At a rally in North Carolina on July 17, President Donald Trump nodded encouragingly as his supporters yelled “send her back” about Rep. Ilhan Omar. The ominous chants echoed the president’s earlier racist comments about the freshman representative from Minnesota and three other congresswomen of color: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna Pressley. Trump has goaded and criticized all four women repeatedly over the past few months, resulting each time in a fresh wave of harassment and hatred.
It would be easy to compare those odious chants to the “lock her up!” chants that MAGA crowds used to yell about Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential election campaign (the same rhetorical threats were later directed at Sen. Dianne Feinstein). Both chants targeted women and both were fueled by prejudice, an important reminder of the misogyny that Trump and his supporters so readily tap into.
It would be easy to compare those odious chants to the “lock her up!” chants that MAGA crowds used to yell about Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential election campaign.
But it is also imperative to understand what those chants don’t have in common. Hillary Clinton is a former first lady, former secretary of state and former senator who has long enjoyed the support of the Democratic Party establishment. Lucrative book deals and speaking engagements solidly position Clinton in the ranks of the elite, financially and politically. Ilhan Omar is a former child refugee, one of the first two Muslim congresswomen in the U.S., and a low-ranking member of the House who has nonetheless been singled out for criticism by the leader of her own party. Omar is not a powerful white woman from an American political dynasty with lifetime secret service protection; she is a black Muslim woman in a hijab in a deeply racist, misogynistic and Islamophobic country.
Omar is what Trump’s racist base hate the most. And he knows it.
For too many old, white, wealthy male — and some female — politicians in the United States, young powerful women of color are terrifying because they put the patriarchy and its attendant oppressions on notice. Those congresswomen are upending the politics as usual of white supremacists, misogynists, Islamophobes, racists and those who believe politics are the domain of the wealthy and the white. They announced loudly that their political ambitions included a progressive agenda aimed at free education, universal health care, a determination to stall and reverse climate change and a refusal to be humble, modest, quiet or anything else patriarchy demands.
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Responding to Trump’s racist tweets against her and other women who have together been dubbed “the squad,” Ocasio-Cortez went for the jugular: “But you know what’s the rub of it all, Mr. President? On top of not accepting an America that elected us, you cannot accept that we don’t fear you, either.”
But while these women have fearlessly jumped into the political arena and indeed are punching far above their weight class, the power dynamics of the conflict remain incredibly imbalanced. This makes their struggle all the more admirable, but it also makes their harassment much more concerning.
In the U.S. and other countries where Muslims live as minorities, the survival of visibly Muslim women is increasingly jeopardized by the brutal trifecta of Islamophobia, racism and misogyny. And from the start of her political tenure, Omar has felt the full force of all three. Soon after she became the first Somali-American lawmaker in the U.S. when she was elected to the Minnesota House in 2016, a taxi driver in D.C. — where she had been attending policy training at the White House — subjected her to “the most hateful, derogatory, Islamophobic, sexist taunts and threats I have ever experienced," she wrote in a post on social media. "The cabdriver called me ISIS and threatened to remove my hijab.”
To understand this threat, remember that in the month of March alone, a poster in the West Virginia state capitol falsely connected her to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Fox News host Jeanine Pirro said on air that Omar’s hijab could be “indicative of her adherence to sharia law, which in itself is antithetical to the United States Constitution?" Soon after, a man in New York called Omar’s Washington office and threatened to kill her.
“Do you work for the Muslim Brotherhood?” the man asked a staff member who answered the phone. “Why are you working for her, she’s a [expletive] terrorist. I’ll put a bullet in her [expletive] skull.” The man was arrested and charged.
After the chants of “send her back,” senior Democrats called for authorities to evaluate security for Omar and her family. “It’s crystal clear to me that her life is in imminent danger,” said Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., a senior member of the Congressional Black Caucus. “He has threatened the safety of a member of Congress. That takes this to a whole different level.”
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said “If I were her I would immediately call the FBI and say what do I need for protection.”
In the U.S. and other countries where Muslims live as minorities, the survival of visibly Muslim women is increasingly jeopardized by the brutal trifecta of Islamophobia, racism and misogyny.
While it is good to see senior party figures speaking up for Omar, the party needs to do more than speak up only when its members appear to be in serious physical danger. It is easy to see the GOP's overt fearmongering and bigotry. But remember that as recently as the 2016 Democratic National Convention, the only Muslims on stage were the parents of an American Muslim who died fighting for the U.S. in Iraq. The Democrats move beyond lazy rhetoric that suggests the only good Muslims are the ones who serve on the frontlines of the war against terror. Omar and Tlaib — as well as American Muslims who in their majority vote Democrat and whose support is important in swing states — deserve better.
Politicians are rarely assassinated in the U.S., but they are far from unreachable. It was less than a year ago that Trump fan Cesar Sayoc was arrested for sending explosive devices to liberal politicians and public figures. And in June of 2017, James Hodgkinson fired close to 70 rounds at Republican lawmakers and staff playing softball, gravely injuring GOP House Majority Whip Steve Scalise.
When American journalists and politicians (and voters) refuse to call Trump what he is — a racist —the freer he is to endanger vulnerable Americans. Ilhan Omar is precisely what his racist base hate the most: a black and visibly Muslim woman. And no matter what conservatives say, her insistence on speaking out is a courageous act.