In just six months, Ilhan Omar has gone from freshman congresswoman to national lightning rod, not surprising for a dogged community organizer whose career has been on a rapid rise since she pulled off a historic upset in the 2016 Minnesota state election.
In just six months, Ilhan Omar has gone from freshman congresswoman to national lightning rod. It’s the kind of rapid ascent that characterized her career even before she arrived in Washington last January as one of only two Muslim-American women to ever serve in Congress.
Omar, 36, has been at the centre of a political firestorm in the U.S. since President Donald Trump singled out the Muslim Somali-American and three of her fellow progressive Democratic congresswomen of colour in a series of tweets widely condemned as racist.
She got a taste for politics early as a keen teenager attending caucuses of the Democratic–Farmer–Labor Party, the Minnesota wing of the Democratic Party, with her grandfather and later as a social justice advocate in the immigrant communities of Minneapolis where she was raised.
Omar’s family came to the U.S. in 1995 when she was 12 by way of a refugee camp in Mombasa, Kenya, having fled the Somali civil war four years earlier. They settled in the Cedar-Riverside neighbourhood of Minneapolis in 1997 after a brief stop in Virginia.
They were among the first wave of Somali immigrants who settled in the 1990s in what has since grown to be one of the largest Somali-American communities in the U.S., with a population of more than 50,000.
Unfazed by personal attacks
But while she was more politically engaged than the average teenager and went on to earn a political science and international studies degree from North Dakota State University, graduating in 2011, her first real election campaign gig was only seven years ago.
In 2012 and 2013, she worked on the campaigns of Democratic Minnesota state senator Kari Dziedzic and Minneapolis city councilman Andrew Johnson, who kept her on staff until she made the leap to state politics.
“In a matter of just a few years, she went from being my senior policy aide to being a household name across the nation,” Johnson said in an interview.
Yesterday, Congress voted to lift a 181 year ban on headwear to make the #116thCongress more inclusive for all.
I thank my colleagues for welcoming me, and I look forward to the day we lift the Muslim ban separating families all over the U.S. from their loved ones.
Johnson, who has watched Omar fend off death threats and offensive comments based on her religion, said he’s not surprised to see her unfazed by Trump’s attacks.
“She is somebody who is shockingly at peace with this stuff,” he said. “She doesn’t just react to things from a very ego-based place. … She’s mindful and is able to maintain that composure.”
Al-Qaeda remarks from 2013 continue to dog Omar
It was while she was working for Johnson that Omar made the remarks that have been seized upon by Trump to paint her as a supporter of the Islamist militant group al-Qaeda.
Omar was speaking on a PBS program, discussing why certain Arabic words, such as madrassa, which means school, are not translated into English when they are mentioned in the context of terrorism.
She recalled how a professor of hers had said al-Qaeda with an emphasis that gave the word a larger meaning, raising his shoulders as he said it.
“You don’t say ‘America’ with an intensity. You don’t say ‘England’ with an intensity. You don’t say, ‘the army’ with an intensity,” she said in the clip (The exchange is here at minute 15:45-18:07.)
It’s a clip she has had to answer for ever since she stepped onto the national stage in the November 2018 midterms.
More recently, comments she made about the 9/11 attacks on the U.S. have been similarly taken out of context, and she’s come under scrutiny for her earlier advocacy on behalf of young Somali men in her community who had become radicalized. As a policy aide and a state legislator, she argued they needed stronger social supports and rehabilitation.
The attention is not likely to temper her rhetoric, said Johnson, even if she has been, on occasion, tripped up by factual inaccuracies.
“She’s a very passionate person,” he said. “She has a very strong values-based, moral-based compass.”
Unseated 44-year incumbent
Her ability to stay focused and energize supporters is what helped her pull off a historic upset in the 2016 election for the Minnesota state legislature, unseating a Democratic incumbent who had held the office for 44 years.
