If I attempted to list every terrible thing that’s been said to, or about, Ilhan Omar, I’d be here not just all day, not just all week, but a full month. And that’s pretty shocking since she was only sworn in to US Congress in January.
One of the first two Muslim women ever elected, you might know her as one of the “squad” – a diverse group of progressive congresswomen that also includes Ayanna Pressley, Rashida Tlaib and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
As a collective, they have railed against economic and social inequality, condemned the inhumane treatment of immigrants in detention centres and called for free healthcare for all.
But it’s fair to say that 37-year-old Omar, especially, has incensed conservative America. Her critics include high-profile Republicans, entire media companies and the president himself, but none have been so vicious as the primetime presenter on America’s most-watched cable network, Fox News.
Tucker Carlson – whose more infamous quotes include a description of Iraqi people as “semi-literate primitive monkeys” – has unsurprisingly voiced his dislike for Omar more than once. But his latest tirade took the form of a three-minute monologue of vitriol delivered directly to camera, while pictures of the Minnesota representative flashed up in the background.
“Ilhan Omar has an awful lot to be grateful for, but she isn’t grateful, not at all,” he told millions of viewers. “After everything America has done for Omar and for her family, she hates this country more than ever.”
“Ilhan Omar is living proof that the way we practise immigration has become dangerous to this country,” he went on, claiming she had “undisguised contempt for the United States and for its people” and insisting that this “should worry” Americans.
“Maybe it’s our fault for asking too little of our immigrants. We aren’t self-confident enough to make them assimilate, so they never feel fully American,” he said.
“Or maybe the problem is deeper than that, maybe we are importing people from places whose values are simply antithetical to ours.”
What we learned
Carlson’s basis for this out-and-out racist attack on Omar’s character was her criticism of US immigration policy – otherwise known as her job. The fact that President Trump spent his entire election campaign criticising every government policy under the sun seemed to have slipped his mind.
But of course it wasn’t really about that. It’s never been about that. It’s Omar’s very existence as a black, female, Muslim immigrant who refuses to be cowed by powerful men that threatens people like Carlson the most.
And Omar knows this better than anyone. She responded to his rant with a lighthearted, emoji-peppered tweet, calling him a “racist fool” and assuring her supporters that “no lies will stamp out my love for this country or my resolve to make our union more perfect”.
She is used to these kind of character assassination attempts. They come thick and fast every time she makes a public appearance or speaks out online.
But the sheer abundance of free-flowing racism and misogyny in Trump’s America shouldn’t make us resigned to it, or make us complacent in calling it out every time.
The attempts to silence Omar and drag her down into controversy are predictable – we knew her running for Congress as an outspoken hijabi woman was an act of bravery in itself – but they do show us how desperately we need more people like her in positions of power, both in the US and around the world.
Until Omar is one of hundreds of engaged, empowered women calling out injustice in government, she will remain a target. And that’s what we must focus on changing.