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After decisively beating five other candidates in last month’s primary race to represent Minnesota’s 5th Congressional District, Ilhan Omar is on her way to becoming the first African refugee and hijab-wearing Muslim woman to serve in Congress. She joins Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib in a wave of progressive women taking the Democratic Party establishment by storm. Before coming to the U.S., Omar spent four years in a Kenyan refugee camp, having fled the civil war in Somalia. She immigrated to America at the age of 12. She joins Mehdi Hasan to explain how she went from those humble origins to a congressional seat.
Ilhan Omar: It seems like the president really has taken issue with immigrants, has taken issue with refugees, has banned Somalis from entering this country. And, so, I think it is a nightmare in itself to now have the person who is going to provide that check and balance be a Somali, Muslim, refugee immigrant.
Mehdi Hasan: I’m Mehdi Hasan. Welcome to Deconstructed.
My guest this week has been on the cover of Time magazine, which described her as one of a handful of “women who are changing the world.”
Ilhan Omar was born in Somalia, but at the age of 8 was living in a refugee camp in Kenya. She arrived in the U.S. aged 12, unable to speak English. But two years ago, aged 33, she was elected to the Minnesota House of Representatives. And now, aged just 35, she’s heading for Congress. Last month she decisively beat five other candidates in the primary race to fill Representative Keith Ellison’s seat in Minnesota’s 5th Congressional district which, luckily for her, has been a Democratic safe seat since 1962.
In November, Omar will become the first refugee from Africa, the first Somali-American, one of the first two Muslim-American women and the first woman in a headscarf to be elected to the United States Congress.
And she’ll be part of not just a historic wave of female Congressional candidates, but a new left-wing insurgency intent on taking Washington D.C. and the Democratic Party establishment by storm when the new House returns in January.
In many ways, Omar is the anti-Trump — she represents everything the president loathes, everything he stands against: Islam, refugees, black people, Africa, women, progressives.
And she’s well aware of the fact that a lot of people are counting on her to make a difference, to inspire hope. Here she is speaking at her election night victory rally last month:
IO: In my last race, I talked about what my win would’ve meant for that 8-year-old girl in that refugee camp. And today — today — I still think about her, and I think about the kind of hope and optimism that all of those 8-year-olds around the country and around the world get from seeing your beautiful faces elect and believe in someone like me. So I humbly thank you.
[Cheers and applause.]
MH: I caught up with Ilhan Omar on her recent visit to Washington DC where she’d just been checking out her new soon-to-be workplace — yep, the United States Congress.
MH: Ilhan Omar, welcome to Deconstructed. First off, congratulations!
IO: Thank you so much.
MH: You’re headed to the United States Congress. You’ll be the first Muslim woman elected to Congress alongside Rashida Tlaib from Michigan. The first Somali-American elected to Congress, the first African refugee elected to Congress, the first woman in a headscarf elected to Congress. That’s a lot of firsts! How does it feel to be making history, to be breaking all these glass ceilings at once?
IO: It’s actually kind of surreal because you know it’s — and exciting too, because there’s like so many people who — it depends on what first gets mentioned in the paper. The community that’s left behind in the mentions of the first will like comment, and say, “Well, she’s also!”
MH: Did I forget any in my list? Is there another first that you’ve done that I’ve missed?
IO: I will be the first woman of color to represent Minnesota in congress.
IO: And first African-born! Yes. It’s exciting because to me what that says is there are so many people that are going to be able to see themselves, their story, their journeys being represented in Congress now and so that that for me is really exciting. And it’s also scary.
MH: Indeed. Your district in Minnesota, the 5th District where you won the primary, which includes the city of Minneapolis, I believe, as well, it broke a record for turnout in a midterm primary last month: 135,000 votes cast for Democratic candidates. Do you think in this age of Trump, in this era where so-called identity politics is constantly under the media microscope, do you think your background as a former refugee, a Somali American, a Muslim woman in a headscarf, do you think that helped you or hurt you in your campaign? Do you think it’s something that got you votes or cost you votes?
IO: Yeah I mean so for, for our district, they have gotten used to having a representation that was bold, progressive, that really went to Washington to fight for their values.
