MINNEAPOLIS ― Shortly after Ilhan Omar, the freshman congresswoman from the 5th District of Minnesota, arrived, she started to talk about Oprah ― specifically, something the media mogul once said on TV that had stuck with her.
Asked how she remained confident in traditionally unwelcoming spaces for women of color, Oprah answered that she envisioned herself entering alongside the many women who didn’t have the same opportunity before her.
“And so, people ask me, ‘Ilhan, do you feel afraid? Do you feel marginalized?’ And I don’t,” Omar said. “Because I know hundreds of my sisters are constantly walking with me in every single space I’m in.”
“So thank you for the hugs,” she continued. “But know that I’m OK ― I got this.”
The newly elected 37-year-old had returned to her home district to speak to and hear from community leaders and constituents. That Wednesday afternoon, Omar was sitting in a circle with Minnesota activists, many of them Muslim and all of them women.
While Omar may be a lightning rod in Washington, she’s still beloved by many in her district, where women like Nausheena Hussain remain fiercely protective of the lawmaker.
When Omar first walked through the door, the women had greeted her with a defiant chant ― “When Ilhan is under attack, what do we do?” “Stand up, fight back!” But beforehand, Hussain, one of the event’s organizers, had seemed nervous. She wondered aloud whether they should move the discussion to a more secluded area of the building and asked those in attendance not to post photos of the event until 2 p.m., for Omar’s safety.
“I don’t want her to go anywhere without security,” Hussain said.
Her concern was justified. Already this year, two people have been arrested for making threatening calls about Omar ― “I’ll put a bullet in her fucking skull,” one of them said ― and a third is being investigated for threatening to bomb a hotel that let Omar inside.
“Can you think of another time in the history of our country where a freshman congresswoman has had two people in jail because they’ve tried to kill her?” asked Simon Trautmann, a Richfield city councilmember who considers Omar a friend. “And what leads the news? Not that.”
In her first months on the job, Omar has elicited furious emotion from all directions. She has been condemned by former first daughter Chelsea Clinton, Sen. Ted Cruz and Democratic House leadership. Defended by Sens. Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. Targeted by Donald Trump. Applauded by David Duke. Villainized by Fox News. Attacked by the New York Post, and backed by an army of New York City bodega owners.
Part of the fervor must be understood in the context of who she is: a Somali American, Muslim refugee who, at a time of rising Islamophobia, has become the first congresswoman in U.S. history to wear a hijab on the House floor. The rest can be explained by her own words, clumsy or hate-filled depending on whom you ask.
Twice already, Omar has been accused of trafficking in anti-Semitic tropes ― once, after she tweeted “It’s all about the Benjamins baby” in reference to House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who seemed to be considering reprimanding her and fellow Muslim congresswoman Rashida Tlaib over their support of an Israeli boycott movement. It happened again when she questioned the “political influence in this country that says it is OK for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country,” by which she meant Israel. A 2012 tweet in which Omar said “Israel has hypnotized the world” also resurfaced.
Her remarks caused local pain in her progressive home district, where Jewish organizations described them as “insulting” and “reprehensible.” Omar apologized “unequivocally” for the “Benjamins” tweet, but not for highlighting “the problematic role of lobbyists in our politics, whether it be AIPAC, the NRA or the fossil fuel industry.”
Some pundits questioned Omar’s loyalty to the U.S. Fox News’ Jeanine Pirro suggested Omar might not fully support the Constitution because she is Muslim. Other used Omar’s comments as a reason to zero in on Minneapolis’ sizable and largely impoverished Somali population. It didn’t help that a handful of Twin Cities residents had joined jihadist groups overseas in recent years. Fox News published a story that repeatedly referenced Omar with the headline “How Minneapolis’ Somali community became the terrorist recruitment capital of the US.” A conspiracy theory circulated on social media falsely alleging Obama had brought in Somali refugees as part of a plan to elect Omar.
“They’re trying to make her out to be this Muslim radical, who is an extremist, who is trying to infiltrate the government,” said Asma Mohammed, an advocacy director at the Minneapolis-based Reviving the Islamic Sisterhood for Empowerment.
Such accusations have become normal in recent years, as a growing number of politicians have wielded anti-Muslim sentiment to their advantage. Trump, a particularly prominent practitioner, blatantly played into Islamophobic furor during his election campaign. “I think Islam hates us,” he said in 2016.
Now, Trump reportedly wants to do so again by making Omar the new face of the Democratic Party heading into 2020.
