In July, at the Washington, D.C., conference of the Muslim Collective for Equitable Democracy, Representative Ilhan Omar gave a heated answer to a question posed by a member of the audience. The woman had asked if Omar and Representative Rashida Tlaib, would be willing to make public statements condemning female genital mutilation. She said that given a recent court decision in Detroit that had found that the only federal law against FGM unconstitutional, it could be “really powerful” if the two Muslim congresswoman would do so.
Omar listened quietly, a half-smile playing at her lips, and then she gave her answer. She called the question, “appalling”; she said it was “frustrating;” that she was “really quite disgusted, to be honest” that “as Muslim legislators, we are constantly being asked to waste our time speaking to issues that other people are not asked to speak to.” She suggested that FGM has become a particular litmus test for Muslim elected officials, one that puts assumptions about their religious and cultural identities ahead of full confidence in their American ones. Should she keep a daily schedule, she asked rhetorically, in which she reminded herself that every single day she needed to condemn FGM, al-Qaeda, and Hamas? The audience began to applaud.
Omar told the questioner that she had given “statement after statement” on FGM, that she had “voted for bills” against it, including one that that she had voted out of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. She said that she wanted to make sure that the next time someone was in an audience looking at a Muslim representative, that the person would not come forward with “an accusation that we might support something that is so abhorrent, so offensive, so evil, so vile ” as FGM. Her response brought cheers from the crowd.
It was a brilliant political move; it’s difficult to imagine anyone asking her about FGM anytime soon without being mindful of that moment. Excerpts from the exchange were widely posted by news outlets, including The Guardian and CNN; several progressive publications sided with the congresswoman: “Ilhan Omar Is Done Responding to Bigoted Assumptions About Her Beliefs,” read a headline in The Cut. The holder of this particular “bigoted assumption,” however, was not a closed-minded Evangelical looking to demonize a culture she didn’t understand. She was Ani Osman-Zonneveld, founder of Muslims for Progressive Values, looking for allyship from the two most powerful Muslim American women in government. Omar was aware of her identity because Zonnenfeld had introduced herself before speaking. “I always introduce myself,” she told me on the phone a few days after the event; “because I don’t look Muslim, and I don’t wear the hijab.”