Behind schedule as usual, Linda Sarsour rushed into the Times Square office of the civil rights group the Gathering for Justice last month, 40 minutes late for a meeting with its founder, Harry Belafonte. On the way in from Brooklyn, the Uber driver she had hired made a wrong turn and wound up in New Jersey. Now, wearing her head scarf and hungry from fasting for Ramadan, Ms. Sarsour scurried into an auditorium packed with some of the city’s most prominent social-justice warriors.
There was just enough time for her to speed-hug friends and take a quick selfie with “Mr. B.,” as everybody called him, before he took the stage and told the assembled activists that they — the younger generation — were continuing the legacy of “Malcolm X, Fannie Lou Hamer and Dr. King.” As Mr. Belafonte sonorously spoke of how he had devoted his life and art to activism, Ms. Sarsour, already a half-hour tardy for her next event, was quietly bent over her phone, scanning Uber for the nearest available car.
“There’s one,” she whispered, finding a driver who could take her to the Williamsburg bar where hip young Brooklyn liberals would be honoring her political organization, the Muslim Democratic Club of New York. Stuffing her iPhone into her purse, she got to her feet and tiptoed down the aisle. Quickly waggling fingers at her colleagues, off she went.
Linda Sarsour is, in every sense of the phrase, a woman in a hurry. Only 35, she has already helped to partly dismantle the New York Police Department’s program of spying on the city’s Muslims and has worked with officials in City Hall to close public schools for the observance of two of Islam’s most important holy days, Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha. From her base at the Arab American Association of New York, the nonprofit group in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, where she is the executive director, Ms. Sarsour has taken on such issues as immigration policy, voter registration, mass incarceration, Islamophobia and the Police Department’s stop-and-frisk tactic. She has emerged in the last few years not only as one of the city’s, and the country’s, most vocal young Muslim-American advocates, but also as a potential — and rare Arab-American — candidate for office.
“I feel like I’ve been able to bring a voice to this community they’ve never heard before,” she said not long ago.
The voice she brings to New York’s Muslims, a diverse group of Arabs, Southeast Asians, Africans and African-Americans, is loud, strident and inflected with both street smarts and the tropes of “intersectionality,” as the trending term has it. That means Ms. Sarsour has sought to speak not only for those who share her religion, but also for others — women, gays, prison inmates, victims of racial profiling — facing the problems that concern her.
She is deeply involved in the Black Lives Matter movement, having helped to organize an April march from New York to Washington led by a group called Justice League NYC — an offshoot of Mr. Belafonte’s Gathering for Justice — to honor Eric Garner, Akai Gurley and other black men killed by the police. More recently, as part of a project she calls Respond With Love, she has raised more than $100,000 to help rebuild black churches that burned down, some by arson, after the church massacre in Charleston, S.C.
But the most apparent thing about her voice is that it is exceedingly Brooklyn. She says “swag” instead of “charisma.” (“Mr. B. has swag …”) She calls her father, a Palestinian immigrant in his 60s, “Pops.” Like the actress Rosie Perez in a hijab, Ms. Sarsour has perfected her delivery of the head-swaying “Oh no you dih-int” and pronounces the word “Latino” like, well, a Latino.
“My first memory of her was of her talking about how much she loved Brooklyn,” said Mustafa Abdullah, an organizer with the St. Louis chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, who met Ms. Sarsour when she flew to Ferguson, Mo., after Michael Brown was killed a year ago. “She came right up to me and said, ‘My name’s Linda. I’m from Brooklyn. Don’t mess with Brooklyn.’ That stuck with me.”
Ms. Sarsour’s critics include the anti-Islam activist Pamela Geller, who has called her an “anti-Semitic Islamic supremacist who wields her religion like a club.” Among Muslims, some have said Ms. Sarsour’s voice, because of its assertiveness and because she is paid (though not a lot) for her work, has occasionally drowned out other worthy voices.
“She’s basically filled the void left by people like myself and other Muslim leaders who are also activists but don’t have the luxury of time to appear on a 10 a.m. CNN show,” said Debbie Almontaser, a New York educator and the board president of the Muslim Community Network. Ms. Almontaser added that modesty — “thinking as a collective, always volunteering others before oneself” — is a core Islamic value.
“That sort of ingrained humility,” she said, “is not exactly a part of who Linda is.”
MS. SARSOUR’S ROOTS ARE in Sunset Park, the western Brooklyn neighborhood where she was raised by Palestinian immigrant parents as the oldest of seven children, five girls and two boys. Because her father worked six days a week at his corner store in Crown Heights — named, for reasons of family pride and locational shrewdness, Linda Sarsour’s Spanish-American Food Center — she grew up helping her mother babysit and shop while she attended John Jay High School and Arab-language and history classes.
