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Ilhan Omar Is Not Here to Put You at Ease

Few members of Congress have been as much of a political lightning rod during the storm-heavy Trump era as Ilhan Omar. She has become a prominent voice on issues like racial justice and police reform.

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Ilhan Omar, Photograph by Mamadi Doumbouya // New York Times

Few members of Congress have been as much of a political lightning rod during the storm-heavy Trump era as Ilhan Omar. The spotlight has at times been useful, as the 37-year-old Democratic congresswoman from Minnesota has become a prominent voice on issues like racial justice and police reform. But it has also resulted in disturbingly violent rhetoric from her opponents on the right. “I have — in one body — six or seven marginalized identities,” said Omar, who this year published an autobiography, “This Is What America Looks Like,” “and there’s an expectation from everyone on how those particular identities should behave.”

There’s a section of your book where — well, I’ll quote it directly: “I am, by nature, a starter of fires. My work has been to figure out where I’m going to burn down everything around me by adding the fuel of my religion, skin color, gender or even tone.” Couldn’t that kind of language be interpreted as a form of demagoguery? Why is it helpful to express yourself in those terms rather than, say, in terms of building things up? 

It’s metaphorical. There are many times when people will say, “Something you said has agitated this space.” And it’s like, no, it’s me just showing up that did it. There are times when I will choose to not show up, because I know that my presence brings about intensity that isn’t going to be helpful. There’s no one else that exists in a space where they have to deal with the hate of anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, anti-Blackness, but also with sexism. People will say it’s my “tone.” I’m like, you’re agitated by my tone because you think people like me should be sitting in a corner, not heard and not seen. Everything that comes out of my mouth is going to be filtered through the lens of you despising my existence. That’s the metaphorical adding-of-fire. That was a thing in the primary campaign [1] Ilhan is divisive. My being given the mic to say anything is angering, regardless of what the hell I say. I could say, “Good morning,” and they’re already angry.

 


Ilhan Omar at her victory party in Minneapolis in 2018 after being elected to Congress. 
Annabelle Marcovici/Sipa USA, via Associated Press  //  New York Times

Do you believe there’s a connection between what you’re describing — the way you’re interpreted — and the accusations of anti-Semitism [2] that you've received?  

I mean, there are a lot of preconceived notions about what thoughts and ideologies I have that have no basis in reality. It’s the same way in which people filter everything through, like, “anti-American,” which couldn’t be further from the truth. I wouldn’t run for Congress to be part of the American government if I was anti-American. It’s all dependent on whom you’re talking to. You could talk to Muslims, and they’ll say, “Because she grew up in America, she doesn’t really like Muslims.” Talk to Arabs, and they’re like, “She’s African.” Anything that I say or do will be filtered to create an excuse of why they now are trying to call me a bigot.

I’m curious about whether your being made to think about anti-Semitism has caused any changes or filled in any gaps in your understanding of what anti-Semitism is and how it works. 

I think a lot of people have gaps in their understanding of what it is. It’s been important to understand the ways in which people experience it. In the process of writing a few of the op-eds I’ve written on the rise of anti-Semitism in comparison to the rise of Islamophobia, it has been interesting to see the ways in which so many people create a lens through which they see it. It is important, when you are not of that community, to understand the different ways that bigotry shows up. It has always been a disappointment as a minority when I communicate with people and they’re like: “That’s not Islamophobia. That’s not anti-Blackness.” But I am telling you: “This is my experience! This is how these things impact me!” So I have brought that lens of frustration to this conversation. I’m not going to say, “That’s not that” because I know what it feels like for me when somebody is dismissive of what I’m expressing. If you’re an ally, it’s your job to learn and to be supportive. That’s what I expect of allies, and that’s how I behave as an ally.

Given that you understand the nature of some of the attention that you get and the symbolic weight that has been attached to you, isn’t your office’s continuing to work with your husband’s consulting company [3] weird even just from an optics perspective? Maybe it’s ultimately a small-potatoes thing, but wouldn’t it be smarter to avoid inviting that scrutiny and instead work with a different consulting company?

No, actually that would be the stupid thing to do. You don’t stop using the service of people who are doing good work because somebody thinks it means something else. Why would I not work with people who understand my district, who have been working there for 10 years, who understand what it means to raise resources for a candidate like myself and manage and target our communications to our district to battle the misinformation and narratives that the media and our adversaries continue to put out?

I guess the answer would be that you could avoid a particular negative narrative.

Right, and I believe that the narratives exist because those that are putting that narrative out understand what they gain when I’m disadvantaged that way.

Given that you’re a congressional freshman, do you get the sense that any of your colleagues take issue with the bully-pulpit influence that your profile might afford you?