She was able to pull together a wide base of support beyond the Somali community through grassroots campaigning on issues such as reducing student debt, expanding environmental protections and raising the minimum wage.
Two years later, she emerged from a large field of Democrats, many of them more known than she was, to seize the open seat in the safely Democratic fifth congressional district, which includes Minneapolis and some surrounding suburbs.
“She did it on the strength of her biography,” said Kevin Diaz, political editor at the Minneapolis Star--, which has covered Omar and dug into some of the controversial claims about her personal life.
“She had this compelling narrative to tell — she was a refugee from Somalia, a war-torn country, had done good in the community and was politically active. And that kind of thing resonates with Minnesota Democrats.”
Early community activism
Omar’s early interest in politics and social justice led to work as a community nutrition educator at the University of Minnesota and later as a child nutrition outreach co-ordinator at the Minnesota Department of Education and as a policy director with the Women Organizing Women Network.
Her grounding in social advocacy has served her well in her first, scrappy session of Congress, said Abdirahman Kahin, 42, a friend who met Omar in 2002 when he filmed her Islamic wedding ceremony.
“She’s a tough woman. I don’t know if I would resist that long,” he said.
She has raised $1.5 million US for her re-election campaign already, rivalling some of the senior members of her party. In the House of Representatives, she scored a spot on the prestigious foreign affairs committee, where she earlier this year grilled veteran diplomat Elliott Abrams on his role in the Iran-Contra affair and U.S. involvement in the 1980s civil war in El Salvador.
Fight goes beyond politics for some
Although the party has rallied around her in the wake of Trump’s attacks, she is seen by some establishment Democrats as too incendiary, impatient and too far left on issues such as health care and immigration.
To Republicans, she and the rest of the progressive wing are radicals with a socialist agenda that most Americans don’t support and the country can’t afford.
The Squad is the face of the Democrat Party now. They stand for socialism, open borders, the anti-Semitic BDS movement, free healthcare for illegal immigrants, & the job-killing Green New Deal. Republicans & @realDonaldTrump won’t stop battling this radical, anti-American agenda. pic.twitter.com/EjqDF7w5qR
Despite the outsized media attention she’s received since taking office, Kahin still sees her as an underdog, thrust into the spotlight as a proxy to discredit the Democrats.
“She’s dealing with something that’s bigger than her,” said Kahin, who lives in St. Paul and owns Afro Deli, a restaurant and catering business.
Even Somalis in Minnesota who don’t share her politics support her in this fight, he said.
“It’s too personal now. People are not even looking at those political differences.”
WATCH | Trump supporters chant ‘Send her back’ after he mentions Ilhan Omar:
U.S. President Donald Trump remained silent during chants of ‘Send her back!’ at his rally in North Carolina on Wednesday night. The following day he told reporters he disagreed with the sentiment. 0:18
Personal life in spotlight
Little has been written about Omar’s own siblings, but according to an Associated Press report she is the youngest of seven. Her mother reportedly died when Omar was two years old, and she was raised by her father, who drove a taxi and worked at the post office in Minneapolis, and grandfather.
Questions about her personal life — primarily that she may have married a brother for some unspecified immigration benefit — were first raised in a Somali news forum and picked up by conservative media during her 2016 run for the state legislature.
Omar has dismissed the claim as preposterous and said she has already revealed more than most politicians are asked to.
“Insinuations that Ahmed Nur Said Elmi is my brother are absurd and offensive,” she said in a 2016 statement.
The issue resurfaced in June during an investigation into misappropriation of campaign finances in Omar’s state race.
She was found to have misspent around $3,500 US and was ordered to repay it and fined $500. The state regulator’s investigation also discovered Omar had improperly filed taxes with her first husband in 2014 and 2015 while separated but legally still married to her second husband and tried to keep details of her second marriage out of the press, the Star-- reported.
