Democrats and Republicans have spent the past few months arguing about Ilhan Omar, the freshman Democrat—and a black Muslim woman—who represents Minneapolis in the U.S. House.
Democrats and Republicans have also spent the past several months arguing about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the freshman Democrat representing portions of Queens and the Bronx in the House. Ocasio-Cortez is a happy warrior who revels in the general obsession with her political significance and her Twitter account; Omar is different. The arguments about Omar are darker and more defensive. Omar criticizes the U.S.-Israel relationship and champions Palestinian statehood. In February, Omar said U.S. support for Israel is, in large part, a financial racket. “It’s all about the Benjamins baby,” she tweeted about the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, one of the most prominent public interest groups in the U.S. Omar faced a broad backlash—among Jewish people, among conservatives, and within her own party—from critics who compared her criticisms to anti-Semitic caricatures of greed and malfeasance. Omar apologized for her comments. “Anti-Semitism is real and I am grateful for Jewish allies and colleagues who are educating me on the painful history of anti-Semitic tropes,” she tweeted. “We have to always be willing to step back and think through criticism, just as I expect people to hear me when others attack me about my identity.” In the two months following Omar’s apology, conservative critics have prolonged their campaign against the representative. It’s a long-term project: They’re stuck with Ocasio-Cortez, but they might gradually pressure Omar to resign.
Donald Trump and freshman Republican Representative Dan Crenshaw, who represents a district in southeast Texas, have led the latest charge against Omar. Crenshaw, a Navy SEAL veteran of the war in Afghanistan, has obsessed over a speech in which Omar, addressing the Council on American-Islamic Relations, refers to Al Qaeda’s responsibility for the 9/11 terrorist attacks in rough shorthand: “Some people did something.” She may seem to be downplaying Al Qaeda’s monstrous acts, but really she is attempting to draw a contrast between Al Qaeda and American Muslims. In her longer remarks, Omar says millions of American Muslims, who had nothing to do with Al Qaeda’s violent designs, experience the post-9/11 moment (in the enduring, present tense) from a drastically different perspective than most other Americans, white Americans especially. That was her point. It’s simple enough. It’s a decent insight lost to Crenshaw’s agonizing about phrasing, rhetorical emphasis, and, inevitably, identity politics. “I don’t like the fact that they try to use her Muslim faith or her gender or her race as a shield,” Fox News host Jesse Watters told Crenshaw on air. “This is the worst kind of argumentation,” Crenshaw says. “You’re supposed to debate ideas.” Hearing Crenshaw, one might assume Omar’s critics might indeed be eager to spend these precious news cycles further illuminating Middle East policy of the past couple decades. They’re not; they don’t. They’re obsessed with Omar, personally, exclusively.
But Crenshaw is a Republican—he’s simply doing what Republicans do. He’s going on Fox News to indulge the never-ending fever dream about “political correctness,” which ostensibly prohibits Crenshaw and his host from mounting arguments while they mount those very arguments in prime time. Omar’s infamy among Democrats is the more bewildering phenomenon.
Rashida Tlaib, a freshman Democrat who represents parts of Detroit and is also Muslim, criticized her Democratic colleagues in Congress, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, for marginalizing Omar in a reasonable, if not entirely constructive debate about Israeli politics and U.S.-Israel relations. “They put us in photos when they want to show our party is diverse. However, when we ask to be at the table, or speak up about issues that impact who we are, what we fight for & why we ran in the first place, we are ignored,” Tlaib tweeted Saturday. “To truly honor our diversity is to never silence us.” Unwittingly, Pelosi affirmed Tlaib’s complaint in a 60 Minutes interview on Sunday when Lesley Stahl asked the House speaker about the left-wing congressional faction, including Omar, Tlaib, and Ocasio-Cortez. “That’s like five people,” Pelosi shrugged. Pelosi and Senate Democratic Minority Leader Chuck Schumer have repeatedly distanced themselves from Omar, though the Democratic presidential candidates have, at last, uniformly rallied around the Minnesota rep now that Trump has escalated his antagonism against her.
Officially, Democrats struggle to take identity politics seriously, even as conservatives like Trump and Crenshaw insist that nonwhite identity politics has become the dominant mode of the Democratic Party. It is easy for the Democratic leadership to celebrate the election of Omar and Tlaib, the first Muslim women elected to Congress, as an identitarian milestone, its significance severed from the party’s political program. It’s easy to celebrate the firsts, especially at the Republican Party’s expense in its latest, homogenizing phase. It’s much harder to accept that black Muslim women from the Midwest might speak unconventionally about Israel and 9/11, among other political matters. It’s easier to hope Omar will, simply, assimilate: The presumption is that she’s embarrassing herself and making everyone else uncomfortable, until she does so. If Ocasio-Cortez’s rise marks a youthful, left-wing transformation, then Omar’s troubles suggest the familiar fears about identity politics and the cynicism that animates so many pro-diversity establishmentarians. Identity politics could ideally mean a substantially reinvigorated and expanded conversation about Israel and Afghanistan. But identity politics could also mean petty jockeying over who gets to speak, and what they get to say, in any given news cycle. In fact, identity politics is only as frivolous and ill-fated as liberals and conservatives conspire to render these arguments in Congress and beyond. To transcend the debate, they need only speak freely.