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'Islamophobic tropes': Ilhan Omar defiant amid renewed bipartisan attacks

A group of Democratic lawmakers joined Republicans in rebuking Omar over remarks on atrocities committed by the US, Israel, Hamas and the Taliban
Ilhan Omar
Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, a Muslim American, says she is subjected to 'constant harassment' by colleagues (AFP/File photo)
By Ali Harb in Washington

By now it's a pattern. 

Whenever Ilhan Omar says something perceived as controversial, Republicans are quick to express their outrage at the Muslim-American congresswoman. Some Democrats subsequently join their condemnations, and a debate tends to ensue about the limits of criticising American and Israeli policies.

This time, however, Omar is standing defiant against the criticism being levelled by her Democratic colleagues. On Thursday, she accused her comrades of perpetuating "Islamophobic tropes" for suggesting that a statement she issued about alleged war crimes in Afghanistan and Palestine "reflects deep-seated prejudice".

The most recent controversy started on Monday, when, at a congressional hearing, Omar asked Secretary of State Antony Blinken about the US administration's opposition to probes by the International Criminal Court (ICC) into abuses in Afghanistan and the occupied Palestinian territories.

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"In both of these cases, if domestic courts can't or won't pursue justice - and we oppose the ICC - where do we think the victims of the supposed crimes can go for justice?" Omar asked.

Blinken retorted, saying American and Israeli authorities were capable of investigating any allegations of abuse by their armed forces.

The congresswoman later posted a video of the exchange on Twitter with the caption: "We must have the same level of accountability and justice for all victims of crimes against humanity. We have seen unthinkable atrocities committed by the US, Hamas, Israel, Afghanistan, and the Taliban."

Although Omar was referring to two specific ongoing investigations by the ICC, the tweet sparked instant outrage from Republicans and right-wing media personalities, who often target the congresswoman.

Outrage against Omar

Lauren Boebert, a staunchly right-wing congresswoman, called Omar an "honorary member of Hamas", accusing her of likening the US military to the Taliban.

Congresswoman Elise Stefanik, a senior Republican and a close ally of former President Donald Trump, also rebuked Omar, calling on "every Democrat" to denounce the Muslim-American legislator.

And instead of defending their colleague, a group of Democrats did exactly that. Twelve Democratic legislators, including chairs of powerful committees, released a statement on Wednesday condemning Omar.

"Ignoring the differences between democracies governed by the rule of law and contemptible organizations that engage in terrorism at best discredits one's intended argument and at worst reflects deep-seated prejudice," the lawmakers, who include Jerrold Nadler, Brad Schneider and Ted Deutsch, said. 

"The United States and Israel are imperfect and, like all democracies, at times deserving of critique, but false equivalencies give cover to terrorist groups."

A defiant Omar fired back early on Thursday. 

"It's shameful for colleagues who call me when they need my support to now put out a statement asking for 'clarification' and not just call. The Islamophobic tropes in this statement are offensive. The constant harassment & silencing from the signers of this letter is unbearable," the congresswoman wrote in a series of Twitter posts.

"Citing an open case against Israel, US, Hamas & Taliban in the ICC isn't comparison or from 'deeply seated prejudice'."

Omar had earlier shared a threatening message laden with expletives and racial and religious abuse that had been received by her office.

She said such attacks were incited by the far-right and "enabled by a political culture - in both parties - that allows and often fuels Islamophobia".

Later on Thursday, the congresswoman stressed she was not comparing the US and Israel to Hamas and the Taliban.

"On Monday, I asked Secretary of State Antony Blinken about ongoing International Criminal Court investigations," Omar said in a statement.

"To be clear: the conversation was about accountability for specific incidents regarding those ICC cases, not a moral comparison between Hamas and the Taliban and the US and Israel. I was in no way equating terrorist organizations with democratic countries with well-established judicial systems."

Democratic House leaders, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, welcomed Omar's "clarification".

