Politics

What Ilhan Omar’s Speech Really Meant

It was a rousing assertion of Muslim American defiance. Her critics have only given it more power.

Ilhan Omar at a microphone.
Rep. Ilhan Omar speaks at the CAIR-LA banquet on March 23 at the Hilton Woodland Hills in Los Angeles.
Photo illustration by Slate. Image via CAIR GLA/YouTube.

Fox News cameras were already rolling in California when a newly elected congresswoman arrived at a fundraiser to give a speech last month. The network livestreamed all 20 minutes of the talk on its Facebook page, where it was watched by more than 1 million people.

A member of Congress at a charity event might not sound like national news. But the speech was delivered by Rep. Ilhan Omar, whom the network has obsessed over since before she was even elected last year. The video stream was presented with little comment, but it was obvious the reaction it sought. There were hundreds of angry, unfiltered comments (“America better wake up they are here to destroy us within !!!”). Even so, the speech passed with little fanfare. It wasn’t news.

For three weeks, few raised any issues with Omar’s comments at all. Then, last week, Rep. Dan Crenshaw tweeted 20 seconds of the speech, including the phrase “some people did something,” which he said he found “unbelievable.” For almost a week since, Omar has been under aggressive fire from many members of the Republican Party, including the president of the United States, who suggested that Omar minimized the memory of 9/11. Trump continued to stoke the furor on Monday, despite Omar’s office pointing to an influx of death threats since the attacks began.

Crenshaw’s clip was excerpted from the 20-minute speech delivered at a fundraiser for the Council on American-Islamic Relations of Greater Los Angeles. Even prior to the actual event, it received coverage on far-right media, which made blatantly false and debunked claims about the organization. On the day of the fundraiser, an estimated 1,000 protesters stood outside waving Israeli and American flags, chanting things like “Terrorists go home” while touting Trump-inspired signs and clothing. This is what attracted Fox News.

At the beginning of her speech, which you can watch in full above, Omar quipped about how she found the protesters “fascinating” for standing against Islam for the sake of liberating Muslim women while simultaneously protesting an empowered one. In defiance of the protesters, she told the audience, “we know who we are and where we belong and what we stand for.”

“We are coming off a tragic nightmare that has happened to Muslims in New Zealand,” she continued. The fundraiser was held one week after the Christchurch massacre, in which a far-right terrorist murdered 50 Muslims who gathered to worship in mosques in New Zealand. She acknowledged that this didn’t happen in a vacuum, reminding us of the many threats Muslims face for existing in the West: the rising streak of anti-Muslim hate crimes, the arson that burned a mosque down, the killer who ran over Muslims with a car, the people who shot Muslims in the street. Meanwhile, we have a president who is supposed to represent American Muslims telling the world that he thinks “Islam hates us.” Omar was speaking to this. Her position, and words of confrontational resilience, were more than uplifting—they were a reaffirmation that Muslims in America not only exist but deserve to be represented by our government.

About halfway through her speech, Omar’s tone shifted to defiance. “Raise hell. Make people uncomfortable,” she told the audience of Muslim Americans, “because here’s the truth. 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.” That led into this: “CAIR was founded after 9/11 because they recognized that some people did something, and all of us were starting to lose access to our civil liberties.”

Omar, in fact, was incorrect in saying that CAIR was founded after 9/11; it was created in 1994. But it has expanded since then, and the fact that Muslims were treated as second-class citizens after the attacks is undeniable. In this bracing moment of her speech, days after dozens were murdered amid worship, Omar called on American Muslims to turn a new page in our history here. That message—that Muslims cannot stand for systemic mistreatment in the name of some warped penance for 9/11—was ignored entirely by her House colleague, Crenshaw, who stripped it of context and corrupted it into yet another way to signal Omar’s essential un-American nature.

Omar spoke for another 10 minutes. She offered the audience encouragement and shared how she was trying to bridge the gap between Muslim Americans and the Americans who are afraid of us, like the thousand standing outside in protest (and the hundreds of thousands more watching on Fox’s Facebook page). “I say you can’t hate up close. Every time you have an opportunity to talk to someone, the chance of them hating you lessens. So that is a practice we should all adopt,” she said. She closed her remarks with a verse from the Quran in which God commands Muslims to stand up against injustice, even if it comes from inside us or from our own family. She said that no leader is beyond reproach, including herself, and reminded the audience that too is what America stands for, and it’s why so many of us are here in the first place:

As an elected Muslim in Congress, I feel the weight of responsibility that I have to not live up to the name of being a Muslim, but live up to the ideals of what it means to be a Muslim. And I know as an American, as an American member of Congress, I have to make sure that I am living up to the ideals of fighting for liberty and justice. Those are very much rooted in the reason why my family came here. And so, regardless of how hard Washington might get for me or your neighborhoods might get for you, you have to always remember that we have a mission as humans to love one another, to care for our neighbors, to raise compassionate children, and to fully, every single day, show up, and make sure that we are furthering justice.

It’s obvious Crenshaw, to say nothing of the president, has little interest in Omar besides using her as a political tool. (Crenshaw did, after all, administer a Facebook group that called Islam a “cancer.”) But the notion that Omar—who was a 19-year-old refugee who had already lived in the United States for a decade on 9/11—lacks the compassion to understand the pain felt by all of us that day is still infuriating because that belief comes from who she is, not what she said. That’s clear when you look at the real substance of her speech.

But even while this past week’s episode has been disgusting to watch unfold, I see reason for hope. Omar gives all Muslims dignity by standing so firmly in the face of this attack—a symbol for the very Muslim American defiance she advocated. The real part of her remarks that should scare her critics is her unapologetic call to “raise hell” and “make people uncomfortable”; it’s not just civil liberties Muslims must demand but a fundamental realignment of how we’re cast in society. Just for being who she is, Omar has drawn the worst bigotry from the right out into the sunlight, and she’s clearly not going to stop. We have a great stake in Omar’s resilience. Watching her stand in her hijab, unwavered, gives strength to our national identity as American Muslims—and we’re only getting stronger.