One of the most effective political groups to emerge in the United States since the debacle that was the last presidential election, the Justice Democrats, support candidates who refuse corporate money and have the stated aim of pushing the Democratic Party in a more progressive direction. In the first election in which they endorsed nominees, the midterms held on Nov. 6, the group helped elect 7 people to the U.S. House of Representatives. Two of these Congresspeople elect, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, are also the first Muslim women to win seats in the U.S. Congress.
As we might have expected, the wins for these Muslim American progressives has led to some outlandish conspiracy theorizing. One story in particular may be the most interesting, as much for where it’s coming from as for its absurd premise. Rather than rising from the fevered swamp of 4Chan or the mind of a crank like Pamela Gellar, this bit of fabulism originates in what may at first seem like a very strange place: the Persian Gulf, namely the countries of Saudi Arabia and the tiny tail that often seems to wag that particular dog, the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
On Dec. 11, Foreign Policy magazine published a piece by Ola Salem entitled, “Saudi Arabia Declares War on America’s Muslim Congresswomen”. One of the its main focuses is an article by Huda al-Saleh, published on the English language web-site of the Saudi owned Al Arabiya television news network. That the article is brimming with sexism probably shouldn’t come as much of a surprise when we consider the Kingdom’s atrocious record on the rights of women.
Of the historic election of these two politicians an ocean away, al-Saleh wrote, “Those sponsoring and supporting the two Muslim women to reach the U.S. Congress adopted a tactic to infiltrate through their immigrant and Black minority communities in general, and women’s groups in particular. One example of that is the Palestinian American activist Linda Sarsour with roots in Muslim Brotherhood and a member of the Council on American-Islamic Relations known as CAIR.”
The accusations made by Al Arabiya are worthy of an outlet like Infowars and don’t actually indict either Omar or Tlaib, who are only mentioned in the first few paragraphs. The tale that al-Saleh tells over far too many paragraphs mainly focuses on Brooklyn based activist Sarsour, who is probably most famous as one of the co-chairs of the 2017 Women’s March, but who has also been a prominent activist for Black Lives Matter, which is probably what Al-Saleh is alluding to above. After the killing of Michael Brown in 2014, Sarsour showed her commitment to the latter by traveling to Missouri to show solidarity with that city’s African American community, forming a group called Muslims for Ferguson.
She is widely viewed as both combative in her activism and progressive in her politics, things one imagines many conservatives in the Gulf countries might not like, but it’s laughable for a commentator at Al Arabiya to accuse Sarsour of the being a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, who preach an anti-feminist and far right, one might even say reactionary, political ideology.
This ideology, which, although it often focuses on helping the needy (one of the reasons for Hamas’ political success in Gaza), is more easily understood when placed alongside the conservatism of evangelical Christian politicians in North America, not American progressives who happen to be Muslim. On economic issues, they are solidly in the neo-liberal camp inhabited by centrists and right-wingers throughout the world and in the main opposed by the progressive left.
As for Sarsour’s presumed religiosity, Imam Talib Abdur-Rashid, the leader of the Mosque of Islamic Brotherhood in Harlem, told the New York Times in 2015, “She’s candid about not being quote-unquote particularly religious. But the ideals she holds about the sacredness of life and about social justice go to the core of religious practice.”
What seems more likely than an invisible conspiracy to take over the world, including the United States, by the Muslim Brotherhood, is that these Gulf monarchies and one of their chief regional allies, Egypt’s military dictatorship, where the ideology was born, understand that political Islam is the greatest political threat to their continued rule at home.
Though they are the natural enemies of theocratic leaning conservatives, the left is not really a player in the region as it never held any power in absolute monarchies like the UAE and was systematically rooted out elsewhere over the decades of the Cold War. Young progressive activists, who might have kindled something given time, were jailed in Egypt, both in the wake of the Arab Spring when the Muslim Brotherhood linked Justice and Development Party took power and long after the military’s subsequent coup against the hapless Morsi government.
The advantage for Islamists that explains their staying power in the face of often brutal state persecution is that one of the few places where large numbers may gather in these countries, the mosque, can be used to organize and (quietly) spread their message.
It also sometimes appears that the Muslim Brotherhood and similar Islamist political groups are used as a shield to obscure the fact that, at the very least, prominent citizens in Gulf countries have funded much more radical Salafist groups like Al Qaeda which do call for and actively commit acts of violence (although it should be noted that people espousing its ideology have fought in Libya and Syria, often as proxies of yet another absolute monarchy, Qatar, and with the support of Western governments),
It’s also troubling that the attacks being directed at Omar and Tlaib indulge in pretty explicit racism, especially against the former, who is Somali American. As Salem reported in the Foreign Affairs article cited above, Ahmad al-Farraj, a Saudi writer and researcher with UAE-based Trends Research and Advisory, tweeted, in regards to Omar, “These miserable beings coming from the underdeveloped worlds are more hateful to their race and to you than any enemy,”
The responses from many of his 60,000 followers were even worse, with one reportedly showing a picture of the Congresswoman elect saying, “whenever you buy a slave, buy a stick along with the slave. The slave is miserable filth.”
All of the hate that has been directed at her from the Gulf obviously does great disservice to Omar and her story, which is an inspirational, and one might even say necessary one for us today, considering the current political climate in much of the West. Hers is in some ways also a quintessentially American story as she arrived aged 12 in the U.S. as a refugee and has made an undeniable success of herself in the country despite the obstacles she faced.
Speaking of her experiences growing up and what they taught her to Time magazine after winning a seat in Minnesota’s House of Representatives in 2016, Omar said, “Somalia is a majority black Muslim country and so is the camp in Kenya. When you’re growing up in an environment where your faith and your race are not topics of conversation, it’s really hard to come to an environment where all of that means something. Being black in the U.S. means something. There’s a history. Being an immigrant, a refugee, Muslim – all of those things represent an otherness that is not typical or easily confined into the social fabric of this country. As someone who grew up never really having to feel less than, it’s a hard reality to wake up to when you’re 12. I had to figure out what it meant to be a bridge builder – what it meant to forge relationships that really never existed becomes the backstory to how I ended up where I am.”
These shameful attacks associating Tlaib and Omar (and by association progressive, feminist and other groups like BLM) with the Muslim Brotherhood using the broadest of all possible brushes will almost certainly be picked up by the American right and used to attack them based on no evidence. It’s pretty terrifying that so many rightwing Americans share the misogyny and racism that seem so widespread in despotic countries like Saudi Arabia, but it is precisely this orientation, lovingly cultivated by right wing media, that makes them so dangerous.
Regardless of their religion, American progressives should be proud to have these strong voices, advocates for common sense programs like Medicare for All and a Green New Deal, in their government.