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April 24, 2019

Muslim women in Congress


April 24, 2019

In the November 2018 elections, large numbers of women and minorities were elected to the US Congress. Among them are the first two Muslim women, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota.

Tlaib is the daughter of Palestinian immigrants, and Omar came to the US as a child after spending years in a Somali refugee camp. The fact that they both got elected to the US Congress is a testament to not only their capability and tenacity but also to a political system where members of marginalized communities can be elected to prominent office.

When people with diverse backgrounds gain access to public space, their views often differ from what has been the routine discourse. It didn’t take long for these Muslim women in Congress to get into trouble for their views and statements. Rashida Tlaib made an angry insulting statement about President Trump and was condemned for it, while Ilhan Omar was taken to task for criticizing the inflated role of the Israeli lobby in US politics.

Some of Omar’s statements were objectionable, for which she apologized. But she now had a target on her back. Any statement she made that was critical of Israeli government policies was quickly twisted into being ‘anti-Semitic’.

To be clear, anti-Semitism clearly exists in the US and elsewhere and hate crimes against the Jewish community have been on the rise over the last several years, as they have been against Muslims in the US.

When it comes to the attacks on Omar, there are several factors at play. Most of all are the resurgent rightwing extremist elements that form the core of support for Trump. Both Trump and the right wing provide unquestioning support to the policies of the current Israeli government regarding the occupation of millions of Palestinians. Another key factor in US political discourse is the normalizing of anti-Muslim hatred, prominently led by the president himself, and various media outlets such as Fox News and the New York Post.

The New York Post and others latched on to a statement made by Omar in a speech, and pulled a phrase totally out of context claiming she was not strong enough in denouncing the 9/11 attacks on US soil. Subsequently, a man who called himself a supporter of President Trump made a specific threat to “put a bullet in her… skull”. He has been arrested for threatening a member of the US Congress.

All of this didn’t stop President Trump, however, from tweeting hateful messages about Ilhan Omar, condemning her for “anti-Semitic, anti-Israel, ungrateful US hate statements”. But by now large segments of the American population have become numb to the false and incendiary statements being made by the president. The fact that he would actually try to instigate violence against a sitting member of the Congress has crossed yet another line in his tenure.

There is an effort underway in some circles in the US to paint Muslims and their faith as being hateful of all Jews. Yes many of us are critical of Israeli policies of occupation. We also believe that the strong Israeli lobby in the US does a disservice to the principle of open honest discussion of policies, when it tries to shut down all criticism of their efforts to influence American politicians.

One other point is starting to become clear. As we dive deeper into the 2020 US election cycle, one key element of President Trump’s strategy will be a furthering of anti-Muslim hate and bigotry. Perhaps the demonizing of Hispanic immigrants has run its course.

The writer is a freelancecontributor based inWashington DC.

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