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Linda Sarsour says Biden campaign's 'unprovoked' attack hurts Democrats

Biden campaign says it is committed to engaging with Muslims, but non-apology has done little to quell anger from Sarsour's supporters
'This controversy came unprovoked,' Sarsour says (AFP/File photo)
By Ali Harb in Washington

There is a realistic chance that November's presidential election may be decided by who wins Michigan. In 2016, President Donald Trump won the Midwestern state by a mere 10,000 votes.

Michigan also happens to be home to large Arab and Muslim communities - a constituency in the hundreds of thousands that could sway the election one way or another.

On Thursday, prominent Palestinian-American activist Linda Sarsour told supporters that Joe Biden's campaign decision to disavow her earlier this week may affect the Democratic Party's chances of winning the state in November.

Sarsour said she knows how to organise and excite Muslim and Arab voters that the former vice president will need in Michigan and other states.

In remarks broadcast on social media, the activist said that by denouncing her for supporting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction (BDS) movement, the Biden campaign antagonised Arab, Muslim and progressive voters who share her views in advocating for Palestinian human rights.

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'This disavowal of Linda Sarsour reeks of misogyny, anti-Muslim and anti-Palestinian bigotry'

- Palestinian Democratic delegates

"The Democratic Party will say we are a 'big tent'. 'Big tent' means that you are going to have to come to terms with having people in your party that you don't agree with; that is what a big tent means," Sarsour said.

The controversy started on Tuesday when Sarsour spoke for three minutes about moblising the Muslim vote at an official panel at the Democratic convention.

Right-wing media outlets and Trump's campaign seized on that brief appearance, producing videos and news stories accusing Sarsour of antisemitism and slamming Democrats for giving her a platform. 

Although Sarsour is a well-liked figure on the left flank of the Democratic Party with ties to many prominent progressives, the Biden campaign rushed to condemn Sarsour and distance itself from her. 

"Joe Biden has been a strong supporter of Israel and a vehement opponent of anti-Semitism his entire life, and he obviously condemns her views and opposes BDS, as does the Democratic platform," campaign spokesperson Andrew Bates said in a statement late on Tuesday.

"She has no role in the Biden campaign whatsoever."

A non-apology

Sarsour said Bates's remarks were a "big mistake".

"I'm over here chilling because I don't have any white managers for anybody to call. I did not have a role in the campaign for anyone to claim that I don't have a role."

Several groups representing a wide range of communities and ideologies had said accusations of antisemitism against Sarsour and Palestinian rights defenders are unacceptable, and demanded an apology - or at least a retraction - from the campaign. 

Organisations that spoke out in defence of Sarsour include the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the Arab American Institute (AAI), the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) and Emgage, Jewish Voice for Peace and many others.

'Linda is a fierce advocate for justice and freedom, and a leading antiracist and organizer against antisemitism'

- Ady Barkan, progressive activist

An attempt by the campaign to allay the outrage by reaffirming support to Arab and Muslim communities without mentioning Sarsour did little to satisfy the critics.

"While Joe Biden affirms his support for the US-Israel relationship and opposes BDS, he has said many times that he does not equate criticism of Israeli government policy with anti-Semitism," senior Biden adviser Symone Sanders said in a series of tweets

"The Biden campaign will continue to engage regularly with Muslim Americans and Arab Americans about issues important to their communities."

The non-apology from Sanders, who has close relations to Sarsour and has expressed fondness for the Muslim-American organiser as recently as February, sparked a new wave of criticism against the campaign. 

"Don't think you can viciously smear a prominent member of our community - one who has been tirelessly working for social justice for all communities - then talk about and expect our support," Palestinian-American activist Huwaida Arraf wrote in response to Sanders. 

'Unprovoked' controversy 

In her statement on Thursday, Sarsour said the Biden campaign is alienating progressive voices in the party to satisfy right-wing critics who will never vote for the Democratic ticket.

"This controversy came unprovoked. I'm a Muslim delegate speaking at a Muslim delegate assembly at the DNC, which I am an official delegate to, and that was it," she said. 

"Nothing happened. There was no provocation; there were no controversial statements to be made. What was controversial is my existence as a Palestinian American Muslim woman who supports the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement."

On Wednesday, a group of Palestinian-American Democratic delegates demanded an "immediate retraction" of the campaign's statement against Sarsour.

"This disavowal of Linda Sarsour reeks of misogyny, anti-Muslim and anti-Palestinian bigotry. It provides a false shield for Israel’s human rights abuses," the delegates said in a statement.

"The Biden campaign must not follow the lead of the Trump administration and should rise above these attacks and make a concerted effort to be inclusive and represent the collective vision for a truly democratic Party."

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Some of Sarsour's critics welcomed Bates's statement. "Linda Sarsour is a noted anti-Semite and opponent of the State of Israel and should never have been given a platform to speak. I join Vice President Biden in condemning her hateful rhetoric and bigotry," said Democratic Congressman Josh Gottheimer, who is staunchly pro-Israel.

Other members of Congress defended the Muslim-American organiser. During a virtual event for Muslim-American delegates on the sidelines of the Democratic convention on Wednesday, Congressman Andre Carson lauded Sarsour as someone who stands up for the "voiceless".

"For me, fighting the powerful to protect the vulnerable is very personal," said Carson, who is Muslim.

Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib also spoke out in favour of Sarsour.

"I am so sick and tired of folks going after [Linda Sarsour] and other Palestinian activists for speaking the truth about oppression and injustice. You don't get it yet. We don't stop until everyone is free. We will always outwork the hate," she wrote on Twitter

Ady Barkan, a progressive activist suffering from ALS who is revered by Democrats for his advocacy for universal health care, called the Biden campaign's statement against Sarsour "vile and dishonest".

"Linda is a fierce advocate for justice and freedom, and a leading antiracist and organizer against antisemitism," Barkan, who delivered a speech at the convention on Tuesday, said in a tweet. "The Biden campaign must retract and apologise."

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