pumps. It’s Israeli-run, but it’s creating sustainable living for the Bedouin families in areas where there’s a disagreement over the land, and Israelis are often wanting to build in that area and often controlling the water and electricity supplies.
It’s about individuals there. You see here Israelis working with Muslim in the West Bank to create a better future for them against some of the unfair and somewhat-considered illegal policies of the Israeli state.
You can see there’s a real heart for relationship building and individual-to-individual work between Jews and Muslims — Israelis and Palestinians. They can see the difference between individual relationship building, and state and policies that may be considered illegal — the settlements that some would say isn’t even up for debate.
But that’s not what it’s about, and that’s the incredible thing: In Palestine they’re seeing the difference, whereas Linda Sarsour is not. This is about humans and individuals and bringing peace. When we use words like “dehumanization,” we lose all of that. We can take issue with Israeli policy and some of the laws and some of the actions being done in the West Bank, but we must not look [that way] at the individuals and we must not use dehumanizing language.
Clarion: In your view, how do Palestinians feel about Palestine?
Littlewood: Not only were the Israeli-Palestinian relationships so humbling and incredible, but I was really astounded to realize that there is a huge progressive push in Palestine against extremism. So, along with the anger of how the West is using them as a political tool, there’s also anger toward the extremism they’re facing within Palestine.
[For example], the organization Hizb-ut-Tahrir, which is also prevalent in the UK. It’s banned and illegal in some countries, though not in the UK — and it’s not illegal in Palestine, but it is opposed. Hizb-ut-Tahrir are espousing extremist rhetoric, gender inequality, protesting against shelters for battered women, for example.
They are being heavily opposed by the youth and older generations [in Palestine] in a way we would never see happen in the West. There’s a real bravery and conviction that this is not their Islam, this is not their interpretation, a real sense that the extremism has come into Palestine on the coattails of their troubles and is filling a power vacuum and a fear.
It’s really interesting to see how the young Muslims in Palestine are vocally very opposed to that and driving it out of their communities, whereas we don’t see the same over here [in the West]. We don’t have the same clarity over the plurality of interpretations in Islam here in the West.
We see extremist organizations taking advantage of that and being able to claim sole ownership of what is Islam and how it should be interpreted, and how it therefore should be enacted on the ground. Whereas in predominantly Muslim countries, the plurality of beliefs within Islam are self-evident; and therefore, a belief that Islam is intolerant and against gender progressivism is going to be rooted out and contested.
I think if we saw a little bit more of that in the West, we’d see a little less of Linda Sarsour.
Clarion: Brilliant. Tell me, what’s next for Become the Voice?
Littlewood: We’re looking forward to putting in funding bids and opening up some new programs around interfaith and countering extremism.