Dana Milbank: Ilhan Omar, quintessentially American

U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., holds a Medicare for All town hall with Rep. Pramila Jayapal (not pictured) and other state lawmakers, Thursday, July 18, 2019, in Minneapolis. (Richard Tsong-Taatarii/Star Tribune via AP)

Washington - Ilhan Omar, the congresswoman President Trump’s chanting mob would deport to Africa, sat onstage Tuesday with fellow Muslims, before an audience of Muslims, taking questions from Muslims.

And what she said was quintessentially American.

The head of a group called Muslims for Progressive Values rose to say that "it would be really powerful if the two Muslim congresswomen" -- Omar, D-Minn., and Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich. -- spoke out against the practice of female genital mutilation.

Omar silenced the room by calling the question "appalling." Noting that she already "put out statements upon statements" on the topic, she said she's "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 mockingly asked whether she needs “to be on repeat every five minutes. So, today, I forgot to condemn al-Qaeda, so here’s the al-Qaeda one. Today, I forgot to condemn FGM [female genital mutilation], so here it goes. Today, I forgot to condemn Hamas, so here it goes.” She said the questions imply that, because she’s Muslim, she might support things “so abhorrent, so offensive, so evil, so vile.”

Her all-American outrage vented, Omar concluded: "I would like, not just for you, but for everyone to know that if you want us to speak as politicians, American politicians, then you treat us as such."

The audience broke into cheers and applause. I felt like joining in.

Omar remains ill-defined beyond the monstrous caricature the president has made of her with his racist slander. She's one of the four nonwhite congresswomen ("the Squad") who Trump proposes should "go back" to the countries from which they came, even though three were born in the United States. Omar, who emigrated from Somalia as a child, was the target of the "send her back" chant at Trump's rally last week, and of Trump's unsubstantiated suggestion that she once married her own brother. Minutes before Omar took the stage Tuesday at the Muslim Caucus Education Collective conference in Washington, Trump tweeted about "America-hating anti-Semite Rep. Omar," who with the others in the Squad is a "Nightmare for America."

For Trump's racist base, Omar has it all: black, female, Muslim, immigrant. Omar previously hurt her own cause when her criticism of Israel crossed into anti-Semitism, displaying the same sort of prejudice that is often directed at Muslims.

She may revert again, but the woman I saw Tuesday represented American values far better than the bigoted demagogue who has made her his bête noire. She spoke of Muslims as part of America's expanding democracy, united not by race or religion but love of country and reverence for its Constitution. Her message -- that we rise or fall together -- is the only answer to a president who daily tears us apart.

The 37-year-old legislator credited her election last year to the work of Isaiah, which she called a Jewish-Muslim interfaith organization. "It's because of them that someone like me could get elected in a state with all the orchestrated smears against me," she told Tuesday's gathering.

“It’s when we bond together, when we understand our ability to build -- community rises from the most painful places -- that we are able to have the kind of celebrations that we had in Minnesota. I want to make sure people in every single state that feel the intensity of the divisions [know] that they could, too, overcome, and they, too, can do the work of building community and finding out what are the values that unite them.”

It is a dream deeply rooted in the American Dream.

Sharing the stage with Omar was Khizr Khan, the Gold Star father who incurred Trump's wrath in 2016. Reciting a verse in Arabic, he said the Koran teaches that "everyone is included and everyone has equal dignity. That is why the time has come for Muslims, with that basic foundation, to lead the charge, support our Constitution, our basic human dignities."

Omar applauded.

And Omar concurred when Sam Rasoul, a Virginia state representative, said: "I don't want people to defend Muslims. I want people to defend our Constitution."

Omar portrayed Trump's recent attacks as part of "the inherent racism that has always been part of him," going back to the Central Park Five. And her solution to Trump's racism? Right out of Alexis de Tocqueville: "It's to build community," she said. "I think if you are stuck in the defending of your identities, you are going to be distracted from the work of building."

Could there be a more American creed?

Dana Milbank | The Washington Post

Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.