Congressional leaders are struggling to respond to anti-Muslim comments made by Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-CO), an uncomfortable reminder of how accepted Islamophobia has become among Republican lawmakers, who’ve broadly been silent in the wake of these statements.
Two weeks ago during a floor speech, Boebert referred to Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN), one of three Muslim House lawmakers and the only one to wear a hijab, as a member of the “jihad squad.”
“The Jihad Squad member from Minnesota has paid her husband, and not her brother husband, the other one, over a million dollars in campaign funds,” she said in her remarks.
Over the Thanksgiving recess, Boebert again made anti-Muslim remarks in a speech, claiming that once while riding an elevator Omar was on, she saw a worried Capitol Police officer approaching. In her comments at the November event, Boebert said they had nothing to fear from the Democrat because she wasn’t wearing a backpack, insinuating that Omar could have been a suicide bomber.
This week, it was reported that Boebert has told this story in public more than once. (Omar has said she never witnessed Boebert have this exchange with an officer.)
Fact, this buffoon looks down when she sees me at the Capitol, this whole story is made up. Sad she thinks bigotry gets her clout.— Ilhan Omar (@IlhanMN) November 26, 2021
Anti-Muslim bigotry isn’t funny & shouldn’t be normalized. Congress can’t be a place where hateful and dangerous Muslims tropes get no condemnation. https://t.co/S1APT7RbqW
Boebert later apologized to “anyone in the Muslim community I offended with my comment,” but has yet to publicly apologize to Omar, and went on to accuse Omar of anti-American rhetoric in a phone call the two had earlier this week, according to a statement she later made.
Boebert’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Thus far, Republican leadership has been quiet on the matter, issuing no public condemnation of Boebert’s comments. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said Friday that Boebert had already apologized for her comments and reached out to Omar, even though the call they had didn’t have a resolution. “This party is for anyone and everyone who craves freedom and supports religious liberty,” McCarthy said of the GOP.
House Democratic leaders, meanwhile, have condemned Boebert’s Islamophobic remarks but have yet to put forth a formal resolution or penalty regarding her statements. Beyond a statement condemning Boebert, Democrats and Republicans have a couple of options for punishment, including a resolution denouncing these comments, a formal reprimand or censure, or the stripping of committee assignments. At this point, neither party has publicly announced further action they would take.
Pressure for a more serious punishment is building: On Thursday, five Democratic House caucus chairs called for Boebert to be stripped of her committee assignments, much like Reps. Paul Gosar and Marjorie Taylor Greene were in the wake of posts they made seeming to promote political violence. The caucus chairs argue that inaction in the face of Boebert’s comments effectively condones Islamophobia and sends a message about what types of extremist comments Congress is willing to accept.
“There must be consequences for elected representatives who traffic in anti-Muslim and racist tropes that make all Muslims across the country less safe,” the lawmakers write.
Researchers have indeed found that Islamophobic rhetoric by politicians has real-world consequences and has been directly linked with hate speech targeted toward Muslim Americans. If Congress doesn’t impose more penalties regarding this incident, lawmakers could — whether they mean to or not — further normalize anti-Muslim rhetoric and sentiment, affecting not only Muslim lawmakers but millions of Muslim Americans as well.
In their lack of response, Republicans, in particular, have shown that their party isn’t willing to denounce such Islamophobic statements. And this creates the appearance that the party is open to embracing the hateful rhetoric that former President Donald Trump and others have used.
“The truth is that Islamophobia pervades our culture, our politics, and even policy decisions,” Omar said at a press conference on Wednesday. “The most pervasive is the constant suggestion that all Muslims are terrorists and should be feared. So when a sitting member of Congress calls a colleague a member of the ‘jihad squad’ and falsifies a story to suggest that I will blow up the Capitol, it is not just an attack on me, but on millions of American Muslims across this country.”
How Congress acts in response to this incident — and others like it — sets a tone that extends far beyond its halls.
Congressional inaction condones Islamophobia
Congressional inaction toward Boebert’s comments only helps normalize them, and the fact that Boebert hasn’t faced more immediate consequences from either party makes it seem as though expressions of anti-Muslim sentiment are acceptable to both Democrats and Republicans.
Democrats’ outright condemnation was important, but the delay in additional disciplinary action has been surprising to Nihad Awad, the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).
“I believe that so far the response from the Democratic leadership is weak and late and doesn’t meet the seriousness of these attacks,” Awad told Vox. “Islamophobia has unfortunately become a reality of our life as American Muslims. It has not been tackled with the vigor and the swiftness it needs to be dealt with.”
Meanwhile, the Republican response to Boebert’s comments further reaffirms leadership’s seeming willingness to accept or look past the bigotry and rhetoric of its members.
The decision to stay silent on this front follows Republican Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s treatment of a video posted by Gosar that depicted him killing Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and drawing weapons against President Joe Biden. At the time, McCarthy did not publicly condemn Gosar. As the Washington Post reported on Thursday, Republican leadership has sought to address internal conflicts, but focused less on the issue of Islamophobia.
McCarthy has spoken out about other discriminatory statements caucus members have made in the past. Though he did not do so immediately after they came to light, he did publicly denounce several anti-Semitic and violent statements Greene had made. More recently, McCarthy responded to her comments comparing being required to wear masks to the Holocaust by saying, “Marjorie is wrong, and her intentional decision to compare the horrors of the Holocaust with wearing masks is appalling.”