Omar, for one, is not surprised.
“This is a president who has come to power because he was very much willing to vilify and demonize immigrants and refugees. He so proudly said we should halt Muslims from entering our country. He clearly has a disdain for black women who see themselves as equal to him. And so, for many people, it’s not a surprise that he finds his biggest nemesis in me,” Omar told HuffPost last week. “Clearly, I am a nightmare ― because he can’t stop really thinking about ways that he can continue to use my identity to marginalize our communities”
In April, the president tweeted out footage that had circulated in conservative spheres of Omar seeming to downplay the Sept. 11 attacks by saying “some people did something.” Omar’s full comments were about the rise of anti-Muslim sentiment since 2001 ― she had stated, incorrectly, that the Council on American–Islamic Relations had been founded “because they recognized that some people did something and that all of us were starting to lose access to our civil liberties.” But that context was stripped from the video and Trump’s tweet.
Directly after, Omar experienced a dramatic increase in threats against her life. “@IlhanMN needs to be hung. She’s a traitor and a threat to the west,” one Twitter user wrote. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) defended her fellow congresswoman by noting Omar had recently co-sponsored a bill to permanently authorize the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund ― but that didn’t seem to matter to Omar’s loudest critics, which included personalities as prominent as “Fox & Friends” host Brian Kilmeade.
“You have to wonder if she is an American first,” Kilmeade said.
The attention has shaken some of those who knew Omar before her 2018 election victory.
“It’s painful, because I feel like the country is meeting someone who I don’t know,” said Larry Jacobs, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota who taught Omar during a policy fellowship.
“I know this person,” he added. “I know Ilhan’s sister. I know her dad. This is a family in a lot of ways that’s the archetype of American immigrants who come to America and make their way. The idea that she’s hateful, that she’s got animus against America is ridiculous.”
Omar admits she sometimes still feels like a “complete guest” in Washington D.C. But back in her home district last week, she seemed calm, cracking jokes with staff and constituents alike as she tried to return to the normal duties of a freshman congresswoman. Later in the day, she toured a community clinic and participated in a panel at a Latino-influenced beer company, where one of her children sat on her lap while she answered questions.
Omar insisted to HuffPost she has not heard anything from her constituents that overly concerns her.
“People who were actually willing to cast their ballot for me have not ever called or asked, ‘Why can’t you say things differently?’” she said.
If Trump has rattled Omar in recent months, she hides it well. “As someone who certainly has survived far worse people than him, I’m going to be alright,” said Omar, who escaped civil war in Somalia as a child. Like Trump, in fact, she sees political opportunity in their developing standoff.
“I always find conflicts to be the best sources for organizing,” she said.
The day before Omar met with the Minnesota activists, she had privately spoken by phone with Twitter’s chief executive, Jack Dorsey, about the video the president had tweeted to attack her earlier that month. But as she sat and spoke with Mohammed, Hussain and the other women early Wednesday, Omar’s attention seemed not on the outside world, but on them. She says supporting their newly energized activism is a critical part of her growing set of responsibilities.
“There are people who really have never felt completely visible in a system that wasn’t designed for them. And people who have always felt that the American dream was dying away,” Omar told HuffPost. “To now see [that] a refugee who has only been in this country two decades, who carries almost every marginalized identity that you could carry, has risen and ascended to one of the most powerful positions that you could be in our country? That is hope.”
Hussain, the first event’s organizer, had taken Trump’s victory in 2016 hard. During a stop at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport days before the election, Trump had demonized the local Somali refugee population, telling the crowd they were “coming into your state without your knowledge,” “joining ISIS” and “spreading their extremist views all over our country.” Such anti-Muslim sentiment has manifested itself violently in Minnesota in recent years. In 2016, a man shot at a group of Somali men after hurling Islamophobic remarks at them. The next year, members of a militia group bombed a Minnesota mosque.
Omar’s election to Minnesota’s House of Representatives in 2016 had served as a critical “silver lining” during that period, Hussain said. She and Mohammed are now passionate defenders of the congresswoman, and say she has inspired Muslim women around the state to become more politically engaged, mirroring a national trend that saw a record number of Muslims win elected office last November. Earlier in the month, Hussain and Mohammed had protested outside a Trump rally in Burnsville in support of Omar. That day, one of the Trump supporters had yelled something that lodged itself in Hussain’s mind: Why do you hate Jews so much?
