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Biden campaign's attacks on Linda Sarsour alienate Muslim voters, activists say

Muslim advocates say the campaign's statement against Sarsour shows disregard for Muslim voters who may play key role in November's election
Linda Sarsour has long been target of anti-Muslim activists over her support for BDS movement (AFP/File photo)
By Ali Harb in Washington

Palestinian-American activist Linda Sarsour offered advice to the Democrats on Tuesday on how to engage Muslim voters: ensure representation, treat Muslims as a decisive voting bloc in swing states and reach out to them in their communities.

"The Democratic party is not perfect, but it is absolutely our party in this moment," she said, stressing the need to elect Joe Biden and defeat the Republican party, which she accused of promoting fascism.

Hours later, the Biden campaign disavowed her.

Right-wing media outlets and Donald Trump's campaign denounced the Muslim organiser's appearance at the Democratic convention, and Biden campaign spokesman Andrew Bates joined them in condemning Sarsour.

'The 'big tent' that the Biden campaign seems to be creating lacks progressive people of colour - including from Muslim communities'

- Iram Ali, political strategist

"Joe Biden has been a strong supporter of Israel and a vehement opponent of anti-Semitism his entire life, and he obviously condemns her (Sarsour's) views and opposes BDS, as does the Democratic platform," Bates said in a statement, referring to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.

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

Sarsour's support for BDS has made her a target of anti-Muslim activists, who have also tried to smear Democrats who associate with her. 

She had helped organise the Women's March after Trump's election in 2017, but stepped down from the group last year amid growing accusations of antisemitism against her and other board members.

A vocal supporter of Senator Bernie Sanders during the primary season, Sarsour had vowed to help elect Biden against Trump in November. On Tuesday, she appeared at a panel focused on moblising Muslim voters as part of a Democratic National Committee-sanctioned event at the convention.

'Islamophobia on the left'

Muslim Americans, who have been complaining about a lack of representation on the main stage of the convention, were quick to voice disappointment in the campaign's statement. 

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a major Muslim advocacy group, issued a strongly worded statement in defence of Sarsour on Wednesday.

"Our sister Linda Sarsour is an outspoken advocate of justice for all, including the Jewish community," the statement said. "Smearing her and other American Muslims as anti-Semitic for supporting Palestinian human rights is predictable, despicable and unacceptable. Our political leaders must stop doing it."

'We would like to get Trump out of office. But we also have self-respect, and the Muslim vote should not be taken for granted by any candidate'

- Nihad Awad, Muslim rights advocate

At a virtual event with Muslim Democratic delegates on Wednesday, CAIR executive director Nihad Awad delivered blistering remarks rebuking the Biden campaign over the attacks on Sarsour.

"Linda Sarsour is being attacked yet again for her outspoken advocacy for Palestinian human rights," Awad said. "We don't stand for these attempts to repress us from the right, and we will not stand for it from the presidential campaign of Joe Biden."

Speaking in his personal capacity, he said Muslims are committed to seeing a change in the White House.

"We would like to get Trump out of office. But we also have self-respect, and the Muslim vote should not be taken for granted by any candidate," he said. "They have to earn our trust. They should not dismiss our issues. We are a community to be respected not only to be accepted."

Emgage Action, a Muslim-American political group that endorsed Biden, also raised concerns about the campaign's statements against Sarsour.

Maya Berry, Executive director of the Arab American Institute, said the Biden staffer who attacked Sarsour was falling to "the hateful tactic of Arab baiting".

"What the Biden campaign cannot do as it seeks to heal America is take actions that appear to defame or exclude communities. We urge the Biden campaign to issue a correction," Berry said in a statement.

On Tuesday night, Sarsour posted a tweet addressing Bates, stressing that Muslim voters can help decide the election in key states.

"Just came here to remind you that you need a coalition to defeat Donald Trump and that Muslim Americans are an important voter bloc in key states like Michigan, Wisconsin, Virginia, Texas, Pennsylvania & I know a little something about how to organize them," she said

Zahra Billoo, a Muslim-American activist who faced a demonising campaign last year over tweets critical of Israel, said she was "disappointed but not surprised" by the Biden campaign's attack on Sarsour.

