The presence of Muslim-American women in Congress is a rare opportunity, and Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar should make their voices heard.
History has been made in America. Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar will be the first Muslim women to serve in the US Congress. The 2018 midterm elections saw a decisive victory for Tlaib in Michigan’s 13th congressional district, while Omar won in Minnesota’s fifth congressional district to replace the first Muslim ever elected to Congress, Keith Ellison.
Tlaib, 42, was born in Detroit, Michigan, to working-class Palestinian immigrants. Omar, 37, is a Somali-American who was elected to the Minnesota House of Representatives in 2016. Omar and her family immigrated to the United States when she was 14 to flee the civil war in Somalia.
The landmark achievement for Tlaib and Omar — both Democrats — comes at a time when anti-Muslim sentiments are remarkably rife in the US. A 2017 poll by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding shows that bullying is a major problem for Muslim children, and Muslims are nearly four times as likely to report bullying among their school-age children as the general public. The same report notes that a majority of Muslim-Americans — 60% of them — reported some level of religious discrimination over the past year, significantly higher than rates reported by Jews and Catholics.
Different studies on the public perception of Muslims in America show a systemic divide between Muslim-Americans and their fellow citizens. According to the Pew Research Center, “Half of U.S. adults say Islam is not part of mainstream American society.” In January 2017, Pew asked participants to rate Muslims on a “feeling thermometer” ranging from 0 to 100, with 0 being negative and 100 being positive. Most respondents gave Muslims a rating of 48, the lowest among followers of different religions in the US. Jews and Catholics received the highest score — 67 and 66 respectively.
The same study showed that 41% of American adults think “Islam is more likely than other religions to encourage violence among its followers.”
Some observers believe Islamophobia is now worse under Donald Trump than in the early aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in 2001. Perhaps one reason is the president’s crackdown on immigration and his perceived role in emboldening white supremacists.
While Muslim-Americans continue to contribute to the security, economic prosperity and scientific progress of the United States, they are still grappling with the incessant repercussions of 9/11 and being seen as not part of American society.
The Task Ahead
Of course, not only Muslims voted for Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib. However, it’s reasonable to view their victory against the backdrop of the growing political awareness and engagement of Muslims in America. This includes their quest for a better public image among their fellow citizens, their willingness to be depicted more positively in the media, and their legitimate demand to be treated more fairly in public.
Tlaib’s campaign platform comprised a pledge to secure a $15 an hour minimum wage, prevent cuts to welfare programs and stop tax relief to large corporations. Omar also campaigned as a progressive, calling for universal health care and tuition-free colleges. Her platform included action against gun violence, fighting for LGBTQIA+ rights and establishing economic justice for working families.
The two congresswomen, however, will have more serious undertakings when they assume office in January 2019. Both Democrats have to contribute to the mending of ties between American society and the Muslim community. They also have to try undo the harm caused to America and the world as a result of President Trump’s bellicose rhetoric on immigration, and demonstrate to their constituencies that they deserve to be trusted and that the votes have gone to the right people.
In days when anti-Muslim rhetoric has become popular in America and blaming the world’s problems on Islam is an accepted convention, the two congresswomen-elect have a crucial responsibility. They are now ambassadors of Muslim-Americans and should do their best to showcase their merits. This is how Islamophobia can be countered and overpowered.
The presence of two Muslim-American women in Congress is a rare opportunity, and Tlaib and Omar should use their voice to carry the message of peace, friendship and loyalty from their fellow Muslims to the rest of America. Although the election of both politicians with a migrant background is not good news to ardent Republicans and allies of President Trump, their successful performance will be indescribably important in illustrating a fair image of Islam to the American public.
American society is suffering from division and tension more than ever, and it is time for wounds to heal.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.