Why conservative attacks on an out-of-context Ilhan Omar quote are dangerous

Critics are whipping up anti-Muslim bigotry against the freshman congresswoman

Ilhan Omar.
(Image credit: Illustrated | AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, olegagafonov/iStock, javarman3/iStock)

On March 23, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) gave a speech about her views on Islam, religious civil rights, and the threat posed by anti-Muslim bigotry following the Christchurch massacre. More than two weeks later (following the duplicitous Andrew Breitbart script to the letter), conservatives have cherry-picked four words from her speech and twisted them wildly out of context to suggest Omar was downplaying the 9/11 attacks.

On Thursday, the New York Post blasted the quote on its front page, together with a photo of 9/11 and a screaming headline: "Here's your something: 2,977 people dead from terrorism." The none-too-subtle implication is that Omar herself is somehow responsible for 9/11, because she is a Muslim. It's absolutely vile bigotry, which could very possibly incite violence against Muslims.

So here are the details from Omar's speech (which is quite good and worth watching in full, by the way). After discussing some of the many ways rampant anti-Muslim prejudice is expressed in American society, she says the following:

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Here's the truth: 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. CAIR was founded after 9/11, because they recognized that some people did something and then all of us were starting to lose access to our civil liberties. [Ilhan Omar]

That's the source of the line conservatives are using to whip up a storm of bigotry. Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas) led the charge:

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On Fox and Friends, Brian Kilmeade said: "You have to wonder if she is an American first." Further down the right-wing media food chain, others made the sentiments a lot more plain. While discussing Omar on Instagram, far-right activist Laura Loomer accused her of treason and said, "Islam is a cancer on humanity and Muslims should not be allowed to seek positions of political office in this country." With that she's echoing the teachings of conservative commentator Ben Shapiro, who has used fake statistics to argue that the majority of the world's Muslims — some 800 million people, by his count — are dangerous radicals. (Also, in early March a West Virginia GOP Day event featured a poster directly linking Omar to 9/11.)

President Trump has not yet commented on this controversy, but he has repeatedly attacked Omar for "assaulting Jews" (for calling his adviser Stephen Miller a "white nationalist") and demanded she resign for criticizing Israel.

In context, it is absolutely beyond question that Omar was not downplaying 9/11, she was simply pointing out the injustice of all 1.8 billion Muslims worldwide being blamed for a small number of people committing a horrible atrocity. She's not even avoiding mentioning that the attackers were Muslim — on the contrary, it is taken for granted in the logic of her entire speech that everyone she is talking about is Muslim. No less than George W. Bush made this point in a speech before Congress after 9/11:

I also want to speak tonight directly to Muslims throughout the world. We respect your faith. It's practiced freely by many millions of Americans, and by millions more in countries that America counts as friends. Its teachings are good and peaceful, and those who commit evil in the name of Allah blaspheme the name of Allah. The terrorists are traitors to their own faith, trying in effect to hijack Islam itself. The enemy of America is not our many Muslim friends. It is not our many Arab friends. [George W. Bush]

Bush would, of course, go on to oversee numerous atrocities against Muslims. But rhetorically at least, he agreed with Omar's basic sentiment.

The only thing you could quibble with is Omar saying that CAIR — a blandly inoffensive Muslim rights organization akin to the NAACP, which conservatives nevertheless constantly accuse of being affiliated with terrorism or itself terrorist — was founded after 9/11, when in fact it was founded in 1994. (Though it did dramatically step up its advocacy after 9/11, for obvious reasons.)

What you can't quibble with is that right-wing terrorists are getting the subtext of these conservative messages loud and clear. The Quebec City mosque shooter was a big fan of Trump, Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham, and Ben Shapiro. The Christchurch mosque shooter praised Trump as a "symbol of white identity."

And just this week — before this latest ginned-up frenzy of hatred — a New York man was arrested and charged with threatening to assassinate Omar herself. According to the charging document, he told a staffer: "Do you work for the Muslim Brotherhood? Why are you working for her, she's a fucking terrorist. I'll put a bullet in her fucking skull." The FBI interviewer reported that he "stated he was a patriot, that he loves the president, and that he hates radical Muslims in our government."

After coverage like Thursday's Post cover, what else would we expect?

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