And so in a six-way race, you know, throughout every single debate they were looking for the person who really was talking about the issues that matter to them, who can they trust to send to Washington to fight for them, and who can they trust to make sure that they weren’t going to be bought or bossed around.
MH: You don’t think your race or religion was a major factor or a passing factor.
IO: No, it really never really came up.
MH: Good to hear. I want to talk about your vision for the Democrats and your plans for 2019, but before that, especially for the sake of our listeners who some of them might be new to you, I want to take a step back and ask you about your journey. How did you get to this point? So, just to be clear: You were born in Somalia.
MH: And you moved to the U.S. when?
IO: I was born in Somalia and I was about 8 years old when the civil war happened and then we fled and lived in a refugee camp for four years in Kenya.
MH: What year was that?
MH: So I lived in Somalia as a kid in 1988. My dad was a UN worker, and that’s my Somalia trivia.
IO: I know, we chatted about that last time we were talking. And so, we lived in that refugee camp in Mombasa, Kenya for four years and then in 1995 got the opportunity to resettle here in the U.S. and I actually started out in Arlington, Virginia, so not that far away from Capitol Hill, and then eventually moved to Minnesota when I started high school.
MH: When did you end up becoming a citizen? How old were you when you became a citizen?
IO: Yeah, so I became a citizen actually before I turned 18. My father became a citizen and so I got my citizenship through that process.
MH: I’m just wondering, when you became a citizen, were you thinking in your head, “One day, I’m going to be a member of Congress.” You know, becoming a politician, how far back do we have to get to where you decided, you know, one day I’m going to run for office?
IO: So I was always interested in politics. I grew up in a household where politics was discussed. I never really imagined or saw myself as a politician. I always knew I loved debate; I love the idea of discussing policy. And, you know, I do political training, they say statistically, women, it takes them seven times to be asked before they make the decision to run for office. Men just wake up and they’re like, “I’m going to run for office!”
And I used to say, every time someone would ask me, that it would probably take 14 times because of all of my otherness to actually think of that.
MH: But it didn’t take 14 in the end, here you are a member of Congress at 35, you’re going to be one of the youngest members of Congress.
In the past, you’ve called yourself America’s hope and the president’s nightmare. How do you plan to be his nightmare in the House of Representatives come January 2019?
IO: I mean it seems like, you know, the president really has taken issue with immigrants, has taken issue with refugees, has banned Somalis from entering this country. And so I think it is a nightmare in itself to now have the person who is going to provide that check and balance — be a Somali, Muslim, refugee immigrant who he is now going to be held accountable for, and I couldn’t think of a bigger nightmare than that.
MH: And just to be clear, and just out of interest, do you, like Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, define yourself as a socialist, it has become very controversial in the Democratic Party — who is and who isn’t willing to say the dreaded S-word?
IO: So for me, what I say to that is I believe in not having extra titles so I am a Democrat. But the ideals of socialism is one that is deep in my values and so I think as Democrats, we all share serious socialism ideals about providing for people and caring about our communities and making sure that government is held accountable in providing for its citizens.
MH: So on that, you ran on a platform of debt-free college, Medicare for all, of abolishing ICE. Of those three very progressive ideas, what do you think the priority should be for Democrats in the next Congress?
IO: I think we’re going to have an opportunity to actually get Medicare for all. I think it would be a missed opportunity for us to not work towards debt-free, tuition-free college. I think when you’re looking at economically the kind of tax cuts right now that are being proposed, the giveaways to corporations, the last one was $2 trillion — for us to cancel student debt for every American student is $1.4 trillion dollars.
There is now a proposal to do another $2.4 trillion in tax cuts.
MH: There’s always money for tax cuts.
IO: Right? Like, so there’s always money for tax cuts, there’s always money for war, there is always money to bail out Wall Street — there’s always money. But there is never enough money for education that we know is going to have a bigger impact in revitalizing our economy. There’s always never enough money for us to invest in infrastructure and 21st century infrastructure.