As the Post notes, however, his approach to colleagues making extremist comments seems to have shifted since his statements about Greene in May, with some speculating that he’s now focused on building support for winning the House speakership — and keeping the base satisfied to do so.
McCarthy’s approach, when it comes to Boebert’s remarks, has been indicative of many rank-and-file Republicans’ reactions to her statements as well. While Reps. Nancy Mace (R-SC) and Adam Kinzinger (R-IL) are among those who have spoken out and criticized Boebert’s comments, many others in the caucus have shied away from confronting them directly. Greene, meanwhile, echoed Boebert’s “jihad squad” rhetoric in her own tweet this week.
It’s another sign that many Republicans are willing to stay quiet when it comes to criticizing bigotry and extremism by their members, putting Democrats in a position where they have to be the ones to act. Republicans have been quick to decry certain forms of bigotry they have said they’ve seen in the Democratic caucus, for instance attempting to censure progressive lawmakers — including Omar — for criticisms of Israel that some perceived as anti-Semitic. Democrats have also criticized Omar for similar reasons.
“Republicans have long been critical of Omar for her criticisms of Israel, and members of both parties have denounced some of her statements as antisemitic,” the Washington Post’s Jacqueline Alemany and Marianna Sotomayor write. “In 2019, House Democratic leaders swiftly condemned Omar’s suggestion that Israel’s allies in American politics were motivated by money rather than principle. Omar apologized later that day.”
Congress is known for moving slowly in general, though the response to the Boebert comments has taken a while. Democrats responded after a week and a half regarding the video Gosar posted depicting violence toward Ocasio-Cortez. Gosar had posted that video around November 7 and was censured by the House on November 17. Boebert first made her floor speech using the term “jihad squad” on November 17 and then used the term at another event, video of which was posted on November 25.
Democrats have argued that there could be downsides to punishing Boebert; they worry that doing so could further raise her profile and boost her ability to fundraise from conservative voters. Greene brought in more than $3 million in fundraising in the first quarter of this year after her committee assignments were stripped. Some Democrats have also said they don’t want to be in a position of constantly disciplining Republicans who make extremist and racist statements, according to Politico.
Still, as was evident in the punishments levied on Gosar and Greene, Democrats act when they feel it is necessary. As the Hill reported, Democrats considered a resolution to condemn Islamophobia earlier this week but were focused on putting pressure on House Republicans to act. In an MSNBC interview Thursday, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said Democrats were still discussing what the “appropriate action” is.
“It’s not an option to ignore it because it might help her raise money,” Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) stressed at a press conference earlier this week. Punishment “sends a message to the rest of our colleagues that this is unacceptable.”
Political statements can be tied to real-life violence
In the wake of Boebert’s latest statements, Omar has been the target of anti-Muslim vitriol and death threats, an apparent consequence of the recent Islamophobic remarks. Researchers have found that the rhetoric used by public officials could have an impact on the rise of anti-Muslim rhetoric and violence — a major reason it’s important for House leadership to push back against it.
“There’s a through line between what is said about me ... what my colleagues have said ... and the death threats I receive,” Omar said this week.
At the Wednesday press conference, Omar played one of the threatening voicemails — a message filled with racist and Islamophobic slurs — she’s received following her call with Boebert. Omar and other progressive women of color including Reps. Ocasio-Cortez and Tlaib have long faced numerous death threats since they’ve been elected.
Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) plays a horrific death threat she received following Rep. Lauren Boebert’s (R-CO) recent Islamophobic attacks on her.— The Recount (@therecount) November 30, 2021
Warning: It's incredibly graphic. pic.twitter.com/5PGODcaJOu
There have also been several recent examples of political speech being tied to actual violence. Participants in the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol have referenced comments by Trump and said he instructed them to go to the building. Trump had called on a crowd to “fight like hell” prior to the storming of the Capitol, telling attendees “we are going to walk down Pennsylvania Avenue ... and we are going to the Capitol.”
Research has indicated that anti-Muslim rhetoric can be linked to hate crimes, based on the limited data that law enforcement sources currently have. A 2016 study from California State University San Bernardino, for example, found an 87.5 percent increase in hate crimes toward Muslim Americans after Trump called for a ban on Muslim people entering the country.
Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Awad notes that anti-Muslim rhetoric has been normalized by many politicians, who’ve leveraged Islamophobia to energize members of their base. A 2021 CAIR survey found that 69 percent of Muslim Americans said they’d experienced an instance of anti-Muslim bigotry since the 9/11 attacks, and 95 percent said they’d speak out if they heard negative comments about Muslims and Islam.
“We have been fighting — as an institution and as a community — Islamophobia for the past 20 years,” Awad said. “Over the years, it’s been elevated, normalized, and legislated. We have the most influential people in our lives trafficking in Islamophobia believing that it will get them somewhere with their base.”
Tlaib echoed this point this week, emphasizing the effect Congress’s actions in this case could have.
“I’m also here today in support of the 3.45 million Muslim neighbors in our country, because it’s also their lives that are put in grave danger when people like Rep. Boebert are allowed to use their national platform and elected office to spread hate and dangerous racist rhetoric that enables violence toward Muslims,” Tlaib said.
Lawmakers would be making a mistake if they weigh nullifying the political benefits Boebert could extract from any punishment more heavily than making a decisive statement against Islamophobia.