As she stood in a crowd of protesters, helping hold a long “Stand with Ilhan” sign outside the trucking company in Burnsville where Donald Trump was about to speak, Habon Abdulle could not help but be swept up in the contradictory emotions of the moment.
As a hijab-wearing Muslim woman who speaks with a slight Somali accent, and as executive director of Women Organizing Women (Wow) Network, a not-for-profit group dedicated to training and supporting East African immigrants who run for office, Abdulle had more than a passing familiarity with the some of the views reflected in signs and chants among a crowd of Trump supporters lined up across the street.
There was the idea that Muslims were as a whole responsible for 9/11, and that the congresswoman Ilhan Omar and her supporters were affiliated with terrorist groups. There was another oldie-but-goodie: that the city of Minneapolis, like many urban centers dealing with an affordable housing shortage driven by an influx of new residents, is filled with crime-ridden “no go” zones governed by sharia law, where police supposedly fear to tread.
We thought we passed the collective blaming, the ‘punish the whole for the actions of a few'Habon Abdulle
Abdulle was still a little surprised to see such arguments expressed so brazenly, out in the open, just as she had been a few days earlier when Trump retweeted a video meant to show Omar did not respect the tragedy of 9/11.
“There are conversations in my community,” Abdulle told the Guardian. “We thought we passed the collective blaming, the ‘punish the whole for the actions of a few’. Those were things that we experienced right after the 9/11 attack. And many of us actually thought we were done with that. But lately, it actually feels that it’s back. It’s really weird, like: what’s going on?”
On the pro-Ilhan side of the protests, two Muslim women, @nausheena and Asma Mohammed of @RISEsisterhood led many of the chants.— Jared Goyette (@JaredGoyette) April 20, 2019
Here, @HabonDaud explains why she thought it was important that Muslim women stand in the front. pic.twitter.com/83keO83kFU
She also saw reasons for optimism. A young Muslim woman walked in front of the pro-Omar group, wearing a black hijab and a keffiyeh scarf, holding a bullhorn and leading a chant. Abdulle watched as the crowd responded, many white and older Minnesotans included. That, she thought, was something she could work with.
“If we don’t stand up for ourselves,” she asked, “who will? We have to stand up for ourselves and they felt someone who looks like them was attacked. And we were all of us out there saying, ‘No.’ We are not going to accept. We have rights. It isn’t fair that someone always has to other us. So, we went there because that was the right place to be that day.”
In the same moment, from the other side of the street, a tall man with a gray scraggly beard could be overheard cracking a joke.
“Hey, is that Omar? They all look the same to me.”
He might have been on to something, but not in the way he intended. The young Muslim women in the crowd did see themselves in Omar. That was why they were out in force.
I came here to support my sister Ilhan. She’s been under attack and she’s been facing death threatsAma Mohammed
“I came here to support my sister Ilhan,” the keffiyeh-wearing woman, Asma Mohammed, 26, told the Guardian. “She’s been under attack and she’s been facing death threats consistently, but even more so after Trump tweeted things about her that make her seem like she was sympathizing with terrorists.”
Mohammed said Omar was more than just a political figure: “She is my sister, as Minnesotans; she is my sister as another woman of faith; as another woman who wears a hijab and faces that kind of hate on the daily.”
Such a mix of outrage, disappointment and incredulousness, along with a growing sense of empowerment, was common among activists the Guardian spoke to in Minneapolis in the week after Trump’s tweet.
Omar’s office was quieter than usual, declining media requests and not issuing statements, leaving Trump to deal with the fallout from the Mueller report without his favorite new foil to spar with.
But if there is one thing Trump has been consistent about in his political career, it has been the targeting of migrants and Muslims in moves meant to appeal to his base. Many observers believe he will redouble such efforts as 2020 draws near.
She’s anti-American. She’s anti-Jews …Everyone knew the Muslims took down those buildings in New YorkMelody Black
Omar and Trump have become intrinsically linked, and not just on Trump’s terms. Omar was elected to the House of Representatives in November as part of an anti-Trump blue wave that included Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan. Before that, she made national news when she became the first Somali American in statewide office, on the night Trump was elected president. Her victory party at a Marriott in downtown Minneapolis was a rollercoaster, tears and dancing underscored by a sense of girding for a fight.
“It’s going to be very tough,” Omar said then. “We have to figure out how to organize the community to prepare for what’s to come. We have to amplify our voices of love against the rhetoric of hate.”
That fight has now come, though in a more direct way than many supporters thought possible. As Trump uses Omar to galvanize his base, he will inevitably rally hers. Last Monday’s rival protests outside Trump’s Tax Day event signalled such battles to come.
“Omar really needs to go,” said Melody Black, a Trump supporter from Red Wing, Minnesota, as a man behind her held a “Making America Great Again” sign.
“She’s anti-American. She’s anti-Jews. She’s anti-Minnesotan. And everyone knew that the Muslims took down those buildings in New York. All of us watched it. And now they’re saying that we’re racist because we say it. But it’s the truth.
“Omar came from Somalia and her father taught her exactly how to do what she’s doing – including getting into government. They’re trying to take over our government, the Muslims are.”
Photograph: Kerem Yucel/AFP/Getty Images
Omar has indeed inspired other Muslim women to enter politics.
“Many women within the Somali community who never thought to run for office changed their mind,” Abdulle said. The Minnesota state house now has its second female Somali American legislator, Hodan Hassan.
Across the street from Black, Nausheena Hussain, a 42-year-old in a dark purple headscarf who directs a female-led Muslim not-for-profit organization, took her turn leading a round of chants. She said Trump’s attacks on Omar had encouraged others.
“What I’m hearing, specially my community, is that she cannot be alone,” Hussain said. “They are asking everybody to run for office that has those same progressive values, so she is not bearing the brunt of the responsibility by herself.
“And so I feel like 2020, you are going to see more people of color running for office, more Muslims or Muslim women, because not only do we not want her to be the only one there, but we have seen that she’s able to fight and still get things done. More people need to back her up and to be part of that.”
Abdulle welcomed such words.
“That’s how we are going to end the polarization,” she said. “That’s how we’re going to end the hatred. That’s how we’re going to end the narrative that we are not American.
“I’m going to repeat the whole day long: we are American.”