By Khushbu Shah
A few days after President Donald Trump used Twitter to attack Representative Ilhan Omar on April 12, the Minnesota Democrat found herself on the receiving end of even more death threats than in recent months. Days later, on April 20, Huda Fahmy met Omar at the Changemaker Summit hosted by Mu Delta Alpha, the first Muslim sorority, in Texas. It turned out, the Congresswoman was less fazed by the violent threats than was the woman meeting her.
“It was so powerful to see her,” Fahmy told MTV News. “There were death threats and she was like, ‘So what? … Don’t worry, this doesn’t bother me.’ She was so chill, and was like, ‘God, put me here for a reason.’”
Though she has only been in office for four months, Rep. Omar and her colleague Michigan Representative Rashida Tlaib have arguably been subjected to more scrutiny than some politicians receive throughout their entire careers. Much of that scrutiny and censure attempts to weaponize their identities, given that each woman has a background that makes her singular in Congress. Rep. Omar is a Black Somali-American, and came to the United States as a refugee when she was 12; Tlaib is of Palestinian descent — and together, they are the first Muslim women to serve as members of the House of Representatives.
In the last few weeks, Rep. Omar has been made to defend herself against President Donald Trump’s call for her to resign, forced to repeatedly apologize for her controversial comments about Israel, defend out-of context comments about Islamophobia in America after 9/11 that landed her on an unapologetically racist and xenophobic New York Post cover, and assert her status as an American in ways that few white politicians ever have.
When Tlaib called for Trump’s impeachment — with an expletive — hours after her inauguration on January 4, reactions included references to her identity in ways that seemed especially pointed. The Christian Broadcasting Network called her a “foul-mouthed Islamic Congresswoman,” and described how she showed up to Congress in a traditional “Palestinian dress,” even though what she wore has no relation to the story.
Rasha Mubarak of Orlando, Florida, thinks Representatives Omar and Tlaib are among the few politicians in office right now who have been consistent in their beliefs. She calls them “bold, unapologetic, unconditional [and] unwavering,” and believes that because they put people over politics — that alone scares folks on both sides of the aisle.
“This country can't handle a Muslim woman, especially a Black Muslim woman, who stands firm in what she believes and doesn't fold to what more 'established' white people tell her is the right way to do things,” Tesay Yusuf, who lives in Austin, tells MTV News. As a black Muslimah herself, she relates to Rep. Omar’s presence in Congress in particular. While Yusuf loved growing up in a diverse community in northern Virginia, she admits it did get exhausting in college “to be the only or one of very few Black Muslims in that space.”
For Kifah Shah, who splits her time between Los Angeles and New York, many of the reactions towards the two women remind her of growing up as a Muslim girl in a majority non-Muslim community. It’s also emblematic of a larger scope of intolerance and ignorance towards Islam as a whole: “With mostly white people, [life] after 9/11 were a mixed bag of curiosity and coded (sometimes blatant) racism: from being asked whether or not I’ll have an arranged marriage to being told my uncle was [Osama Bin Laden] to having teachers dehumanize Muslim lives by saying an entire city in Iraq wasn’t worth the life of one U.S. soldier,” she remembers, adding that seeing trolls target both Omar and Tlaib by questioning their patriotism doesn’t surprise her.
“The right has asserted pernicious ideas about whether or not Muslims in the U.S. subscribe to the idea of ‘America,’ because if they don’t, or if they question any aspect of it, then they must subscribe to some other ‘state,’” Shah notes. “This conspiratorial, baseless, and harmful lens has for a long while attempted to push Muslims into dichotomies of good versus bad.”
Izzy Mustafa, a Muslim man living in Brooklyn, tells MTV News he thinks the constant vitriol towards the representatives is because they are women of color: “Their loyalties are being questioned because they are proud Muslim women who come from East African and Arab backgrounds,” he notes.
“The fact that these strong Muslim black and brown women are going against that notion and saying, nah, we're actually going to save y'all from yourselves, is why these racist white nationalists are freaking out. The war-mongering and fear they have stoked for so long has come back to bite them.”
While some Democratic members of Congress have come under fire for not condemning the treatment against their peers more quickly, private citizens are taking the discourse as an opportunity to make their voices heard. When Texas Representative Dan Crenshaw decided to tweet a criticism of Rep. Omar’s out-of context comments surrounding Islamophobia post-9/11, D.C.-based activist Wardah Khalid penned an op-ed in her hometown paper, the Houston Chronicle. In it, she called his attack on Omar hypocritical: “Crenshaw of all people should understand all this,” she wrote, referencing his call for an apology after a Saturday Night Live skit poked fun at him.
Khalid had so much hope on the night of Omar and Tlaib’s inaugurations because she wasn’t sure she would ever see women who looked like her in the highest law-making body in the United States. But outside the Muslim community, she quickly realized reaction to Omar and Tlaib was split down partisan lines, and perpetuated by xenophobic lies about what it means to be Muslim.
“These women are actually for the people and not for the elite class, plain and simple,” Mustafa, who is transgender, adds. “They represent a wide range of working class people, immigrants, marginalized communities, people who are trying to survive in this system that tries to throw the issues that face to the side.”
He also points out that Reps. Omar and Tlaib have, so far, made it a point to be intersectional in their work. “They don't solely speak on issues about Islamophobia or Palestine; what's important is that they work on all of the issues that we as a nation are trying to change,” he says, citing in particular Omar’s work to protect transgender rights, and Tlaib’s push to ensure that people in her district have access to clean water.
Yusuf agrees. “The typical profile of a congressperson has been an older, cisgender, heterosexual, white man with money for as long as our country has been around,” she begins. “For [two] Muslim women — one Palestinian and the other a Somali refugee — to enter a space that this country has excluded women, people of color, queer people, immigrants and anyone else from is extremely significant.” It is no surprise that the system is not set up for them to succeed in that space, she adds. “There can be no question why their identities are at the forefront of every discussion about their actions and words.”
It’s about shaking up the status quo, Mustafa says, and these new Congresswomen are scaring those who have sustained power because of it.