At 17, she wed in an arranged marriage. At 19, she had her first child, a boy. (She and her husband now have three children: The boy, Tamir, is 16; two daughters, Sabreen and Sajida, are 14 and 11.) After taking classes at Brooklyn College and Kingsborough Community College, she planned to be a high school English teacher. But shortly before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, one of her father’s cousins, Basemah Atweh, asked her to come work as an organizer at the Arab American Association, which Ms. Atweh had just founded with a local obstetrician, Dr. Ahmad Jaber (who happened to have delivered Ms. Sarsour).
After the attacks, the association was transformed, turning, as Ms. Sarsour put it, from “a bunch of rich Arabs who wanted to help poor Arabs into ‘What is going on here?’ ” It was a time when law enforcement officers were descending on New York’s Muslim neighborhoods, particularly Bay Ridge.
The first person who sought Ms. Sarsour’s help was a Moroccan woman who appeared one day with her 4-year-old son, saying: “They took my husband. I haven’t seen him in four days.”
Ms. Sarsour called around to lawyers for assistance, she said, eventually finding the man, who, she recalled, had been detained by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in a case of mistaken identity. When the family was reunited, the mother and son gave Ms. Sarsour some baklava. “Here’s this little boy, about the same age as my own, looking at me like I’m some kind of hero for finding his father,” she said. “That was my ticket to doing this work for the next 14 years.”
It is still uncommon among Muslims, even in New York, for women to take a leading role in political activities. Ms. Atweh, for instance, joined forces with a group of wealthier, more visibly powerful men to found the Arab American Association. By her own admission, Ms. Sarsour, too, has struggled with this untraditional role. She said she had an arrangement with her husband that allowed her to pursue her work as long as he remained anonymously in the background. And while both of her daughters work with her part time, she acknowledged that she did not get to see her children as often as she would like.
“It’s one of the tensions in my life,” she said. “There are plenty of Muslim women who are backbones of the community, but they aren’t usually at the forefront. There just aren’t a lot of me out there — women in hijabs, doing what I do.”
Another tension is religion itself. Ms. Sarsour said she prayed often but did not regularly attend a mosque unless she was organizing.
“She’s candid about not being quote-unquote particularly religious,” said Imam Talib Abdur-Rashid, the leader of the Mosque of Islamic Brotherhood in Harlem and one of Ms. Sarsour’s mentors. “But the ideals she holds about the sacredness of life and about social justice go to the core of religious practice.”
In 2005, Ms. Sarsour and Ms. Atweh were returning from the gala opening of the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, Mich., when a tractor-trailer accidentally ran their car off the road. Ms. Atweh died in the crash and two other passengers sustained broken bones and snapped vertebrae. Ms. Sarsour, who was driving, had only minor cuts on one hand. When, shortly after, she was named to succeed Ms. Atweh as executive director of the association, she said she felt as though she were “fulfilling the prophecy of a woman of little means who wanted to create an institute for people like herself who didn’t really have anywhere else to go.”
While remaining true to Ms. Atweh’s vision, Ms. Sarsour broadened the scope of the organization’s mission over the next several years. Part of this occurred in 2011, when The Associated Press published a series of articles about how the Police Department had established sophisticated surveillance operations in the city’s Muslim neighborhoods. Ms. Sarsour’s fight against police incursions in her own community awakened her to similar problems in others. Joining a group called Communities United for Police Reform, a coalition that includes the Legal Aid Society and the New York Civil Liberties Union, she worked toward the passage, over the objections of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and the police commissioner, Raymond W. Kelly, of what is known as the Community Safety Act, which created an independent inspector general to review police policy and which expanded the definition of bias-based profiling.
Then, last summer, Mr. Brown was killed in Ferguson. “I was sitting here in Brooklyn,” Ms. Sarsour said, “and heard he’d gotten shot and was lying in the street for four and a half hours. I was like, ‘Wait a minute. This happened in the United States of America? You hear about that happening in Palestine.’ ”
Two days later, she called Mr. Abdullah, the A.C.L.U. organizer in St. Louis.
“Linda’s first question was: ‘Mustafa, where is the Muslim community on this?’ ” Mr. Abdullah recalled. “It was actually a call to conscience, a prophetic question.”
