The Republican Party's Islamophobia shows no signs of abating
When Representative Lauren Boebert suggested at a town hall event in October that Ilhan Omar was a suicide bomber, and then promptly apologised for what seemed to be passing off the comment as a misguided attempt at humour, the issue surprisingly seemed to be put to rest. But it was only the beginning.
Days later, following a phone call ostensibly meant to mend fences, Omar hung up after Boebert reportedly asked her to apologise for her own past controversial statements (for which she had already apologised). She then followed up with more Islamophobic comments.
It’s unclear why Boebert had a change of heart, or if she had from the start meant for the call to not go well as a publicity stunt. What is clear is that her Islamophobic attacks on Omar were followed by death threats to Omar and a fundraising boon for Boebert.
“In any normal workplace, engaging in anti-Muslim bigotry against your co-worker would be a dangerous offense,” Edward Mitchell, deputy director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, tells The New Arab. “Islamophobia is one of the last acceptable forms of bigotry in the US.”
"Unfortunately, it's not new to American Muslims to see Islamophobic statements. What's new is the escalation of anti-Muslim attacks that have been coming from influential people in society, such as sitting members of congress"
These ongoing public provocations from Boebert show no sign of stopping anytime soon. Indeed, others have joined the attacks on Omar with similar rhetoric. Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene has recently used the term “jihad squad” to refer to the group of progressive lawmakers, repeating what Boebert had said back in October.
More recently, in late December, following Omar's criticism of Senator Joe Manchin’s absence of support for the Build Back Better Bill, conservative radio host Ben Shapiro repeatedly stated sarcastically that Omar was “wildly popular” in West Virginia, what appeared to be a thinly veiled reference to her background compared with residents of the majority-white rural state.
Why have some of the Republican party’s most extreme – though increasingly mainstream – members chosen Omar as a target?
She is not the first Muslim member, with Keith Ellison (also from Minnesota) predating her by a decade, nor is she the first woman. But she is the first African refugee to be part of the US Congress, and as an outspoken member of the squad (of progressive congress members who began entering office in 2018) whose multiple identities have sparked the disdain of high-profile bigots, she has consistently been a target of hateful rhetoric.
“Unfortunately, it’s not new to American Muslims to see Islamophobic statements. What’s new is the escalation of anti-Muslim attacks that have been coming from influential people in society, such as sitting members of congress. These are supposed to be role models in society. They’ve been trafficking in anti-Muslim hate,” Nihad Awad, executive director of the CAIR, tells The New Arab.
“The new thing is that Islamophobia is being normalised and weaponised and now it’s really inciting hate and violence against member of our community,” said Awad, noting a nationwide spike in anti-Muslim hate crimes, which he sees as inextricably linked to public statements of hate.
In a December opinion piece for The Hill, Fox News political analyst Juan Williams remarked that “Somewhere, former Congressman Steve King must be saying: ‘If only I had waited two years to air my views on white supremacy...’”
The analyst was referring to the former Iowa congressman’s bigoted remarks, which included Islamophobic references to Omar. House minority leader Kevin McCarthy condemned King’s openly racist remarks as “beneath the dignity of the party of Lincoln and the United States of America." McCarthy stripped King of his House committee assignments in January 2019.
Around the same time, in an incident specifically targeting Omar, a poster for a Republican event at the state capitol in West Virginia showed her face in front of an image of the burning twin towers in New York during the 9/11 attacks. The state party immediately condemned and removed the poster, saying they did not endorse hate speech or hateful views.
These days, it appears that not only are the Islamophobic attacks getting more frequent, but they are also largely going unchecked by the Republican Party leadership.
Indeed, some of the very politicians who have accused Omar of anti-Semitism (comments for which she apologised at the time), have their own habits of anti-Semitic remarks, which include regular references to billionaire philanthropist George Soros, Jewish space lasers (which Greene blamed for the California wildfires), and repeated comments by former president Donald Trump of Jews controlling US politics.
To the extent that there is a modicum of pushback on the right to this ongoing trend of bigoted rhetoric, the few politicians who do speak up are already seeing threats to their own political positions.
Nancy Mace, a representative from South Carolina, considered a moderate Republican and one of the few who has been publicly denouncing the Islamophobic comments against Omar, found herself a target of Marjorie Taylor Greene on Twitter, accusing her of not being a real conservative. Mace called her a “religious bigot.”
"These days, it appears that not only are the Islamophobic attacks getting more frequent, but they are also largely going unchecked by the Republican Party leadership"
Possibly more telling of the GOP’s dedication to its most extreme base is its plans to run more conservative candidates against Mace in her next primary election, despite her location in a swing district.
In mid-December, the House passed legislation to combat Islamophobia, pledging a special envoy. This followed a resolution by progressive members of Congress to strip Boebert of her committee assignments following her Islamophobic remarks.
But without Republican support against this growing trend of Islamophobic rhetoric, some worry the trend will likely continue.
“I expect this to continue,” Najee Ali, president of the Democratic Club of Southern California, tells TNA.
“It sends a horrible message for those watching what’s going on. They’ll be emboldened, and it will become cancerous. The only way to stop these disparaging comments is to bring everyone together and set the rules of engagement. No one has to agree politically, but they have to respect their fellow colleagues.”
Brooke Anderson is The New Arab's correspondent in Washington DC, covering US and international politics, business, and culture.
Follow her on Twitter: @Brookethenews