"This follows the trajectory of Islamophobia on the left, where faux progressives disregard that the Muslim vote is necessary to winning the election," she told MEE.

Billoo recalled a 2008 incident when Muslim women wearing hijab were told to leave the stage behind Barack Obama at a campaign rally in Detroit. 

"With the 2020 convention, we have no Muslim speakers and the Muslims who are organising in side events are being condemned by the campaign," she said.

Iram Ali, a political strategist and former staffer for the Elizabeth Warren for president campaign, also slammed the Biden campaign over its treatment of Sarsour.

"One perpetual issue with the Democratic party apparatus is that they have yet to learn how to counteract anti-Muslim racism - and not actively harm Muslim communities," Ali told MEE.

"The Biden campaign reinforcing anti-Muslim talking points in response to the attacks on Linda Sarsour is a prime example that neither the party nor the campaign has learned lessons from the 2016 election or the last four years." 

The attacks on Sarsour came as the DNC welcomed several Republicans, including former Ohio Governor John Kasich, on its virtual main stage. Former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, who oversaw a surveillance programme that targeted Muslim communities for years, will also be speaking at the convention. 

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"This is an election where the Biden campaign can be drawing strong contrasts to the Trump administration - from everything on racial justice to anti-Muslim policies," Ali said. 

"But instead of digging in, the 'big tent' that the Biden campaign seems to be creating lacks progressive people of colour - including from Muslim communities - but is overwhelmingly overrun with Republicans who have directly harmed our communities."

The Biden campaign did not respond to MEE's request for comment.

Edward-Isaac Dovere, a writer at the Atlantic magazine, faced criticism for comparing Sarsour to Laura Loomer, a "proud Islamophobe" and far-right activist running for Congress.

"Linda Sarsour, who has a history of anti-Israel statements, was on a DNC call yesterday, and was then disavowed by the Biden campaign," Dovere wrote on Twitter.

"Laura Loomer, who has a history of anti-Muslim statements, won a Florida GOP House primary yesterday and was then backed by Trump directly."

The youth-led progressive Jewish-American group IfNotNow ridiculed the comparison.

"An activist's critique of the Israeli government's ongoing denial of human rights to millions of Palestinians is ABSOLUTELY NOT comparable to a Republican Congressional candidate's incessant Islamophobia that got her banned from Twitter, Uber, GoFundMe, etc etc etc," IfNotNow said

Accusations of antisemitism

The Democratic Majority for Israel, a lobby linked to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), had welcomed the Biden campaign's rebuke of Sarsour, lauding the former vice president for condemning the Muslim activist.

Still, Beth Miller, government affairs manager at JVP Action, a political advocacy group linked to Jewish Voice for Peace, said in order to defeat Trump, the Biden campaign needs to build a "broad coalition that includes Palestinian Americans, Muslims, Jews, and all people fighting for Palestinian rights". 

"Smearing a talented and beloved leader in our movement for justice as antisemitic because of her criticism of the Israeli government is not only unacceptable, it demonstrates a lack of strategy," Miller told MEE. 

"They should retract this attack on Linda Sarsour and apologise immediately."

Billoo said accusations of antisemitism are a "repeat smear" against Palestinian rights advocates and American Muslims.

Palestinian Democrats decry 'bias and censorship' in party platform
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"The opinions that Linda is being attacked for are held arguably by a majority of the Muslim community," Billoo said.

She said a growing number of all faiths, including members of Congress, are embracing the BDS movement, which seeks to pressure Israel politically and economically to end its abuses against Palestinians.

"It is not antisemitism to criticise a government that is engaged in human rights violations, period," Billoo told MEE. 

"It is not Islamophobic to criticise another country - say Saudi Arabia - that is engaged in human rights violations. These are governments; they are not representative of the faith, and we must continue to speak out against them."

She urged Muslim-Americans to continue with political engagement and organising and to focus on local races to ensure representation and end efforts to sitgmatise the community and its activists.

"It will be important that Muslims turn out to vote in this election, and that they vote for the candidate that they feel will do the least amount of harm to them," she said. "That's unfortunately where we are. We are not negotiating who will do the most good; we're negotiating who will do the least harm."

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