I was 11 years old, and I didn’t realize our country was under attack until I heard the rocks pelting against the window of our classroom. I was in math, and kids outside were throwing rocks at our Islamic school in New Jersey. The principal got on the intercom and announced that school was dismissed for the day and that all students needed to evacuate the building.
Before I even saw the pillar of black smoke coming from lower Manhattan, I knew that as an American Muslim, I would be asked to choose between those two identities. I’m 29 now, and still, over and over, my religious identity is leveraged by bigoted pundits and politicians, who place me on the side of the terrorists who attacked all of us that day.
I can’t say I’m surprised that Rep. Ilhan Omar, the first ever hijab-clad congresswoman, has been subjected to the same smears. Last month, the West Virginia Republican Party displayed a poster that claimed that Omar was proof that Americans have forgotten about 9/11. This week, the New York Post published an inflammatory cover connecting Omar to the terrorist attacks. And then, on Friday, Donald Trump tweeted out a heinous propaganda video intercutting Omar’s words with images of the attacks.
Trump would have his supporters believe that he, the elite aristocrat who bragged about his real estate while Ground Zero was still smoldering, cares more about the suffering of human beings than a refugee of war does. And recent history suggests that Trump supporters will believe it. The Republican Party has been all too willing to leverage Islamophobia, with the recent midterm election featuring some of the most hate-filled campaigns this country has ever seen. Fear of Muslims, it seems, is the glue that helps bind many of the party’s supporters. Stoking that fear has become a winning strategy for the GOP.
This most recent round of attacks on Ilhan Omar was sparked by Republican Rep. Dan Crenshaw, who suggested that Omar made light of 9/11 in a recent speech. Forgive me for doubting Crenshaw’s sincerity in criticizing Omar for describing terrorists as “some people.” (Her full comments are here.) Crenshaw at one point was an administrator for a Facebook group that called Islam a “cancer.” The Texas congressman also ignored that Omar co-sponsored a recent bill seeking to compensate first responders for their continued suffering a decade after 9/11. Nor do he and Trump seem to care that they’re villainizing Omar as she’s faced credible threats against her life in recent weeks. Lt. Christopher Hasson, who was found with an enormous cache of weapons when he was arrested in February, included Omar on his “hit list.” Among the searches found on Hasson’s computer: “civil war if trump impeached.”
After 9/11, my community was determined to show that the attacks would not divide us. American flags were distributed at my masjid and prayers were recited for both the Muslim and non-Muslim New Yorkers who lost their lives that day. Donald Trump, meanwhile, has been focused on using the horrors of that day to sow hatred and division. Trump long ago fabricated the claim that “thousands” of Muslims in Jersey City cheered when the Twin Towers went down. Now, he’s suggesting to his followers that a Muslim American politician doesn’t care about terror victims and that she’s somehow responsible for the attacks themselves.
The attacks on Omar have been steady and insidious, and it’s more obvious now than ever what they’re based on. When Crenshaw and Trump connect her to 9/11, and when commentators on Fox News question whether she’s “American first” and suggest that her hijab indicates she doesn’t follow the U.S. Constitution, the religious bigotry is clear. It’s no longer possible to deny.
It’s also depressingly familiar. But a part of me hopes this could a turning point in America’s discourse surrounding Islamophobia. Even while some party leaders are failing Omar, Democratic presidential candidates such as Bernie Sanders, Beto O’Rourke, and Elizabeth Warren are directly and angrily acknowledging Trump and Crenshaw’s Islamophobic tropes, specifically the idea that Muslims covertly harbor seditious, anti-American ideas. At this point, anyone who doesn’t acknowledge what these attacks against Omar signify either isn’t paying attention or believes that it’s reasonable to use anti-Muslim rhetoric to score political points. For all Americans, this should be an easy call: If you’re not standing against these kinds of attacks against Ilhan Omar, you’re not standing up for your country.