And, he added, it was a question that led to the formation of a group called Muslims for Ferguson, which eventually held a series of national conference calls encouraging Muslims to engage in conversations about police practices. When Ms. Sarsour traveled to Ferguson in October, two months after Mr. Brown was killed, she met many of the city’s black residents, some of whom, she said, had never seen a woman wearing a hijab before.
“When you look at the Muslim community and its relationship with the police, it’s very similar to the black community’s relationship,” said Tamika Mallory, a former top aide to the Rev. Al Sharpton who works with Justice League NYC and other groups. “It’s all about finding common ground. It’s like Linda says, ‘I’m gonna help y’all get your people straight and I expect you to come help me get mine straight.’ ”
Not that that has been easy. While Ms. Sarsour likes to talk — with a talent for praising herself without sounding overly self-aggrandizing — about helping to organize events like December’s shutdown of the Barclays Center in Brooklyn after a grand jury did not indict the white officer in the case involving Mr. Garner, she acknowledges that she has encountered resistance from some Arab Muslims who feel that she should save her energy for helping her own kind.
“There are people who disavow her work because they think it’s not enough in the community,” said Zead Ramadan, a former board chairman of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in New York. “The older, more conservative faction will say, ‘Oh, she’s too liberal,’ or, ‘That’s not how a Muslim woman should act.’ But if there’s anyone who clearly represents the religion and who can make it into a political seat in New York, it’s Linda.”
Besides, Mr. Ramadan added, “You are rarely going to meet someone who is so Brooklyn.”
AT THE LARRY LAWRENCE BAR in Williamsburg, where the Muslim Democratic Club was being honored, the nerdy-cool crowd was tipsy. The event was being held by the New Kings Democrats, a multiethnic collection of young progressives. Ninety percent of the men in the room wore glasses.
Arriving just as her club mates had given up hope of her appearing, Ms. Sarsour, who does not drink, ran in, tracked down the club’s co-founder Ali Najmi, a Queens lawyer running as a Democrat for City Council this year, stood beside him as a New Kings official handed them a plaque, and then dashed out again, bumping into Councilman Antonio Reynoso on the sidewalk — “Linda!” he shouted with an air kiss — before running into a waiting car. Ms. Sarsour has spoken openly about her own desire to run for the City Council — at some point. She has even mapped out her potential competition, Justin Brannan, an aide to Councilman Vincent J. Gentile, who has served the Bay Ridge area on the Council since 2003 and is coming up against the term limits law.
“Sometimes, it seems like the whole world has already set my life out for me,” Ms. Sarsour said, as the car took off. “But the question I have to answer before I actually do anything is: Will I be more influential on the inside or the outside? And I don’t have an answer yet.”
There are currently no Arab-Muslim elected officials in New York, but not long ago the Muslim Democratic Club ran a list of common Muslim surnames through a voter-registration database and found that there were quite likely more than 100,000 Muslim voters in the city.
Muslim-Americans have slowly gained footholds in various nodes of power in the city. The City Council speaker, Melissa Mark-Viverito, employs a staff member, Faiza Ali, as Muslim liaison. Ibrahim Khan, chief of staff to Letitia James, the public advocate, has done similar outreach work. And this summer, Mayor Bill de Blasio named Sarah Sayeed as a senior adviser to the city’s Community Affairs Unit, where she focuses on issues of concern to Muslims.
Ms. Sarsour said that if she did decide to seek office, it would probably be as part of a coalition of progressive candidates. “The community is there,” she said. “But we just haven’t found the inspiration yet to become politically engaged.”
Beyond that, Ms. Sarsour’s oft-stated ambition is to serve as the first mayor of an independent Brooklyn. This is a position, she said, that she would have to work toward by first becoming Brooklyn borough president and then accomplishing the tricky business of getting Kings County to secede from the rest of New York.
By now, it was almost dark and Ms. Sarsour had crossed the river once more, back to Manhattan. She was due — in just a few minutes — at a breaking of the Ramadan fast with the mayor at New York University. Though Mr. de Blasio has his own reputation for keeping people waiting, she urged her driver on, not wanting to be late herself for this event — mainly because she was famished. When the car pulled up at the destination, she had only two minutes before the fast would formally end.
There would be little time for politicking this night. She needed to eat.
“When I get in there,” she said, running, again, out of the car, “I’m literally gonna be like, ‘Yo, wassup, Mayor? Thanks for dinner, homie.’ ”
Correction: August 9, 2015
An earlier version of this article misstated the title of Imam Talib Abdur-Rashid. He is the leader of theMosque of Islamic Brotherhood in Harlem, not a president emeritus.
Originally posted: Linda Sarsour Is a Brooklyn Homegirl in a Hijab