“I’ve been to many rallies. And I’ve seen the signs of us all going to hell and burning in hell and ‘Jesus is coming’ and all that. But that group was different,” Hussain said.
But Mohammed said that nothing would stop her from defending their congresswoman.
“The more people try to attack Ilhan, the more we will defend her,” she said.
Omar told the women Wednesday she cannot simply assume that she accurately speaks for the many identities she embodies.
“I just happen to be a woman. I happen to be a refugee. I happen to be an immigrant. I happen to be black. I happen to be Muslim, but I’m not a representative of those groups,” she said. “I still need to be in spaces, and hear the lived experiences that each of the identities that I carry still are experiencing.”
And so, the women went around and told Omar of their advocacy, their successes and their struggles. One of them brought Omar flowers. A Muslim woman said what an exciting time it was to be a Palestinian advocate. “So much of it has been really led by you,” she said. A third complimented the congresswoman’s fashion ― a black pantsuit with red, white and blue flats ― and asked what they could do to help get her reelected.
“I’ve heard really nasty things like ‘Ilhan should be a little quieter’ and ‘I don’t know if she’s going to get reelected,’” the woman said. “So I wanted to ask you what we can do to prove all these people wrong.”
Omar told the woman that she is not too concerned about reelection right now and added that people who hope to quiet her only serve to do the opposite.
“There are people who are invested in instilling fear in us,” she told them. “There are people who send me books of members of Congress who have taken on AIPAC and others and who have not returned,” Omar said. “I think it is for them in their mind to be a cautionary tale. But for me, it’s a motivation. It’s a motivation to say that somebody has to buck the system.”
Rabbi Michael Adam Latz of Minneapolis’ Shir Tikvah synagogue was dismayed by Omar’s remarks about Israel. “The initial comments were deeply disappointing,” he told me. But since then, Omar and her staff have reached out repeatedly “with great tenderness and thoughtfulness.”
“There’s a lot of work yet to be done,” he said. “I’m glad to see that she’s beginning to do it.”
The rabbi has also started to question why Omar’s comments have garnered so much attention. After all, other Minnesota politicians had waded into anti-Semitic and Islamophobic waters in the recent past.
In 2016, for example, another Minnesota congressperson, Republican Jim Hagedorn, criticized his political opponent for “pro-Muslim lecturing.” Doug Wardlow, who ran as a Republican for Minnesota attorney general last year, suggested Jewish billionaire George Soros had tried to buy the election for his Democratic opponent, former congressman Keith Ellison. McCarthy, the House minority leader, similarly suggested that Soros, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Democratic billionaire Tom Steyer had tried to “buy” the midterm elections. Were those lesser-known comments really so different?
“Let’s be clear: Were her comments harmful and hurtful? Yes. Is she getting a ridiculous amount of ink spilled and press because she is a black hijabi-wearing Muslim refugee? Yes,” Latz said. “It’s pretty grotesque, the disparity, and I think we all need to take responsibility for how disproportionate the attention is here on her.”
Omar told me that the lesson she has learned since she took office is just how far people will go to “‘other’ those that they find discomfort in.” She said it reminds her of a similar lesson she learned from her father when she arrived at age 12 in the United States with only two English phrases, “Hello” and “Shut up.” Children back then treated Omar cruelly, sticking gum in her scarf and knocking her down the stairs ― physical abuse that continued into her political career.
“They latch on to this really angry part of their soul that says that you must attack others to give yourself strength. You must weaken someone in order for you to have strength,” Omar said.
But Omar doesn’t see standing down as an option. Doing so would only give those who hate Muslims what they want.
“Yesterday, you were saying that Muslim men don’t allow women to speak, and Muslim women are oppressed for being covered, so you want to liberate them,” she said. “Today you’re angry because there is one of them that is too liberated.”
“These people really are not sincere in their criticism,” she added. “All they really, truly want is for us to go away.”
Omar deeply cares for her constituents, telling me how wonderful it is to represent such civically minded Americans. They feel the same. While she toured a community clinic in Minneapolis later that day, a woman in a dentist’s chair told her how proud her students were of Omar. “You’re like a rock star,” one of the clinic’s employees told her.
Because of them, she will continue to speak up, even if others want her to stand down.
“There are these people, these forces who are very much interested in making sure that this immigrant, this refugee, this woman of color, this Muslim ― who naively thinks that she must have some sort of equal status to them ― must be put in her place,” she told me.
“The joke is on them,” she added. “Because that is never going to happen.”