"Legitimate criticism of both the United States and Israel is protected by the values of free speech and democratic debate. And indeed such debate is essential to the strength and health of our democracies," they said in a joint statement. 

"But drawing false equivalencies between democracies like the United States and Israel and groups that engage in terrorism like Hamas and the Taliban foments prejudice, and undermines progress towards a future of peace and security for all."

Progressive support

Many of Omar's fellow progressives came to her defence on Thursday. 

"Pretty sick & tired of the constant vilification, intentional mischaracterization, and public targeting of [Omar] coming from our caucus," Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, one of the most prominent House Democrats, wrote on Twitter.

"They have no concept for the danger they put her in by skipping private conversations & leaping to fueling targeted news cycles around her."

Cori Bush, a first-term member of Congress and a Black Lives Matter activist, also criticised the Democrats who targeted Omar.

"I'm not surprised when Republicans attack Black women for standing up for human rights. But when it’s Democrats, it’s especially hurtful. We’re your colleagues. Talk to us directly," she said in a tweet. "Enough with the anti-Blackness and Islamophobia."

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Tlaib, the only other Muslim congresswoman besides Omar, also said she was "tired" of colleagues from both parties demonising Omar.

"Their obsession with policing her is sick. She has the courage to call out human rights abuses no matter who is responsible. That's better than colleagues who look away if it serves their politics."

Beth Miller, government affairs manager at JVP Action, a political advocacy group linked to Jewish Voice for Peace, accused Omar's critics of "playing politics" instead of focusing on governing.

"The continued grandstanding by members of Congress using Islamophobic and racist tropes to attack Congresswoman Omar is unacceptable, let alone from within the Democratic Party," Miller told MEE.

"If these representatives are discomforted by the atrocities committed by the US or Israel, they should join the movement working to ensure justice for the victims of war crimes."

What next?

Just as some progressives were defending Omar, Republicans were calling for her to be punished.

Earlier this year, Democrats took an unprecedented measure by stripping Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Republican with a history of conspiratorial and Islamophobic statements, of her committee assignments.

Now the congressional Republican leadership wants Omar to be similarly sanctioned for her comments.

House minority leader Kevin McCarthy called on Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi to "act" against Omar.

"Rep. Omar's anti-Semitic & anti-American comments are abhorrent," he wrote on Twitter on Thursday.

"Speaker Pelosi's continued failure to address the issues in her caucus sends a message to the world that Democrats are tolerant of anti-Semitism and sympathizing with terrorists."

'The continued grandstanding ... using Islamophobic and racist tropes to attack Congresswoman Omar is unacceptable'

- Beth Miller, JVP Action

An outspoken left-wing Black Muslim woman who came to the United States as a refugee, Omar has been a frequent target of Republican attacks, with Trump often making racist comments about her heritage and immigrant roots.

The congresswoman has also faced criticism - including accusations of antisemitism - from her Democratic colleagues over past criticisms of Israel and pro-Israel lobby groups.

Marcus Montgomery, a fellow at the Arab Center Washington DC who tracks congressional affairs, said this recent episode of outrage against Omar is unlikely to go away soon - with Republicans eager to condemn Omar and some Democrats looking to appear "consistent" after rebuking Greene.

But he rejected the comparison of Omar with Greene. 

"Omar and Greene are not comparable," he told MEE. "I think it's fair to say Omar can be clumsy in some of her political messaging, but it's certainly not the bad-faith, conspiratorial positions that somebody like Marjorie Taylor Greene has."

Montgomery said Republicans will almost certainly propose a congressional resolution against Omar, and "Pelosi may feel pressure from Democrats to do something".

However, with a historically thin House majority of eight seats, Pelosi will try to mitigate the disagreements within her caucus without "rocking the boat too much", Montgomery said.

"She has more to lose by punishing Omar," he added, "because we're seeing other members of the progressive group - Congresswoman Bush, Congresswoman Tlaib - come out in defence of their colleague."

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