ABOVE PHOTO: Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) (Photo by Ryan Stopera)
By Amy Forliti
MINNEAPOLIS — Minnesota Democrat Ilhan Omar has relished the attention attached to becoming one of the first two Muslim women elected to Congress, eagerly engaging with supporters and critics on social media.
But Omar’s quick thumbs also have caused problems for herself and Democratic leadership. Last Sunday, she suggested on Twitter that members of Congress are being paid to support Israel — a comment that drew swift criticism on social media as being anti-Semitic and led House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to condemn the statement and demand an apology.
Omar apologized, saying she is “Listening and learning, but standing strong.” She then reaffirmed what she called “the problematic role of lobbyists in our politics.”
She and Michigan Democrat Rashida Tlaib won November elections to become the first Muslim women elected to Congress, a status that has brought extra scrutiny of their public statements on Israel and Palestinians. Omar also is the first to wear a hijab in the House chamber, after floor rules were changed to allow the head scarf.
Omar replaced Democrat Keith Ellison, who ran for state attorney general, in representing a Minneapolis-area district that is heavily liberal and includes thousands of Somali-Americans as well as significant Jewish populations.
Omar’s family fled Somalia when she was just 8 as civil war tore the country apart. They spent four years in a Mombasa, Kenya, camp with tens of thousands of other refugees. At age 12, the family was sponsored to move to the United States, eventually settling in Minnesota.
Her interest in politics was sparked by her grandfather, and she used his Quran for her swearing-in ceremony.
As she was heading to Washington for the event, she tweeted a picture of herself at the airport with her father, writing, “23 years ago, from a refugee camp in Kenya, my father and I arrived at an airport in Washington DC. Today, we return to that same airport on the eve of my swearing in as the first Somali-American in Congress.”
Omar has also had to contend with allegations from conservative bloggers that she married her brother to carry out immigration fraud, claims that were picked up in an ad campaign against her last fall by Minnesota Republicans. Omar broadly denied those allegations, calling them “disgusting lies,” but declined to provide documents or answer specific questions about them. She said it would only “further the narrative of those who oppose us.”
Omar is part of a freshman class of women who went to Washington with the goal of shaking things up. A recent “Saturday Night Live” skit parodied them as action heroes, giving Omar the nickname, Ilhan “Get the Hi-Job Done” Omar. The congresswoman retweeted the video along with an emoji of a bicep flexing.
Monday’s dustup isn’t the first time Omar has come under scrutiny for her Twitter posts. She apologized just last month over a 2012 tweet in which she wrote, “Israel has hypnotized the world, may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel.” She said she had intended to criticize an Israeli military action and didn’t realize that the “hypnosis” imagery was regarded as an anti-Semitic trope.
She was also criticized after tweeting last month that Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, was “compromised” — something that she later admitted to CNN was based on her opinion, not on any evidence.
Omar sits on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, which oversees foreign assistance and foreign policy issues. She has been named to the House Education and Labor Committee.
In her first month in Congress, she has joined with colleagues to introduce the Freedom of Religion Act, designed as a challenge to President Donald Trump’s Muslim ban and she has spoken out against the administration’s immigration policies.
Omar’s political career took off in 2016 when she made history as the first Somali-American to serve in a state legislature in the U.S. Her tenure in the Minnesota House was brief but still came with national exposure, appearing on a Time magazine cover and in a Maroon 5 music video.
She also had a run-in with a Washington, D.C., taxi driver who she said called her “ISIS.”
Stuck in a Republican-controlled chamber, her legislative portfolio in Minnesota was relatively thin. She repeatedly sought money to help combat a 2017 measles outbreak that impacted the Somali community. She also worked to renovate a popular community center in her district.
After Omar was elected to Congress, she said she was looking forward to going to Washington and planned “to hold this administration accountable and be a true check and balance.”