The silencing of American Muslims
© Greg Nash

With anti-Muslim hostility more visible than ever, it was big news when Michigan and Minnesota elected Rashida TlaibRashida Harbi TlaibScaramucci calls Trump tweets 'racist and unacceptable' House Democrat pushes for censuring Trump in closed-door meeting Black Caucus leader calls Trump's attacks on minority lawmakers 'despicable' MORE and Ilhan OmarIlhan OmarScaramucci calls Trump tweets 'racist and unacceptable' House Democrat pushes for censuring Trump in closed-door meeting Black Caucus leader calls Trump's attacks on minority lawmakers 'despicable' MORE to Congress. Voters in their districts made a clear statement that American Muslims should have meaningful voices and representation in public life. It was a very hopeful moment.

The vitriol currently being directed at Rep. Ilhan Omar by a range of actors, as well as the silence of others in the face of threats to her safety, reminds us that this hope is no guarantee against anti-Muslim sentiment—or that American Muslims will soon enjoy the same capacity to speak as freely in public as many other Americans.

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Criticism of Rep. Omar began almost immediately after her swearing in following her comments about the role of money in the policymaking process. She handled the criticism well, listening to good-faith feedback about how the words she used to talk about policy regarding Israel-Palestine echoed anti-Jewish tropes. She apologized unreservedly about hurt her comments had caused—to little avail.

Omar is once again enveloped by venomous criticism. In a March 23 speech, she explained that no matter how hard Muslims may work to be “model minorities,” anti-Muslim attitudes continue to punish average, everyday American Muslims for the horrible actions of a small group of people on Sept. 11, 2001.

She challenged her audience to speak candidly about how anti-Muslim hostility affects their ability to live as full citizens in the United States. In a country founded on freedom and religious liberty, she argued, no one should be afraid to be in public or argue for their own civil rights. 

Nearly 14 minutes into her 20-minute speech, she said, “For far too long we have lived with the discomfort of being a second-class citizen and, frankly, I’m tired of it, and every single Muslim in this country should be tired of it. CAIR [the Council on American Islamic Relations] was founded after 9/11 because they recognized that some people did something and that all of us were starting to lose access to our civil liberties.”

With these words, Omar was making a point that many before her have made, including President George W. Bush just after the Sept. 11 attacks. All Muslims should not suffer from discrimination because of what a very small number of Muslims have done. 

Critics ripped her words out of context to argue that she’s not sufficiently American and doesn’t have sufficient respect for the victims of Sept. 11, despite her young legislative record on related matters. She was a co-sponsor of the bill reauthorizing the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund. 

Her critics have used poisonous language against her, including dangerous tweets coming from our highest elected office. Law enforcement authorities have already charged one person with making threats to assault and kill Omar. Her office reports that more death threats arrive daily. This is a pressing concern.

Without calling out the deeper problem that lies behind attacks of Omar, however, we run the risk of reducing the campaign against her to the particulars of her person and her situation. This would be a mistake.

Her race and gender are surely significant factors motivating the vitriol being directed her way. Yet criticism of Omar, which seeks to publicly censure (and censor) her, also highlights an issue that applies to all American Muslims: anti-Muslim sentiment operates in a variety of ways to limit the public speech of American Muslims.

Critics of Omar are clearly trying to limit her public speech. It’s not always quite so obvious.

On April 9, members of Congress invited Dr. Mohammad Abu-Salha to testify before Congress during a hearing on white nationalism and hate crimes. Abu-Salha lost two children in February 2015 when an avowed atheist with particular antipathy for Muslims executed his two daughters and his son-in-law, supposedly over a parking spot.  

Abu-Salha is incredibly well-placed to discuss the effects of hate in everyday American lives, but he wasn’t afforded sufficient opportunity. Instead, he spent too much of his time answering questions about his parenting and Islam.

Some members of Congress asked him baseless questions about whether he instilled hate in his kids’ hearts and whether Muslims hate Jews. Not everyone asking such questions had ill intent.

Regardless, all those asking Abu-Salha questions about Islam and anti-Semitism gave space and oxygen to anti-Muslim tropes. Whatever the motivations, the questions reinforced dangerous stereotypes that put Muslims on the defensive, forcing Abu-Salha to expend time and energy proving his own humanity rather than being able to contribute important perspectives on pressing matters in our collective lives.

This is an all-too familiar scene—and it, too, is a form of limiting speech.

Omar and Mohammad Abu-Salha are in the public eye for different reasons, but their experiences share something very important in common. Limits on the public speech of American Muslims have become a startlingly normalized part of American life.

There is more at stake here than particular policy positions. Within the limits of public safety, our core democratic values require that each and every citizen, whether a member of Congress or the parent of two murder victims, is able to speak from their heart without credible fear of threat or intimidation.

Omar and Abu-Salha illustrate just how far we are from these ideals. More of our elected representatives need to offer their unreserved support and dedicated efforts to help us move in a positive direction.

Caleb Elfenbein is an associate professor of history and religious studies at Grinnell College.