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Being Visibly Muslim in Congress

Being Visibly Muslim in Congress

Two years ago in November on election night, my children went to sleep giddy thinking when I awoke them for school the next day, I would announce the United States had just elected its first female president. My then ten-year-old daughter Iman had months earlier proclaimed that when she grew up, she would run for the presidency – a Muslim female of color. I was proud to have raised a daughter that was bold enough to aspire that high.

As it turned out, the morning after elections was somber. I tried to mask my feelings as I told my four children in a monotone voice that Donald Trump had won the White House. But tears surfaced nonetheless watching the shock register on their faces. The man that campaigned on “Islam hates us,” and a “total and complete shutdown” of Muslims coming into the country had just become their nation’s president.

I didn’t have the words to express the betrayal I felt that day as a Muslim American, nor could I tell my children that it would be okay. It wouldn’t be. From 2015, the year Trump announced his candidacy, hate crimes against minorities rose for the following three consecutive years. This year alone, there have been over 500 attacks on Muslims in America.

But last November, what felt like a referendum in response to Trump’s divisive sectarianism, the American people elected the most diverse class, with the highest number of women and people of color than any other group of representatives in history, and an “avalanche of firsts,” including not one, but two Muslim women.

The House even changed the rules on attire, ensuring that hijab and other forms of religious headwear would be accommodated on the House floor. The seeds of inspiration were sown once again.

However, just like the “birther movement” and the overtly racist sentiments that surfaced following President Obama’s historic election, the presence of Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn) in Congress morphed into a crucible for Islamophobia, anti-black racism, and xenophobia, employing racist dog whistles questioning her patriotism and character, facing disproportionate scrutiny in comparison to her congressional peers.

This May, Vice President Pence renewed his calls for Omar’s removal from the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. In April, President Trump tweeted a decontextualized snippet of a speech Omar made juxtaposed with footage of the 9/11 attacks . In March, at an event sponsored by the Republican Party of West Virginia, a sign linking Omar with the 9/11 attacks was on display at the state’s capitol.

This is all too familiar territory for Muslims – to be collectively blamed and attacked for the reprehensible and genocidal acts of a few. Muslims account for approximately one in four people globally, are geographically and ethnically diverse, and have a wide spectrum of beliefs. Assuming all Muslims are suspect, threatening, and covertly harboring a violent ideology is the hallmark of Islamophobia.

The character attacks on Omar have literally had life-threatening consequences; there’s been a sharp increase in death threats directed at her. Last month, a Patrick W. Carlineo Jr., was arrested after law enforcement discovered a cache of illegally possessed weapons and over 1,000 rounds of ammunition. He’d allegedly called Omar’s office to threaten her life. Omar was also included on Coast Guard Lieutenant Christopher Hasson’s hit list.

And yet despite the vicious attacks, the death threats, and consistent scrutiny, Omar’s strength and resilience have been unwavering. If anything, her demands for gender-based equality, LGBTQ rights, reproductive autonomy, staunch criticism of autocratic allies like Saudi Arabia, and her aggressive line of questioning directed at Trump’s special envoy to Venezuela, Elliot Abram, have become even more emboldened. She remains unapologetic and uncompromising in her views about justice and equality in both domestic and foreign policy alike.

There are many who believe, by default, Muslim women are oppressed, have no agency, and require rescuing. Omar unabashedly defies all of these stereotypes and tropes.

In a rally entitled, “Black Women in Defense of Ilhan Omar,” Omar took to the podium, addressing her supporters with these powerful words: “The thing that upsets the occupant of the White House, his goons in the Republican Party, many of our colleagues in the Democratic Party, is that—is that they can’t stand—they cannot stand that a refugee, a black woman, an immigrant, a Muslim, shows up in Congress thinking she’s equal to them. But I say to them, ‘How else did you expect me to show up?’”

She continued, “So, when they say, ‘Who does she think she is?’—when they say, ‘Who does she think she is?’ I am the one that the people sent to be a voice for them. So we have to always recognize that one marginalized voice represents many marginalized voices.”

Omar’s tenacity and courage are awe-inspiring. There are millions of young Muslim women and children watching as one of their own blazes trails on their behalf, my daughters and I are amongst them. Safia, my fourteen-year-old daughter, now, matter-of-factly discusses her future congressional bid.

Just three weeks ago, on the eve of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, myself and thousands of Omar’s supporters received an e-mail from her office wishing us a happy Ramadan. Last week, Reps. Omar, Tlaib, and Carson hosted fellow members of Congress to a historic congressional iftar, the meal Muslims traditionally eat, signifying the end of the fast.

During the dinner Omar recalled Trump’s mockery of Khizr Khan’s wife, Ghazala, after Khan addressed the Democratic National Convention in 2016. “Little did they know,” she said, referring to herself and Tlaib, “They were going to get the two loudest Muslim women in the country.”

Many of us are counting on her to keep her voice loud and her presence felt, in it we too feel included in the beautiful and diverse tapestry of our country. Perhaps by the time Safia runs for Congress and Iman runs for the presidency, the hijabs covering their hair, will not be anything particularly noteworthy or unique.

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