America’s Malala

By Fedwa Wazwaz, Engage Minnesota

I should not be expected to have allegiance/pledge support to a foreign country in order to serve my country in Congress or serve on committee. The people of the 5th elected me to serve their interest. I am sure we agree on that!
–Rep. Ilhan Omar, Fifth District, Minnesota

ilhan omarLeading Democrats in the US House of Representatives have said that, on Wednesday, they plan to put forward a resolution condemning Rep. Ilhan Omar. Although the text of the resolution is still unavailable, most assume it will call out Omar’s outspoken human-rights activism as anti-Semitic. In its secrecy and power, the resolution feels something like the fatwas some extremists issue against anyone who wants to challenge them to start a conversation.

Rep. Omar may have chosen her words poorly when questioning AIPAC. She apologized for that. However, her words did not warrant this overwhelming response. She did not—as she should not—use the stereotype about “Jewish money,” as some right-wing US politicians do when they bring up George Soros. She criticized AIPAC, which is a very powerful lobby group that boasts of its tremendous influence.

Unfortunately, most Democrats’ response has not been to talk to Omar in a collegial way, but to demoralize her and shame her into submission. Some representatives, such as California Rep. Juan Vargas, have even said that “questioning support for the U.S.-Israel relationship is unacceptable.” It thus becomes impossible to have a debate on important policy issues, and to hear the arguments Rep. Omar wants to bring forth, in a climate of sensationalized slander, demoralization, and shaming.

Democratic New York Rep. Nita Lowey claimed Omar “continues to mischaracterize support for Israel.” Rep. Ilhan Omar responded to Rep. Lowey on Twitter by clarifying her remarks:

“Our democracy is built on debate, Congresswoman! I should not be expected to have allegiance/pledge support to a foreign country in order to serve my country in Congress or serve on committee. The people of the 5th elected me to serve their interest. I am sure we agree on that!

“I have not mischaracterized our relationship with Israel, I have questioned it and that has been clear from my end.

“I am told every day that I am anti-American if I am not pro-Israel. I find that to be problematic and I am not alone. I just happen to be willing to speak up on it and open myself to attacks.

“My Americanness is questioned by the President and the @GOP on a daily basis, yet my colleagues remain silent. I know what it means to be American and no one will ever tell me otherwise.

“I am in the Horn of Africa this weekend, proud to see peace prosper here and to be part of the first American delegation to Eritrea in decades is one I am grateful for. I fight peace and justice because only those who experience the pain of war, know the joy of peace.

“Being opposed to Netanyahu and the occupation is not the same as being anti-Semitic. I am grateful to the many Jewish allies who have spoken out and said the same.

“We must be willing to combat hate of all kinds while also calling out oppression of all kinds. I will do my best to live up to that. I hope my colleagues will join me in doing the same.

“I have not said anything about the loyalty of others, but spoke about the loyalty expected of me. There is the difference.”

This smear campaign against Rep. Omar must stop. Leading columnists and politicians are feeding this fiction that Rep. Omar is a traitor to the US and an anti-Semite. In doing so, they put her life at risk. Already, posters were created linking her to 9/11, and she has received death threats.

As a nation, we have strongly condemned fatwas against Salman Rushdie. We also stood in unison, defending Charlie Hebdo’s free speech, even though the publication printed vile cartoons that were blatantly racist, dehumanizing marginalized groups. We have made space for women like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, in the name of free speech—but there is not room for Rep. Omar?

Many in the public sphere have mocked Muslims, accusing them of not being able to handle criticism, of not respecting free speech and freedom of expression. In 2007, for instance, the Minnesota Daily published my commentary “Islamo-Fascism a very racist concept.” On October 23 and 24, letters to the editor responded to my essay. A common thread in the letters was that respondents felt I was restricting their right to criticize Islam.

Yet events like “Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week” are not about criticizing Islam. They are about racializing Muslims and shaming us into seeing ourselves as flawed and defective, a veritable catalog of social ills. The racists behind IFAW have reduced Islam to Hamas, Al Qaida, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad and other Muslim enemies du jour.

The question is not whether they have permission to criticize Islam—yes, they do. It’s whether they can speak about Islam in a way that doesn’t create a climate of violent fear, turning Muslims into the enemy. Certainly, this should never again happen to the Jewish people, either.

But why is Rep. Omar being targeted? Is it only because of her remarks, or also because she is being turned into an enemy? Muslim communities are often criticized for not giving women public-facing roles. But here is a visibly Muslim woman in a prominent leadership role, and she is being silenced by her allies. Our first-year Congresswoman, who is a refugee from Somalia, has not been able to ask questions without being faced with unbelievable barrage of hate and incitement to violence, including a resolution condemning her remarks. This hypocrisy must be questioned and challenged.


Fedwa Wazwaz is a Palestinian-American born in Jerusalem, Palestine and raised in the US.  She is a public speaker and writer and lives in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota.

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