House Democrats pass bill to combat Islamophobia in support of Omar

Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) holds up her phone to play a hate-filled voice mail during a press conference on Tuesday, November 30, 2021 to call out Rep. Lauren Boebert’s (R-Colo.) anti-Islamic remarks.
Greg Nash

The House passed legislation on Tuesday to create a special office within the State Department to combat Islamophobia globally as Democratic leaders sought to find a way to unify their party against anti-Muslim hatred while stopping short of progressives’ calls to remove Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) from committees for her attacks on Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.).

Lawmakers passed the bill along party lines, 219-212.

Progressives have introduced a measure to kick Boebert off committees for her Islamophobic comments last month suggesting that Omar, one of the first Muslim women elected to Congress, could be a terrorist.

But party leaders remain wary of going as far as removing Boebert from committees like they did with Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) earlier this year for promoting violence against Democrats. They’re concerned that removing Boebert from committees would further heighten her profile in the GOP, as well as increase the odds that Republicans will deliver on threats to retaliate if they win the House majority next year.

Instead, Democratic leaders settled on a bill authored by Omar to create a special envoy tasked with addressing Islamophobia around the world as an alternative way to address anti-Muslim prejudice without specific consequences for Boebert.

While Boebert didn’t explicitly advocate for violence against Omar, the Minnesota Democrat — long a target of former President Trump and the far right, in part because of her vocal criticisms of Israel — has reported receiving Islamophobic death threats.

Omar told reporters on Tuesday ahead of the vote on her legislation that she’s still “optimistic” there will be specific action against Boebert.

But in a House floor speech on her bill, Omar notably didn’t make any mention of Boebert.

She instead pointed to a global trend of anti-Muslim sentiment around the world — including the Chinese government’s alleged abuses against the predominately Muslim Uyghur ethnic minority — and Trump calling for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” as a presidential candidate in 2015.

Omar said that Trump was “simply taking advantage of a deeper culture of Islamophobia that has existed for the past two decades.”

“There are cynics who would rather see us divided on racial, ethnic, gender and religious lines because it suits their political agenda. But I believe as Americans, we must stand united against all forms of bigotry,” Omar said.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) did not name Boebert either during House floor debate, but alluded to “the repeating, ongoing and targeted Islamophobic comments and actions against another member” as “appalling and totally unacceptable.”

“That language and behavior are far beneath the standard of dignity, of integrity  dignity and decency with which the Constitution and our constituents require that we act in the House. These actions must be called out and not tolerated,” Pelosi said.

In the meantime, Rep. André Carson (D-Mich.), who is also Muslim, filed an ethics complaint against Boebert on Tuesday. But it’s not clear if the House Ethics Committee, which is split evenly between the two parties, will pursue the matter.

The furor that led to Tuesday’s vote began when a video surfaced over the Thanksgiving weekend of Boebert recalling an incident  which Omar denies ever happened when she saw the progressive lawmaker in a Capitol elevator.

“I said, ‘Well, she doesn’t have a backpack. We should be fine,’” Boebert recalled, drawing laughs from the audience. “And I said, ‘Oh, look, the jihad squad decided to show up for work today.’”

Boebert later tweeted an apology “to anyone in the Muslim community I offended with my comment about Rep. Omar.”

Boebert and Omar then spoke over the phone a few days later in a conversation that both later said quickly went off the rails.

Boebert isn’t the only far-right House Republican who has engaged in Islamophobic rhetoric.

Before she became a House member, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) visited the offices of Omar and Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), the other first Muslim woman elected to Congress, and falsely claimed they were not legitimate members of Congress because they were sworn in to office with the Quran instead of the Bible.

Ahead of Tuesday’s vote, Greene tweeted that “it’s not irrational to fear Islamic terrorism or a religion that states it[s] goal is world domination and the death of infidels.”

“This is Ilhan Omar’s latest effort to force the entire world to submit to Islam,” Greene wrote.

And during debate on the legislation, Democrats objected to remarks from Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.) in which he accused Omar of being antisemitic and affiliated with terrorist organizations.

“American taxpayers shouldn’t be forced to pay terrorist organizations, organizations that the maker of this bill is affiliated with,” Perry said, before Democrats asked for his remarks to be taken down.

House proceedings were halted for more than an hour as lawmakers awaited a parliamentary ruling on Perry’s remarks, which were ultimately ruled as in violation of chamber rules prohibiting personal attacks against each other during floor debate.

House GOP leaders urged their rank and file to vote against the bill, arguing that its definition of Islamophobia was too vague and that creating a new special envoy was unnecessary because there are already other entities within the State Department focused on promoting religious freedom and monitoring the oppression of Muslims. 

“Republicans firmly believe that no one should ever be attacked or denied their human rights or dignity because of their religious faith, but this rushed, partisan legislation does not represent a serious legislative effort and is instead a divisive messaging bill that is unlikely to become law,” a notice from House Minority Whip Steve Scalise’s (R-La.) office states.

The legislation is likely to stall in the Senate, given expected GOP opposition.

The Biden administration issued a statement supporting House passage of the bill, but noted it “looks forward to working with Congress to ensure the Secretary of State has the necessary flexibility and permissive authority to designate such an office and special envoy and to provide for an annual report monitoring concerning acts of Islamophobia in foreign countries.”

Earlier Tuesday night, the House also passed by voice vote a bicameral compromise version of a bill that would prevent imports of goods made with forced labor in China’s Xinjiang region, where most of the country’s Uyghur population lives.

That bill’s passage comes a week after the Biden administration announced a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympic Games in the Chinese capital. Other Western allies, including Britain, Australia and Canada, have since followed suit. 

Tags Donald Trump Ilhan Omar Islamophobia Lauren Boebert Marjorie Taylor Greene Nancy Pelosi Paul Gosar Rashida Tlaib Scott Perry Steve Scalise

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