An Open Letter to Muslim Feminist Linda Sarsour

Let's talk about ISIS rape victims.

Open Letter to Linda Sarsour

  • Director of the Arab American Association of New York
  • Honoree, New York City Council's Shirley Chisholm Women of Distinction Award
  • Senior Strategist for the Campaign to Take on Hate
  • 2009 Fellow with the American Muslim Civic Leadership Institute, housed at the University of Southern California's Center for Religion and Civic Culture, in partnership with the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim Christian Understanding at Georgetown University
  • Obama White House honoree as a "Champion of Change"
  • Feminist: "I am a feminist and the reason I am a feminist is because I am a Muslim."

Dear Linda Sarsour,

The news broke on Friday, August 14, 2015. That day would have been Kayla Mueller's twenty-seventh birthday.

The breaking – and heartbreaking – news: Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, the Islamic Studies PhD who heads ISIS, had repeatedly raped Kayla Mueller. "He owned her," news accounts report. Kayla was al-Baghdadi's "sexual slave." She was tortured. Kayla had been 24 years old when ISIS first took her captive in 2013.

Kayla Mueller was from Prescott, Arizona. She was an idealist. She had worked for many causes, including Tibetan refugees, Amnesty International, Big Brothers Big Sisters and the Save Darfur Coalition. Kayla was taken captive by ISIS in 2013 while leaving a Doctors without Borders hospital in Syria. She was there helping war refugees. Kayla died in captivity in February, 2015. Kayla's fellow hostages report how kind and self-sacrificing she was.

Why did Kayla put her life at risk to help others? "Some people find God in church. Some people find God in nature. Some people find God in love. I found God in suffering. I've known for some time what my life's work is. Using my hands as tools to relive suffering," she wrote.

Linda, I did not know Kayla, but I do know her. So do you. We are all three of us women, Linda. We were all once young and naïve. We have all had those moments when we wanted to save the world, and thought we could. Linda, I've disagreed with every single thing I've ever heard you say. But I see and honor the idealist in you. I acknowledge the womanhood that you and I share. I hope you can see and respect the idealistic woman in Kayla Mueller.

I would have disagreed with Kayla about many things. She participated in anti-Israel actions. I support Israel's right to exist.

Kayla's anti-Israel actions were not the central fact of her life. They did not earn her any points with ISIS. Though she marched with Muslim Arabs protesting Israel, ISIS still raped and tortured Kayla, and they were responsible for her death.

I did a Google image search of "Kayla Mueller." I wanted to spend a minute honoring this young lady. I didn't want my only thought of her to be the foul images that intruded into my mind when I heard the news: claustrophobic, nightmare scenes of the fetid, unwashed, cannibal caliph.

On the Google page under the image search for "Kayla Mueller," beauty flooded my computer screen. Kayla is bursting with youth. She is pale and a tad plump. Her straight and shiny brunette hair is very modestly done, as is often the case with missionaries and saints. Her hair falls down her sweatered back, or it is held in a bun with cheap elastics. Her part is uneven; it's been a few hours since she has looked at herself in a mirror in any kind of self-conscious way. Kayla's focus is on serving others, not on prettifying herself for the camera. She's not wearing make-up, not even mascara, although in one shot she shows ceremonial henna designs on her arm. She's got warm brown eyes, a button nose, and even, white, and strong-looking teeth. She's hugging a dog; hugging a stuffed animal; hugging her Arab boyfriend; standing next to an American flag; seated in lotus position; in a t-shirt with a Tibetan Buddhist dorje. Her smile is as wide, wholesome and open as the Arizona skies.

Did I say that I did not know Kayla? That's not true. I know the girl in these photos would lend me her last dime, travel the extra mile, and be the kindergarteners' favorite teacher. I know that Kayla would out-hug the best hugger and cheer up the grouchiest grouch.

That beautiful young American is whom the ISIS caliph, with his PhD in Islamic studies, chose to torture and defile.

When I heard the breaking news, I thought of you, Linda. I wanted to believe, Linda, that the womanliness that you and I share with Kayla had broken down barriers. I wanted to believe that there would be eloquent words on your Facebook page addressing what happened to Kayla. I wanted to believe that you had been touched, and that you cared, in spite of any differences between you and Kayla. You harp on being all-American, Linda. I wanted to believe that the American in you stepped forward and mourned this fellow American cut down by an enemy. Linda, you publicly identify as a feminist. You claim feminism's heroes and trappings. You have received feminist awards. I wanted to see feminist solidarity in you transcend the identity politician in you.

Frankly, I'm a little bit Kayla Mueller myself. If I had just a handful fewer IQ points, I'd have a coexist bumper sticker. That part of me, Linda, wanted to share a moment with you, and felt that sharing that moment would help heal the pain I was feeling over Kayla's torture murder. I wanted to feel, across the miles and the boundary lines, you and me mourning together for our slain sister with whom we share so much in spite of all our differences.

I went to your Facebook page, Linda. What I found there shocked me. It left me reeling.

