In Defense of Ilhan Omar

Over the last few weeks, Congresswoman Ilhan Omar has made headlines across the country over one issue or another. At the start of the year it was due to comments regarding Israel that could in many ways be taken as antisemitic, but for which she has apologized and since moved past. Now, however, the political animosity from the right-wing has exploded with recent comments made by Congresswoman Omar at a banquet for the Council of Islamic-American Relations (CAIR) on March 23, 2019, just a week after the horrific terrorist attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand which saw nearly fifty people killed, most of them Muslims. The segment of her nearly twenty minute speech that has now been aired on cable news included the quote “CAIR was founded after 9/11 because they recognized that some people did something, and that all of us [Muslims] were starting to lose access to our civil liberties.” A few days ago, this small statement from a twenty minute speech ignited the largest political battle that has taken place across the country over the last week or so. Although it is certain that in a few weeks this will inevitably disappear as something else will replace it, it is necessary to first explore the reaction to the quote, the poorly thought out actions of politicians and newspapers in politicizing this, and the history of growing Islamophobia within the United States.

First, it is necessary to make available the whole speech as published by CAIR on April 9, a twenty minute address given on March 23 in Woodland Hills, California. Most of her address appears concerned with several issues. They include the Christchurch shootings that took place on March 15, the crisis of Muslim-Americans facing attacks whether it be by other citizens or by the government, and spoke about the need to defend those rights. For context, the part of the speech both before and after the part that is familiar to almost everyone shows that Congresswoman Omar’s concern in this speech is about the detrimental nature of Islamophobia. “Here’s the truth. For far too long we have lived with the discomfort of being a second-class citizen and, frankly, I’m tired of it, and every single Muslim in this country should be tired of it. CAIR was founded after 9/11 because they recognized that some people did something and that all of us were starting to lose access to our civil liberties.So you can’t just say that today someone is looking at me strange and that I am trying to make myself look pleasant. You have to say that this person is looking at me strange, I am not comfortable with it, and I am going to talk to them and ask them why. Because that is the right you have.” Although certainly better phrasing in retrospect might have done her more favors in the end, her speech has nothing controversial within it.

Attacks against Ilhan Omar and her faith did not start with this recent issue. In late-February, the West Virginia Republican Party faced backlash after they posted a picture of a plane crashing into the World Trade Center saying “‘NEVER FORGET’ – YOU SAID” and beneath it was a picture of Congresswoman Omar that said “I AM THE PROOF – YOU HAVE FORGOTTEN.” This poster, like so many Islamophobic tropes and memes online, has derided the presence of Muslim-Americans across the country, using 9/11 as a clarion call for implementing Islamophobic policies. In another instance, popular Fox News host Jeanine Pirro of “Justice with Jeanine” was taken off the air for two weeks in March 2019 over comments directed at Congresswoman Omar. In her show on March 9, just six days before the Christchurch attacks, Pirro questioned the Congresswoman’s loyalty to the United States, saying that “Is her adherence to this Islamic doctrine [wearing a hijab] indicative of her adherence to Sharia law, which in itself is antithetical to the United States Constitution.” Pirro once again spread Islamophobic tropes which are designed to attack millions of Americans and doubt their loyalty to the country. Just a few days before these comments were spread to the general public, a man from Upstate New York called Omar’s office and threatened to kill her. This is by far the most dangerous of these actions, and shows how things are coming to a boil in the country.

This particular scandal itself began on April 9 when Congressman Dan Crenshaw tweeted about the small section of the speech that was cut out. From there, it spun out of control. Very quickly the story spread on social media. The next day on April 10, “Fox and Friends” host Brian Kilmeade said “You have to wonder if she’s an American first.” He followed that up, along with multiple other Fox News hosts and figures such as Sean Hannity and Todd Starnes, with further Islamophobic claims, downplaying the fact that Muslim-Americans have faced discrimination in the United States since 9/11, and pushing further the claims that Omar was not a loyal American, but instead a foreign interloper. President Donald Trump even took part in this. After pushing for the Muslim Ban and saying during the 2016 Presidential election that “I think Islam hates us,” Trump posted on Twitter a video of Omar’s speech, interspersed with horrific images of planes crashing into the World Trade Center. This has led to fears growing for Congresswoman Omar’s safety,

In one particularly gruesome example of newspapers and politicians using 9/11 as a way to attack Congresswoman Omar, the New York Post on April 11 used an image of an airplane crashing into the Twin Towers. The headline used the portion of the quote said by Omar that had brought the ire of so many people. For a newspaper based in the city where the attack took place to knowingly take out of context a member of Congress, and then to use that to print a photograph of one of the most tragic moments of recent American history crosses a massive line. In response to a Muslim-American rightly pointing out that since 9/11 many people here who are of Middle Eastern descent or practicing Muslims have felt unsafe or are seeing that freedoms being attacked, the New York Post instead did nothing but add to the fires of this crisis. They irresponsibly used the 9/11 attacks for political and editorial gain, rather than simply committing an hour or two to research the context of the quote in the video, and to understand that discrimination against Muslim-Americans does exist.

Islamophobia began almost immediately after the 9/11 attacks. In the weeks following the devastation in New York and Washington, multiple people who looked Middle Eastern or who were mistaken for being Muslim were killed or attacked. Pakistani Muslim man Waqar Hassan was murdered in his grocery store in Dallas, while Balbir Singh, a Sikh man mistaken for a Muslim was murdered in Arizona. Even Egyptian Christian Adelal Karas was murdered in the aftermath of the attacks in September 2001. In fact, in 2017, according to the FBI of the 1,749 victims of anti-religious bigotry, some 18.6% were victims of anti-Muslim hate crimes. This statistic does not count the likely large number of unreported hate crimes. In addition to this, municipalities and people across the country since 9/11 have attempted to stop the construction of mosques. More often than not these were largely unjustified fears of mosques being used to train terrorists or grow a population of extremists. One planned mosque in Bayonne, New Jersey, was blocked by the local municipality in 2017, but the Justice Department has since started an investigation into the reasons for blocking construction. It is impossible to deny with these facts and countless more evidence that Muslims have since the 9/11 attacks been treated as second-class citizens in the United States, and that the substance of Ilhan Omar’s speech was accurate.

I will be the first to admit that I was apprehensive towards Congresswoman Omar for either purposefully or unwittingly spreading antisemitic tropes, and that I disagree with some of her policy stances, but the reaction against her speech over the last few days shows that this country, or at least a large segment of it led by President Donald Trump and right-wing media such as Fox News has a problem with Muslim-American women in office. The United States is a country built on the idea of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Although for much of our history we were built on the contradictions of being half-slave and half-free, and only until the last half century have we truly seen the fruits of centuries of labor to ensure that the American Dream is available to all people in this country, we are still dealing with our inner demons. Ever since 9/11, it is undeniable that Muslim-Americans have been facing bigotry over the actions of an extreme few in their faith. Just as the Irish Republican Army does not represent Irish Catholics or the 969 Movement does not represent Buddhism, radical terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and the Islamic State do not represent the vast and overwhelming majority of Muslims. As a nation, we need to defend the religious freedom of Muslim-Americans, and to ensure that they have an equal opportunity to take a part in our democratic experiment.

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