This piece is the first of two-part series on American Muslim Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, in which I try to explain why her politics divide Muslims. In the next one, I will explain why some Muslims, especially non-Islamists, are still supporting her. So stay tuned
Rep. Ilhan Omar. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images
The supporters of US Democratic Congresswoman Ilhan Omar cry racism, discrimination, and character assassination against her detractors, but despite this relentless defense, these supporters have failed to shake off the negative image she has projected not just among many Americans, but among many Muslims inside and outside the US.
Back in January this year, nearly all Muslims, myself included, were delighted to see the first Somali hijabi Muslim refugee, Ilhan Omar, elected in the American Congress. Many of us, however, did not expect that the Muslim Congresswoman would create endless controversies, and even attack another Muslim woman who dared to ask her a question in a Muslim conference.
At a Muslim Caucus Education Collective’s conference in Washington, Ani Osman -Zonneveld, a non-Hijabi progressive Muslim urged Ilhan Omar to state her views on female genital mutilation (FGM). “I’d like to know if you will be able to make a statement against FGM, because that’s an issue in Detroit,” she said. “It would be really powerful if the two Muslim congresswomen, yourself and Rashida (Tlaib, a Democrat from Michigan) would make a statement on this issue.”
Rep. Ilhan Omar replied that the question was “appalling” and “frustrating” and that “she was quite disgusted by the question.” Outraged, Ilhan later turned to other Muslim panellists (who enthusiastically applauded her response), and said: “I want to make sure the next time someone is in an audience that they ask us the proper questions they will probably ask any member of Congress or any legislator or any politician.”
Moreover, Ilhan’s fan club rushed to praise her reply. One of her top supporters, Mehdi Hasan,tweeted: “Most Muslims born and brought up in the West – including, erm, me – have been waiting our whole lives for a politician who is Muslim to get elected and deliver an answer like this to the ‘usual’ Qs. I felt like cheering as I listened to Ilhan Omar deliver this powerful riposte.” Not one of these supporters, however, spared a thought for Osman-Zonneveld, who is also a Muslim, guilty only of asking an innocent question in a polite manner. Moreover, the question was relevant and highlighted how FGM remains a problem, despite legislation Ilhan alluded to in her condescending reply. Some studies suggest that, incredibly, there are 44,293women at risk of FGM in Ilhan Omar’s state of Minnesota alone.
To understand why Ilhan Omar snapped at a fellow Muslim, we first have to understand who is she and what she stands for. Ilhan Omar is a new-generation Islamist Muslim who uses her faith to define her political identity. She quotes passages from the Quran in her tweets, and proudly wears the hijab as a sign of devotion to orthodox Islam. But then she cherry-picks some aspects of liberalism, such as opposing the death penalty, favouring abortion, and supporting gay and transgender rights.
Such a liberal-orthodox mix aims to appeal to progressive Westerners and fit in with their anti-Trump agenda, while maintaining popularity among her Islamist base. It was ironic to see Ilhan, a supposedly orthodox Hijabi Muslim, support abortion, which Islam view as murder, and which is only sanctioned in exceptional circumstances. This stance favouring abortion is in strong contrast to her opposition of the death penalty, which Omar describes as heinous, despite several Quranic verses that describe it as just punishment for heinous crimes.
Politically, Rep. llhan Omar deliberately blurs the difference between Islam as a faith and Islamism as an ideology. She has opted to give an interview to controversial outlets, such as Qatar-owned Al-Jazeera, in which she described US relations with Saudi Arabia and the Emirates (Qatar opponents) as “immoral”. Ilhan Omar is now openly backed by variousIslamistgroups inside and outside America, including the ruling party in Turkey. Turkish president Resep Tayyip Erdoganmet Omar before he and his foreign minister congratulated her on her election wins. Later, Erdogan’s pro-government news outlets encouraged readers to donateto Omar’s campaign fund.
Ilhan Omar does not directly support radical Islamist groups, but, like other Islamists, she refuses to admit the ideological link between Islamism and radicalism. Ilhan prefers to blame oppression and American policies – a common line shared by Islamists and Western progressives. Those who confront certain literalistic Interpretations of Islamic theology that sanction terrorism and other barbaric practices such as the FGM issue Ani Osman -Zonneveld raised can be a thorn in the flesh to both camps.
It is no surprise that Ilhan Omar snapped at a progressive Muslim. True progressive Muslims are reformers who challenge their own communities to ask difficult questions about faith and society. They stand up and oppose instances of social Islamism that sanction misogyny, barbarism, and regression. Progressive Muslims reject tribalism and identity politics, and instead welcome integration and openness. They do not indulge in victimhood and self-righteous attitudes, and prefer to address the flaws of their own communities, instead of playing the victim card. More importantly, progressive Muslims do not cherry-pick reforms; they openly advocate modern interpretations of Islamic texts on every aspect of life, from the death penalty to the mandatory hijab.
Ilhan’s attitude towards Osman-Zonneveld is in harmony with the views of another progressive member of the Congress, Democrat Ayanna Pressley,who said recently: “We don’t need any more brown faces that don’t want to be a brown voice. We don’t need black faces that don’t want to be a black voice. We don’t need Muslims that don’t want to be a Muslim voice. We don’t need queers that don’t want to be a queer voice.”
Yes, for Ilhan Omar and her fellow “Progressive Squad”, anyone who dares to challenge them is bad and wrong. They advocate diversity in America, but reject diversity within their own communities.
Ilhan Omar is not a liberal Muslim with a headscarf; she is an Islamist with a deceptive liberal cover that aims to alienate real progressive Muslims, and present herself and her Islamist clans as useful voices in the fight against US president Donald Trump. But progressive and reformist Muslims will not go away. They will continue to be vocal and challenge trendy Islamist charlatans such as Ilhan Omar. Furthermore, they will not be intimidated by Western progressive who misguidedly opt to believe in Ilhan’s farcical progressiveness. The fight for the soul of Islam is bigger than Ilhan Omar, and will continue, despite her snappy condescending manner.