Linda, the day that the Kayla Mueller news broke, you posted a message in response to the New York Times article on ISIS' rape of little, captive Yazidi girls. Yazidi girls who cried, as little girls might, when violated, by adult male strangers. Little girls who begged their torturers to stop, and who, for their trouble, had the Koran recited to them. Verses from the Koran sanctioning these tortures of children.

Rape of captives is sanctioned in Islam. See Koran 33:50, 23:5-6, 4:24, 8:69, 24:32; see also Hadith Bukhari 62:137, 34:432, Muslim 4345. There are more. Mohammed is considered by Muslims to be the perfect human, worthy of emulation. Mohammed had sex slaves.

Your post on the day the Kayla Mueller news broke shocked me. On your page, Linda, I found denial, accusations, and victim-mongering.

Linda, the day after the New York Times story on the ISIS theologically sanctioned rape of little Yazidi girls, on the day the Kayla Mueller story broke, you posted commentary by Imam Zaid Shakir. You posted them with your approval. "The first thing we should understand about slavery is that it is not an integral part of Islam," he wrote. "For this reason every Muslim nation has legally outlawed slavery."

Linda, you and I and all educated people know that it is not true. Slavery has been part of Islam from the first. Mohammed owned and traded slaves. He encouraged his followers to rape war captives. Slaves as booty were a huge lure for jihadis in the expansion of Islam. When Tariq ibn Ziyad invaded Spain in 711, he promised his jihadis "ravishingly beautiful Greek [Christian] maidens, their graceful forms draped in sumptuous gowns on which gleam pearls, coral, and purest gold." The Muslim Slave Trade dwarfed the Atlantic Slave Trade in numbers of persons enslaved and time of duration. Murray Gordon, author of Slavery in the Arab World, wrote that Muslims were hesitant to spread Islam south of the Sahara because they wanted black Africans as non-Muslim slaves. Enslaved males were typically castrated. Enslaved females were used for sex. Circassian women were so frequently traded as sex slaves that they are famous to this day for their "beauty," a bowdlerized expression of what they were really famous for. Enslaved Slavic men were castrated; the word "Slav" appears in altered form in Arabic as "eunuch." Slave armies played a unique and historically significant role in the expansion of Islam; see Daniel Pipes, Slave Soldiers and Islam. America's first foreign war with a country other than England was with the Barbary Pirates. They enslaved Americans and used Islam and the Koran to justify that enslavement to Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. When he is twelve, the son of the house "is given his first negress," wrote Pulitzer-Prize winner Edith Wharton in her 1920 book, In Morocco. Muslim majority countries were among the last in the world to abolish slavery. For example, Qatar, Yemen, Niger, the UAE, Oman, Mauritania – all Muslim majority countries – outlawed slavery between 1952 and 2007. Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam and location of Mecca, outlawed slavery only in 1962. The mother of Saudi Prince Bandar, a good friend of the Bush family, was a black serving girl.

Linda, I'm Catholic. Nobody gets more grief than Catholics – not even Muslims. Some Catholics have done bad things. We have this custom called "confession." We confess our wrongs, and then work to right them. I want something you want, Linda. I want Muslims and non-Muslims to get along. That day won't be hastened by Muslim leaders like you denying the problems that need to be fixed. You quote Imam Shakir as writing that Islam "is a beautiful gift of a sophisticated civilization." Islam has produced many beautiful gifts for world civilization. We know that the Taj Mahal is a Muslim tomb. Rumi, Nusrat Ali Fateh Khan, belly dancing: all gifts of the Muslim world. We will appreciate them all the more when Muslims step up and take responsibility for, and fix, the wrongs committed in the name of Islam.

But you and Imam Shakir didn't stop at denial on the day the news broke about Kayla Mueller. You went on to victim mongering. Muslims are the real victims here, you both insisted. Imam Shakir wrote, and you approved, "the actions of ISIS are being used to fan the flames of war against Muslims." What? What? You react to the New York Times article documenting the rape of little Yazidi girls, and the news about Kayla by claiming that you, Muslims, are the real victims? No, Linda. You're not. And it's in really bad taste to insist that at this moment.

One sentence on your Facebook page chilled me more than any other. You quote Imam Shakir saying, "The first and highest objective of Islamic law is the preservation of religion itself." That line really makes Islam sound like the Borg, Linda. Please give it some thought. Surely the God in which you believe does not hold human life below preservation of a belief system. Look at photos of Kayla Mueller, Linda. See the universe in her eyes. The book you uphold quotes God as saying to the Jews in Koran 5:32, "We ordained for the Children of Israel … if anyone saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of all humanity." The Koran is correct here; God did give that command to the Jews. Neither you nor I is a Jew, Linda, but we can both access the wisdom in this quote when we look at photos of Kayla Mueller. I see the world in her face, in every human face. I see the imago dei, the tzelem Elohim, the image of God, as recorded in the book of Genesis. I think if you and I and all of us dedicated ourselves to preserving each other, we'd be doing God's will. The man I call God, and you call a prophet, said something similar: Love God with all your heart; love your neighbor as yourself. That is the law and the prophets.

Danusha Goska is the author of Save Send Delete.


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