January 10, 2019

By Mehlaqa Samdani

What is it with female Muslim politicians these days? Why can’t they use appropriate vocabulary? Whether it’s Rashida Tlaib using profanity to call for Donald Trump’s impeachment, or Ilhan Omar using Islamic references in her victory speech last year, they can’t seem to say the right thing.

What’s wrong with them? Or, should we ask, what’s wrong with us?

Neither Omar nor Tlaib used language that incited violence or broke any laws, and yet both made Americans cringe. Rather than focus on what’s wrong with what they are saying, we would do well to examine what it is about us that makes us uncomfortable with their words.

In her election victory speech, Ilhan Omar used several Islamic references such as Assalamualaikum (peace be upon you) Inshallah (God willing), Alhamdulillah (Praise be to God or Thank God)—words that Muslims use in common parlance and without which our sentences often feel incomplete. For instance, when sending my kids to school, I’ll say, ‘See you later, inshallah’ or if a Muslim friend asks me how I’m doing, I’ll respond with, ‘I’m doing well, Alhamdulillah.’ Other than having religious connotations, these Arabic phrases are also cultural references and are sometimes even colloquially used by non-Muslim Arabs.

And yet, there were many (Muslim and non-Muslim, liberals and conservatives) who felt uncomfortable at Ilhan Omar’s use of these words. Let’s consider why.

One Muslim woman published an article in the Haaretz in which she expressed reasons for her discomfort—she described how Omar’s use of Islamic terminology reminded her of the persecution she had experienced as a woman in the Muslim country she had fled. While I couldn’t relate to her, I admired the writer for tracing her discomfort with Omar’s words back to her own experiences. To other Muslims who were uncomfortable with Omar’s speech, I would urge a similar introspection—why are we offended by something that was so non-offensive? Have we so internalized our oppression that we are embarrassed by our co-religionist’s expression of our faith when she was neither pontificating nor proselytizing?

Some non-Muslim friends argued that it blurred the line between church and state and that Ilhan Omar should keep her religion out of the public sphere. I would say that her hijab is a more overt expression of her faith and that if it’s okay for her to wear the hijab, she should not need to censor herself in her speech. In this context, there is no difference between speech and appearance, and it doesn’t make sense to make that distinction. I would contend that the discomfort that Omar’s words generated reflects the ongoing unease that American society continues to have with Muslims and Islam. Even the more progressive among us are okay with Muslims as long as they are not ‘too Muslim’ in public, as long as they are not too open about their identities, in ways that would make the general public uncomfortable.

And then we have Rashida Tlaib, another outspoken Muslim woman who also managed to make plenty of people angry with her recent choice of words. For those who are generally offended by the expletive she used and find it inappropriate whether uttered by man, woman, Muslim, non-Muslim, it makes sense to be uncomfortable with Tlaib’s usage of it.

But then there are others who feel that there are right ways and wrong ways for minority communities to express their grievances. Amani Al-Khatahtbeh said it best in her piece:

“The outrage over Tlaib’s comments is nothing new: It belongs to a long-standing American tradition of punishing people of color for their anger against their own oppression. In the eyes of her critics, Tlaib is an outsider. She should treat her new political power as an honor for which she should be grateful, rather than as a right that she earned to represent her people. History teaches us that there has never been an acceptable way for people of color to express dissent, no matter how peacefully or cuss-free. Even taking a knee can cost an athlete his career.”

As an increasing number of Muslims move from the margins to the mainstream, they will evoke a societal response that will not always be positive. Conflicting political agendas and offense over expletives notwithstanding, it is critical to locate our personal outrage. There are those who are threatened by seeing these women emboldened and empowered and moving forward with their political agendas unapologetically. Whether we admit it or not, we know which camp we belong to.