In the few short weeks she has represented Minnesota’s fifth district in the U.S. Congress, Democrat IIhan Omar has become a controversial figure. She smeared Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) over baseless accusations, garnered national recognition for wearing a hijab in Congress, and has already been placed in a leadership position on the Foreign Affairs Committee.
This inexperienced congresswoman has created a stir despite accomplishing little so far, and her win demonstrates the epitome of identity politics. A close look at her election and subsequent quick rise to fame exemplifies the cautions that accompany such a mistake.
Who is IIhan Omar?
Omar, 36, became an overnight sensation in Minnesota when she became the first Somali-American to serve in the state legislature. After one term, the fellow Muslim set her sights on former Rep. Keith Ellison’s congressional seat. The fifth district is in urban Minneapolis, where Somali-Americans number in the tens of thousands.
Ellison, himself renowned for long ties with anti-Semitism, has been somewhat of a mentor for Omar. Asking voters to replace him with her meant little practical political change in the district. Ellison won nearly 69 percent of votes cast during his 2016 race. In 2018, Omar won about 78 percent of votes, although in Ellison’s race there was an Independent and in Omar’s race there was not.
It’s easier to understand Omar’s ideology when one understands just how similar she is to Ellison. While he is far better known nationally than she is, she is no less liberal.
Ilhan Omar’s Record on the Issues Is Weak
At a candidate forum in August, Omar was asked to clarify her position on the anti-Israel boycott, divestment, sanctions movement. She said, “I believe right now with the BDS movement, it’s not helpful in getting that two-state solution.” After she was elected, however, Omar said she did support BDS.
In July, City Journal noted Omar’s repeated anti-Semitism: “[S[he is, to put it bluntly, an Islamist hater of Israel. In a 2014 tweet during Israel’s hostilities with Hamas, for example, Omar prayed for ‘Allah to awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel.’ In a May 31 tweet this year, she referred to Israel as an ‘apartheid regime.’ These remarks are not stray comments; in a speech on the floor of the Minnesota House of Representatives, Omar elaborated on her animus against Israel.”
In 2012, Omar tweeted: “Israel has hypnotized the world, may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel. #Gaza #Palestine #Israel.” When pressed on CNN about those remarks, Omar played the ignorant card: “I don’t know how my comments would be offensive to Jewish Americans. My comments precisely are addressing what was happening during the Gaza War and I’m clearly speaking about the way the Israeli regime was conducting itself in that war.” Omar has not deleted the tweet despite the public criticism.
Then, in The New York Times this January, commentator Bari Weiss identified the problem with Omar’s stance:
…her identity seems to have fogged the minds of some Jewish commentators, who have insisted that we ought not to criticize Ms. Omar and other people of color who have recently exposed their anti-Semitism (Tamika Mallory, Marc Lamont Hill) because, well, it’s just not a good look to be criticizing leaders of the black community right now.
At the conclusion of her column, Weiss warned that “It may be more difficult to call out those who ought to be our friends and political allies, but alas for the Jews, not all anti-Semites carry tiki torches.”
Being called out in The New York Times apparently did not sit well with Omar. She responded to Weiss’ piece with an explanation almost immediately.
You are correct when you say,
“Perhaps Ms. Omar is sincerely befuddled and not simply deflecting”
In all sincerity, it was after my CNN interview that I heard from Jewish orgs. that my use of the word “Hypnotize” and the ugly sentiment it holds was offensive. pic.twitter.com/IxPScaSzGw
— Ilhan Omar (@IlhanMN) January 22, 2019
With that said, it is important to distinguish between criticizing a military action by a government and attacking a particular people of faith.
I will not shy away of criticism of any government when I see injustice —whether it be Saudi Arabia, Somalia, even our own government!
— Ilhan Omar (@IlhanMN) January 22, 2019
However, it’s hard to believe she was simply unaware of what her stance meant to Jewish Americans as it’s been explained multiple times in prominent media outlets since her candidacy and election. As Scott Johnson wrote in City Journal, this kind of equivocation is at best ignorant slander.
Omar’s comparison of Israel with apartheid South Africa is a calumny against Israel, which draws no distinctions based on race. Israel has proudly rescued black Jews and offered them refuge. In addition, Israeli Arabs—an ethnic minority in the Jewish state—are afforded equal civil rights. They enjoy the right to vote in competitive elections. They exercise rights of speech and religion. They have access to a robust free press. They serve in the Knesset and in the judiciary. They are the freest Arabs in the Middle East. Though Omar purports to distinguish between the Jewish state and the Jewish people, the true ground of Omar’s animus against Israel is necessarily anti-Semitic.
Omar doesn’t have much of a legislative record, but what she does have is typical of a liberal politician. One bill she co-authored “urg[ed] the President and Congress to recognize criminal elements of white nationalist and neo-Nazi organizations as domestic terrorist organizations.”
