Somali Americans

Lots of Ilhan Omar stories major on her politics -- but none really talk about her faith

Lots of Ilhan Omar stories major on her politics -- but none really talk about her faith

U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar has gotten ultra-favorable coverage (this NPR piece is an example) as the history-making one-of-two-first-ever Muslim women to serve in Congress.

A one-time refugee in Kenya, the Somalia-born politician came to Virginia as a child, moved to Minnesota, got a political science degree from North Dakota State University, got involved in political activism and, like President Barak Obama, was a community organizer for minority groups in a large American city. She is now the country’s first hijab-wearing member of Congress.

She’s also faced death threats, been tweeted against by President Donald Trump and gotten major condemnation over her description on March 23 of September 11 as “some people who did something.”

I wrote about the reaction of some Minnesotans to the influx of Somali refugees in their state not long ago. This lengthy profile on Omar on the British web site MiddleEastEye.net goes in the opposite direction: Setting out the benefits of the Somalis getting politically involved.

Omar, as the first Somali-American to make it to the Minnesota state legislature and then to Congress, is part of a new cohort of path-breaking politicians daring to challenge not only US President Donald Trump but the broader American political establishment.

But Omar is more than just a congresswoman with fight. She is a refugee from a country that is now part of the president's Muslim ban; she is black, visibly Muslim; a walking antithesis to Trump's purview of America.

Within months, she has shaken the halls of Congress. As an "other" she is now the embodiment of what is fast becoming a fight for America's soul.

The story is an interesting meander through the many Muslim personalities the author meets while trying (somewhat fruitlessly) to get an interview with Omar. He does get a few words with her here and there but Omar seems loathe to divulge too much.

What strikes me in this –- and other articles I’ve dug up -– is how little Omar refers to her Muslim background. We hear nothing about how her faith influences her life. We get no idea of what mosque she attends, how she fits prayer into her work schedule and what precepts of the Quran she follows.

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New York Times attacks anti-Muslim tensions in small-city Minnesota, but reality is more complex

New York Times attacks anti-Muslim tensions in small-city Minnesota, but reality is more complex

On the face of it, Thursday’s New York Times story about a Minnesota city that doesn’t want any more Somali refugees sounds like a racist-town-hates-Muslims kind of piece.

I decided to look deeper into it and ask a few questions the article didn’t raise to see why everyone’s so upset why a 16 percent growth in non-white residents –- and mostly Muslim ones at that -– has frazzled the populace.

As you would expect, there’s lots of information here about politics and life in the Donald Trump era — complete with red “Make Saint Cloud Great Again” hats and lots of references to locals reading conservative websites online.

However, this is also a story in which it is important for readers to pause and do some math. The bottom line: It’s simple to write a story about racist right-wing Christian bigots who don’t want any more Muslims moving in. It’s not as easy to look at some of the other factors, like overcrowded classrooms in public schools; school districts having budget money for interpreters and ESL instructors; crowded emergency rooms at local hospitals and a tax base that’s not being greatly added to by all the new arrivals.

First, here’s the opening of the story:

ST. CLOUD, Minn. — John Palmer, a former university professor, has always had a cause. For decades he urged Minnesota officials to face the dangers of drunken driving and embrace seatbelts. Now he has a new goal: curbing the resettlement of Somali refugees in St. Cloud, after a few thousand moved into this small city where Mr. Palmer has lived for decades…

On Thursdays, Mr. Palmer hosts a group called Concerned Community Citizens, or C-Cubed, which he formed to pressure local officials over the Muslim refugees. Mr. Palmer said at a recent meeting he viewed them as innately less intelligent than the “typical” American citizen, as well as a threat.

“The very word ‘Islamophobia’ is a false narrative,” Mr. Palmer, 70, said. “A phobia is an irrational fear.” Raising his voice, he added, “An irrational fear! There are many reasons we are not being irrational.”

In this predominantly white region of central Minnesota, the influx of Somalis, most of whom are Muslim, has spurred the sort of demographic and cultural shifts that President Trump and right-wing conservatives have stoked fears about for years.

So “right-wing conservatives,” and people who rally in church pews, are all basically racists?

That does appear to be the thesis of this Times article.

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