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Republicans are taking Ilhan Omar’s comments on 9/11 out of context to smear her

It’s Islamophobia, plain and simple.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi Addresses The Media Ahead Of The Passage Of H.R. 1, The For The People Act
Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN).
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

This week, leading Republicans and their allies in the media have been using an out-of-context quote from a recent speech by Rep. Ilham Omar (D-MN) to paint her as an anti-American radical indifferent to those killed during the 9/11 attacks. There was even a front-page New York Post juxtaposing her name with an image of the attack on the Twin Towers.

The supposedly controversial comments came in a speech Omar gave at a banquet for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a Muslim civil rights organization, in late March. In footage of the address uploaded to YouTube on Tuesday, Omar discusses the need for organizations like CAIR to ensure that Muslims writ large aren’t punished for the actions of a handful of extremists on 9/11.

“Far too long we have lived with the discomfort of being a second-class citizen, and frankly, I’m tired of it, and every single Muslim in this country should be tired of it,” Omar said at the event. “CAIR was founded after 9/11 because they recognized that some people did something and that all of us were starting to lose access to our civil liberties.”

Sounds harmless, right? But if stripped out of the context, Omar’s phrase “some people did something” can be spun as minimizing the significance of 9/11 for both the victims and the country writ large. This is not remotely accurate if you watch the full video, which I encourage you to do as a counterpoint to the out-of-context attacks. At the end, for example, she speaks movingly about how America’s national values motivated her family to immigrate to the United States.

“As an American member of Congress, I have to make sure I live up to the ideals of fighting for liberty and justice — those are very much rooted in the reason why my family came here,” she says.

Not exactly what an anti-American ideologue would say. But the full context hasn’t stopped Republicans from using the out-of-context version to bash Omar.

Here’s Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-TX), one of the first Republicans to attack Omar over this, retweeting someone who references a false conspiracy theory that CAIR is a terrorist front group:

Here’s President Trump’s favorite morning show, Fox & Friends, outright labeling her disloyal:

Here’s Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel labeling her both “anti-Semitic” and “anti-American”:

And here’s Fox host Sean Hannity tweeting out the New York Post cover:

This pile-on is more than just inaccurate — it might be downright dangerous. Just last week, federal authorities arrested a New York man for making a serious threat against Omar’s life, calling her a “terrorist” and threatening to “put a bullet in her [expletive] skull.”

It also comes on the heels of months of Republican attacks on Omar and fellow Muslim Rep. Rashida Tlaib, a level of hostile attention that very few other first-term members of the House receive. What is it about these two women that makes them such lightning rods?

Omar, the GOP, and Islamophobia

The essence of Islamophobia in America today is the belief that Muslims are inherently disloyal or un-American: that their religion is incompatible with “American values,” and that Islamic theology necessarily pushes individual Muslims to support terrorism or commit terrorist acts themselves.

A 2018 Democracy Fund survey tried to examine how widespread some of these beliefs are among the American voting public. They found a massive partisan gulf, with Republicans being far more likely to express support for Islamophobic statements (e.g., “Muslims are sympathetic to those who commit acts of terrorism”) than Democrats. Since 9/11, a tremendous amount of money and energy has gone to a group of conservative organizations, like the Center for Security Policy and Act for America, that have mainstreamed ideas about Muslim scripture being inherently violent and Muslim organizations being front groups for terrorism.

These ideas have captured not only the GOP base but also much of the party’s leadership. Both Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton have documented ties to these fringe-right groups, and have made statements endorsing parts of their worldview. There’s a reason Trump’s proposal for a Muslim ban wasn’t a deal breaker for the GOP — and why, in all likelihood, it won him votes during the primary.

The Republican attacks on Omar are part and parcel of this overall anti-Muslim campaign. They are not a good-faith disagreement about interpretation, or anger about her particular word choice when talking about 9/11. It is clear what she’s saying in context in that speech.

Instead, these attacks are straight-up attempts to turn her into the boogeyman of the GOP base’s Islamophobic nightmares, meant to gin up politically useful fear and anger by targeting one of the first-ever Muslim congresswomen. That this seems to have contributed to at least one death threat against her is demonstrably unimportant: The latest round of attacks came after the news of the threat maker’s arrest.

I’ve criticized Ilhan Omar before for careless rhetoric when it comes to Jews and Israel. I think she’s said some things on the subject that have invoked anti-Semitic stereotypes, and I’ve written that she needs to be more careful when covering such sensitive ground in the future.

This isn’t that, though. Omar said something perfectly reasonable about her own group’s persecution after 9/11, whose meaning is obvious if you watch the video with an open mind. Labeling this another Omar gaffe — let alone extrapolating from it that she’s “anti-American” — requires using Islamophobic stereotypes as a lens through which one reads her comments.

And that’s exactly what some Republicans appear to be doing.