Yeah, but people don’t share those things. What I do hear often is from the ones who want us to help amplify their work because they understand the benefit of our platform. We help raise money for our colleagues, talk about their policies, so that there is an opportunity to get attention. You can function that way. You can also function with resentment. For the "Squad" [4]  in general, there is a lot of that. But for well-meaning representatives in the House, they see our platform and think of us as family and ask us to help them.

 


Omar at a news conference in 2019 with Representatives Ayanna Pressley, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib.
Alex Wroblewski/Getty Images  //  New York Times

One of your highest-profile antagonists, Tucker Carlson, [5] had a segment on his show this summer in which he was getting mad at Senator Tammy Duckworth for not accepting an invitation to go on his show. It made me wonder if he has ever invited you. Or if you would take him up on the offer if he did. 

No. I have no interest in talking to someone as hateful as Tucker. Tucker is someone who, I believe, everything he has had in life was given to him. He has a clear resentment for people who start from nothing and have achieved success that he probably wanted for himself and hasn’t been able to have.

A Republican House candidate [6] Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, who has also voiced support for the QAnon conspiracy theory.  posted an image on a Facebook page that showed her holding a gun next to pictures of you and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib. How do you even begin to think about something like that? This is not a random person who did that. This is someone who is likely to win a seat with you in Congress.

I mean, there have been a few people like this woman who have not only incited violence but who have also been at the forefront of the most bizarre, ill-informed conspiracies. This woman came to the Capitol and said our oath of office is illegitimate because we were sworn in on a Quran. [7] This is Trump’s Republican Party. These people are dangerous and have denigrated the ways in which we think about our society, our institutions and respect for traditions and norms. I couldn’t imagine leveling a threat like that against anyone, let alone sitting members of Congress who will potentially be my colleagues. We have seen Congressman Clay Higgins threaten to kill people who are within their rights to demonstrate. [8] This is just a level of — I don’t want to say “insanity,” because that kind of excuses the maliciousness of what they are doing — but a level of danger that they’re engaging in, and it’s terrorizing so many of us.

ave any of your Republican colleagues ever reached out, publicly or privately, and said the use of violent imagery or language toward you is not OK? 

No. There are really no dissenters. We have now had a few death threats that have been very publicized where people have been arrested and are incarcerated for it. I can’t remember a public statement or private comment of support.

Really? No Republican member of the House or Senate has ever offered any words of support? Nope.

Someone could think whatever they want about your politics, but the whole idea of politicians even invoking violence against other politicians — and it being remotely acceptable — is just so discouraging. Are you at all hopeful that these extreme levels of tension will diminish at some point?

I have hope, and I also feel discouraged sometimes. There’s a severe cognitive dissonance that’s happening with a segment of the American population right now. Theirs is a party that has embraced violence and on top of that a president who has no respect for ethics, for the laws of this country, no respect for our military, for democracy, for counterparts to the executive branch. And for some reason, they believe they are what it means to be American and to love our country. Everyone else, who is fighting to strengthen our democracy, to uplift those who are living in the margins of society, to rid us of the ills of our history with enslavement, is considered un-American, unpatriotic and not for the rule of law and not for order. It’s a very bizarre thing.

I’m waiting for you to get to the hopeful part. What gives me hope is that a majority of the insanity that we are seeing on social media — it’s not the lived reality of what exists in American cities and towns. Being in my hometown, the center of what has sparked the mass demonstrations across the country, and knowing that in my last primary race people came out in mass numbers makes me hopeful that the people are paying enough attention to know what kind of change they want to see in their country.

What did you learn about how you’re perceived by other Democrats — or even just your political opponents generally — from that last primary race?

One of the most fascinating pieces in the primary was that the national-figure thing was seen as a negative — the “Focused on the Fifth.” [9]  As someone who worked at a municipal level, I know what that kind of governance looks like. Then I was a state legislator, so I know what is expected of a state-level representative. And I understand what a federal representative should be. On a federal level, you are supposed to talk about big, structural changes. We’re supposed to talk about holistically addressing our climate crisis. We’re supposed to talk about what a federal health care policy should look like. Every bill you pass on a federal level is supposed to have an impact on everyone in the country. That is the role of Congress. If you want to have an impact only in Minneapolis and you want to have an impact only in the state of Minnesota, then there are seats you can run for there so that you can have that concentrated impact.

Police reform is an area where the situation in your district of Minneapolis has had national implications. What is your position on disbanding the Minneapolis police force? I am for disbanding the Minneapolis Police Department.

Disbanding the police, emphasizing community policing, reallocating resources to social programs — those are all things that could lead to more safety in the long term. But how do you see balancing moving toward those ends while also addressing a rise in violent crime in the short term?

