After CUNY's School of Public Health invited Muslim civil rights activist Linda Sarsour to deliver their commencement address, Islamaphobes organized a protest.
Although one of the protest's leaders, the infamous Milo Yanniopoulos, stated that Sarsour had every right to speak her views, his rally was not just about opposing those views. Demonstrators were there because of a deep fear and hatred of Sarsour's faith — they turned up to violently protest Islam.
“Linda Sarsour is a Sharia-embracing, terrorist-embracing, Jew-hating ticking time-bomb of progressive horror,” Yiannopoulos said in his speech at the protest, putting his Islamophobia on full display.
He also took jabs at Sarsour's hijab, snidely remarking that, "Working underneath all of that sweaty polyester is a mind that hates America."
Fellow-organizer Pamela Geller, a conservative public figure who has made a name for herself by being outspokenly anti-Muslim, was equally hateful in her speech and told protesters from her platform in Times Square that, “Linda Sarsour supports this ideology that oppresses women, subjugates women, gender apartheid, honor killings. Islamophobia is a word created by fascists, used by cowards, to manipulate morons.”
New York Assemblyman Dov Hikind, who was once a high-ranking member of a radical right wing organization, did not follow his co-speaker's thoughts on free speech and said that Sarsour was being "imposed" on students since her speech was for a commencement ceremony.
Their language trickled down into the crowd, and a small group of protesters closed in on a young counter-protester while shouting, "Make America great again!"
"They tried hitting me with their fists, their sticks, whatever they found,” 19-year-old Heather Morris told the NY Daily News. "They’re a bunch of Nazis...They probably targeted me because I’m young and I’m brown, too.”
The actions of the protesters do little to spark productive debate and do a lot to further justification for Sarsour's cause.
Sarsour has dedicated a large part of her life to speaking out against racism and Islamophobia, as well as exploring how feminism and the Muslim faith intersect. She was one of the organizers of the Women's March on Washington, which has been called the largest single-day protest in United States history, and she has helped start important conversations regarding racism and sexism.
However, as CUNY President James B. Milliken said, Sarsour "might hold views that are controversial." She has been fearless about entering into often times heated exchanges over the Israeli state and feminism, and her comments have sparked backlash while inspiring further debate. She also has a nuanced and radical understanding of Sharia law that has unfortunately provided fodder for anti-Islamists.
As expected of a public figure, Sarsour has had to clarify many of her positions while also staying true to her course, showing through her actions that she seeks to move forward with kindness and compassion. For example, after anti-Semites vandalized a Jewish cemetery in St. Louis, Sarsour helped raise over $100,000 to repair it so that people would "be able to rest in peace."
While Sarsour's work has inspired both unity and debate. Yiannopoulos, Geller, and Milliken build walls between groups of people and incite aggression. All of them are controversial figures, but controversy is not a bad thing if people are willing to listen to one another with open minds. In the hands of people like Sarsour it can become a tool for growth, but when provocateurs exploit it, controversy can draw out the very worst of humanity.