Can familiarity and friendship defeat the forces of hatred that seek to divide Americans over culture and faith? That is the question that will confront us all as we head into a 2020 presidential campaign that seems to be careening toward the gutter.
President Trump, who was unsuccessful in his efforts to divide Americans over immigration to gin up votes for Republicans in the mid-terms, has made it clear that he is prepared to descend even further with his incendiary attacks on Muslim-Americans, particularly Minnesota’s new congresswoman Ilhan Omar.
Many area residents had the opportunity to meet Omar back in the fall of 2017, when she joined a group of Somali- and Ethiopian-Americans from the Twin Cities on a visit to Tower-Soudan. They toured the underground mine and enjoyed a delicious potluck meal that featured traditional East African, Indonesian, and Iron Range fare.
Omar, a refugee, came as a child with her family to the U.S. in the 1990s. Somalia was being destroyed by civil war and her father, a strong believer in democracy, brought his family to the country he believed most enshrined his faith in the democratic process. During her time in the U.S., Omar experienced some abuse for maintaining her devotion to faith, particularly the wearing of a head scarf, which is traditional for women in the Somali culture. As a country that espouses religious freedom, Omar has an absolute right to maintain her religious beliefs and practices. Head covering is commonplace among traditional practitioners of virtually every major religion on Earth, including Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, as well as Islam.
But Omar’s devotion to her faith does not define her in the way some would like. While many on the right have tried to associate Muslims, like Omar, with the backward and authoritarian practices of some conservative Islamic countries, like Saudi Arabia, or the 9/11 terrorists the Saudis helped finance, Omar reflects a far more progressive and democratic vision, both here in America as well as in Muslim-majority countries around the world.
Such differences don’t matter to Trump, of course, since he’s not interested in an honest debate– just demagoguery designed to inflame. Which is why Trump tweeted an incendiary video that dishonestly seeks to link Omar, of all people, to the Sept. 11 attacks. It is the kind of false hatemongering that we have, unfortunately, come to expect from President Trump, yet it is particularly heinous given that the president cannot be unaware that Omar has faced numerous credible death threats since she took office in January. Trump is, literally and callously, playing with the life of a Minnesota congresswoman and her family, in the belief it will energize his supporters. That, in itself, speaks volumes about how Trump truly views his base.
Omar’s response has been remarkably poised and demonstrates her intelligence and openness to new information. She has been criticized for the phrasing of certain comments about the conservative Israeli lobbying group AIPAC— yet rather than lashing out against her critics, as Trump would do, Omar has used the criticism for self-reflection. Appearing recently on the Late Show with Steven Colbert, she acknowledged that, as a member of a refugee community, she has not always had a full understanding of the historical context that certain words and statements may have with other groups of Americans, and that she has seen the recent criticism as an opportunity to learn and better herself. What a contrast to our current president.
Omar reflects the idea that life well-lived includes openness to new ideas, to new people, and to new experience, which was the very point of her 2017 visit to Tower-Soudan. The story of her visit, which appeared in the Timberjay, has, just this week, been retweeted more than 1,500 times on Twitter, including by Omar herself, as people are responding to the cavalcade of bigotry that Trump is fomenting. We’re pleased that our reporting may play a small part in helping to reveal the true character of Omar and the Somali-American community in Minnesota.
The story was consistent with Omar’s recognition that when we’re willing to extend an open hand to strangers, they can quickly become friends— and all of our lives can be enriched by it. As we learn more about other people and cultures, the fear that ignorance can so easily spark, rapidly disappears.
Which is why we must fight back against those, like President Trump, who would use fear, ignorance, and xenophobia to keep us divided. They are weakening America in the process.