Our Police Department is fully intact, while the crime rate is higher than it was last year. That is not because of the department being disbanded. That is because of what? Where is the answer from the people who advocate not disbanding the Police Department? How do they answer the police still being there and this rise of crime? I don’t defend or explain the rise of crime. That’s not my job. The job of explaining the rise of crime falls onto the people who advocate more police, because we do have more police right now in Minneapolis and that crime continues to happen. The reality is that about 50 percent of homicides in the city of Minneapolis go unsolved. Rape kits have been destroyed by the Minneapolis Police Department. There is a crisis in credibility with the Minneapolis Police Department. What we need is for people to allow for the Minneapolis City Council on their path to dismantling the Minneapolis Police Department and constructing a public-safety model that works for all of us.

 


Omar in June at the site in Minneapolis where George Floyd was killed. 
Anthony Souffle/Star Tribune, via Getty Images  //  New York Times

What do you make of the way that part of the larger political conversation has been shifting toward one centered on “law and order” and away from racial injustice and racial equality?

I’ve always been baffled by the ways in which Democrats and the media have adopted the messaging narratives of the Republican Party. This is one of the greatest examples of that. We have an ability as a party to stay with the narrative of what the root causes of these demonstrations are: the social and economic neglect that many brown and Black people have experienced in this country, the need to address police brutality and our ability to create proper investments in communities. We are not as disciplined and as confident in our base, in our policies, and that’s why you see the challenges to people who are progressive as soon as they get a national platform. Our party is running from its own shadow. It’s afraid of its own ability to resonate with the American people. We have allowed the Republicans to reduce our messages to their messages, which makes us fight on their battleground. I don’t know what is wrong with the political consultants that are advising any of these people, but it is quite devastating to see that this is where the conversation has gone.

Does the way the conversation tilts in one direction or another have to do with the respective difficulty of getting certain messages across? For example, it’s a lot easier for a politician to say, “Police good; rioting bad” than it is to say, “Rioting is a problem, and policing has problems, and these are interconnected issues that require deeper understanding and analysis in order to address them properly.”

Yes, and there is danger because we are leading from a place of fear instead of leading from a place of courage and strength. Many of the Democrats who are in leadership in Congress, whether it is the House or the Senate — these are Democrats who existed in the era of Ronald Reagan, who have been beaten into submission and into running away from everything that we should be as a party that puts people first. It has been a party that has engaged in some harm because of wanting to appease everyone and not appeasing anyone.

Your father died this year. [10] This is something you touch on in your book, but tell me about the influence he had on your political thinking.

My father was instrumental in anchoring me in the reality of the skin I was born in, the gender I was born in, the religion I was born in, the country I was born in and the cultural context in which I was born — and to have an alertness to what representative democracy meant and the power it could hold in creating positive change for people. He and my grandfather had an acute understanding of the benefits of that, because they were people who got a taste of democracy and lost it. [11]  They looked for it in different parts of the world and understood there was uniqueness in the way representation was set up in our Constitution. And that, if done right, ours can be the greatest form of democracy.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity from two conversations.

Notes: 

1. Omar won her primary in August, earning 58 percent of the vote. Her main challenger in the race to represent Minnesota’s Fifth Congressional District was Antone Melton-Meaux, a first-time candidate who had raised millions of dollars in his effort to unseat her.

2 .Omar has drawn criticism for comments and tweets about Israel’s influence on American foreign policy that have been interpreted as anti-Semitic and for which she has since apologized.

3. Since 2018, Omar’s campaign office has paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to E Street Group, the firm run by her husband, Tim Mynett. They married this year.

4. The nickname for a group of progressive freshman congresswomen: Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan.

5. The Fox News personality has repeatedly criticized Omar, calling her, among other things, “loathsome” and saying “she hates this country.”

6. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, who has also voiced support for the QAnon conspiracy theory.

7. In February 2019, Greene visited Capitol Hill with a camera crew, where she made the claims of illegitimacy about both Omar and Tlaib. Article VI of the Constitution states: “No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”

8. This month, Representative Clay Higgins, a Louisiana Republican, posted on his Facebook page about the possibility of encountering armed protestors, writing that he would “drop any 10 of you where you stand.” “We are SWAT,” he wrote. “Nothing personal. We just eliminate the threat.”

9. “Focused on the Fifth” was a phrase used by Omar’s primary challenger to imply that she had not been paying sufficient attention to her district.

10. Omar’s father, Nur Omar Mohamed, died in June from complications related to Covid-19. Her mother, Fadhuma Abukar Haji Hussein, died when Omar was 2.

11. Omar and her family fled Somalia as refugees after the country descended into civil war. They were granted asylum status in the United States in 1995.

[David Marchese is The New York Times Magazine Talk columnist. He is currently one of the most prolific and profound interviewers in the country. His In Conversation column for New York magazine has set the bar for rigorous, insightful and hugely entertaining longform Q. and A.s. Whether he’s talking to Maggie Gyllenhaal, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie or Quincy Jones, David’s hallmark is intense preparation, humor, intelligence, honesty and an uncanny ability to get fascinating people to open up, often about things they’ve never publicly discussed before.]