Monday December 31, 2018
By Sheryl Gay Stolberg
Ilhan Omar, Democrat of Minnesota, is one of the first two Muslim women elected to Congress.CreditCreditJenn Ackerman for The New York Times
WASHINGTON — As a 12-year-old refugee from Somalia adjusting to life in the Virginia suburbs, Ilhan Omar fended off bullies who stuck gum on her scarf, knocked her down stairs and jumped her when she changed clothes for gym class.
Her father “sat me down, and he said, ‘Listen, these people who are doing all of these things to you, they’re not doing something to you because they dislike you,’” Ms. Omar recalled in a recent interview. “They are doing something to you because they feel threatened in some way by your existence.”
Now Ms. Omar is Representative-elect Ilhan Omar, Democrat of Minnesota, and her father’s words still hold. Nearly a quarter-century later, as Democrats prepare to assume control of the House with an extraordinarily diverse freshman class, she is perhaps Washington’s most glorified and vilified newcomer — a vehicle for the hopes of millions of Muslims and others touched by her life story, and for the fears of those who feel threatened by her.
When she is sworn in on Thursday, Ms. Omar will take her place in the history books as one of the first two Muslim women in Congress — and the first to wear a hijab, or head covering, on the House floor. Her push to change a 181-year-old rule barring headwear in the chamber — which Democrats are expected to immediately adopt — has drawn fire from a Christian pastor, who warned that the floor of the House “is now going to look like an Islamic republic.”
Her support for the boycott, divest and sanctions movement to pressure Israel to improve treatment of Palestinians is making Jewish leaders nervous. In Saudi Arabia, a state-owned newspaper recently suggested she was part of an Islamist plot to control Congress.
And at home in Minnesota, Ms. Omar has been dogged by claims that she briefly married her brother for immigration purposes — which she called “absurd and offensive” — and by charges filed by a conservative Republican colleague in the Minnesota Legislature that she violated campaign finance laws; a state campaign finance board found “probable cause” that she did and is investigating.
Ms. Omar came up in politics as a community organizer, working on issues like hunger and inequities in the juvenile justice system.CreditErin Schaff for The New York Times
Yet in her short political career, which began two years ago when she unseated a 44-year incumbent to win a seat in the Minnesota Legislature, Ms. Omar has also been featured on the cover of a Time magazine edition spotlighting “women who are changing the world”; appeared on “The Daily Show,” where she publicly invited President Trump to tea; danced in a Maroon 5 music video; and become the subject of her own documentary, “Time for Ilhan.”
“She’s the epitome of the so-called American dream, but for much of white Christian America, she’s an American nightmare,” said Larycia Hawkins, who teaches politics and religion at the University of Virginia, and lost her job at an evangelical college after wearing a hijab in solidarity with Muslim women.
Ms. Omar, a slight 36-year-old with a soft voice and delicate features, envisions herself as a voice in Washington for the disenfranchised, for marginalized people and for immigrants like herself. She came up in politics as a community organizer, working on issues like hunger and inequities in the juvenile justice system. When she arrived in the capital for freshman orientation, she ran into Representative John Lewis, Democrat of Georgia and a civil-rights icon — and burst into tears.
“I said to him, ‘Sir, I read about you in middle school, and you’re here in the flesh, and I get to be your colleague,’” she recalled, tearing up again. She added, “There are moments — every single minute — that I’ve been here where I almost want to pinch myself.”
Ms. Omar’s life story is, in many respects, uniquely American, an immigrant who worked hard and made good. She also embodies the complicated crosscurrents around immigration, race and religion that dominate Mr. Trump’s Washington.
When she was 8, Somalia erupted into civil war, and her extended family fled to a refugee camp in Kenya, where they spent four years before seeking asylum in the United States in 1995. They settled first in Arlington, Va., and later in Minneapolis, whose large Somali population Mr. Trump has called “a disaster” for Minnesota. Her father, a teacher in Somalia, picked up work driving taxis and later got a job at the post office; her mother died when Ms. Omar was 2.
