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The political targeting of Ilhan Omar is inextricable from her religion

Over the past three Congresses, the ones that began in 2019, 2021 and earlier this month, a number of members of the House have faced ouster from committees on which they served.

In 2019, Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) was booted from his committees after Democrats retook control of the chamber — and after he told the New York Times that he didn’t understand why the term “white supremacist” was offensive. He claimed that this quote was misrepresented, but it came at the end of a long chain of increasingly questionable commentary about immigration and race. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) recommended King lose his committee assignments, so he did.

In 2021, Reps. Paul A. Gosar (R-Ariz.) and Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) lost their committee assignments after embracing violent rhetoric targeting their peers. Gosar posted a video showing himself killing Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.); CNN unearthed comments of Greene’s in which she appeared to support the execution of Democrats. McCarthy had proposed demoting Greene’s committee assignments, but the Democratic majority opted to remove all of them.

This year, McCarthy became House speaker. And, in short order, he announced that a number of Democratic representatives would be ousted from key committees: Reps. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) and Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) were removed from the House Intelligence Committee and, he said, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) would lose her position on House Foreign Affairs.

Swalwell and Schiff were targeted because the former was tied to a Chinese intelligence official (a connection far more robust in conservative media circles than in reality) and the latter because he was a key figure in the push to impeach President Donald Trump in 2019. The official reason for Omar’s removal centers on antisemitic comments she has made in the past — comments that contributed to a furor that is unquestionably linked to her Muslim religion.

Speaking to CNN about McCarthy’s proposal, Omar suggested that her religion played a role. She said of her colleagues that “many of these members don’t believe a Muslim refugee, an African, should even be in Congress, let alone have the opportunity to serve on the Foreign Affairs Committee.” She denied accusing McCarthy of racism but noted his relative indifference when Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) made a joke about Omar being a terrorist.

The path from Omar’s religion to her ouster from the Foreign Affairs Committee is at the very least more circuitous than directly Islamophobic or racist beliefs, but it’s nonetheless clear.

Omar was elected to Congress in 2018 and, as a practicing Muslim, was sworn in on the Quran in January 2019. In short order, a right-wing social-media meme emerged falsely claiming that she’d committed treason in doing so. Over the months that followed, Omar was subject to a wide range of baseless claims, many of which pivoted from her history as a refugee from Africa.

A few months after taking office, Omar triggered a conservative media frenzy when she praised the work of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in a way that was framed as dismissing the attacks themselves. She’d already apologized after making comments on social media that leveraged long-standing antisemitic rhetoric, which she insisted was inadvertent.

That summer, Trump attacked Omar and a group of other freshman legislators — all progressive women of color — saying that they should “go back” to the “totally broken and crime infested places from which they came,” despite most of the women having been born in the United States. (He’d earlier released an ad attempting to capitalize on the uproar about Omar’s 9/11 comments using footage of the burning World Trade Center.) He continued the attack for days, in part by elevating Omar’s antisemitic comments in an effort to neutralize criticism of his comments as racist.

Trump also attacked Omar dozens of times in the years that followed. By the 2020 presidential contest, the attacks involved little more than invoking Omar’s name. No other context was needed.

“Omar’s our secret weapon. Ilhan Omar, that’s our secret weapon in Minnesota,” he said at a rally in late October 2020. “No, she doesn’t love our country, you know. I don’t like people that don’t love our country at all.”

McCarthy (who had been forced to delete a tweet of his own in 2018 that leveraged antisemitic rhetoric similar to some of Omar’s) was generally passive in response to Trump’s increasingly hostile rhetoric about Omar. By 2021, though, he’d embraced the obvious media value of attacking Schiff and Omar, stating that he’d remove Omar from her committee should the GOP regain control of the House because of her “antisemitic, anti-American view.”

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy goes after Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN):

“I will promise you this: If we are fortunate enough to have the majority, Omar would not be serving on Foreign Affairs [Committee] or anybody that has an anti-semitic, anti-American view.” pic.twitter.com/aLUGsJfW2t

— The Recount (@therecount) June 15, 2021

That characterization of Omar as “anti-American” was most immediately a response to a widely condemned tweet from Omar in which she decried the “unthinkable atrocities committed by the U.S., Hamas, Israel, Afghanistan, and the Taliban.” But remember that Trump’s description of her as hating the country predated this tweet by half a year.

Many on the right clearly saw Omar as having suspect loyalties from her first moments in office for little obvious reason other than her religion. Various comments from Omar — some obviously problematic, others overblown in the conservative media — were stapled onto that narrative. Propelled in part by Trump’s commentary and heavily by perceptions about her religion, Omar became a representative example of the right’s framing of their opponents as hard-left, anti-Israel and anti-American. This is how and why Trump elevated her and in doing so he created political value for other Republicans in similarly targeting her.

Of course, McCarthy and his allies don’t see this as a function of Omar’s religion. In fact, Republicans are much less likely to say that Muslims face discrimination than are Americans overall. YouGov polling conducted in December shows that Republicans are about as likely to say that Muslims face discrimination as they are to say the same of Christians.

But had Omar never offered those comments about Israel, it’s likely that she wouldn’t be targeted by McCarthy now. Had she offered those comments and not been a practicing Muslim who’d triggered right-wing opprobrium from day one? This moment would again probably look quite different.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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