Ilhan Omar, Cultural Politics and the Regressive Left

18th February 2019

This is not an article about bashing Representative Ilhan Omar. Nor is it about her tweet that the U.S. government support of Israel is “all about the Benjamins.” Let’s be clear: her remarks were flat out wrong and there is no need to caveat or to equivocate about the significance of what she said. However, once all the smoke and dust has settled, there is a deeper issue behind her statements that we should address.

According to the worldview of Congressmen Omar, AIPAC’s influence and lobbying activities in support of Israel are evident, and are part of a larger Jewish agenda. But the same can be said of the rising influence and ascendancy of Muslim lobbying and politics. This really should be no surprise to anybody.  For faith-based communities and larger interest groups, Washington is the location to convene, negotiate, petition and rally elected officials. That is very much in tune with the spirit of American competitiveness: let the best platform win. Of course, within politics, some groups might be better organised or have more allies than others. That will reflect a range of factors, which range from the size of the group, their alliances, patterns of immigration and so on.

The tweets and comments of this freshmen congressmen are reminiscent of similar missteps by novices, while seeking to gain their bearing in Washington. This provides us with a teachable moment: not just for Omar, but for the United States as w whole.

The American political scene is experiencing a cultural war that has emerged from certain millennial communities, and has now erupted into the public sphere and Main Street USA. Why now? What has changed? Immigration and political shifts in the multiple ethnic, religious and cultural variations in America, old-world customs of American society are shifting and requiring us all, regardless of our background, to confront our insecurities, challenges and differences. Sometimes these differences do not meet the traditional American sense of decorum. They may offend against our norms of acceptable conduct. But they also are pushing Americans to confront some of our deepest inner secrets and shared uncomfortable sentiments.

For Omar, her visual appearance, including her Muslim headscarf and her diction clearly signifies her new arrival as an immigrant and a non-native English speaker. Her mispronunciation of several items during her engagement this past week at his recent confirmation hearing of Elliot Abrams is another example. We should be aware of traditional Muslim and ethnic tropes that depict the “other” as different, inarticulate and foreign, and should remember of the hard work that needs to be done to dismantle centuries old misperceptions of Muslims, Black immigrants and women.

Similarly, as the junior congresswomen navigates her way through Washington, she would do well to develop a more careful and nuanced understanding of Washington politics. She must learn the difficult task of diplomacy in the legislative branch. That is more important than ever in a world driven by partisan politics. In fact, Omar would be prudent to read more widely, and to listen and observe both domestic and foreign policy experts who can help her understand the complex reality of our world. She needs to move beyond merely surface readings of books and newspapers and allow her to make more careful decision making than inherited left wing politics.

On a personal level, Omar’s remarks remind me that it is more important than ever to address the larger political divide that has emerged in our nation. As a former counterterrorism officer for over a decade with the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the National Counterterrorism Center, my job was to provide nonpartisan and apolitical analysis for senior officials in the U.S. government. Most recently, I have seen an increase in partisan politics. Now that I have been outside of government for the past few years, I have a sense of why it is necessary to provide increasingly nuanced and objective perspectives in order to promote a resolution to the political divide that we face.

I am the US Director for Quilliam International, the world’s oldest counter extremist organization, established by former extremist themselves who have since recanted and left the narrow pathway of religious fundamentalism and political extremism. We believe that both the regressive left, with their narrow and limited perspectives, are trapped in a worldview without compromise. Those on the extreme right are equally focused on their narrow prism of the world viewed through their historical and revivalist traditions of the past.

We believe that the best way forward is: control left + alternative right + delete. This mantra both identifies the problem and points to the solution.

Using our experiences working against violent extremism, we can see that the left eye is covering up the right eye, leaving us blind. The theocrats and ideologues are happy to watch both sides bickering and distracted. That is part of the problem. In our experience and estimation, conflict undermines balance and silences those rational voices who seek to take a middle way and who advocate a conciliatory position. As a result, we miss the opportunity to collaborate across the aisle.

In my estimation, the events of this past week with Congressmen Omar offer us all an opportunity, not just to talk about the misstep of the Congresswomen, but also to find moments to communicate and engage in dialogue to resolve conflict, to provide historical and factual truths to our elected officials, and to move beyond reactionary and emotive responses in order to explore ways to seek resolution.

As we collectively look for the best way to reach out to our political opponents and identify our commonalities, let us all use this past week’s events not only as a moment of reflection, but also to assist Omar and other freshmen congresswomen and men to understand that the complexities of politics and geopolitical issues. In particular, freshmen elected officials have a lot to learn. They can call on our collective support to assist them in learning from their missteps and in finding ways to learn from even those with whom they don’t always agree.

Muhammad Fraser-Rahim, Ph.D. is the Executive Director, North America of Quilliam International, the world’s oldest counter extremist organization and an Assistant Professor, Department of Intelligence and Security Studies, The Citadel, the Military College of South Carolina.