Ilhan Omar and Trump’s 9/11 Loyalty Test
In the years following the September 11 attacks, as Trump was pushing conspiracies, equal and opposite effects were happening among American Muslims: a growing sense of fear, an urgent desire to distance themselves from violence, and for some, a resolve to get involved in public service. Above all, there emerged “a loyalty test, which demands that there be unequivocal denunciation of all these horrible tragedies,” as Daisy Khan, a prominent Muslim speaker and advocate, described it to me.
Starting in 2009, Khan, along with her husband Feisal Abdul Rauf, an imam, advocated the creation of an interfaith Islamic community center near the site of the destroyed Twin Towers, a project dubbed by opponents as “the Ground Zero mosque.”
The backlash was swift: “We were told, Not you, not here, not now,” Khan told me in an interview. That experience—the way Muslims were pushed out of the collective American mourning process for 9/11—reminds her of what’s happening now with Omar. It’s “the weaponizing of 9/11,” she said. “Back then, we had just a handful of people on the streets who were part of a network of people who had been fed a lot of disinformation” about their project and about Muslims. “Now, it’s … the most powerful man in the world.”
The loyalty test has not gone away, she added: “I think this is what Representative Omar forgot … The test, the burden, the cross that we have to bear is that at all times, we have to make sure we are voicing [condemnation of terrorism], saying it loud and clear.” (Omar could not be reached for comment.)
Omar seems to disagree with this approach to being a Muslim leader in public life. In other parts of her speech, which was delivered at an annual banquet for the Los Angeles chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR, the congresswoman rejected the notion that American Muslims should bend over backwards to seem unthreatening. “Muslims, for a really long time in this country, have been told that there is a privilege that we are given, and it might be taken away,” she said. “We are told that we should be appropriate. We should go to school, get an education, raise our children, and not bother anyone … Be a good Muslim.”
But even with all of this work, she said, Muslims have been denied their civil liberties. So she proposed a new model of Muslim political engagement. “I say, ‘Raise hell,’” she said. “Make people uncomfortable.”
Omar’s activist approach can be read in two ways. First, it marks a generational shift in American Muslim identity. Young Muslims in their 20s and 30s, including Omar, came of age under the shadow of 9/11. The result is that, as a cohort, they are disproportionately progressive, very involved in activism, and unwilling to play the assimilationist role many of their parents held. “I often advocate … enough of this ‘good Muslim, bad Muslim’ thing,” said Zahra Billoo, the executive director of CAIR-San Francisco. “Being a good American Muslim means advocating and working for the America we all aspire towards.”