Minnesota congresswoman Ilhan Omar has found herself at the forefront of a battle that has been raging in America since the 9/11 terror attacks.
Racists in America like extremist Republicans and Evangelicals have exploited the 9/11 attacks to foment and fuel anti-Muslim racism, while Democrats have chosen to exploit America’s Islamophobia for their own political agendas.
But Omar has a choice. She can either step into the racist assault against Islam and fight a narrow battle for justice or she can avoid being dragged into that war by defining herself in a secular way: As an American Arab who happens to be Muslim but who stands up for the rights of everyone, regardless of their religion.
The issue of religion is an important one in America. It is so important that the founders of the country went out of their way to carefully define the issue and to respectfully separate religion from politics.
The First Amendment to the US Constitution prevents government from having any authority over religion. But, when government officials wrap themselves in religion, as critics of Islam like President Donald Trump and some of his fellow Republicans have done, or defenders of Islam like many American Muslim organizations have done, they are actually undermining the Constitution and distracting Americans by forcing them to take political sides.
Omar can be forgiven for believing that religion is more important than secular society. She was born in Somalia, a country which is 99.8 percent Muslim. But, when she became an American citizen, she embraced America’s belief system, which says religion and politics should not be mixed. When they do get mixed, we get the kind of racist fallout that has dominated America over the past two decades, fueling animosity against Muslims.
As a Muslim, it’s not surprising that Omar has found herself in the crosshairs of attacks from Trump this past week. The president’s racist rhetoric has divided America. But Trump isn’t the only one. Extremists in the Muslim world have also done much to distort the true meaning of Islam, which is one of the most peaceful and beautiful religions in the world.
Of America’s 327 million inhabitants, only about 7.5 million are Muslim. They deserve to be treated fairly and without being subjected to racist hatred. They also don’t deserve to be exploited for political gain by extremist Democrats, who don’t really care about Muslims but see them as a weapon in their fight against Trump.
Omar made two mistakes during her speech to the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) on March 23. She said: “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… CAIR was founded after 9/11 because they recognized that some people did something and that all of us were starting to lose access to our civil liberties.” CAIR was actually founded years before 9/11, in 1994. But, aside from that minor error, Omar made a bigger one, treating an issue so important to Americans with careless rhetoric.
I know Omar doesn’t support terrorism. I know she doesn’t support the Al-Qaeda terrorists who wrapped themselves in Islam and distorted the true meaning of her religion. But 2,996 people died on Sept. 11, 2001, mostly civilians. Many of those murdered were Muslim and Arab. They deserve more powerful reverence.
Step back from the precipice, congresswoman. As an American member of the House of Representatives, you “represent” far more than just one religion. Define yourself as an American of Arab heritage who happens to be Muslim. Champion the causes of all people, including and especially non-Muslims. Fight for Arab-American rights. They need your help.
Sunday was the 107th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic in the North Atlantic. More than 1,500 of the 2,224 people on board died, but most Americans have ignored the fact that nearly 10 percent of the passengers on the Titanic were Arab, and they have never received the recognition they deserve.
Omar could fight more successfully for such causes by serving as an Arab, including defending the rights of all religions, not just Islam. Or she could allow herself to be pushed into a corner, representing only one issue and finding herself surrounded by activists who sometimes have done more harm than good to the cause.
As an American, Omar doesn’t have to make that choice. But, as an American politician, she must.