Ramisa Rob: America’s Islamophobic war on Ilhan Omar

Thursday, April 18, 2019 - 10:50am

U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., has received boundless accusations of disloyalty to the United States. The first round of fury can be attributed to her pro-Palestinian views, and callous comments on Israel that aligned with certain age-old, anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. While Omar should have been watchful of her language, we should note that she has unequivocally apologized and said, “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.”

But more recently, social media has shifted from antagonizing Omar for anti-Semitism to demonizing her with a 20-second snippet of her 20-minute speech about the 9/11 attacks during the Council on American-Islamic Relations banquet on March 23. The speech took place a week after the New Zealand attacks, where Omar made the case for Muslim activism — while many protesters gathered outside and chanted, “Burn the Koran,” “Ilhan Omar go to hell,” and “Shame on you terrorists.” Such outcries are odiously Islamophobic in origin.

Islamophobic onslaughts equating Omar with 9/11 bombings found its inception before she even uttered a word regarding the attacks. In early March, on West Virginia GOP Day, a poster of Omar was placed in the statehouse featuring imagery of the 2001 massacre and captioned, “‘Never forget’- you said.. I am proof - you have forgotten.” On March 21, prior to her speech at the CAIR banquet, a man from New York called Omar's office and told her aide that he would “put a bullet in her (expletive) skull.”  He was later arrested for threatening to kill Omar.

Last Thursday, shallow journalism from the New York Post capitalized on this unsubstantiated outrage by smearing vivid images of this horrific day in American history on an inflammatory cover page — only to vilify Omar. After facing criticism for irresponsible reporting, the editorial board of the New York Post tried to justify their errors by stating, “What’s out of context? She claimed that Muslim civil liberties suffered as a result of the nation’s reaction to 9/11 — even as she completely, intentionally disregarded the grim facts of that day.”

The most perturbing element is the willful ignorance that leads educated adults to eschew middle school reading comprehension lessons and misinterpret what Omar meant in her speech. The context for her comments was “a speech about the prejudice against Muslims.” Extracting a phrase out of this context to infer that it’s intentionally ignoring “grim facts” requires interpreting in a far-fetched manner that is optimized to derive offense and stir conflict. To straighten this out, Omar said: “Here’s the truth … Far too long we have lived with the discomfort of being a second-class citizen. And frankly, I’m 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.”

It was later revealed that she misspoke about one part: CAIR was founded in 1994. She meant to say it doubled in size after the 9/11 attacks to protect the civil rights of Muslims who were blamed for the violence committed by a small fraction of co-religionists. What is so ideologically objectionable about this clumsy but extemporaneous speech? She does not assert anywhere that 9/11 was not a terrorist attack, nor that the perpetrators were not vile terrorists. Fixating oneself on “some people,” and “something” to purposely diabolize a woman conveys a reprehensible message of baseless rejection for Muslim leaders who expose Islamophobia. Yet, such blowback is unsurprising in a political climate where civil conversations are impossible on account of the large number of these “outrage exhibitionists.”

On Friday, President Donald Trump amplified the widespread Islamophobic indignation when he tweeted, “WE WILL NEVER FORGET!” alongside an incendiary video that repetitively pans Omar’s remarks with terrorizing background music and graphic flashbacks of the carnage of 9/11. This disrespectful video exploits the trauma of dozens of New Yorkers for a cheap callout to score points against a member of Congress. It is these regular embraces of divisiveness that emboldens the anti-Muslim rhetoric and ensures it stays intact against the safety of all Americans.

But if we are going to censure statements, then we should also be appalled by Trump’s comments during the 9/11 attacks. When asked about the damages to his building, Trump responded, “It  was an amazing phone call, 40 Wall Street actually was the second-tallest building in downtown Manhattan, and it was actually before the World Trade Center the tallest, and then when they built the World Trade Center it became known as the second-tallest, and now it’s the tallest." Whether this constitutes bragging is subject to interpretation, as Trump supporters on Twitter have argued. At the same time, they hypocritically saluted Trump’s hate incitement, one that prohibited the slightest context for Omar’s remarks.

To counter backlash, Omar quoted the Washington Post’s fact checker that concluded her remarks were reminiscent of President George Bush’s “bullhorn speech.” In one of the top replies, right-wing businessman Dennis Michael Lynch wrote, “I must set you straight dear because you are way out of line. America was always founded upon Judeo-Christian principles, not the Koran. Unlike Muslims who are taught to kill infidels, AMERICANS...” This irrelevant, ghastly response ignores that Omar’s tweet does not suggest America was founded on the Quran. Omar simply implies that she is receiving strident scrutiny for being a Muslim. Furthermore, the bullies claiming that Muslims are “taught to kill infidels” vehemently demonstrate the Islamophobia she is referring to.

The U.S. is supposed to be a nation founded on religious liberty as enshrined in the freedom of religion clause in the First Amendment. Yet, even in 2019, people are alienating Muslims by unconstitutionally and authoritatively asserting superiority of Judeo-Christian principles. What’s next — falsely insisting unknown “Muslim enemies” were involved in the devastating Notre Dame cathedral fire in Paris, just to belittle Muslim leaders and intensify Islamophobia? This is ridiculous.

Anti-Muslim echoes in social media signify that Omar’s unpolished words wouldn’t have been so horrendously decried if she wasn’t an outspoken Muslim. This detestable fact reflects a brazen double standard and it is our civic responsibility to condemn such racist narratives that alienate individuals and weaponize faith. Yet, I find it futile to carol, “We should all fight against Islamophobia and hate,” as no one is remotely willing to listen.

The truth is people only hear what they want to hear. Thus, I will not reference the book, "Behind the Backlash: Muslim Americans After 9/11" by Lori Peek so people can learn how discrimination against innocent Muslims skyrocketed after 9/11 attacks. I will not explain how exposing this fact does not translate to denigrating the tragic incident. I will not remind people that Muslims, ranging all ages, died in 9/11 attacks. I will not list Muslim victims of countless other attacks, including one where Muslim kids from my neighborhood lost their young lives to Islamic terrorism. And I will not mention that it’s more impertinent to circulate images of 9/11 than saying “some people did something,” because everyone should already know all of this or at least have the human decency to show willingness to grasp it.

But how do we get to the bottom of this anti-Ilhan Omar narrative? One answer is Omar outrightly stating that she does not repudiate the viciousness of 9/11 attacks (even if it’s implicit in her comments), and that she co-sponsors 9/11 victim compensation fund. Yet, U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., has already pointed this out, but many people love defaming her as well. A peaceful conclusion is only possible if people are willing to listen to any plausible explanation without sprouting empty threats and thrusting dialogues into a cauldron of partisan politics. Reaching a substantive solution requires every individual, regardless of political or religious ideology, to recognize that America is a diverse nation, where brewing such pointless resentment will shatter the tolerance and unity that exists today.

Ramisa Rob can be reached at rfrob@umich.edu.