After evangelical Christians recently sang a religious song during a flight and went viral worldwide, Muslim U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar tweeted in response: “I think my family and I should have a prayer session next time I am on a plane. How do you think it will end?”
The tweet seems innocent and indirect, drawing attention to the well-known double standards Muslims experience in Western societies compared to more familiar faiths, such as Christianity. Growing up immersed in the Muslim identity, a daughter of immigrants fleeing war, and an immigrant myself over and over across three continents, I understand this sting intimately.
Yet we leaders have a duty to be shepherd conversations with radical honesty. This has been a great disappointment in Omar. A child who grew up in a refugee camp, was embraced and supported as a refugee in America, and became a congresswoman, Omar undoubtedly has a powerful personal history. She found enough inclusion and support within her state and community to become its champion in the highest halls of power.
Yet Omar again engaged in what’s called a “drama triangle.” To put it very bluntly, her leadership style, as illustrated yet again in this instance, is drama and conflict. That kind of leadership gets people nowhere.
Inside the Conflict-Ridden Drama Triangle
Becky Margiotta, the founder of an organization that trains non-profit leaders to design and lead large-scale change, recently spoke about the drama triangle. She identified it as a fear-induced triangulation between three archetypes: the victim, the villain, and the hero.
Margiotta described the triangulation of these three archetypes as a relationship shift within ourselves and others: “We go from our essence state, which is an unperturbed, relaxed, available for connection, available for creativity — into a more narrowed, compressed state, where we really only see ourselves and other people as one of three options.” Those states are victim, villain, and hero — often referred to also as victim, rescuer, and persecutor.
The story of the victim is rooted in the belief that “all of these things are just happening to me,” as Margiotta shared. The villain persecutes, while the hero rescues but doesn’t actually solve or address the bedrock issue that triggers the cycle.
“These personas go back into older parts in our life, where we couldn’t be, but we had to do to get love and survive,” Margiotta adds.
That reminds me of Omar’s history as a refugee. As I wrote three years ago, we’re looking at someone deeply affected by war and powerlessness, and unsteady in wielding power.
The Drama Triangle Is a Distortion Pattern
In the drama triangle, an individual can also take on a layered identity, which Omar does often. Omar paints herself as a victim by leading with her identity as a minority Muslim in America. The myth she peddles and relies on to activate the drama triangle is that despite her privilege, position, and power, she’s oppressed as a minority in America. That makes America the villain and her the eternal victim despite being one of the most powerful people in the country.
That she as a powerful black American Muslim woman still totes the victim card at every opportunity reinforces the victim-villain myth — because if she can’t escape it, what chance does any other minority have? It echoes the scripts that regimes like Iran share when they call America “The Great Satan.” That’s not to say America has no faults or stains, but acknowledging the complexity of this nation is very different from claiming it to be the lord of the underworld.
Omar also positions herself as an outcast here to disrupt systems of oppression, which makes her the hero. Yet she also upholds those systems by actively participating in the hero-villain dynamics of the political class that pits the people representing political ideologies against each other.
As I told Laura Ingraham in summer 2019, it’s no different than “Crips and Blood” or “us versus them” dynamics popularized in gang culture. What we see in her leadership — as well as in the leadership of many elected voices — is more polarization, more separation, and less and less curiosity, compassion, or conscious leadership.
Both Oppressed and Hero
The drama triangle traps the symphony of being human, a symphony made up of a chorus of voices and perspectives including our own rich inner world, and embalms all that life and possibility into one fixed identity. In someone like Omar (and, to be fair, many politicians, pundits, and influencers), that fixation looks like a constant see-saw between interwoven identities — one is the myth of the oppressed and the other is the hero versus the villain.
The latter is a physically or psychologically violent dance where battles can be won but no side wins the war. In both versions of her identity, within the drama triangle, Omar’s identity pivots around the villain: America, Christianity, conservatives.
Absolutely everyone loses in the drama triangle because it gives lifeblood to a system dependent on our mutual annihilation for survival. We have to self-identify as fractals — simple, labeled identities of a much larger universe — and see others as the same within the framework of an eternal power dynamic. In my book, “The Song of the Human Heart,” I call this system “The Distortion.” The drama triangle is one distortion pattern.
Distortions Don’t Improve Anything
In a distortion pattern, as Margiotta shares, “The full range of possibilities of human expression and human experience kind of go out the window, and the world narrows to just one of three options, which is not super helpful for making the world a better place.”
Indeed, it is not super helpful for improving anything. Just consider how polarized and antagonistic our world has gotten, including American cultural dialogue as we work to identify what the next phase of the American experiment could look like.
As a leader in the Muslim Reform space, I began seeing the devastation of drama triangulations in 2019. In 2020, I chose to step away, reflect, and reimagine how we can develop a new paradigm. In that time, I founded a non-profit called The Foundation of Human Belonging, which looks at the intersection of faith, identity, and belonging through a broader lens.
The old lens would have attacked Omar for the irony of her claim of practicing the Islamic faith, given there’s been no demonstration of her being a practicing Muslim. Or it would have looked at the fact that public demonstrations of an Islamic prayer (on a plane, no less) have typically ended in someone getting killed.
Neither of these maneuvers drives the conversation forward. Neither of these is a useful conversation.
In a new paradigm of conscious leadership, I ask us to look at how belonging is either nurtured or distorted, to observe the pattern of behavior, identify the pattern, and then dismantle distorted patterns and programming. The drama triangulation is a toxic form of engagement, perpetually gridlocking self and others into shallow orientations that can never be more than the dull classification of victim, villain, or hero. The story of who we are has more depth and dimension than we could ever imagine.
The Foundation for Human Belonging
As an immigrant over and over again across three continents, I was shaped by all the people and perspectives I encountered. The experience enriched my life, and deepened my curiosity about what makes us who we are, why we believe what we do. It’s what led me into a 20-year journey to understand Islam, a four-year journey in understanding extremism, and lifelong journey into what I call the cavity of silence that has me asking myself every day, “Who are we?”
We are people living in ideologies and systems none of us had any say in creating. Yet, every day in some way or the other, we “rinse and repeat” the same patterns that brought us to our frustration point, and wonder why the world isn’t becoming a better place.
All the forms of separation between us and others, all the dulled curiosity dead-heading our desire for real intimacy in understanding other people — all these things are at the source of our frustration. Omar’s tweet about the double standard of why Christians on a plane receive one reaction is an expression of frustration about separation between people. But her own reaction to it, the way she leads and responds to her own inner orientation of the world, is also another form of separation that pushes people into the narrow confinement of fixed identities within the drama triangle.
Ironically, her ability to understand and have sympathy for extremists’ narrative doesn’t extend sympathy for the narrative of the complexities we face as Americans who are drifting somewhere between the old story and the new story of America. As we are still figuring that out, writing that next chapter of what it means to be American, we need leadership that can craft a new story of belonging that isn’t rooted in separation and self-victimization.