What Congresswoman Ilhan Omar really said about the effects of 9/11 needs to be heard
On 23 March, Democratic Congresswoman Ilhan Omar delivered a speech to the Council on American-Islamic Relations (Cair). She referenced the 9/11 attacks, somewhat dismissively, with the phrase “some people did something". A small snippet from a speech about Muslims' place in the US, her words were taken out of context by her detractors - including President Donald Trump.
Earlier that month, Ms Omar’s image had been used on a poster displayed at a Republican-backed rally at the West Virginia statehouse. In the style of an internet meme, the poster stated “‘never forget’ - you said...” on top of a picture of the World Trade Center during the 9/11 attacks. Over a picture of Ms Omar, who is Muslim, the poster read “I am the proof - you have forgotten”.
The poster was widely condemned, including by the Republican party, and reportedly led to at least one resignation. “No wonder why I am on the ‘Hitlist’ of a domestic terrorist and ‘Assassinate Ilhan Omar’ is written on my local gas stations,” Ms Omar responded, in response to the incident. “Look no further, the GOP's anti-Muslim display likening me to a terrorist rocks in state capitols and no one is condemning them!”
Raising her political profile but making her a target of anti-Muslim hate groups, the incident was something of a gift and a curse for Ms Omar. However, the Somalian-born politician has been vilified by racists ever since her successful 2016 campaign for a seat in the Minnesota House of Representatives.
“I am America’s hope and the president’s nightmare,” Ms Omar said, according to a viral Facebook post. “I think all white men should be put in chains as slaves because they will never submit to Islam”. Despite being predominantly untrue, this quote spread far across the internet and led many Americans to believe that she held extremist views.
In relation to her identity as a female Muslim, Ms Omar did once state, “I am America’s hope and the president’s nightmare.” However, her purported statement on white, non-Muslim men was entirely fabricated.
Despite receiving even more attention since the poster incident, much of which was bad, Ms Omar decided to use her elevated profile to continue to spread messages of tolerance and awareness. However, in referring to the 9/11 attacks as “something” that “some people did”, she invoked the wrath of the president.
A video which he posted on his personal Twitter account on Friday, with the caption “never forget”, replayed the much-criticised section of Ms Omar’s speech spliced with clips of the attacks on the World Trade Center. The president has been widely condemned for using the 9/11 attacks for political gain. However, the video is still live and has in excess of 10 million views. "This is endangering lives," Ms Omar said, accusing the president of baiting right-wing extremism. "It has to stop." She has also stated that she has seen an increase in death threats.
"Here's the truth,” Ms Omar stated in the Cair speech on 23 March. “For far too long we have lived with the discomfort of being a second-class citizen and, frankly, I'm tired of it, and every single Muslim in this country should be tired of it. Cair was founded after 9/11 because they recognised that some people did something and that all of us were starting to lose access to our civil liberties."
Following fact-checking by the Washington Post, it was confirmed that Cair was actually founded in 1994. A spokesperson for Ms Omar explained that she misspoke and was supposed to say that its size had doubled since the attacks.
However, all of the criticism was focussed on the phrasing around the 9/11 attacks. Not without fault, she has previously gone back on statements made about Israel and pro-Israel lobbyists. In a 2012 tweet she wrote, "Israel has hypnotised the world, may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel."
Like any politician who criticises Israeli policy, she risked being accused of anti-semitism and is still fighting to lose that label. When probed over the tweets, she apologised and stated that she is “listening and learning”.
Furthermore, this certainly isn’t the first time a politician has used strangely casual language about the 9/11 attacks. “I’ve ordered that the full resources of the federal government go to help the victims and their families,” former president George W. Bush stated on the morning itself, “and to conduct a full-scale investigation to hunt down and to find those folks who committed this act.”
Ms Omar’s point, that Islamophobia in the United States has skyrocketed since 9/11, is compounded by the increased racism and sidelining of Muslims seen over the last three years. Fittingly, as has been seen in the war on terror, increased aggression only serves to breed wider resentment. With more suspicion on both sides, the recent rise of Islamophobia in the US makes for a perfect domestic representation of this problem.
When you compare the vicious backlash over Ms Omar’s words to the near non-existent criticism of Bush’s, the disparity becomes clear. As an African-born, female, Muslim politician, she is an obvious target for the far-right. Ilhan Omar’s message has effectively been muted by the outrage over her word choice and the irony of it all, like the message itself, has been completely lost.