When Minnesota state Rep. Ilhan Omar stepped on stage tonight as one of the first Muslim women ever elected to Congress—the other, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, was also elected Tuesday night—she led with “as-salam alaikum.” Then: “alhamdulillah.” I’m transported. This was not an acceptance speech I expected to hear. In a cycle recently dubbed “the most Islamophobic election ever,” even basic Muslim salutations on a stage like this feel like a tangible achievement.
In her speech, Congresswoman-elect Omar—who trounced her opponent to replace Rep. Keith Ellison, himself the first Muslim ever elected to Congress—described an America that I also recognized. She wasn’t uncritical. She said immigrants who come to America for better lives “are too often met with bigotry and hate.” Indigenous people, she said, “are living in tents like refugees in their own lands.” The people around Omar cheered, for once hearing a politician talk about issues essential to them unapologetically. She ran, she said, because she “could not stand by on the sidelines and watch those promises go unkept.” Many Muslims, some for the first time, will now feel as if they have a real representative in our government.
The emotional congresswoman-elect, standing before ebullient supporters at a charmingly unpolished gathering, clearly marked the moment. “I stand here before you tonight,” she declared, “as your congresswoman-elect with many firsts behind my name.” As eyes swelled, she continued, “The first woman of color to represent our state in congress. The first woman to wear a hijab. The first refugee ever elected to Congress. And one of the first Muslim women elected to Congress.”
These achievements aren’t just symbolic. As the child of Muslim immigrants myself, for years, every vote I cast for a national candidate felt mostly like a vote against whoever I thought was more likely to stoke hatred against Americans like me. In Omar, I see a congresswoman who not only sees the world the way I do, but whose presence alone will remind Congress that I too am American, and so are all American Muslims. A female refugee in a headscarf will make it that much harder for her colleagues to ignore her experience or pretend people like her don’t exist.
Omar and Tlaib, her new congressional colleague, represent the biggest successes this year of a new wave of Muslim candidates who have entered political races in record numbers to fight systemic bigotry. Their victories are instant repudiations of the Islamophobia that has dominated our politics my entire adult life. In her speech, Omar continued, “My grandfather taught me that when you see injustice, you fight back.” In an election like this, there really was no more powerful way to fight back than to open an acceptance speech with “as-salam alaikum.”