Lots of Ilhan Omar stories major on her politics -- but none really talk about her faith

U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar has gotten ultra-favorable coverage (this NPR piece is an example) as the history-making one-of-two-first-ever Muslim women to serve in Congress.

A one-time refugee in Kenya, the Somalia-born politician came to Virginia as a child, moved to Minnesota, got a political science degree from North Dakota State University, got involved in political activism and, like President Barak Obama, was a community organizer for minority groups in a large American city. She is now the country’s first hijab-wearing member of Congress.

She’s also faced death threats, been tweeted against by President Donald Trump and gotten major condemnation over her description on March 23 of September 11 as “some people who did something.”

I wrote about the reaction of some Minnesotans to the influx of Somali refugees in their state not long ago. This lengthy profile on Omar on the British web site MiddleEastEye.net goes in the opposite direction: Setting out the benefits of the Somalis getting politically involved.

Omar, as the first Somali-American to make it to the Minnesota state legislature and then to Congress, is part of a new cohort of path-breaking politicians daring to challenge not only US President Donald Trump but the broader American political establishment.

But Omar is more than just a congresswoman with fight. She is a refugee from a country that is now part of the president's Muslim ban; she is black, visibly Muslim; a walking antithesis to Trump's purview of America.

Within months, she has shaken the halls of Congress. As an "other" she is now the embodiment of what is fast becoming a fight for America's soul.

The story is an interesting meander through the many Muslim personalities the author meets while trying (somewhat fruitlessly) to get an interview with Omar. He does get a few words with her here and there but Omar seems loathe to divulge too much.

What strikes me in this –- and other articles I’ve dug up -– is how little Omar refers to her Muslim background. We hear nothing about how her faith influences her life. We get no idea of what mosque she attends, how she fits prayer into her work schedule and what precepts of the Quran she follows.

Islam is more of a political uniform for her, it seems. No reporter has wrestled from her comments about faith. I don’t get the impression that she talks about it. Instead, she’s created for herself a pulpit as the spokeswoman for all minorities.

She brought together people who had been on the sidelines. She foregrounded the forgotten. Shaie, from the Ummah Project, says Omar employed a set of tactics that surprised them all.

“You are black? Gay and lesbian? Are you Jewish? You're Chinese? Somali or Oromo? Come. You are all my people, she told them,” Shaie says, her eyes lighting up. “We all have the same needs. We are the minorities.”

“They don’t like me, just like they don’t like you. I am black, I’m Muslim, I’m a woman. I am you. You want your voice to be heard. Trust me. This was her message.”

Further down in the piece, the interviewer meets a Muslim man in a Somali tea shop who questions her religious bonafides.

“Her fights with Trump are drawing too much focus on us here, and what if a crazy comes here and shoots us up?” Khalid says. “She should just focus on lying low, getting into her job.”

Khalid also questions her support for LGBTQ rights. “How can you support gay people and then claim to be a defender of Muslims?” he says incredulously.

That’s a good question and one someone should be asking her.

The reporter also meets the head of a Jewish organization who dislikes Omar for her anti-Israel remarks and that she seems indifferent to building good relationships with the Jews in her district.

So the new representative is obviously sending some mixed signals. Omar is very vocal and it’s no secret as to what her political stances are. But she’s still the first woman to cover her head in Congress. That says something and that makes me want to know what sort of person hangs onto a hijab when it would have been so much easier to take it off.

According to Snopes, her faith is mixed up in her complex marital history, so there’d be a lot to interview Omar about should a reporter be able to pin her down for an in-depth piece. I’m hoping someone can do that and wring out of the politician more background about the Muslim part of her persona.

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