Diaz said that to date no one has presented a credible explanation of the supposed immigration scheme Omar’s former husband, who was already in the U.S., would have benefited from. But, he said, there are questions about Omar’s divorce proceedings and the overlap between the two men, who at one time shared an address with Omar, that if she answered them, could quash the rumours.
“The case is very circumstantial,” he said. “There are lots of questions that beg for answers, and she’s not offering them.“
‘We have had our ups and downs’
Omar has explained that she had married a man named Ahmed Hirsi in 2002 at age 19, but they never finalized the marriage licence. The two split in 2008, and a year later, she legally married Ahmed Nur Said Elmi, a British citizen who, the Star--’s reporting found, is now living in Kenya.
They parted ways in 2011 when she reconciled with Hirsi, with whom she has three children. She officially divorced Elmi in December 2017 and a month later legally married Hirsi, who has worked as a banker and a financial adviser and as a policy aide at city hall, according to the Star-Tribune.
“We have married in our faith tradition and are raising our family together,” Ilhan said of Hirsi in 2016. “Like all families, we have had our ups and downs, but we are proud to have come through it together.”
For Omar’s supporters the questions about her marriage are a smear that will never be disproven to the satisfaction of her critics, who have gone so far as to call for DNA testing of Elmi.
Jewish constituents critical of Israel statements
The other controversy that continues to dog Omar is her stance on Israel, which has prompted Trump and some Republicans to brand her as an anti-Semite.
She is an unapologetic defender of the Palestinian cause and the boycott, divest and sanctions (BDS) movement but has walked back some of her comments, acknowledging she “unknowingly” used offensive anti-Semitic terminology. She has drawn criticism for suggesting supporters of Israel in Congress have been bought off by lobbyists and for referring to the “evil doings of Israel.”
That statement came in the context of the Gaza War.
It’s now apparent to me that I spent lots of energy putting my 2012 tweet in context and little energy is disavowing the anti-semitic trope I unknowingly used, which is unfortunate and offensive.
Those comments angered not only her critics and allies in Washington, who roundaboutly sanctioned her by passing House and Senate resolutions condemning anti-Semitism, but also some of her Jewish constituents in Minneapolis.
The Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas said it was “dispirited and appalled” when Omar decried those who “push for allegiance to a foreign country,” meaning Israel.
But when she was targeted this week in the president’s tweets and at a Trump rally in North Carolina, where supporters chanted “send her back,” the Jewish community came to her defence.
“The president’s racist tweets … are unacceptable,” said Steve Hunegs, executive director of the council, in a statement.
He went on to criticize Trump’s liberal use of the term “anti-Semitic.”
“We are increasingly dismayed by President Trump’s abuse of anti-Semitism and the debate over Israel to demonize his political opponents.”
WATCH | ‘This is not about me’: Omar responds to Trump rally taunts:
Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar, who has been the target of attacks from U.S. President Donald Trump, responded to the chants of ‘Send her back!’ at one of Trump’s rallies. 0:29
No time for politics
While much has been made of Omar’s support within the Somali community and her status as the country’s first Somali-American state legislator and congresswoman, the district she represents is actually about 65 per cent white.
“This is a very liberal city,” said Diaz. “Yes, it’s predominantly white, but less predominantly white all the time. There’s a large Somali community here, which helped get her elected. There’s a large Hmong population here. There’s a lot of Nigerians here.”
The Somali community in the district is largely first generation, still struggling to break into American society, said Diaz.
Hassan Husen knows that all too well. When asked what he and the patrons at Baarakallah, the Somali restaurant in Cedar-Riverside at which he works, think of Omar, he said most people are too busy to give her much thought.
“People, they don’t have time. Most people work — two jobs, three jobs,” he said in a phone interview with CBC News.
“All politicals [politicians], you know how they work. Democrats, Republicans, they talk at each other. It’s been this way for years.”
He said Omar sometimes still comes to the neighbourhood, but the community recognizes she’s on a much bigger stage now.
“She represents all the Minnesotan people, not just Somalis,” he said.