Almost immediately after Congresswoman Ilhan Omar won her seat last November she became a household name. As a Black Muslim immigrant woman, she doesn’t just stand out — she has set a laundry list of firsts that took until 2019 to topple. She is the first Somali American, first woman of color, first naturalized citizen from African and the first of two Muslim women to serve in Congress.
She has also become a beacon for controversy, particularly for comments that have been viewed anti-Semitic (which she adamantly denies), has been fined for misuse of $3,500 in campaign funds and has even been attacked on Twitter by the president.
Omar, however, has often sidestepped media responses to focus her aim at the thorny and intractable issues that face her former 5th Congressional district in Minneapolis and the greater nation. She is also forming alliances that look to broaden her lens and impact, including becoming a member of the Congressional Black Caucus and, most recently, a new bipartisan Black-Jewish congressional caucus.
In the first of a two-part series, Omar speaks to the MSR for the first time about her rise in notoriety, challenges, and what she hopes to accomplish with her heightened platform.
MSR: What’s changed in your work now that you’re at the federal level?
Ilhan Omar: The biggest difference is I really get the opportunity to dive into foreign policy, which you don’t get to do at the state level. We’ve been trying to really address military spending and the demilitarization of our foreign policy.
MSR: Part of your foreign policy work includes the recent sanction of Sultan of Brunei’s penal code which imposes such penalties as death by stoning for extramarital affairs and sodomy. Why?
IO: It’s a continuation of the work we’ve been really focusing on — for there to be a watchdog to make sure that we have the opportunity to advance human rights around the world, and that we’re not tiptoeing around issues because the particular regimes that are perpetuating them might be an ally.
We’ve been really consistent in trying to speak about human rights abuses against the LGBTQ community, against religious minorities, the rights of children, the rights of women. This particular case exemplified all of the human rights violations that a country can have, and it didn’t make sense for a country like the United States to ignore it.
I wanted to make sure we were leading in calling that out, in taking a stance against this inhumane proposed penal code.
MSR: You’re far more recognizable than many other representatives.
IO: There’s a negative and a positive to it, as there is to everything. I’m always focusing on the opportunity that the profile provides. It allows us to call attention to a lot of things that others might not be able to, and because we do, it’s something that sort of takes off.
There’s a real opportunity to give hope to so many people. I think it balances out the loss of privacy, not being able to go to the grocery store and not be stopped every five seconds or get in a plane in a peaceful way without taking 500 selfies.
Even in the challenging times when you’re in a grocery store, 90 percent of members of Congress have to generate that conversation. For me, it naturally happens. Because I represent a place like Minnesota, where people are very political and policy-oriented, most of the conversations we have are about the work we are able to do.
The work we’ve been pushing around college debt cancellation is driven by a lot of the young people I constantly run into about the burden they feel, between the selfies we get to take.
MSR: Were you prepared for the media attention?
IO: I was. We got a glimpse of how vicious people could be towards anybody who might be suspected of being a Muslim with [Barack] Obama. I knew that being an extremely visible Muslim politician, who not only has a very Muslim name, but also wore a hijab, was a female, and an actual immigrant to the country — that the flood gates were going to open when it came to a hate-filled narrative.
I came quite prepared for the vitriol to come. The sad piece of it all, for a lot of these people who perpetuate this hateful narrative about who I am, don’t know that none of these things impact me. And for the people who feel like ‘oh my God, How’s Ilhan doing?,’ how are the Ilhans in America and around the world doing in dealing with it?
My name might be included in the headline, but the awful things they say are really about their feelings toward Muslims, their feelings toward women, immigrants, Black people. And that’s where things get nasty, because I don’t know if a 13-year-old has the thick skin or can find the humor in the nasty things people say.
MSR: Has your approach with the media changed since launching into the international spotlight?
IO: No, no. I really was never very much interested in spending a lot of energy talking to the media. The only way that we get the opportunity to tell our own story, to draft our own narrative, to have an honest conversation, is to be able to do it either face-to-face or through social media.
As somebody who grew up really admiring the work journalists did, it’s really been quite disappointing for me the last two decades to kind of see the disconnect that the American media seems to have through the active fact-finding process that I really enjoyed in the journalism I was used to. It seems like there is always a particular narrative that is being proven. It’s making our country more polarized than it needs to be.
MSR: How do you stay positive?
IO: That’s really how I was raised. My dad — one of my earliest memories was talking to him about having stomach pain and him saying, ‘Your stomach will feel fine, you don’t need to dwell on it. There are children your age in the hospital, their parents don’t know if they’ll survive or not. You have to count your blessings and focus on getting well.’
That kind of re-orienting yourself to constantly be present in the work you have to do, in recognizing there are all of these circumstances that throw you off your focus — you have to constantly make the choice to be focused. We’ve been able to use a lot of the energy that surrounds us to focus on building partnership and pushing for the kind of progressive agenda we have.
MSR: What is that agenda?
IO: We have a bill on developing a major proposal for housing. We’re calling it “Homes for All,” and it’s going to, hopefully, produce one million new homes to give people an opportunity to have a dignified, safe place to live.
We are working on our huge student debt cancelation, which will free hundreds of students from the shackles of debt.
We’re having an opportunity to push for progressive foreign policy because of the opportunities that are in front of us because of the challenges.
We are able to be really present in the Congressional Black Caucus and participating in a couple of task forces addressing issues that often aren’t addressed in our community, like youth suicide, mental health, problems with our young people, or the Black maternal mortality rate.
MSR: What informs your policy work?
IO: I’ve always talked about the importance of having intersectionality in the center of the way we propose policy. Race and gender are compounding factors of discrimination or any sort of disparity. If we are not addressing the class issues, race issues, gender issues, then we are never going to have any just policies that are going to be helpful for all of us, equally.
The addressing of taboo issues like mental health in the Black community is something we talk about all the time. As a Somali, we don’t even have a Somali word for it. That is true of many of the African American communities. The acceptance and opportunity to form sentences around mental health doesn’t exist. That is certainly 100 percent true of many of the African immigrants.
When we are talking about mental health, we are going to have a different kind of conversation than the ones the mainstream communities are having. We are at a starting point and it is important, as we are pushing for access to resources and the ability for healthcare providers to see and care for us as if we are valued. We also have to have a conversation internally about what it looks like for us to seek help, how mental health issues present in our community, and what support could really be like when we are comfortable providing support to one another.
Intersectionality is the most valued lens that leaders and policy advocates can use to make sure we have just policies. It’s a layered way of looking at issues, but as someone who carries multiple identities, it’s something I understand.
MSR: How do those challenges/controversy in Congress compare to other members?
IO: When somebody celebrates me as a Muslim, I know that my challenges aren’t only as a Muslim. Many of my challenges are also because I’m Black, because I am an immigrant, because I am a woman. We have to [look at that] with all of our constituents to understand they are not only having the particular access gap because they’re Black — it’s also because they are women, or because of other socioeconomic situations they are in.