By Kane Farabaugh
September 25, 2018
Ilhan Omar addresses supporters after her historic primary election
victory to represent Minnesota's 5th District in the U.S. Congress in
Minneapolis, Aug. 14, 2018. (Photo: K. Farabaugh / VOA)
very late election night victory rally in Michigan for candidate Rashida Tlaib
on Aug. 7, followed a week later by an election night victory rally in
Minnesota for candidate Ilhan Omar, marked an inflection point in American
The two, both Democrats, are the first
Muslim-American women to win a congressional primary election. With at most
token opposition in the Nov. 6 general election, they are virtually assured of
seats in the U.S. House of Representatives next January.
Their historic breakthrough comes as a
record number of Muslim-Americans have entered national politics, in part to
protest the Trump administration’s immigration and border security policies,
including an executive order upheld by the Supreme Court restricting travellers
from five majority-Muslim countries.
Tlaib is the daughter of Palestinian
immigrants who left the West Bank in the 1970s to settle in Detroit, where
Tlaib was born and raised.
Omar was born in Somalia, but fled to a
refugee camp in Kenya before reaching the large Somali community in
Minneapolis. Once elected, she would succeed Keith Ellison — the first
Muslim-American to be elected to Congress — as well as the first member of
Congress born on the African continent.
Both women come from families shaped by war
and have dealt with hostility and bigotry toward their religion from both
political parties. They are part of a progressive wing of the Democratic Party
hoping to take control of the House in the November midterm elections.
Tlaib and Omar say they are determined to have
a voice in the national debate over immigration, border security and election
integrity, among a multitude of issues that have captured their interest. They
would be joining Congressman Andre Carson, an Indiana Democrat, as the only
other Muslim-American holding a seat on Capitol Hill after Ellison retires from
“This win would mean so much more than just
a seat in Congress,” Tlaib told VOA while walking the Detroit streets during
her election campaign this summer. “It’s a powerful message.”
“This is a message to Washington to get
ready for a new generation,” said Larry Jacobs, a professor at the University
of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, who once taught Omar when she
was a student at the school. He said she has the invaluable experience of
having lived abroad and fleeing her homeland for in search of a better life in
the United States.
“Representative Omar is going to become a
spokesperson for the opposition against President Trump’s immigration
policies,” Jacobs said.
Omar and Tlaib’s campaign messaging
resonated with a majority of primary election voters in both of their districts
in Michigan and Minnesota — a remarkable achievement at a time of increased
hostility toward their faith. Tlaib felt the sting of discrimination while
serving as a lawmaker in the Michigan legislature in Lansing.
“An African American told one of my
volunteers, we don’t care if people vote for Santa Claus, we don’t want to send
Rashida to Lansing to bomb it,” Tlaib recounted.
Until now, fewer than 300 Muslim Americans
served in local, state, or federal government, according to some estimates. But
that is changing.
Nearly 100 Muslim Americans ran for
state-wide or national political office in this year’s election cycle, the
highest amount since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, with Tlaib and
Omar the most prominent among them.
Where they have succeeded, others have
fallen short. Abdul El-Sayed, a Michigan physician and former public health
official, hoped to be the first Muslim American governor in the nation. He lost
in Michigan’s Democratic Party primary to Gretchen Whitmer, a former Michigan
Many seeking public office cited rising
harassment and marginalization of Muslim Americans, and current Trump
administration policies such as the so-called “Muslim ban” on travel to the
U.S. as a call to action to serve in government to help reshape public policy.
Today, Muslim Americans represent just
above 1 percent of the total U.S. population, but it is a number that is rapidly
growing — and with it rising Islamophobia.
The Pew Research Centre found that
incidents of harassment of Muslim Americans spiked in 2015 and 2016, even
exceeding the number of incidents in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks on
the United States.
“I’ve gotten people in the past who have
said to me, ‘You know, I don’t like your name.’ That, to me, though, is, ‘I
don’t like your ethnicity or your faith,’” Tlaib explained.
Alvin Tillery, director of Northwestern
University’s Centre for Diversity and Democracy, said the election wins of both
Tlaib and Omar are not surprising given the liberal districts they seek to
serve. They are part of a new wave of immigration to the United States that in
some ways resembles the old, he added.
“This is the quintessentially American
story,” Tillery said. “It’s the story of Irish immigrants, and Italian
immigrants, Polish immigrants. It’s just playing out with different ethnicities
and different religions, and that’s what America is supposed to be about.”
The Pew Research Centre estimates that by
2040, the Muslim faith will be the second largest religion in the U.S. Tillery
said both Omar and Tlaib are the face of that phenomenon.
“If we look at how other historic barriers
have come crashing down — first Catholics elected to Congress, first Jewish
Americans elected to Congress — they’ve come on the heels of immigrant waves
that look very similar to the waves that brought these women into the country,
or at least their families, in the case of Tlaib.”
Kane Farabaugh is the Midwest Correspondent for Voice of America, where
since 2008 he has established Voice of America's presence in the heartland of