The first two Muslim women ever to join the United States House of Representatives were sworn in on January 3, 2019. The midterm elections in November, in which Ilhan Omar (D-MN) and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) were elected, resulted in a significant increase in diversity in Congress, including the election of more female representatives than ever before.
The two Congresswomen have expressly affirmed the importance of their religious identities. Speaking at a January 6 reception of the Muslim-American community in Washington, D.C., organized by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), Omar, who wears the traditional Muslim headscarf (hijab), said that she had “decided to run to represent our community.”
“We seek to tell a different story about Muslim women here in the United States,” said Omar. “By our sheer presence in Congress we say that as Muslim women, we are in charge of our lives and our destiny.”
Similarly, Tlaib has not shied away from speaking about her faith. “I will never be a perfect Muslima,” she said. “When I do my salaams they give me strength every day . . . . This is our time to shine and get us out of this darkness.”
Both Tlaib and Omar are pushing progressive agendas. Tlaib supports free medicare for all and a $15 minimum wage. She has spoken in favor of tuition-free college and also stands for abolishing the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) division. She is also a self-professed activist. Speaking at the same January 6 reception, Tlaib said: “I was an activist before I became a Congresswoman . . . . I don’t want us to be silent when the President of the US calls Mexicans rapists.”
Tlaib is not one to remain silent. She was forcibly removed from a ceremony at the Cobo Center in Detroit in August 2016, at which a veteran gave then-candidate Donald Trump a Purple Heart, an award given to members of the armed forces who are wounded in war. Trump, who dodged the draft during the Vietnam War, had previously made a characteristically offhand, but suggestive remark that he had “always wanted a Purple Heart.” Tlaib loudly demanded that he return the award because he had never served in the military.
At her swearing-in ceremony, Tlaib wore a thobe, a traditional Palestinian dress, celebrating her Palestinian heritage. (She was not alone, so did her counterpart new Native American Congresswoman Deb Haaland (D-NM) who was sworn in wearing a traditional Pueblo dress.) Many American Muslims took up the momentum, tweeting pictures of themselves under the hashtag #TweetYourThobe.
Activist Zaha Hassan, who works at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, spoke about Tlaib to the Washington Post, saying that: “What she represents to me is a shattering of the walls that kept us from participating.”
Tlaib has been criticized for her position on the Israel and Palestine question, including by Muslim commentators. She has spoken in favor of a two-state solution at times, but her position appears unclear to some. She has faced criticism for statements that appear to be in support of right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
At the other end of the spectrum, she has also been accused of anti-Semitism. Republicans and conservatives also strongly criticized Tlaib for her lack of “decorum” after video footage emerged of her last month saying of President Trump: “We are going to impeach the m*ther f*ck*r.”
Ilhan Omar likewise supports a $15 minimum wage and is calling for free college tuition for those whose family income is under $125,000 a year. Her position on Israel is perhaps more extreme than Tlaib’s. Omar supports a two-state solution. She has asserted, “It is going to be important for us to recognize Israel’s place in the Middle East and the Jewish people’s rightful place within that region.” She has also spoken out against some aspects of the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign (BDS), saying that it is not helpful for the Palestinian cause. However, she has said that she supports BDS in principle and opposes it on practical grounds.
Omar has also been accused of anti-Semitism following comments she made suggesting Israel is an “apartheid” state. However, the most vitriolic backlash came this past week after a series of tweets in which she asserted that money from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) is behind the pro-Israel positions of many American politicians.
She not only faced sharp criticism from her own party’s Democratic House leadership for ostensibly referencing an “anti-Semitic trope,” but Republicans went ballistic, calling for disciplinary action.
“If they [the Democrats] do not take action [against her], I think you’ll see action from [me],” Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), the minority leader, said according to Capitol Hill reporters writing for a number of newspapers. “This cannot sustain itself. It’s unacceptable in this country.”
