Ilhan Omar: Muslim Congresswoman in Washington

Keith Ellison was elected to the House of Representatives from State of Minnesota’s 5th congressional district on November 7, 2006. He was sworn in on January 4, 2007. As a Muslim, he made a decision to use an English translation of the Qur'an, for his swearing-in ceremony, that once belonged to President Thomas Jefferson, which generated praise in the United States. Ellison was the Minnesota representative from 2007 to 2019 in the U.S. Congress in Washington. On June 5, 2018, Keith Ellison announced that he would not seek reelection to Congress but decided to run for the office of Minnesota Attorney General. He won the Democratic primary nomination and went on to defeat  Republican candidate in the general election, becoming the first African American elected to statewide office in Minnesota, as well as the first Muslim in the U.S. to win statewide office.

Ilhan Omar seized the opportunity and announced her candidacy to win the Democratic Party’s nomination for the Minnesota 5th congressional district seat. At that time, she was serving as a Congresswoman in the Minnesota House of Representatives, representing District 60B. She made history in 2016 when she became the first Somali-American state legislator in the nation. Now for the US Congressional seat, she beat four other Democrats in the 14 August, 2018 primary election and became the first Somali-American lawmaker in the U.S. to be endorsed by the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party of Minnesota. She won the election on November 6, 2018 and became the first Muslim Congresswoman to be elected to the office.  Alongside Rashida Tlaib, she is also one of the first two Muslim women elected to Congress.

At the age of eight, Ilhan Omar fled the city of Mogadishu, her birthplace, in Somalia and lived in a refugee camp in Kenya for four years before moving to the United States. In 1995, she resettled as a refugee in Arlington, Virginia, and later moved to Minneapolis and became a U.S. citizen in the year 2000.

She began her professional career in 2006 as a community nutrition educator and child nutrition outreach coordinator at the Minnesota Department of Education. She entered the political arena by serving as campaign manager for a Minnesota State Senator. Later, she became the Senior Policy Aide of a Minnesota City Councilor, then moved on to become the Director of Policy Initiatives of the Women Organizing Women Network, advocating for women of East Africa to take civic and political leadership roles. This whole experience sparked her love for politics and a determination to making a positive change in American society. She contested and won the election and became the Congresswoman in the Minnesota House of Representatives, and now the U.S. Congresswoman from Minnesota in Washington.

Wearing a hat of any kind has been banned from the House of Representative in Washington since 1837 with little debate. This continued for 181 years. A new rule was needed to relax this law to allow wearing a hijab in the house chamber by the incoming congresswoman Ilhan Omar.  The change was proposed jointly by Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, Incoming Rules Chairman Jim McGovern, and member-elect Ilhan Omar as part of a larger overhaul packageIlhan Omar became the first hijab wearing federal legislator to wear a religious headscarf.

For her it was not only about changing the law, but also about changing the current narrative of women who want to run for office in the future. She is a very audacious and a courageous woman. Her experience of working as a campaign manager for a Minnesota State Senator and the Senior Policy Aide of a Minnesota City Councilor gave her the insight into the working of the whole political system. She challenged and shattered the stereotype that Islam oppresses women and does not allow them to take on leadership roles in society. She demonstrates that one can be a refugee, African, observant Muslim, and a patriotic American all at the same time. She proudly embraces Islam and the Islamic values while also working as a public servant for the betterment of society. She exemplifies the beauty of Islam and American culture.

Living in a tent in the Kenyan refugee camp with strangers and wondering if she would have anything to eat the next day, made her a very resilient person who learned tough lessons early in life. In the United States her life became an inspiration for many underrepresented people. At the same time her election to the U.S. Congress has become the subject of attacks based on her religion, Islam. She continued her efforts of speaking the truth and for justice even went ahead and spoke about the influence of the pro-Israel lobbying groups in America. Her views on Israel and Palestine were misconstrued by the political opportunists, white supremacists, and others and labeled her views as anti-Semitic. This is because of the simple reason: One of the Jewish organizations that supports her, wrote this about the political maneuvering of some of the Jewish non-profit organizations and said, “To suppress advocacy for Palestinian rights the Holocaust Alliance intentionally worded definition of antisemitism such that it equates legitimate criticism of Israel with antisemitism.”

