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How Growing Up in New York After 9/11 Shaped These Muslim Leaders

How Growing Up in New York After 9/11 Shaped These Muslim Leaders

For Linda Sarsour, 41, challenging stereotypes comes with the territory. As a co-chair of the Women’s March on Washington in 2017, “I demystified every stereotype possible as a Muslim woman in hijab on the highest stage in America,” she said. But the platform also came with public scrutiny; in 2019, Ms. Sarsour and two other leaders of the Women’s March stepped down from the organization amid complaints that the New York-based coalition was too insular.

Ms. Sarsour got her start at the Arab American Association of New York

in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, the neighborhood where she was born and raised, and one of the hardest hit by surveillance, detention and deportation measures in the wake of Sept. 11. The social service organization scrambled then to transform itself into a defense league of sorts, said Ms. Sarsour, who kept a basket on her desk filled with F.B.I. business cards that her clients found slipped under their doors. From her office window, she also witnessed a police raid on a coffee shop.

There were SWAT teams, unidentified black cars, men with guns, she recalled. “They literally had men lying on their bellies on the street.”

To get the Muslim community politically engaged at a time when most hoped to stay under the radar was very challenging, said Ms. Sarsour, who persisted in her activism, cofounding the Muslim Democratic Club of New York in 2013 and pushing in the following years for New York City schools to recognize Muslim holidays, which they made official in 2015.

Ms. Sarsour decided long ago not to run for political office, realizing she could achieve more behind the scenes, she said. She is inspired by the work of Aisha al-Adawiya, 77, a Black Muslim leader and human rights activist whom Ms. Sarsour described as a “living legend.”

“You have to have a space where you can call people to accountability and that becomes very difficult to do once you’re inside the system,” Ms. al-Adawiya said. “I think that change is really going to come from the streets.”

Still, Ms. Sarsour said, representation matters. “In the 20 years after Sept. 11, one of the things that has kept me here is that I see that our community is finally realizing that we have to reassert ourselves,” she said. “I watched the generation that was silenced and then I watch a new generation coming up now that is fearless.”

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