However, Peter Feld defended her right to speak about the inordinate influence of lobbies such as AIPAC, and said that doing so does not make her anti-Semitic. “It’s AIPAC, not the evangelicals, who made the Israel Anti-Boycott Act a legislative priority and got 292 House and 69 Senate cosponsors from both parties to place protecting Israel from criticism above their own constituents’ constitutional rights to free speech.”
He went on to say, “There are plenty of Jews, like me, whose beliefs are voiced by Omar, not AIPAC. And this time, we will not let our leaders be taken down by accusations that they are anti-Semitic for supporting Palestinian rights, including BDS, or for calling attention to the influence wielded behind the scenes by lobbies like AIPAC.”
Nevertheless, Omar apologized. “Anti-Semitism is real and I am grateful for Jewish allies and colleagues who are educating me on the painful history of anti-Semitic tropes,” Omar said. “My intention is never to offend my constituents or Jewish Americans as a whole. We have to always be willing to step back and think through criticism, just as I expect people to hear me when others attack me for my identity. This is why I unequivocally apologize.”
She reiterated her concern about lobbyists: “At the same time, I reaffirm the problematic role of lobbyists in our politics, whether it be AIPAC, the NRA or the fossil fuel industry. It’s gone on too long and we must be willing to address it.”
President Trump, not known for apologizing to anyone for anything, called her apology “lame,” according to AP, saying that she should resign from Congress, and “certainly” from the Foreign Affairs Committee upon which she serves.
Omar did not let that lie either. On Wednesday morning, she tweeted back at the president:
“You have trafficked in hate your whole life—against Jews, Muslims, Indigenous, immigrants, black people and more. I learned from people impacted by my words.
When will you?”
You have trafficked in hate your whole life—against Jews, Muslims, Indigenous, immigrants, black people and more. I learned from people impacted by my words. When will you? https://t.co/EqqTyjkiNE
— Ilhan Omar (@IlhanMN) February 13, 2019
To round out the charges laid against her so far, Omar has been challenged on ethics in addition to her tweets and policies. Omar earlier faced accusations of malfeasance. Republican Steve Drazkowski accused her of paying her divorce lawyer using campaign funds. Drazkowski later accused her of paying for personal plane tickets using campaign dollars. Omar denied these charges but admitted to violating Minnesota House rules in accepting speaking fees from public colleges, which she has vowed to return.
In an important sense, analysis of the reputations and policies of Tlaib and Omar is beside the point. Their elections show that minority women (and minority citizens in general) have a path to be elected to high political office in the United States, and that they could inspire more Muslim and ethnic minority citizens to run for office.
Kadra Mohamud, a volunteer on Ilhan Omar’s campaign, told the Washington Post that her election is already inspiring other Muslim women. “It means we can get into politics and make it to the highest level,” she said.
Congressman André Carson (D-IN), who is Muslim, welcomed this trend. He remarked at the January reception, “I won’t rest until 2020 when we have five more Muslims in Congress, in 2024, ten more. And then Chairwoman Rashida, and President Fatima.” He said these women are “powerful and they’re smart,” declaring, “Muslims are part of America.”
At a time when tensions between groups and hate crimes continue to escalate under the administration of Donald Trump, the need for a diversity of voices, as represented by Omar and Tlaib, is more pressing than ever. Despite the setback of the current political leadership, the U.S. is in fact more diverse than ever–a welcome trend that is likely to continue.
Indeed, notwithstanding the backlash against the new Muslim representatives, efforts are underway to increase the numbers of Muslims in the elections pipeline. As Tlaib put it, “This is the time to speak up. . . . This is a community that continues to make history. We are all in the same fight against racism and bigotry.”
“New members like Omar and Tlaib are shaking up Congress like it has never been shaken,” wrote Feld in defending Omar. “This includes criticisms of Israel that have been almost entirely suppressed in our political conversation.”
While these two young Congresswomen represent an historic first, the reaction so far and the continuing efforts of activists mean that Omar and Tlaib will certainly not be the last Muslim women elected to high office in the United States. But if their first month in office is anything to go by, they will undoubtedly face serious challenges ahead. By all accounts, they are ready to meet them.