What the Ilhan Omar controversies reveal about US politics

Since her election to the US Congress as a representative of Minnesota’s fifth congressional district, Ilhan Omar has been the centre of several manufactured controversies and attacks.

From false accusations of anti-Semitism to questioning her Americanism and linking her to the September 11 attacks, Omar has experienced her fair share of assaults, incitements, and death threats, not only from President Trump and his right-wing base and the Republicans, but also from the Democratic Party leadership itself.

While these attacks are atrocious and pose serious harm to the congresswoman, what they have exposed about the US political establishment is far more revealing.

Double standards, Islamophobia, and anti-Palestinian racism

In her second month in Congress, Omar was accused of anti-Semitism for calling out the Israel Lobby group AIPAC and highlighting the role of money in politics (in now-deleted tweets); she later issued a statement apologising after her comment was interpreted as stroking an anti-Semitic trope, although she stood behind her criticism of AIPAC.

While Omar’s very brief Tweet was not eloquent, and ill-advised, the premise that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) plays a role in promoting support for Israel is not new nor surprising.

Ironically enough, this all started with a Tweet by Intercept Journalist Glenn Greenwald about GOP leader Kevin McCarthy seeking to punish reps. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib for their criticism of Israel, while McCarthy himself posted a few months earlier a Tweet about individuals (all of whom happen to be Jews) buying the elections.  

The vicious backlash against Omar is as much about Islamophobia as it is about the normalisation of racism against Palestinians

Omar was also smeared with anti-Semitism allegations following another statement she made that was misrepresented: During a panel discussion in Washington DC about silencing the debate on Palestine/ Israel, she vaguely referenced pressure on her to support Israel.

“I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is okay to push for allegiance to a foreign country,” Omar said. The statement was swiftly taken out of context, and she was smeared as accusing American Jews of dual loyalty, although she did not utter those words but rather referred to the pressure on her.

Who did make anti-Semitic remarks over and again and clearly assumed that American Jews have dual loyalty, is President Donald Trump.

Addressing the Republican Jewish Coalition’s annual leadership meeting in Las Vegas this April, Trump invoked anti-Semitic stereotypes of dual loyalty and money. He spoke to American Jews as if they were Israelis; by referring to Benjamin Netanyahu as “your prime minister” and again by saying that a Democratic win in 2020 would “leave Israel out there all by yourselves”.

He also repeatedly used “your people” when talking about business and finance and boasted about ignoring calls from world leaders to give his mega-donor Sheldon Adelson the gift of moving the embassy to Jerusalem.

This came four years after he told the same group “Look, I’m a negotiator like you folks; we’re negotiators,” and that they probably would not support his candidacy because he was not interested in their money.

The outrage against Rep. Ilhan Omar’s comments and calls for her removal from the House Foreign Affairs Committee, no less by President Trump himself, does not compare to the lack of action when it comes to the president’s outright racist statements and policies, including his anti-Semitism, coddling and courting white nationalists, the Muslim ban, calling countries “shit holes,” and calling Mexicans rapists, among many others.

She is being judged and punished for a comment she did not make, while the president is given a pass for all the comments he has made.

The double standards in the response to Ilhan Omar’s alleged anti-Semitism expose far greater issues, especially in the Democratic Party; namely entrenched Islamophobia and anti-Palestinian racism.

Omar has poked the hornet’s nest

As the first Muslim Somali-American refugee woman wearing a hijab to enter the US Congress, Omar has no doubt shaken the political establishment in Washington and across the country.

Different, outspoken, and not afraid to call out things for what they are, she became a contentious figure in US politics. From attacks in the conservative media and on right-wing Twitter, to silence and a tepid response – at best – from the Democratic leadership, she has become the victim of death threats and assassination attempts.

An Islamophobic poster at a Republican event in West Virginia’s statehouse linking her to attacks of September 11 and deliberate mischaracterisation of her remarks about 9/11 led a new wave of attacks, this time accusing her of hate towards America and questioning her loyalty as an American and her fitness to serve in Congress.

The right-wing media piled on, with a hateful ad in The New York Postand ultimately incitement posted on Twitter by President Trump.

While her speech at CAIR focused on Islamophobia and the importance of the full participation of Muslim Americans in the United States, her comments about being blamed or punished for the actions of a few, (because “some people did something” on September 11) were clearly taken out of context.

This malicious attempt to attack, intimidate, and silence the Muslim congresswoman, with the near-silence of the Democratic leadership, points to the prevalence and entrenchment of unchecked Islamophobia in both parties that has not recovered after the surge following the September 11 attacks themselves.

But yet, the vicious backlash against Omar is as much about Islamophobia as it is about the normalisation of racism against Palestinians. More dangerous and less acknowledged is the blatant racism against and dehumanisation of Palestinians.

Democratic leadership figures, from Nancy Pelosi to Chuck Schumer, Steny Hoyer, Jerry Nadler and many others, have strongly criticised Rep. Omar and her criticism of Israel.

As one of only two members of Congress, along with congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, who has expressed support for the BDS movement, Omar has poked the hornet’s nest.

This is while many members of Congress including Democrats want to criminalise free speech related to boycotts of Israel, and the majority remain unbothered by the continuous oppression and killing of Palestinians.

Senator Chuck Schumer even compared Ilhan Omar’s AIPAC comments to Trump’s remarks about neo-Nazis, and this, coming from the person who famously accused Palestinians of not being able to make peace because they don’t believe in the Torah.

Many members of Congress including Democrats want to criminalise free speech related to boycotts of Israel

What is clear is that the attacks against Omar are part of a larger project to silence voices that advocate for Palestinian rights. This campaign against Omar is another operation to misrepresent, decontextualise, misinterpret and attack the views of those who criticise Israel in the United States, a tactic that the Israeli government propaganda has long perfected.

How much change is taking place in the Democratic Party constituency remains to be seen, and the 2020 presidential elections will be the test.

What is evident, however, is that false accusations of anti-Semitism, wrapped in Islamophobia, aimed at silencing Palestinian rights activism, would certainly divert attention from addressing the real anti-Semitism that is on the rise in the United States and elsewhere. 

Tamara Kharroub is the Assistant Executive Director and Senior Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Tamara and read her previous publications click here

This viewpoint was published in The New Arab on April 25, 2019. To view the original click here