The political targeting of Ilhan Omar is inextricable from her religion
In 2021, Rep. Paul A. Gosar (R-Ariz.) and Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) lost their committee assignments after adopting violent rhetoric against their peers. Gosar posted video showing him killing Rep Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (DN.Y.); CNN unearthed comments by Greene in which she appeared to support the execution of Democrats. McCarthy had proposed demoting Greene’s committee duties, but the Democratic majority chose to remove them all.
McCarthy became Speaker of the House of Representatives that year. And shortly thereafter, he announced that a number of Democratic representatives would be ousted from key committees: Reps. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) and Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) were removed from the House Intelligence Committee and, he said, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) would lose her position in the House of Representatives on Foreign Affairs.
Swalwell and Schiff were targeted because the former was linked to a Chinese intelligence operative (a connection far more robust in conservative media circles than it is in reality) and the latter because he was a key figure in the attempt to impeach President Donald Trump in 2019 The official reason for Omar’s removal is anti-Semitic remarks she has made in the past – remarks that have contributed to an outcry undoubtedly linked to her Muslim religion.
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Speaking to CNN about McCarthy’s proposal, Omar suggested that her religion played a role. She said of her colleagues that “many of these members don’t believe that a Muslim refugee, an African, should even be in Congress, let alone have the opportunity to serve on the Foreign Affairs Committee.” She denied McCarthy’s racism but noted his relative indifference when Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) made a joke about Omar being a terrorist.
The road from Omar’s religion to her ouster from the Foreign Affairs Committee is at least more circuitous than outright Islamophobic or racist beliefs, but nonetheless clear.
Elected to Congress in 2018, Omar was sworn into the Koran as a practicing Muslim in January 2019. Shortly after, a right-wing social media meme surfaced that falsely claimed she had committed treason in the process. In the months that followed, Omar was subjected to a multitude of unsubstantiated allegations, many of which were based on her history as a refugee from Africa.
A few months after taking office, Omar sparked a conservative media frenzy when she praised the work of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in a manner interpreted as dismissing the attacks themselves. She had already apologized after making comments on social media that used long-standing anti-Semitic rhetoric that she said was unintentional.
That summer, Trump attacked Omar and a group of other newly minted MPs – all progressive women of color – for saying they should “go back” to the “completely broken and crime-ridden places they came from,” even though most women have been there were born in the United States. (He had previously published an ad attempting to capitalize on the furor over Omar’s 9/11 comments by using footage of the burning World Trade Center.) He continued the attack for days, in part by calling Omar anti-Semitic Comments brought to the fore to neutralize criticism of his statements as racist.
In the years that followed, Trump attacked Omar dozens of times. Up until the 2020 presidential campaign, the attacks included little more than invoking Omar’s name. No other context was needed.
“Omar is our secret weapon. Ilhan Omar, this is our secret weapon in Minnesota,” he said at a rally in late October 2020. “No, she doesn’t love our country, you know. I don’t like people who don’t love our country at all.”
McCarthy (who was forced to delete a tweet of his own in 2018 that used anti-Semitic rhetoric similar to Omar’s) has generally responded passively to Trump’s increasingly hostile rhetoric about Omar. By 2021, however, he had embraced the apparent media value of the attack on Schiff and Omar, stating that should the GOP regain control of the House, he would remove Omar from their committee because of her “anti-Semitic, anti-American perspective.”
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy goes after MP Ilhan Omar (D-MN):
“I promise you this: If we’re lucky enough to have the majority, Omar wouldn’t be serving at the State Department [Committee] or anyone who has anti-Semitic, anti-American sentiments.” pic.twitter.com/aLUGsJfW2t
— The Recount (@therecount) June 15, 2021
This characterization of Omar as “anti-American” was the most immediate response a widely condemned tweet by Omar, in which she denounced the “unthinkable atrocities committed by the US, Hamas, Israel, Afghanistan and the Taliban”. But remember, Trump’s description of her as hating the country predates this tweet by half a year.
From her first moments in office, many on the right saw Omar as clearly a suspicious loyalty to their religion for little apparent reason. Various comments from Omar – some obviously problematic, others exaggerated in the conservative media – have been pinned to this narrative. Fueled in part by Trump’s commentary and heavily by perceptions about her religion, Omar has become a representative example of how the right portrays its opponents as hard left, anti-Israel and anti-American. Here’s how and why Trump raised them, thereby creating political value for other Republicans by similarly targeting them.
Of course, McCarthy and his allies don’t see this as a function of Omar’s religion. In fact, Republicans are far less likely to say that Muslims face discrimination than Americans as a whole. YouGov polls conducted in December show that Republicans are about as likely to say Muslims face discrimination as they are to say the same about Christians.
But if Omar had never made those comments about Israel, she probably wouldn’t have been targeted by McCarthy now. Had she made those statements, and hadn’t she been a practicing Muslim who had inspired far-right shame from day one? This moment would probably look very different again.