Ms. Omar, with Representative-elect Jahana Hayes, embodies the crosscurrents around immigration, race and religion that dominate President Trump’s Washington.CreditErin Schaff for The New York Times
Her arrival in this country was the first time, Ms. Omar has said, that she had confronted “my otherness” as both a black person and a Muslim. She became a citizen in 2000, when she was 17. After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, she decided to wear the hijab, as an open declaration of her identity. But from “the first day we arrived in America,” she said, she concluded that it was not the golden land that she had heard about.
“I think back to the orientations I went through a little over 20 years ago in the process of coming to this country, and in those orientations they did not have people who were homeless. There was an America that extended liberty and justice to everyone. There was an America where prosperity was guaranteed regardless of where you were born and what you looked like and who you prayed to,” she said, adding, “I wasn’t comfortable with that hypocrisy.”
That feeling led to organizing, and Democratic politics. “She was almost like a cliché of a civic-minded new American,” said Larry Jacobs, a professor at the University of Minnesota who taught Ms. Omar during a public policy fellowship. She would quote the Declaration of Independence, he said, asking, “Why have we come up short?”
As a candidate, rallying voters for a $15 minimum wage, more relaxed immigration policies, Medicare for all and other progressive agenda items, Ms. Omar proved herself sure-footed and tough, with a flair for inspirational rhetoric — traits that her predecessor, Representative Keith Ellison, Minnesota’s incoming attorney general, attributes to her early childhood in Somalia, as the daughter of a well-to-do family of educators.
“She grows up with this sense of herself as important, and yet war destroyed everything and essentially put her in a position where she had to go get rice from relief workers for her family at a young age,” he said, adding, “She had a certain sense of herself, a certain confidence of her own view.”
Running for office meant upending gender norms in the Somali community, where politics is typically the province of men. It also forced Ms. Omar to make public details about her complicated private life, which became fodder for conservative bloggers, who seized on her brief marriage to a British citizen. They have since divorced; earlier this year, she married her current husband, Ahmed Hirsi, the father of her three children.
Ms. Omar is pushing to change a 181-year-old rule barring headwear in the House chamber, which Democrats are expected to adopt.CreditJenn Ackerman for The New York Times
“Like all families, we have had our ups and downs,” she said in a 2016 statement, “but we are proud to have come through it together.”
Her election that year made her the first Somali-American state legislator in the nation, but some conservative colleagues were put off by her frank talk about race, religion and discrimination.
“The liberal media in Minnesota likes to paint her as their hero and that’s what they have done here — Time magazine beauty queen, trailblazer, all of those wrapped together,” said State Representative Steve Drazkowski, who has investigated Ms. Omar’s campaign spending. He said Ms. Omar was “really accusatory and really rode the edge of racial discussion.”
And Ms. Omar’s careful answer on the 2018 campaign trail to questions about Israel — and her postelection clarification that she does indeed back the boycott, divest and sanctions movement — has left some Jewish leaders feeling betrayed.
“I think people looked at her as this transformative, inspirational-type figure,” said Lonny Goldsmith, editor of TCJewfolk, a media nonprofit in the Twin Cities, “and maybe she is to some people. But at the end of the day she’s a politician.”
Ms. Omar’s admirers see her as a powerful symbol, whose “mere presence will hopefully help to educate the American people about who Muslim women are,” said Farhana Khera, the executive director of Muslim Advocates, a civil-rights group.
Already, she has worked with Representative Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, the incoming chairman of the Rules Committee, to carve out a religious exception to the no-hats rule. She gave a hint of her style in her sassy response to the pastor, Bishop E. W. Jackson, who complained that the House floor would look like an Islamic republic.
“Well sir,” she wrote on Twitter, “the floor of Congress is going to look like America … And you’re gonna have to just deal.”