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The attacks on Ilhan Omar reveal an America set against Muslims

Almost 18 years after 9/11, it is clear that the United States is a hostile environment
Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) speaks about Trump administration policies towards Muslim immigrants at a news conference by members of the US Congress on 10 April (Reuters)

The bullying has been quite extraordinary.

First came the liberal establishment and their conflated accusations of anti-Semitism. Then came the conservatives with their tears. And now, the president has accused her of trivialising 9/11. His supporters, a circus of right wing media and pundits, are insinuating that she is neither fit for Congress nor is she a loyal citizen of the United States.

Out of context

The latest round of attacks on Congresswoman Ilhan Omar seem to have started after a video of Omar describing the 9/11 attacks as "some people did something" began circulating on the internet, giving the right-wing media an opportunity to accuse her of belittling the largest foreign attack on US soil.

Omar’s words were taken from a speech she delivered in late March at an event organised by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), in which she tried to emphasise that the level of prejudice Muslims faced post 9/11 created the need for a robust Muslim civil society "because they recognised that some people did something and that all of us were starting to lose access to our civil liberties."

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Given that Omar, a proud, scarf-wearing Muslim refugee from Somalia, says what no one in the establishment ever wants to hear, the right-wing media have found it imperative to skew and distort her words at any given opportunity.

The relentless attacks from the media, particularly from the stable of Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, was followed by President Donald Trump tweeting what can only be described as an incendiary video, in which footage of the 9/11 attacks on New York City is interwoven with Omar’s words; the attacks on the Congresswoman moved from the obtuse and the absurd to the downright dangerous.

But the attempts to silence and bully her haven't just come from Trump and the Republican party. 

There has been a sustained attempt by mainstream members of the Democratic Party to sideline Omar and turn her into a persona non grata within the establishment and among Americans at large.

Omar is an outsider because she brings a perspective that challenges the political mainstream. In contrast to Omar, the Republican and Democratic Parties are difficult to tell apart. They want her gone because she upsets a cabal that is still essentially upper class, white, Christian, instrumentally liberal but ultimately conservative and war-mongering.

Deep-seated Islamophobia

Whereas Trump’s attacks on Omar are merely an attempt to funnel fuel to his base of right-wing conservative voters as he gears up for elections in 2020, the manner in which Omar has been treated by her own party seems to invoke a larger and deep seated story of Islamophobia and anti-Muslim racism that has been an integral feature of America - as we know it - for decades.

There has been a sustained attempt by mainstream members of the Democratic Party to sideline Omar and turn her into a persona non grata within the establishment

"I find her comments to be absolutely disgraceful and unbefitting of a member of Congress. And I think that it’s a good thing the president is calling her out," White House press secretary, Sarah Sanders, said in defence of Trump's tweets about Omar's words, ignoring, of course, that they had been distorted and taken out of context.

But in truth, the first half of Sanders' defence could belong to just about most Democrats.

Over the weekend, after Trump had entered the equation, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, both presidential candidates on the left of the Democratic party, came out in defence of Omar.

Sanders, particularly, has supported the young congresswoman before. But the senator from Vermont remains an independent locked in conflict with the Democratic party's mainstream, and the extent to which that mainstream, along with establishment liberals, has allowed American politics to reach this level of hate has become clear through the treatment of Omar. 

Look no further than Nancy Pelosi, the spokesperson of the House, who among a soiree of Democrats, "admonished" Trump for "using images of 9/11 for a political attack".

Politics of spectacle

While many have likewise "admonished" Pelosi for failing to mention Omar by name in her chastisement of Trump (at least initially), the outrage over Pelosi’s purported cowardice belies the fact that most of the disgust for Trump has little to do with protecting Omar and more to do with the politics of spectacle that has become the lifeblood of the American news cycle.

On Sunday, Pelosi asked House officials to review security measures intended to protect Representative Omar after President Trump's tweet. According to a senior Democratic aide, Pelosi called for the review based on dozens of threats made on Omar’s life even before Trump posted the video on Friday.

Even then, some of the most senior members of the Democratic party have yet to speak up in defence of their colleague. If they did, would it matter? Most party leaders only want Trump out. This much is clear.

The very moment it became obvious this strong black Muslim congresswoman would not toe the line, she was always going to be maligned.

Salacious and vindictive

By abandoning Omar and fuelling the impression that her AIPAC comments two months ago were anti-semitic, mainstream Democrats and the liberal establishment created the foundation in which attacking a sitting congresswoman’s "Americanness" would be eventually acceptable.

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It is precisely the tone set by her own colleagues that have allowed the salacious and vindictive attacks to escalate. 

And one has to ask if any of this is surprising? 

What has this liberal establishment done for Muslims in America besides extend surveillance on the community, bomb their cousins in the Middle East or in the Horn of Africa and hold an iftar once-a-year?

What further proof other than the relentless attacks on Omar is needed to illustrate that almost 18 years after 9/11, American Muslims are neither safe from violence nor free from suspicion and blame; whether they are selling hot dogs from a food truck or sitting in Congress.

The normalisation of anti-Muslim racism is not something that emerged with Trump. It's as American, as they say, as apple pie. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

| Senior Reporter
Azad Essa is a senior reporter for Middle East Eye based in New York City. He worked for Al Jazeera English between 2010-2018 covering southern and central Africa for the network. He is the author of 'Hostile Homelands: The New Alliance Between India and Israel' (Pluto Press, Feb 2023)
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