Staten Island Assemblyman Ronald Castorina and Women’s March organizer Linda Sarsour collided on social media this week over the latter’s upcoming commencement address at the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy—a speech that the Republican lawmaker argued the public institution should cancel, given Sarsour’s political and religious views.
The dispute began with a post Castorina made on Facebook, linking an article from the right-wing Clarion Project think tank, which called attention both to the June 1 speech and several supportive statements Sarsour had made about Islamic sharia law. In certain Muslim nations, though far from all, fundamentalist religious authorities interpret the Quran and the larger body of Islamic juridical texts to prescribe capital punishment for heretical speech, and to delimit the rights of women and sexual minorities.
Sarsour has noted on Twitter that sharia law also forbids the charging of interest on loans, and that Saudi Arabia has a generous paid leave policy for new mothers.
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Sarsour responded online to the post, which attracted a number of vitriolic comments about Muslims in general and about her in particular.
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In an interview with the Observer, Castorina revealed he would soon submit Freedom of Information Law requests to CUNY in order to obtain all internal and external communications regarding the selection of the commencement speaker. The queries, shared with the Observer, also seek to ascertain what sort of compensation Sarsour will receive for her address.
“Essentially, I want to know how they came to selecting her,” he said. “It’s important we as the taxpayers know how, why and who made the decision to have this person as the speaker.”
“I have deep concerns about the hiring of someone who speaks out for sharia law,” he continued. “It’s the type of speech that’s riddled with hatred, that’s riddled with oppression for women and for homosexuals.”
Castorina denied his protests against Sarsour’s scheduled speech parallel liberal activist efforts to block conservatives like Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter from making remarks at the University of California at Berkeley. The core difference, he asserted, is that Sarsour’s appearance at a commencement address and her possible receipt of an honorarium from the school—which he claimed are tantamount to an official CUNY endorsement of her views.
“In those situations, they’re being invited to the university by different groups. Its for the purposes of discourse, it’s for the exchange of ideas. It’s not for pay. And in most cases, it’s not sponsored by the university,” the assemblyman said. “To have somebody like that at the commencement, signals to me that there are those at the university who are looking to perpetuate these notions.”
Castorina also noted that Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind, a conservative Democrat, has objected to Sarsour’s speech due to her outspoken criticism of Israel.
A CUNY spokesperson denied the activist would receive any remuneration for her address. Sarsour did not respond to questions about possible payment, but did appear to highlight her her record as an outspoken feminist and activist, which contrasts with the popular perception of female roles in religious Islamic societies.
“The opposition can’t fathom a Palestinian Muslim-American woman gaining national prominence that defies every stereotype that has been propagated about Muslims,” Sarsour texted to the Observer. “I will not be silenced by anti-women, anti-immigrant, racist bigots.”
Besides the Women’s March and her protests against Israeli military operations in the West Bank and Gaza strip, Sarsour is known for her involvement in the Black Lives Matter movement and in Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign.
Until recently, she headed the Brooklyn-based Arab-American Association of New York, which receives public funding from the city.
Castorina, a Trump supporter, has not shied away from controversy himself. He drew opprobrium from Democratic colleagues for calling abortion “African-American genocide” on the Assembly floor, and has proposed a “Blue Lives Matter” law that would make assaulting a police officer a hate crime.
Along with Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis, a fellow Staten Island Republican, he brought the city to court to prevent it from going forward with plans to delete the databanks of the IDNYC municipal identification program—believed to contain the personal information of thousands of undocumented immigrants. A judge recently ruled the two legislators did not have standing to sue, though the pair are presently appealing that decision.