The Ilhan Omar Controversy: A Missed Opportunity to Discuss Racism And Race Relations
“I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is OK for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country….” were the words that plunged US Congresswoman Ilhan Omar into a racially-charged controversy. On the surface, her statement appears innocent enough, even patriotic to some degree. From the perspective of those who have been struggling with persecution and racism for centuries, it is a slight against American Jews and Israel. Because Congresswoman Omar is a Muslim, the statement and criticism of Israel certainly hold a great deal of weight in the eyes of those who have felt the sting of anti-antisemitism. Congress has passed a resolution condemning antisemitism and Islamophobia, which has been criticized for failing to single out Omar, but the situation requires more than just a reaction based on political instincts and the desire to avoid political backlash. Given that Omar’s statement is not overtly racist, the fact that people found it so offensive should elicit thoughtful reflection and debate, but it did not.
First and foremost, it is important to recognize Congresswoman Ilhan Omar and her comments were not simply made in a vacuum. Israelis and Israeli Americans have faced a long history of discrimination within the United States and the Middle East while Jews and Muslims have been embroiled in ethnic clashes throughout that history. Muslims also tend to face discrimination. Omar has, in fact, been personally targeted by explicit racism from various individuals on the Right. There is even a poster depicting the freshman Congresswoman responsible for the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Consequently, there is a degree of hypocrisy and hypersensitivity when it comes to any comments or issues that can be perceived as racially-charged. Muslims and Jews are also in protracted conflict over Israel. In US politics, Republicans tend to be more responsive to real and perceived antisemitism. Democrats tend to be more responsive to real and perceived racism against women, non-Christians, and non-white minorities. To have an honest and meaningful discussion on racism, one must be willing and able to overcome this hypocrisy and one-sided hypersensitivity by treating all forms of racism equally.
Regrettably, racism exists within all societies. It is a fixture of culture rooted in the views of individuals. In the United States, racism is generally an issue of black versus white. In the Middle East, it is an issue of sectarian division. In Africa, tribalism drives a culture of division and discrimination. Factions within Israel have gone so far as cultivated a culture of racism that regards Muslim Israelis as inferiors: “Israel is not a state of all its citizens.” For India, a complex caste system has ensured the institutionalization of racism for decades. Even white Europeans are often divided by their ethic, cultural differences. It is, of course, important to recognize the simple fact racism is more prevalent in some cultures than others while not everyone in cultures where racism is prevalent is racist. Racism is a reality that cannot be ignored or erased. It is a consequence of how individuals view those with different ethnic backgrounds. When a society has more people with racist views, that culture will be more racist. Condemning racially charged comments and actions helps to prevent the popularization of racist views and attitudes, but it does little to actually change the minds of true racists. It only teaches them to hide their racism. To do that one must confront, the racism.
With that in mind, the Omar controversy started over comments that allegedly suggested American Jews and politicians held an allegiance to the state of Israel. By instantly responding with a resolution condemning antisemitism against a Muslim member of Congress, whose words were fairly innocent, Congress essentially reinforced the notion that Jews control the US government. By broadening the resolution to include multiple forms of racism, Democrats made a superficial gesture to dispel that view. What is needed, however, is exactly want Omar called for: an open and honest discussion on the influence of the Israeli government as well as racism. Jewish Americans, like all groups, have every right to support foreign policy causes that matter to them, but they do not have a right to unquestioned influence. It certainly would not have been acceptable for German Americans to have unquestionable influence over US foreign toward Germany in the post World War II era. The very fact that Americans cannot question the influence of foreign agents working on behalf of Israel without being framed as racist suggests something is amiss. The very fact that Americans can question the influence of Saudi Arabia, Palestine, or Russia, but not Israel, raises concerns.
Furthermore, this was a missed opportunity to have a meaningful discussion on racism and race relations. Because this particular controversy revolved around a Muslim Congresswoman using allegedly antisemitic language, the political Right showed a strong interest in the underlying issue. It was a perfect opportunity for Republicans to hold a meaningful discussion on discrimination and generalize it to include all forms of racism, which would have helped them take the lead on the issue of race relations. For Democrats, the controversy was the perfect opportunity to bring Republicans into the discussions they want to have on discrimination. Unfortunately, neither side actually engaged the racial implications of the controversy. Instead of actually talking about the issues involved, both Republicans and Democrats simply condemned the fact that something was said. It was nothing more than a meaningless reaction. Quite frankly, they avoided a controversial issue instead of holding a meaningful conversation and helping Americans deal with the racialist elements that still exist within the American culture. They embraced a public relations stunt when they had an opportunity to have a constructive debate on race and the unease Americans have with the influence various ethnicities have over government.
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