Some of Minnesota Congresswoman Ilhan Omar’s comments are disconcerting at best, damaging and divisive at worst. Equally troubling, she is allowing herself to be used as a tool by Donald Trump to drive a wedge in the Democratic Party. The Somali immigrant’s comments are fuel to his incendiary style, which often incites violence against immigrants and Muslims. Not just coincidentally, she now reports an increase of death threats against her. Those vile threats are dangerous and contemptible, but she, too, needs to understand her words’ magnified impact with her new larger platform.
Omar’s personal story is riveting, an immigrant raised by her father and grandfather after the death of her mother, who fled war in Somalia, and, after four years in a refugee camp in Kenya, came to the United States. Omar became a citizen at the age of 17. She was a community activist and majored in political science in college. She worked as a nutrition outreach coordinator and, in 2016, defeated a 22-term incumbent to become a state legislator. Two years later, she moved on to the U.S. House of Representatives, at 37, the first Muslim woman elected to Congress. An American success story, she was a Time Magazine cover story on “Firsts: Women Who Are Changing the World.”
She won her 2018 race in a safe Democratic district by almost 60 points, a wider margin than Hillary Clinton’s in that district in 2016. Omar does not have to worry – as do some of her colleagues– about how she votes or what she says. Or does she?
In her early months in Congress, she has not been reluctant to speak her mind. She hinted that Lindsay Graham backs the President because Trump has compromising information on him, a possible reference to rumors the South Carolina senator is a closeted gay. Her remarks were not that specific but stirred controversy. In the Foreign Affairs committee, she focused on past US abuses in Latin America while going lightly on current Venezuela dictator Maduro. And she refused to let Obama off the hook, claiming his “caging of kids” and “droning of countries around the world” were similarly bad policies “just more polished.”
Omar welcomes the comparison to Tea Party hardliners and feels Democrats can learn from the Republican insurgents. In a Politico interview, she said she didn’t believe that “tiptoeing is the way to win the hearts and minds of the people. ” She seems to believe that grand proposals like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal can be legislated without making hard compromises. She embraces the label of troublemaker and her role as firebrand.
It’s on the issues of Israel and the rights of Palestinians she is most passionate, willing to indulge in anti-Semitic tropes and use inflammatory rhetoric, even if she alienates others in the Democratic caucus who are similarly critical of Israeli policies that mistreat Palestinians and Israeli Arabs. Her tweets went beyond legitimate criticism of Israeli policy to slurs against all Jews. She started out with a series of anti-Semitic tropes that Jews’ loyalty is to Israel not to the United States, and that Jewish money is driving the political process. I find it hard to believe that she didn’t know exactly what she was saying when she tweeted “It’s all about the Benjamins baby.” Omar did apologize for that round, saying “Anti-Semitism is real and I am grateful for Jewish allies and colleagues who are educating me on the painful history of anti-Semitic tropes.”
Her most recent provocation came in a speech to the Council on American-Islamic Relations reflecting on the 9/11 tragedy. “Some people did something,” she said. Her video comment, some of which Trump cherry-picked and retweeted, was part of a longer critique that some Muslims did a terrible thing but not all Muslims should have been blamed for it. This was not some off-the-cuff comment. It was part of a prepared speech.
Islamophobia is real, and Omar’s defense of Muslim civil rights is legitimate. But she has been around long enough to know you have to choose your words carefully because those who would sow mischief can easily lift portions of your statements to misrepresent context and intent. No one should be surprised that the President and his allies hypocritically vilify Omar and charge her with being dismissive of victims of 9/11. It’s the anti-Muslim hate strategy that helped him win in 2016.
The media don’t help. While it’s wrong to tar all the media with laziness, there is a certain herd mentality from which some reporters and commentators are slow to break out. Drawing from Twitter and loving controversy, they fall into Trump’s trap allowing his language to make Omar and a handful of more radical new faces stand for the whole Democratic Party.
Omar has a command of Twitter, but those who dominate social media are not necessarily representative of the larger Democratic electorate. A Gallup poll found that a healthy majority of Democrats want a more moderate party than that envisioned by Omar, Representative Rashida Tlaib, Democrat of Michigan and the only other Muslim woman in Congress, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (a self-described Democratic Socialist) and others. They call themselves “the squad” and come from overwhelmingly Democratic districts. The majority of newly elected Democratic Congresspeople come from more centrist districts, which could tilt back to red in 2020.
It’s the extremes in both major parties that wield major influence in the primaries, which can lead to nominees without broad enough appeal in the general election. Omar is riding a wave of celebrity, has huge social media presence and fund-raising capability. Optimally, she’ll learn that, while vigorous debate is healthy, the overriding goal for 2020 must be finding a level of unity that results in defeating the incumbent.