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Analysis

Republicans are twisting Ilhan Omar’s words about September 11 into something else entirely

Can you all stop it already?

Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) participates in a House Education and Labor Committee Markup on the H.R. 582 Raise The Wage Act, in the Rayburn House Office Building on March 6, 2019 in Washington, DC.  (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) participates in a House Education and Labor Committee Markup on the H.R. 582 Raise The Wage Act, in the Rayburn House Office Building on March 6, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Another news cycle, another reason for Republicans to get angry at the first black Muslim woman in Congress.

In the newest round of outrage, Fox News hosts, Republican lawmakers, and conservative commentators are arguing that Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) belittled the September 11 attacks. But the criticism has more to do with who Omar is, than what she actually said, and fits into a pattern of bad faith smears against the freshman congresswoman.

Conservatives have seized on a speech Omar made last month at a conference hosted by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) Los Angeles chapter. In the short clip that has gone viral, Omar is discussing Muslims’ civil liberties in the wake of 9/11.

“CAIR was founded after 9/11,” she said. “Because they recognized that some people did something, and that all of us were starting to lose access to our civil liberties.”

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On Tuesday, Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-TX) called it “unbelievable” for a member of Congress to describe the attacks as “some people did something.” Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel called her “un-American” and, later, “a terrorist sympathizing anti-Semite.” Conservative publications said she was trivializing the attack and flirting with 9/11 conspiracy theories.

Fox & Friends joined in Wednesday, with host Brian Kilmeade saying, “You have to wonder whether she’s an American first.”

Later in the day, Kilmeade clarified on Twitter that he “didn’t mean to question whether Omar is an American,” but that he was “questioning how any American, let alone a United States Congresswoman, could downplay the 9/11 attacks.” Even in his backtracking, Kilmeade still managed to doubt whether Omar was truly an American.

On Thursday, the New York Post decided the controversy warranted front-page coverage, and published a picture of the burning Twin Towers with Omar’s name at the top.

Any of these people could have easily done their research. A full video of Omar’s speech is available online.

Earlier in the speech, Omar uses the word “terrorists” when speaking about the 9/11 attackers. And it’s clear that the broader point of her speech is not about revisiting the September 11 attacks, but about highlighting how ordinary Muslims have suffered in the 18 years since.

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“It doesn’t matter how good you are, if you one day find yourself in a school where other religions are talked about, but when Islam is mentioned, we are only talking about terrorists,” she said in her speech. “And if you say something, you are sent to the principal’s office.”

“So to me, I say: raise hell. Make people uncomfortable. Because here’s the truth… Far too long, we have lived with the discomfort of being a second-class citizen. And frankly, I’m tired of it, and every single Muslim in this country should be tired of it.”

This is not controversial. It is not up for debate. The war on terror has almost completely targeted Muslims, both domestically and abroad.

Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration created the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS), which registered and kept track of more than 80,000 immigrants, the majority of whom were Arab and Muslim. Under NSEERS, men over the age of 16 who were nationals of designated countries had to register with the government (which included fingerprinting and interrogation) and to regularly check in. Of the 25 targeted countries, 24 were Muslim-majority; the exception was North Korea. Families were torn apart and uprooted under NSEERS. More than 13,000 people who registered with the government were nonetheless deported, according to a 2012 report by Penn State Law and Rights Working Group, a coalition of human rights organizations.

Structural Islamophobia is embedded in U.S. policy and the criminal justice system — from the Patriot Act and the “See Something, Say Something” campaign under George W. Bush, to Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) under Barack Obama, to the Muslim ban under Trump. It’s the reason that the New York Police Department can infiltrate mosques and monitor Muslims for years without a warrant. It’s how Muslim babies end up on the no-fly list, and how the FBI has reportedly used that same list to pressure Muslims to become informants.

Trump has advocated for taking all this even further. He has argued that we should ban all Muslims from the United States (including Americans living abroad), register all Muslims in federal databases, and put all mosques in the country under surveillance.

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It would be easy to look any of this up, but the truth is that the attacks against Omar are bad faith attempts to single out and otherize a black Muslim woman — and they are turning into outright lies.

On Monday, Omar was criticized for being anti-Semitic after referring to White House aide Stephen Miller as a white nationalist. Miller — who is Jewish and has been publicly criticized by his family and former rabbi — has been endorsed by former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke, crafted the Muslim ban, advocated for family separation, and reportedly said he would be “happy if not a single refugee foot ever again touched America’s soil.”

By Tuesday, Trump who used an anti-Semitic trope when speaking at a Republican Jewish Coalition gathering last weekend tweeted a clip from Fox News in which a guest says Omar “keeps on assaulting Jews.” She has not done this.

The clip was in reference to two instances in which Omar criticized the pro-Israel lobby in the United States. It is true that she could have chosen her words more wisely to avoid anti-Semitic tropes, including one about Jews exhibiting dual loyalty.

Now, the same slur of dual loyalty is being lobbed against Omar.

It’s clear that the level of aggression Omar is facing partly has to do with who she is: one of the first Muslim women, the first person wearing a hijab, the first Somali American, and the first refugee elected to Congress. Other lawmakers of color have similarly been targeted and questioned. Trump came to power after spending years demanding Obama’s birth certificate to see if he was really American. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), also one of the first Muslim women in Congress, has been accused of being a secret member of the Muslim Brotherhood. And Ivanka Trump has claimed Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) “doesn’t understand the American people” like she does.

“I took an oath to uphold the Constitution,” Omar said during a Wednesday night appearance on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, in response to the latest attacks. “I am as American as everyone else is.”

These sorts of questions about Omar’s place in America have real world implications: the freshman congresswoman regularly faces death threats.

Just last week, a man in New York was arrested for calling Omar’s office and threatening to kill her.

“Do you work for the Muslim Brotherhood?” the man reportedly asked the staff member who picked up the phone. “Why are you working for her, she’s a fucking terrorist. I’ll put a bullet in her fucking skull.”

After Omar’s office reported the call to Capitol Police, FBI agents tracked the man down. According to the criminal complaint, the man said he loved Trump, hates radical Muslims in government, and confirmed he had a shotgun and .22 caliber rifle at his home.

“This is dangerous incitement, given the death threats I face,” Omar tweeted on Wednesday, referring to Kilmeade’s coverage of her comments and Crenshaw’s tweet. “My love and commitment to our country and that of my colleagues should never be in question. We are ALL Americans!”

“Simple answer quit saying shit that makes people want to Kill you,” one person replied.