The Public Shaming of Ilhan Omar, Or, What Happens When Disingenuous Diversity Backfires On You
This past November, voters in the U.S. made history by electing not one, but two incredible Muslim women into our 116th House of Representatives. They are Ilhan Omar, a Black, Somali Immigrant from Minnesota’s 5th Congressional district who frequently and unabashedly calls out deeply problematic white men in power, and Rashida Tlaib, an incredible Palestinian-American woman who coined the phrase “Impeach the Motherf*cker” on her first day in office.
Rep. Tlaib and Rep. Omar were praised nationally for their progressivism and their commitment to civil rights. They posed on magazine covers, standing alongside new Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. They were even affectionately made a part of the “squad” of freshmen WoC Representatives, along with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Rep. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts.
That is until they decided to speak out on an issue that is seen as largely untouchable in US politics: defending the rights of Palestinians.
Many who follow politics know about Rep. Omar’s infamous response to a tweet from a journalist who spoke about how the House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy was threatening to punish Omar and Tlaib for their criticism of Israel. Omar wrote back “It’s all about the Benjamins baby,” and later clarified that she was talking about AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. AIPAC spends about 3.5 million dollars in lobbying cash to support pro-Israeli interests in the United States. Omar was immediately attacked by both Democrats and Republicans – one of the few bipartisan partnerships of this past year.
I’m not going to get into the nuances of the history of Israel and Palestine and the conflict today, mostly because it’s far too much to compress into a few inches of paper, and I would absolutely oversimplify. Instead, I suggest that you do your own research, especially into Arab, and most especially into Palestinian voices. What I will say is this: criticism of the Israeli government shouldn’t be confused with anti-Semitism. Criticism of the Israeli government is a matter of calling out the institution’s numerous human rights violations against an occupied people who have little to no right to self-determination.
Rep. Omar ended up apologizing for her statements, yet she continued to be silenced not only by the usual suspects (Trump and Republicans) but also by her own party. House Democrats were quick to vote on a resolution that condemned hate speech — a move that was widely seen as a callout of Omar. What I find ironic, though, is that the same institutions and organizations that initially praised the election of the two first Muslim congresswomen were also so quick to attack them the moment that they said something beyond the mainstream ideas of “progressivism.”
But these attacks are not surprising. As a Muslim and Arab-American woman who has been in activist and feminist spaces for most of my teen years, it proved everything that I had ever suspected: that a lot of calls for inclusion are, frankly, disingenuous. So-called feminist organizations call for us to join their ranks, to be a part of their crusade against the patriarchy, and then ignore the perspectives of Arab and Muslim women. They call for the freedom of women to wear whatever they want without facing harassment, but a Muslim woman wearing a hijab, niqab or burqa is viewed as “oppressed,” rather than as making a deeply personal and spiritual choice. A Muslim woman might feel uncomfortable about how so much attention in feminist spaces is focused on sex-positivity rather than issues like inaccessibility to education and employment for women, maternal and gender-based health, gender-based violence, FGM, etc. However, she might not feel comfortable expressing her opinions for fear of being ignored as “prudish” and potentially ostracized by the very women who claim to fight for “all women’s rights.”
Diversity matters to us! ... until we speak out.
Listen to women of color! ... until we say something that you don’t like.
Stand with Muslim women! ... but only until we go off our predetermined script.
What all of these people seem to realize though, is that just because you elect a Muslim representative, it doesn’t mean that they’re going fade into the woodwork once the excitement has lulled. Rep. Omar and Rep. Tlaib were not elected in their districts in order to give the Democratic Party good PR, or glossy magazine spreads with their arms crossed, dressed in muted tones of red, white and blue. They were elected to change the world for the better, and sometimes that requires speaking when no one else will.
Reader, I challenge you. It doesn’t suffice to apologize and offer platitudes, promising that you’ll do better, that you’ll listen, that you’ll learn. Compassion without action is just observation. Put in the work to learn about Muslim women – our issues, our feelings, our perspectives. Approach us, talk to us. Most of us have been waiting for a while.