Ilhan Omar displayed courage and demonstrated that those subjects that are considered as constrains and taboos needed to be discussed on the national platform. This did not go well with those who have vast knowledge of pure ignorance, and are bent on using hate mongering to gain political clout and public donations. In addition, those getting influenced by the President of the United States, his supporters and the Israeli lobby have intensified their hate against Ilhan Omar. An anti-Muslim poster associating US Representative Ilhan Omar with the September 11 attacks appeared at a Republican sponsored public gathering. She started getting death threats. President Trump posted an edited version of the video to Twitter and prided himself by saying that he has no regrets about the incendiary, misleading, and dangerous tweet, even though Ilhan Omar faced death threats from his supporters.  We all know that President Trump has a long history of blatant Islamophobia and Ilhan Omar is his latest target.

The Washington Post has data on President Trump. “In a truly superhuman feat, The Washington Post has tallied all the “falsehoods” that have spewed from Trump’s mouth and fingers since January 20, 2017, to April 27, 2019. Per the Post, that’s a whopping 10,111 in 828 days. And the situation vis-à-vis the president being a pathological liar is getting markedly worse. After telling a mere 5,000 false and misleading statements during his first 601 days in office, the pace and frequency of the lies has accelerated such that he doubled his false claims in just a third of the time, telling almost 23 lies a day in the seven-month period beginning in late October, during midterm elections. (Bess Levin, April 29, 2019).” Emboldened by actions of the President and the Israel lobby, the white supremacists have increased attacks on Ilhan Omar including death threats from Trump supporters.

Ilhan Omar said, “Look no further, the GOP’s (Republican Party) anti-Muslim display likening me to a terrorist rocks the state capitols and no one is condemning them. No wonder why I am on the “Hitlist” of a domestic terrorist and “Assassinate Ilhan Omar” is written on my local gas stations. ”

Her words resonated with the U.S. Congress.  In the Congress 407 members from both the Democratic and Republican parties created history by passing a resolution in which condemning anti-Muslim bigotry in America was addressed. Three Muslim members of Congress, Rashida Tlaib from Michigan, Omar Ilhan from Minnesota and Andre Carson from Indianapolis jointly celebrated the resolution by saying, "We are tremendously proud to be part of a body that has put forth a condemnation of all forms of bigotry including, antisemitism, racism, and white supremacy. At a time when extremism is on the rise, we must explicitly denounce religious intolerance of all kinds and acknowledge the pain felt by all communities. Our nation is having a difficult conversation and we believe in this great progress.”

Ilhan Omar is bringing fresh air in Washington. She is part of the new voices that are emerging from Capitol Hill, (Seat of the US Congress) raising legitimate questions about Israel, about America’s foreign policy toward Israel, and about the Israeli lobby in the States. Ilhan Omar felt that those legitimate questions needed to be raised. More than forty Jewish groups worldwide have declared that they oppose equating anti-Semitism with criticism of Israel. In March 2019, Gideon levy supported Ilhan Omar and wrote, “But the Israeli propaganda and the Jewish propaganda in recent years made it as a systematic method, whenever anybody dares to raise questions or to criticize Israel, he is immediately and automatically labeled as anti-Semite, and then he has to shut his mouth, because after this, what can he say? We have to say the truth: This vicious circle should be broken. And I really hope that great, great politicians, like Mrs. Omar and others, will be courageous enough to stand in front those accusations and to say, “Yes, it is legitimate to criticize Israel. Yes, it is legitimate to raise questions. And this does not mean that we are anti-Semites. We are not ready to play this game anymore, in which they shut our mouths with those accusations, which, in most of the cases, are hollow.” (Gideon Levy, columnist, newspaper Haaretz , Israel, March 08, 2019).

More and more Americans are becoming aware of the game the Christian evangelists and white supremacists want Trump to play with the help of the Israeli lobby in these United States. At the same time millions and millions of Americans are supporting Ilhan Omar, the courageous and outspoken congress woman. Her struggle to promote peace and prosperity in the U.S. and abroad; to provide healthcare for all; to establish economic justice for working families; to guarantee access to public education; to prevent gun violence; and to implement clean election is just the beginning. Ilhan Omar’s valor, courage, and determination with the help of millions of Americans to fight the tactics of intimidation by the Israeli lobby and Israeli supporters, and death threats from Trump’s supporters must be commended and emulated.

[Mohammad Yacoob is a retired industrial engineer and an engineering proposals analyst who lives in Los Angeles, California]

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