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It feels like America is becoming desensitized to Islamophobia. However, when we fail to speak up against religious discrimination in politics, we give Islamopobia permission to exist and thrive.
Over the Thanksgiving weekend, you may have seen the video clip posted to a Twitter account called PatriotTakes, in which Lauren Boebert, a Colorado Republican, makes blatantly bigoted remarks against Representative Ilhan Omar. In the video, Boebert says Ilhan belongs to a “Jihad Squad” and suggests that the Muslim congresswoman from Minneapolis could potentially be a suicide bomber.
This is not the first time that Boebert has used an Islamophobic slur against Ilhan. Last month, on the House floor, Boebert defended Arizona representative Paul Gosar for posting an outrageous animated video that showed him killing Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. In that speech, Boebert again called Ilhan and other congresswomen of color the “Jihad Squad.”
Ilhan serves as a convenient target for extremist right-wingers, from legislators to the former president. Donald Trump and other perpetrators of Islamophobia have attempted to convince the public that Muslims present a serious threat to the existing political establishment in the United States.
While many people disapproved of Trump’s stance, his party has rarely called for dismantling insidious anti-Muslim sentiment and white supremacy. These views continue to permeate our country’s political leadership.
Incidents like this aren’t just political gamesmanship or theater. I’m a Black and Muslim hijabi woman, and I have been subjected to racism, Islamophobia, and questions about my Americanness. As the founder and executive director of Ayada Leads, a nonprofit organization that inspires African diaspora women to run for office, I’ve observed this bigoted strategy develop—and intensify—over the past 10 years.
To be clear, though, that experience has not led me to feel resigned to the margins.
Instead, through incidents like Boebert’s eruption, we’ve learned that the most effective way to counter Islamophobia is to develop the talents and political skills of African diaspora women.
Ilhan is an Ayada Leads alumna and it saddens us to see the vitriol she is subjected to. We are proud of her. For many Muslim hijabi women, Ilhan sets a powerful example of how to engage in politics without having to compromise one’s values.
The emergence of Islamophobia as a political strategy
During Trump’s 2016 campaign, he declared, “I think Islam hates us”—validation for a common sentiment among the right base. This wasn’t concern about Islamic “extremism” anymore (a problematic fear on its own), but a demonstration of prejudice against anything associated with Islam.
In 2017, President Trump signed an executive order banning people from six Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S. and shut the door on refugees. (In 2021, President Biden reversed the Muslim and African travel ban.) The policy delivered a frighteningly clear message: According to Trump and his national movement, Muslims have no place in the United States.
Congresswomen Ilhan Omar, a hijab wearer, and Rashida Tlaib, of Michigan, are the first two Muslim women ever elected to Congress. Ilhan’s Muslim attire ended a 181-year-old rule that banned headwear on the House floor. Omar was born in Somalia, and in 2000, at age 17, took the oath to become an American citizen.
Like many naturalized citizens, she believes that she should be treated no differently from other Americans. Embracing those rights has included having the audacity to question the actions and choices of her government.
Ilhan serves as a constant reminder that America is changing demographically and more leaders that look like her will stand at the helm of our country. This browning of America is unsettling to many who hold extreme rights views. They’re afraid that their racial dominance and privileges could slip away as they become a demographic minority. Thus, the resurgence of racial and religious discrimination.
Defining Islamophobia: Silence is consent
When she was elected, Ilhan famously said that her election to Congress is a message to religious bigots. Islamophobia is a prejudice constructed as a result of the demonization of Muslims and Islamic culture. According to Khaled A. Beydoun, a professor of law at Wayne State University, Islamophobia is deeper than prejudice; it is a systematic injustice that attacks Muslims’ personal and professional lives.
Anti-Muslim sentiment has always existed. Historically, Muslims in the United States have been viewed as outsiders and become objects of criticism and suspicion. But after September 11, Islamophobia helped shape the “Global War on Terror.” The U.S. government unleashed human rights abuses while invading foreign lands. But law enforcement also turned the 9/11 attack into a green light for surveilling and persecuting American Muslims.
Muslims face discrimination and experience double standards on a routine basis. We are more likely to be subjected to heightened scrutiny in public places. We’re denied boarding on airplanes; we see our bank accounts closed; we wrongfully become subjects of FBI investigations; we experience religious persecution through attacks on mosques.
The threat of Islamophobia is real. Ilhan—through her political existence—challenges the (incorrect) notion that America is inherently a white and Christian country. These nationalists have become more desperate, radical, and dangerous, churning out a stream of slander and, not infrequently, death threats. In their warped thinking, she must be stopped.
To be clear, Islamophobia is not exclusive to the extreme right. There are liberals who engage in Islamophobia. It is a systemic problem that is present in the media, in the major political parties, and in many parts of our communities.
Islamophobia is a complex and pervasive problem. But it can be beaten. The best ways to address Islamophobia are to form solidarity with the Muslim community, to development policies at all levels that criminalize hatred against Muslims, and to organize an active movement to dispel hatred against Muslims.
Non-Muslim communities can speak up when they see Muslims being targeted. Minnesotans can educate themselves and others about the recent increase in anti-Muslim bigotry and scapegoating.
According to Pew Research Center, more than 50 percent of non-Muslim Americans know little or nothing about Islam. Sharing information on social media or helping to organize an education forum in your community is an activity that anyone can do.
In this spirit, Congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Jan Schakowsky, an Illinois Democrat, have introduced the Combating International Islamophobia Act. The bill would establish a special envoy office at the U.S. State Department to monitor and combat international Islamophobia. Local and state governments also have the right to put forward policies that can stop Islamophobia.
Communities can organize to build the more inclusive America we envision. That is what our organization, Ayada Leads, has been doing for the last six years.
We have been strengthening our democracy by ensuring that nobody is left out of the civic process. That means uncovering the full talent that America has to offer in elected offices. Our goal is to organize women, break down stereotypes, and demystify misconceptions surrounding African and Muslim women and civic leadership.
We are proud of the changes we are bringing to Minnesota’s political landscape. Over the past six years, we have seen a large number of African diaspora and Muslim women running for office. It is important to point out Minnesota’s success: Our state is the only state in the nation that elected a Muslim, Black, refugee woman to Congress. We’ve also helped diaspora African women become legislators, city councillors, and school-board members.
As more Muslim women began running office, we realized the need for a tailored training program. Our strategy is unique in that we coach our trainees to act from their innate strengths. We embrace our identity as an essential way to develop and practice civic leadership skills.
We believe in the refrain “all politics is local”: As a source of objective and nonpartisan election information, we make sure our communities stay informed. To that end, Ayada Leads holds workshops and produces social media campaigns in both English and Somali, empowering women to vote in their local elections. Sadly, members of our communities often are not aware of the power held by local elected officials.
Mayors, city councilors, county commissioners, school-board members, county attorneys, judges, sheriffs: All these offices hold power to impact citizens’ lives. These officials can either promote or confront racism, Islamophobia, and xenophobia. For example, Beltrami county commissioners barred refugees from resettling in their county. City councils often hold the zoning power to decide whether a mosque or Islamic community center can be built.
We need to participate in the local and state elections that shape these decisions.
Muslims belong here. We are emerging as voters, organizers, candidates, and legislators. We are a vibrant and increasingly important part of the tapestry in communities across the state and the nation. We are here to stay, forever.