A necessary voice: Ilhan Omar must not be silenced

Representative Omar has only held office for two months and not only faces attacks from within her own party, but also what amounts to a campaign of incitement launched by the right.

Image Credit: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

While Senator Bernie Sanders has received specious attack since his 2016 campaign for the Democratic nomination for president, the viciousness that has met British Labor leader Jeremy Corbyn over the same period has really been without precedent in the contemporary politics of the English speaking world.

Seeing how effective these attacks have come to be cumulatively, it should come as no surprise that similar tactics have already begun to migrate across the Atlantic, with talking points about Corbyn’s brand of left populism being used against the left wing of the Democratic Party, especially outspoken progressive insurgents newly elected to Congress like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar.

By far the most dangerous charge, one that has already ended the careers of several Corbyn allies in the U.K., is that of anti-Semitism. When used against Corbyn and the left generally, the accusation most often conflates criticism of Israel’s far right government and support of Palestinian rights with old conspiracy theories revived online that are now being brought into the real world by nationalistic new right governments in places like Hungary and Poland.

This isn’t to say that anti-Semitism, like any other form of bigotry, doesn’t exist on the left, but there should be more alarm about the normalization of old tropes dressed up as ‘anti-Globalism’ on the so-called Alt right. Instead, mainstream pundits like rising New York Times star Bari Weiss, insist that we should spend more time scrutinizing the left in search of coded messaging than calling out the far right for actual death threats, and tragically, worse.

Which brings us back to the Congressperson for Minnesota’s 5th district, Ilhan Omar, 37, who seems to have been engulfed in controversy from the moment she took office and has recently faced accusations of anti-Semitism herself.

First, an old tweet from 2012 resurfaced, a comment made at the height of the siege of Gaza in which the UN estimated 103 Palestinian and 4 Israeli civilians lost their lives. She quickly apologized for the language she used, accusing Israel of “hypnotizing the world”, and explained that her intention was never to attack Jewish people generally or revive old tropes, “What is really important to me is that people recognize that there is a difference between criticizing a military action by a government that has exercised really oppressive policies and being offensive or attacking to particular people of faith.”

Then the Minnesota Congresswoman faced new accusations of anti-Semitism based on a criticism not of Jewish people but of the Israeli lobbying group AIPAC and its influence over American foreign policy. While she may have been inartful in her use of language in her (since deleted) exchange with journalist Glenn Greenwald, Omar’s basic argument was factually accurate, as this is what lobbying groups, whether for a foreign nation or an industry, do, try to influence policymakers, often by spending money on things like trips and fancy dinners.

Finally, Representative Omar was accused of saying that American Jews hold dual loyalties during a town hall meeting in Washington D.C. when the record clearly shows she did not. What she did say is that she felt that she was expected to hold a kind of dual loyalty and withhold legitimate criticism of a an allied nation as a member of Congress, a situation she rightly objected to but which was misconstrued far and wide as anguished editorials were hurriedly put together to denounce her.

During the widely covered, days long firestorm there was talk of the Congresswoman receiving an official rebuke in the House for the alleged anti-Semitism but pushback from her supporters, including leftwing Jewish groups, forced a vague resolution condemning different forms of racism, anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim bias in general.

One of the Minnesota Congresswoman’s fiercest defenders during the controversy was Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who said when a possible rebuke naming Omar personally was being discussed, “One of the things that is hurtful about the extent to which reprimand is sought of Ilhan is that no one seeks this level of reprimand when members make statement about Latinx + other communities (during the shutdown a GOP member yelled “Go back to Puerto Rico!“ on the floor).”

Writing in the Toronto Star last week, Tony Burman made an important point about the actual substance of Representative Omar’s statements, “What is important to note is that Omar is being attacked for saying things she never said. In fact, she is being criticized because some politicians and journalists – many for their own political reasons – didn’t like what they thought she meant.” 

And this is the main danger to her nascent, history making career in politics (and her very important voice on the House Committee on Foreign Relations where she was one of the few to call out Venezuela envoy Elliot Abrams for his history of, at the very least, supporting war criminals in Central and South America): far too many journalists and politicians who should know better seem to be (unconsciously?) indulging in either racism, religious bias or both in their reactions to the Minnesota Congresswoman.

Representative Omar has only held office for two months and not only faces attacks from within her own party but also what amounts to a campaign of incitement launched by the right, with her face appearing on posters under an image from September 11th, 2001, with Representative Omar being offered as a symbol of how Americans have ‘forgotten’ that tragic day.

As Senator Bernie Sanders put it in a recent statement, the vitriol directed at Omar could become dangerous, “We all have a responsibility to speak out against anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia, racism and all forms of hatred and bigotry, especially as we see a spike in hate crimes in America. But like some of my colleagues in the Congressional Black Caucus, I am concerned that the spotlight being put on Congresswoman Omar may put her at risk.”

Another New York Times columnist, Brett Stevens, used the controversy to draw a connection between American progressives, anti-Semitism and imaginary fascist tendencies right out of the anti-Corbyn playbook, writing, “It says something about the progressive movement today that it has no trouble denouncing Republican racism, real and alleged, every day of the week but has so much trouble calling out a naked anti-Semite in its own ranks. This is how progressivism becomes Corbynism. It’s how the left finds its own path toward legitimizing hate. It’s how self-declared anti-fascists develop their own forms of fascism.”

As might be expected, rightwing media outlets, who routinely complain that marginalized communities are over sensitive, went much further than New York TImes oped writers in their demonization of Omar, with Fox News host Jeannine Pirro making an unhinged argument about… Sharia law.

“Think about this,” the former TV judge began, “She is not getting this anti-Israel sentiment doctrine from the Democrat Party. So if it’s not rooted in the party, where is she getting it from? Think about it. Omar wears a hijab, which according to the Quran, 33:59, tells women to cover so they won’t molested. Is her adherence to this Islamic doctrine indicative of her adherence to sharia law, which is antithetical to the U.S. Constitution?”

Perhaps in the hope of keeping Congresswoman Omar in the news, there was also some indignation because she was seen as not sufficiently reverent of former President Obama, mainly on the basis of the following quote from a long piece on Politico last Friday, “When we talk about waking people up from complicity, is to say that we can’t be only upset with Trump because he’s not a politician who sells us his policies in the most perfect way. His policies are bad. But many of the people who came before him also had really bad policies. They just were more polished than he was. And that’s not what we should be looking for anymore. We don’t want anybody to get away with murder because they are polished. We want to recognize the actual policies that are behind the pretty face and the smile.”

She could just as easily have been talking about George W. Bush or Bill Clinton but once again the mainstream press, hoping to create another frenzy, zeroed in on who they thought she meant rather than seeing the larger critique of an imperial presidency in what she said.

And this also reveals something about Representative Omar that’s missing in almost all the coverage of her but which is probably what really scares the foreign policy establishment: she’s a strong dove in a body that desperately needs such voices. What went unmentioned outside of the alternative press was that she’s been one of the most outspoken national figures in her criticism of the ongoing Saudi led catastrophe in Yemen and bravely offered a necessary critical voice as the Trump Administration and most of both houses of Congress pushed for the overthrow the government of Venezuela.

For her part, Representative Omar told Politico in the article cited above that she’s able to find a silver lining in the slings and arrows being launched at her, “As much as other people are uncomfortable, I’m excited by the change in tone that has taken place that is extremely positive. The insightful conversations that we’re having about money and its influence in Washington. And my ability, I think, to agitate our foreign policy discussions in a way that many of my colleagues who have been unable to do in the past. So, I’m OK with taking the blows if it means it will ignite conversations that no one was willing to have before.”


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