Another Round of Divisive Tactics

The most recent attacks on Ilhan Omar play on the rising trend of anti-Muslim bigotry and hatred.

April 19, 2019

Here’s what you need to know

The most recent attacks on Ilhan Omar play on the rising trend of anti-Muslim bigotry and hatred. President Trump and others leveraged nearly two decades of bigoted smears of Muslims as sympathetic to terrorism. Trump and the GOP are playing on existing bigotries and divides to galvanize their base and weaken their opposition.

Here are the details

Recently, Rep. Ilhan Omar gave a speech at the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). Shortly thereafter, conservatives twisted the Congresswoman’s remarks and accused her of downplaying the severity of 9/11. As Rep. Omar and others pointed out, the freshman Congresswoman, received a far different response than then-President George W. Bush did for making a similar statement in 2001. It’s worth wondering how much of a role Rep. Omar’s identity as a Black Muslim woman played in the response to her comments.

There is nothing new or novel about this tactic. Trump and his followers have long relied on divisive tactics to energize their supporters, especially when their base disengages from lackluster G.O.P. policies. In 2016, then-candidate Trump spoke often about “the Muslim problem,” and claimed that “Islam hates us.” Support for his presidential bid shot up, and so too did hate crimes against Muslims.

In the new Congress, that divisive strategy has focused on the Democratic Party’s newly-elected progressive women. In recent months, it has honed in on Rep. Omar. In an effort to force Democrats to either embrace or renounce Rep. Omar, President Trump has recently taken to smearing Rep. Omar and calling her the “leader” of the Democratic Party. Speaker Pelosi’s milquetoast response to Trump’s attacks, without explicitly mentioning Rep. Omar or the American Muslim community, left people wondering where exactly she stood on her freshman colleague and the American Muslim community.

So often, American Muslims are thrust into the spotlight as politicians leverage anti-Muslim tropes to achieve strategic political interests. Once there, we receive weak support from politicians, and each time, leaders who defend American Muslims fail to reach those who were already incited by the original rhetorical attacks.

In the meantime, American Muslims are forced to deal with the consequences. Anti-Muslim hate crimes are on the rise, and tend to follow high-profile stories like this one. Rep. Omar was reportedly included on the “hit list” of Christopher Hasson, a white nationalist who was plotting a mass murder of innocent civilians. Her office has also reported a recent uptick in death threats against the freshman Congresswoman and her family.

American Muslims understand that political rhetoric impacts the lives of ordinary citizens. The spread of Islamophobia will not stop as long as we continue to ignore the endemic problem of anti-Muslim bigotry and hate. Any serious effort to do so will have to be part of a broader strategy to make leveraging anti-Muslim tropes unacceptable. This strategy should include better representation of Muslims in American media, increased Muslim political engagement, and improvements to hate crimes enforcement, among other things.

Anti-Muslim tropes are a ready-made weapon by which politicians sow already-present divisions. It’s antithetical to the values of a pluralistic nation. It deserves a proper response.


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