Many of the bills she co-authored are regulatory in nature or add bureaucracy. For example, in one bill, she thought it would be a good idea to require landlords to provide tenants information on voter registration. Another would have required the health department to be allowed to collect firearm ownership information.
When Omar first was elected to the state legislature, John Hinderaker at the influential Powerline blog noted “that she appears to have committed bigamy and immigration fraud, a subject on which she refuses to answer questions.” One of the oddest rumors that popped up during her campaign was the allegation that Omar married her own brother, Ahmed Nur Said Elmi, to help him obtain citizenship.
During her campaign, Omar was also accused of “financial improprieties that violate either Minnesota House rules or state campaign finance laws.” Despite their salacious nature, neither Omar’s record, nor her campaign violations, nor the odd rumors of her personal life circulated far. The mainstream media in Minnesota hardly seemed wary of her sudden Beto O’Rourke-like rise to fame.
In fact, they helped perpetuate it. Even before she won the Democratic primary in August, the state’s most prominent newspaper, the Star Tribune, said she “sets an example” and “breaks barriers.” Instead of her record of achievement, voters embraced Omar’s Somali-American ethnicity, sex, and celebrity.
Omar Was Elected Purely for Identity Politics
Folks elected for their carefully spun biography instead of their accomplishments represent a troubling, growing trend. I spoke to Gregg Peppin, a Republican consultant based in Minnesota, who worked in the Minnesota capitol for almost 20 years. He noted the fifth district is home not only to many Somali-Americans, who voted for Omar on that alone, but also home to “limousine liberals” who live in and around Minneapolis: “Identity politics is why they get up in the morning.”
Tens of thousands of people voted for Omar just because of her sex and race. “There was a robust primary, but Democrats were committed to identity politics. As many boxes as they were going to check, they did that—no one else had the story Omar did,” Peppin said.
Democrats tend to lean towards identity politics. This Democratic pollster explains the political usefulness of this strategy: “A niche in a crowded primary means developing a unique selling proposition and identifying a target audience for your message. In a Democratic primary, the targets often are identity groups — part of what President Obama calls the Ascending Democratic Coalition of millennials, minority voters and women.”
What identity politics lacks in accomplishment, it makes up for in photo shoots and memes. But this isn’t the only reason to elect a politician, or the best way to affect change in politics in America.
Why Voting on Identity Politics Is a Problem
Omar’s first few weeks in office help explain why identity politics is such a problem. Immediately after her election, Omar announced the first thing she would do was work toward a new congressional rule allowing female head coverings. Sure enough, in early January, Omar’s prodding prompted such a rule and for the first time in nearly 181 years, head coverings are now allowed.
No one puts a scarf on my head but me. It’s my choice—one protected by the first amendment.
And this is not the last ban I’m going to work to lift. https://t.co/7U3ZLTaWur
— Ilhan Omar (@IlhanMN) November 17, 2018
From a religious liberty perspective, this is certainly understandable, even praiseworthy. But Omar’s record doesn’t reflect someone who supports religious freedom for everyone. If anything, she’s discriminatory of other religions, particularly the Jewish faith. So this wasn’t a crusade for religious freedom, it was a crusade for her own Muslim religion.
Most recently, Omar became news again for attempting to smear Graham about unsubstantiated rumors. Although she didn’t refer to Graham’s sexuality, some have suggested her ominous, nefarious tweet was a reference to rumors that Graham might be gay and therefore subject to blackmail.
They got to him, he is compromised! https://t.co/m8sB3EmElg
— Ilhan Omar (@IlhanMN) January 16, 2019
When CNN anchors pressed Omar about what she meant, Omar offered no proof or explanation, or what Graham might be “compromised” about. She later tweeted her comments had nothing to do with Graham’s sexuality but his relationship with President Trump.
Yes, because the Right thinks being homosexual is “compromising”.
Well I have news for them, being LGBTQ+ isn’t something we should be ashamed of!
Y’all know my tweet had nothing to do with his sexuality and everything to do with his blind cooperation w/ Trump.
Let’s focus! https://t.co/6FSvjnm8xi
— Ilhan Omar (@IlhanMN) January 17, 2019
Again, Omar remained in the news for several days not over any actual accomplishments but just the fact that she had voiced opinions.
These are just a few things that demonstrate why identity politics is ultimately a bad reason to elect someone: Either that politician does nothing because she is ineffective, causes problems due to naivety, (think Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez), or makes mistakes due to ignorance (think Beto O’Rourke).
In the end, identity politics boils the blend of personality, constituents, and the role of the Congress, down to one very simple thing: How does this person make us feel about ourselves, rather than what can this person do to preserve America’s ideals?
As Peppin said, “Is Omar going to live in progressive infamy? Or does she want to actually roll up her sleeves and get something done? Do identity politicians want to be effective, or do they just want to be a loud voice?” So far, it’s clear what Omar has chosen. Time will tell if that can change.