Why new US Muslim congresswomen hit a raw nerve with some

It’s been a controversial but consequential start in Congress for Tlaib and Omar.
Sunday 10/02/2019
Ilhan Omar (L) and Rashida Tlaib in Washington. (AP)
In the crosshairs. Ilhan Omar (L) and Rashida Tlaib in Washington. (AP)

Perhaps it was to be expected that the two Muslim Democrats elected in the 2018 US midterms would be subject to attacks by the American far right. After all, the likes of Fox News, Rush Limbaugh and Pam Geller see all Muslims as terrorists-in-waiting. So, too, Rashida Tlaib from Michigan and Ilhan Omar from Minnesota, both new members of the US Congress.

Anti-Muslim, right-wing fervour grew in intensity after US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced a change in House rules to permit members of Congress to wear religious headgear in the chamber. This so that Omar could wear her customary hijab. This led to a conservative commentator complaining the Democrats were trying to turn the US Congress into an “Islamic Republic.”

Omar has come under scrutiny from the right for a Twitter posting from 2012 during a clash between Hamas and Israel. “Israel has hypnotised the world” while doing “evil,” she tweeted. After her election, far-right columnists and Republican politicians called her remarks anti-Semitic. Omar has apologised, saying she was referring to the Israeli government and military, not to the Jewish faith.

She also got into hot water when she accused US Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, of being “compromised” because of his flip-flops on US President Donald Trump. During the 2016 Republican primary, Graham strongly opposed Trump’s candidacy but of late has been one of Trump’s most outspoken supporters. Right-wing commentators attacked Omar, alleging that her remarks hinted at long-held speculation about Graham’s sexuality.

Omar denied the allegation and hit back at critics who accused her of homophobia. She noted their sudden silence at the US Supreme Court’s decision that day to uphold the Trump administration’s ban on transgender individuals in the military.

Omar has had her victories, however. She signed a deal worth an estimated $250,000 to write her life story and Pelosi has assigned her to the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Tlaib has also attracted negative media coverage, most of it from the right-wing media. On the first day of the new Congress, Tlaib used an expletive when discussing Trump’s possible impeachment. She refused to apologise for the profanity. Soon after, a Florida Republican politician made headlines when she posted an Islamophobic message about Tlaib and said that one day Tlaib would try to blow up the Capitol.

Tlaib generated more right-wing heat when she was photographed at an event with a pro-Hamas Palestine activist. Again, Tlaib didn’t apologise, telling her critics via Twitter that, yes, she is a Palestinian and a Muslim and to “get over it.”

A Republican representative from Texas attacked Tlaib’s plans to lead a congressional group to the Palestinian territories. Tlaib has said she wanted her fellow representatives to have a realistic view of Palestinians’ lives under Israeli occupation, rather than one manipulated by the Israeli government.

The Texas congressman, however, said her trip was a waste of taxpayer money and “detrimental to the United States’ relationship with Israel.” Tlaib once again stood her ground, noting that the Texas representative had a history of supporting anti-Muslim initiatives and that his statement was filled with “lies and falsehoods.”

Even so, the largely pro-Israel tilt of much of the Democratic leadership could pose problems for Omar and Tlaib. Both women have signalled strong support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, which has been denounced by both Pelosi and Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer. Such condemnation has often been delivered in front of large pro-Israeli groups such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

It will be interesting to see how far the Democratic leadership will let the two new congresswomen express their views on this issue, especially if it begins to threaten possible fundraising sources.

So far, their positions have not seemed to hurt them in the Democratic Party. Omar will sit on an important committee and Pelosi appointed Tlaib to the influential Oversight and Government Reform Committee. The main investigative committee in the House of Representatives, it has the power to investigate Trump.

It’s also important to note that Tlaib and Omar are among a new group of progressive female Democrats elected in 2018. The group includes New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the youngest woman ever elected to Congress and a member along with Tlaib of the Government Oversight Committee.

It may help Omar and Tlaib that members of the group support each other publicly. When Tlaib was attacked for using the expletive about Trump, one of the first to defend her was Ocasio-Cortez.

It’s been a controversial but consequential start in Congress for Tlaib and Omar.