Are the Republicans trying to get Ilhan Omar killed?

Moustafa Bayoumi
Photograph: Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

Is the Republican party actually trying to get the Minnesota congresswoman Ilhan Omar killed? If the question sounds outrageous, consider what has happened in the last couple of weeks alone.

While soliciting campaign contributions through email, George Buck, a Florida Republican candidate who is running for Congress, called for Omar’s execution, then denied doing so, then suggested it again later that same day.

Meanwhile, in Minnesota, Danielle Stella, a Republican candidate attempting to unseat Omar from her congressional post, was suspended from Twitter for twice suggesting that the Muslim congresswoman be tried for treason and hanged.

And in western New York, Patrick W Carlineo Jr pleaded guilty recently to threatening to assault and murder Omar. He called her DC office last spring, stating that he was a Trump-loving patriot and asking a staffer, “Do you work for the Muslim Brotherhood? Why are you working for her? She’s a [expletive] terrorist. Somebody ought to put a bullet in her skull. Back in the day, our forefathers would have put a bullet in her [expletive].”

The staffer also remembered Carlineo saying, “I’ll put a bullet in her [expletive] skull.” A subsequent search of his property discovered that Carlineo possessed a loaded .45 caliber handgun, three rifles, two shotguns and hundreds of rounds of ammunition, a clear violation since Carlineo has a previous conviction for criminal mischief, barring him from owning any firearms.

The dangers Omar faces are real, relentless and deadly.

What’s remarkable is Omar’s response. A believer in restorative justice, Omar wrote to the judge in Carlineo’s case and urged “compassion” in his sentencing. “Threats of political violence and hate speech are not unique to Mr Carlineo,” she stated. “They are an increasing feature in our public sphere. We will not defeat it with anger and exclusion. We will defeat it with compassion.”

I wish I had the grace of Omar. Instead, I find myself in a near-constant state of shock and anger due to the seemingly ceaseless onslaught of racist hatred and sexist stupidity flung at the congresswoman. And so much of it is simply bizarre.

Omar has never said that “all white men should be put in chains as slaves because they will never submit to Islam,” the absurd claims of a popular rightwing meme notwithstanding. Nor is there a scintilla of proof that she is some sort of stealthy Qatari asset sent to infiltrate the US government and relay top secret information to Iran. The idea is ludicrous on its face, but it’s the latest conspiracy theory driving the above calls for her execution. She is also supposed to be an avowed supporter of al-Qaida, which is a sworn enemy of Iran, by the way, but why let facts get in the way of smears? Then there’s my personal favorite: Ilhan Omar is said to have married her own brother. I’m not kidding. You can look it up here.

The anti-Omar crowd also loves to spread around an old Associated Press file photo that, they insist, proves Ilhan Omar has been caught red-handed, handling a rifle while attending an al-Qaida training camp in Somalia. “Aim at the diaper,” commented one user (“diaper” presumably meaning hijab) after the photo was posted on Facebook in August and shared over 4,000 times. In October, Oley Larsen, a state senator from North Dakota, posted the same photo on his Facebook page, calling Omar an “elected terrorist” and instructing his followers to “share it everywhere”. There’s only one problem with this masterclass in political gotcha! The picture was taken in 1978, but Omar wasn’t born until 1982. Excellent sleuthing, geniuses.

But idiocy is not the problem here. Accountability is. Too many Republican politicians and would-be politicians traffic freely in these malicious lies while suffering little to no consequences from the larger Republican leadership. Larsen was only mildly reprimanded by Republican Rich Wardner, the North Dakota senate’s majority leader. George Buck was merely removed from the Republican’s “Young Guns” program, an initiative to train and support candidates in competitive House races.

And why would it be any different? At the top of the Republican party is President Donald Trump, a man who has focused so much of his own hatred and demagoguery specifically on Ilhan Omar that, last summer, the crowd spontaneously burst out chanting, “Send her back, Send her back!” while he smirked like a cartoon character in self-satisfaction.

Behind all the attacks on Ilhan Omar lies a cold Republican calculus. When they look at Ilhan Omar, Republicans seem to see someone so unlike them that the most she represents is a cynical opportunity. Here’s a politician who is a progressive, black, refugee, hijab-wearing Muslim woman. Who better to focus all their venom on?

But what if politics is really a question of addition and not subtraction? What the Republicans don’t seem to understand is that Ilhan Omar’s multiple sides connect her to so many in America. Anyone and everyone who is progressive or female or black or religious or any combination thereof should see something of themselves in her.

There is no question that in today’s climate, many of us are concerned about Ilhan Omar’s safety, as we are about our own. But we also know this, that we are many, and we vote. And the more we unite against such explicit bigotry, the more we will win. When it comes to the political future of this country, the Republicans are the ones who should be afraid.

  • Moustafa Bayoumi is the author of the award-winning books How Does It Feel To Be a Problem?: Being Young and Arab in America and This Muslim American Life: Dispatches from the War on Terror. He is professor of English at Brooklyn College, City University of New York