I first heard about Ilhan Omar five years ago. It was 2014, and the political landscape in Minneapolis was contentious among Democrats with threats and behind-the-scenes political attacks fueling party infighting. As a young activist and aid to a local city councilmember, Omar showed up to a Democratic-Farmer-Labor caucus at the Brian Coyle Community Center in Minneapolis to support the election of Mohamud Noor, a candidate who would upend the Democratic establishment and so-called Minnesota progressive culture. Noor hoped to unseat a 42-year incumbent, so tensions at the meeting were high. Bickering between the candidates turned physical and Omar ended up in the hospital with a concussion.
The Brian Coyle Community Center was a place where I spent many hours volunteering and working as a college student, mentoring mostly Somali youth ages 5 through 14. What happened at the Democratic-Farmer-Labor caucus wasn’t the last time I’d read about or experienced Omar’s courage and strength and willingness to stand for what she believes in. A year later, I got to know Omar at the 4th Precinct occupation, a months-long demonstration to demand justice for Jamar Clark, who was shot by Minneapolis police officers Mark Ringgenberg and Dustin Schwarze while handcuffed and unarmed. Despite shooting attacks by white supremacists and ongoing harassment toward organizers and protesters by the Minneapolis police, Omar showed up with us day after day to demand justice for Jamar, his family and our whole community.
In 2019, I watched as Omar was elected to the House of Representatives, one of only two Muslim women to be elected to serve in Congress in the history of the United States. Since taking office, she’s continued to push back on the status quo and taken steps to ensure equitable access to power and resources. But Congress is not Minneapolis, and Omar’s first few months in office have been fraught with congressional infighting and personal attacks on her safety by the president himself.
On April 12, President Trump shared a video on Twitter that depicts Congresswoman Ilhan Omar discussing the September 11, 2001, attacks interspersed with footage of the Twin Towers burning. The clip was spliced to change the context of Omar’s remarks, which were taken from a public event on the broader issue of Islamophobia. The congresswoman has since experienced an uptick in threats to her personal safety, including death threats to her and her 16-year-old daughter.
Among the many poor leadership decisions that the president has made, this one is particularly egregious. More than 3.45 million Muslims live and worship in the U.S. Ilhan Omar is one of them. She is also one of the first Muslim women to be elected to Congress, which should be an opening, not a closing to a bipartisan conversation about how to mitigate Islamophobia, not proliferate it.
The president is far from alone in his overt attacks on Omar. Last weekend, conservative pundits and lawmakers used a tragic shooting at a California synagogue to condemn Omar’s support for Palestinian rights — an obtuse and exploitative strategy that distracts from the real problem: The Trump administration’s efforts to silence any lawmakers who speak out against Israel’s human rights violations against Palestinians.
The Jewish activist group IfNotNow tweeted, “The Trump administration and right-wing media are weaponizing anti-Semitism to divide the progressive movement, silence criticism of Israel, and distract from the ways they have emboldened the white nationalists causing the violence,” and I agree. Congresswoman Omar brings necessary critiques to the conversation about Israeli-U.S. relations and to discussions about the ongoing apartheid in Palestine. It is precisely her job to intervene on issues that impact her constituency and Americans broadly. As a Black Muslim, I am offended by attempts to use false claims of anti-Semitism to divide Jewish and Muslim peoples, and I am disgusted that these attempts embolden white nationalists who are the source of so much violence in this country and in the world.
This week, I helped organize a Black-women-led rally at the capitol to defend Omar against attacks from right-wing media. The rally’s organizers included activist leaders like Angela Davis, Alicia Garza and Barbara Ransby, who are calling on Congress to do what it can to protect Omar. During the rally, we demanded that Democrats formally reprimand President Trump by censure for inciting hate speech and violence toward Congresswoman Omar. A censure is an action by a legislative body to officially reprimand an elected official for inappropriate or illegal actions committed by that official while in office.
Moving forward, organizers will be following up with individual members of Congress to push the demand to censure Trump and will monitor attacks against Omar and other progressive women in Congress. We are strategizing about how to build stronger bridges between progressive elected officials and anti-racist, anti-sexist social movements.
Omar is a threat to the status quo because she is shifting the debate in Washington to one that is uncomfortable for policymakers who rebuff fairness and inclusivity. She is vocal on Palestine, on decriminalization of marijuana, on police brutality, on trans rights, and so many more issues and policies that affect the lives and rights of every oppressed identity group in this country.
In order to change anything, we first must be able to talk about it. There are many people and entities — white supremacists and racists, defense contractors and corporations, misogynists and homophobes, Republicans and Democrats — who would prefer no one talk about the topics that Omar is putting center stage in the largest political theatre in the world.
Democratic congressional leadership has allowed Trump to incite violence against one of the most vulnerable members of their party because she dares to support the rights of the Palestinian people. If these attacks against Omar have made anything clear, it’s that we must continue to speak up and for all marginalized and oppressed peoples.