Congressional Democrats, reports the New York Times, find Ilhan Omar a “complicated figure to defend.” Their exhaustion is understandable; tamping down outrage at various Omar statements seems to account for the better part of their job these days. But what is at issue has nothing to do with Ilhan Omar at all but a massive national hate campaign against Muslim-Americans.
The proximate cause of the latest flare-up is a speech Omar delivered to CAIR, a Muslim-American civil-rights group. “CAIR was founded after 9/11,” Omar said, “because they recognized that some people did something and that all of us were starting to lose access to our civil liberties.” The first part of the sentence is false — CAIR was founded in 1994 — but it is the second part of the sentence that has produced outrage. President Trump has circulated a video repeating the sentence fragment, interspersed with images of the 9/11 attack.
Here is another instance of conservatives playing the role of aggrieved snowflakes. They don’t deny the truth of her statement. Her sin is a lack of sensitivity. Omar “minimized the gravity of the deadliest foreign attack on U.S. soil ever,” complains David French.
Omar’s point, of course, was not that 9/11 was a trivial incident, but that the broader Muslim community was targeted as a result. The outrage at her comment has borne out that point. The “rule” she violated is a failure to properly genuflect upon the awfulness of the 9/11 attacks in the course of referencing them, but this is hardly a universal convention. It’s easy to see how ginned up the outrage is if you replace the particulars of the case. Suppose a Jewish person was complaining about Jews as a whole being blamed for some particular human-rights violation carried out by Israelis. Would it really be necessary for them to pause the sentence and linger on the tragedy of the event? Would it be fair to associate them with the event itself if they failed to do so?
Of course it wouldn’t. Indeed, if a Jew was attacked in such a manner, we would rightly see the attack as anti-Semitic.
Anti-Semitism, of course, forms the backdrop for the present controversy, because Omar has made ugly comments questioning the loyalty of American supporters of their country’s alliance with Israel. If, like me, you objected to Omar’s use of a dual-loyalty smear against Jews, you should also object to dual-loyalty smears against Muslims.
Instead, the barrage of attacks on Omar has confirmed the right’s complete indifference to this principle. Trump’s political message vis-à-vis the Jews has followed a paradoxical style on display by far-right parties in Europe. It combines a tight embrace of white Christian nationalists, including a sotto voce outreach to actual Nazis, with deep support for Israel and a war-of-civilizations attack on Muslims writ large. This brand of politics indulges in classic anti-Semitic tropes, such as Trump’s closing campaign ad darkly blaming various Jewish financiers for orchestrating various miseries experienced by the American heartland. But it also dabbles in intense philo-Semitism in cases where Jews are pitted against Muslims. It certainly is not a consistent rejection of bigotry in general or even anti-Semitism in particular.
The right-wing fixation on Omar gives away the game in several respects. It shows that the right’s alleged concern about bigotry is utterly partisan and excludes Muslims altogether. Trump has made a hundred times as many bigoted remarks as Omar, and has a thousand times more power. His attacks on her are a tool in a campaign of vilification and dehumanization which has ranged from fabricating stories of Muslim-Americans celebrating the 9/11 attacks to constant, indiscriminate smears of an entire faith (“Islam hates us”).
The Democratic Party’s response has been wholly inadequate to the historic stakes. Democrats have limited the scope of their response to the insensitivity of politicizing 9/11 (“The president shouldn’t use the painful images of 9/11 for a political attack,” suggests House Speaker Nancy Pelosi) or even conceding the legitimacy of the pseudo-outrage against Omar (Senator Kirsten Gillibrand: “As a senator who represents 9/11 victims, I can’t accept any minimizing of that pain”).
It is surely tiresome for Democrats to have to constantly come up with messages about a freshman member of Congress who is careless with facts, constantly wanders off message, and fond of conspiracy theories. In her short time in Congress, in addition to stoking anti-Semitism, she has baselessly insinuated that Senator Lindsey Graham is being sexually blackmailed by Trump and attacked the opposition to Venezuela’s brutal dictatorship as
war criminals far right and illegitimate*. Omar is arguably the most counterproductive Democrat in the House of Representatives. Her party should be encouraging a primary challenger to run against her.
Democrats unwilling to frontally challenge the smears of Omar because they don’t like her are making the same mistake as Democrats who refused to condemn her dual-loyalty smears because they do like her. Omar herself is not the issue here. She is not the target of Trump’s hate campaign. The target is all Muslims, as well as the principle that minorities deserve to be treated as full Americans.
*The original post took at face value Omar’s comment describing the Venezuelan opposition as war criminals, following the interpretation in this Bulwark story. It seems more likely Omar was speaking hypothetically about war crimes, so I have removed that description.