Democrats, Republicans, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu all earned standing ovations at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual conference by taking aim at Rep. Ilhan Omar over the past few days. “Recently, a freshman Democrat in Congress trafficked in repeated anti-Semitic tropes,” Vice President Mike Pence said on Monday, referring to Omar’s controversial statements about the influence of the pro-Israel lobby. “Anyone who slanders those who support this historic alliance between the United States and Israel should never have a seat on the Foreign Affairs Committee of the United States House of Representatives.” Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., similarly rebuked Omar. “When someone accuses American supporters of Israel of dual loyalty, I say: Accuse me,” Hoyer said on Sunday.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., compared Omar’s comments to President Donald Trump’s defense of neo-Nazis. “When someone looks at a neo-Nazi rally and sees some ‘very fine people’ among its company, we must call it out. When someone suggests money drives support for Israel, we must call it out,” he said. Netanyahu gave a glancing mention to the recent massacre at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, while zeroing in on Omar.
Omar clapped back on Tuesday. “It’s been interesting to see such a powerful conference of people be so fearful of a freshman member of Congress. So I hope that they figure out a way to not allow me to have a permanent residency in their heads,” she told reporters, before elaborating on her criticisms of AIPAC in a Twitter thread.
The brazen public condemnations of Omar were made with such ease not because the Minnesota representative had said anything new since the last flagellation, but thanks to her uniquely threatening triple identity as a black Muslim woman.
While analyzing the vitriol directed at Omar, a hijab-wearing Somali refugee, it’s tempting to single out either her blackness or her Muslim identity as the cause, but the two are inseparable. The conventional, contemporary understanding of Islamophobia tends to revolve around Muslims as a newly racialized group. The Muslim in the popular imagination is a brown, immigrant subject, and attempts to understand anti-Muslim hate are constrained to that context. Reducing Islamophobia to just another form of racism that peaked in the age of the war on terror, however, ignores anti-black Islamophobia dating back to the slave trade.
The backlash against Omar must instead be understood through the lens of what is known as the “afterlife of slavery.” The term, theorized by African-American literature professor Saidiya Hartman, refers to the continued devaluation and dehumanization of black lives. This is accomplished through a “racial calculus and political arithmetic that were entrenched centuries ago,” Hartman writes in “Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Trade.” When enslaved African Muslims were originally brought to the colonies, they quickly became known for rebellion. After the earliest recorded uprising on Christmas Day, 1522, Charles V of Spain tried to exclude “slaves suspected of Islamic learnings” from the Americas, blaming their religious ideology. Enslaved African Muslims came to be seen as posing a threat to individual slaveholders and the system of racial capitalism, leading to the anti-black framework for America’s Islamophobia.
As time passed, colonial anxieties surrounding black Muslims — angry, defiant, and a threat to order — became ingrained into the state and reintroduced to the public following the resurgence of Islam in black American communities.
Reactions to Omar are also driven by a view of black Muslims as both exceptionally and inherently anti-Semitic. In part, the idea of Muslims and Jews as naturally opposed is an extension of the Israeli occupation of Palestine, in hopes to reduce the political conflict to a religious one. However, it’s an old stereotype that serves to only further — and falsely — pit Muslims and Jews against one another. This was seen in late January, when Rep. Lee Zeldin received an anti-Semitic voicemail and called on Omar, and Omar alone, to answer for it.
There is also a long history of treating black women in particular as suspect. In “Are Prisons Obsolete?” Angela Davis writes, “It should also be kept in mind that until the abolition of slavery, the vast majority of black women were subject to regimes of punishment that differed significantly from those experienced by white women.” The public punishment and humiliation of black women serves to solidify their status as less than human and strengthen anti-blackness. This was seen historically with lynchings made into public spectacles; in 1918, Mary Turner, several months pregnant, was lynched and her unborn child cut from her stomach. Those unfathomably cruel murders are a thing of the past, but attempts to silence black women persist in more subtle, mild ways. Meghan McCain’s outburst against Omar on “The View” reflected a pattern of invoking white women’s tears as a process of silencing black people.
The attempts to silence Omar also bring to the fore the way that political parties have co-opted oppressed people’s desire for representation to create a shallow, representational politics that work only so long as its diverse members don’t disturb the status quo. Upon election, Omar was touted as the first woman in hijab to serve in Congress, and major media outlets provided surface-level examinations of her identity as a Somali refugee. She stepped out of line quickly, though, when supporting Palestinians by questioning the United States’ role in their oppression.
When condemning Omar for perpetuating “anti-Semitic stereotypes that misrepresent our Jewish community” in early March, Democratic Rep. Juan Vargas made clear the deeper political logic that made Omar’s comments so blasphemous in Washington. “Questioning support for the U.S.-Israel relationship is unacceptable,” Vargas wrote. Omar, for violating this rule, was exposed to reactions so severe that they can only be understood as a manifestation of a historical desire to see black women humiliated to atone for their sins.
Over the last decade, we’ve seen multiple examples of state violations of black Muslim women. In 2008, a black Muslim woman was sentenced to 10 days in jail after refusing to remove her hijab in a Georgia court. In 2016, the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office in Maine opened an internal investigation after at least one black Muslim woman, who was arrested at a protest, had a mugshot without her hijab released to the media. “In our opinion, it was a form of public shaming and it’s a violation of their First Amendment religious rights,” one protester, who was not arrested, said. In 2017, the city of Long Beach, California, settled for $85,000 with a black Muslim woman whose hijab was removed by a male police officer. This trend, playing into the desire to publicly humiliate black Muslim women by violating their bodies, highlights why Omar is treated as an intruder in office.
To be black is to already be something outside of human, but the public’s ability to actively engage in that dehumanization offers deep satisfaction. Black women’s public humiliation is an accessible form of entertainment offered to the American public and the result of misogynoir across the world. This history cannot be separated from anti-black Islamophobia and so drives the elevated reaction to Omar today.
What has been displayed is not genuine concern regarding anti-Semitism and violence against Jewish people because, as has been well-documented, anti-Semitic comments by nonblack, non-Muslim elected officials barely make a blip in the news cycle. Omar, instead, was condemned by everybody from the president of the United States — no stranger to anti-Semitic tropes himself — to Democratic leadership. Omar’s case puts on display the United States’s unwavering support for Israel, its violent protege, and the use of anti-black Islamophobia to carry that message.