MH: So here’s my issue with the Democrats, and let’s see if you agree with me: the Democrats and liberals more broadly just aggressive or assertive enough in this current political climate where the Republicans are breaking rules, breaking the law, trampling on everyday, democratic constitutional norms, doing everything they can to stay in power by any means necessary. And you know the saying — the Democrats bring a knife to a gunfight, the Republicans bring a bazooka. Is that going to change anytime soon? Is that a fair criticism of the Democrats over the last couple years?
IO: I think the Democrats have always had a tendency to see themselves as the adults in the room, and I think the most adult thing for us to do is really make sure that we are disciplining and that we are really providing wisdom and guidance and that’s what the American people are really asking for. So yes, I agree that if we are to think of ourselves as the adults in the room, then we must also act with the responsibility that comes with being an adult.
MH: But my point is: Don’t you need to act in a slightly more aggressive way given you’re dealing with crazy children? If you take the analogy further.
IO: Yes, I think that’s precisely what I’m saying — I think we must recognize that we are —
MH: But basically, Democrats are always playing by the rules, while the other side is basically tearing up the rules.
IO: Right. Yes. And we also have to make sure that we are providing that mirror, right? Because the Republican Party likes to say that they are about accountability and transparency and that they are the party of rule of law, and we see, time and time again, when they are given the chance to govern, they don’t know how to govern. They are failing the American people, whether you look at it in statehouses to Capitol Hill, so we must make sure that the American people understand and that we are holding a mirror to the Republicans.
MH: In terms of leadership of your party, will you be backing Nancy Pelosi for Speaker? A lot of people on both the left and right of your party think the time has passed, it’s time for someone from a new generation.
IO: I mean, I think, you know, for me, when you are thinking about leadership, you have to think about what it means for a particular agenda to be crafted and that agenda is usually crafted by the people who are going to surround that leader. And so what I am looking forward to is having a conversation with people who are interested in leadership, to look at, you know, who are you assembling around you and what is it going to mean for us to have an agenda that really encompasses all of our platforms, that make sure —
MH: So she doesn’t have your vote yet.
IO: I can’t imagine, right, a space where we are only focusing on a particular name, where we are not coming to Washington, thinking about what it means for us to get the work done. I have always admired the work Leader Pelosi has done. I think back to her being one of the most successful speakers, so I think if given the opportunity with the right people around her, I can see voting for her.
MH: OK, and on Bernie Sanders, are you team Bernie for 2020 if he decides to run again? Do you think he should run again?
IO: I actually believe that ship might have sailed.
MH: OK. You think there’ll be other progressive blood in 2020? Obviously, you think there should be someone with his platform running in 2020, at least?
IO: Yes, I do. I think there is an opportunity for new leaders to emerge.
MH: Is it Elizabeth Warren, that person, because that’s what it comes down to now, people say — any time you talk to lefties, it’s “Who is going to run in 2010 on the left? Is it going to be Warren or Sanders?”
IO: There are a lot of people that I’m excited about. I think I would be excited about a Warren candidacy. I’ve always thought of myself as part of the Warren wing of the party. I would be excited about Senator Kamala Harris running. I could see Senator Cory Booker thinking about it.
MH: OK and they’re going to be — whoever runs is going to be running probably against Donald Trump, if you guys don’t impeach him in the next Congress.
Let’s talk Trump, in your view. He’s a president who has referred to countries like Somalia as “shithole countries” made abusive remarks about Mexicans, Muslims, refugees, black athletes, et cetera, et cetera. I think we all agree he’s a racist; is he a white nationalist? Is he leading a white nationalist administration in your view? How dangerous is this moment for U.S. politics?
IO: I think we are at probably one of the most dangerous crossroads in our country. I think of him as a madman I really think that he doesn’t have an opportunity or the mental space to really think about what his actions mean for people around him, for the country that he’s supposed to lead, for around the world.
I think he is mainly interested in what it means for him, and I think he’s running the country as he would run a show where you’re thinking about ratings, and it’s really scary for those of us who really believe in this country, who want to make sure that it is going in the right direction.
MH: That’s what I’m saying, if you go past the spectacle and the tweets, we do have an administration with ICE rounding people up, with the border separations, with the constant comments about black athletes and Muslims and some of the policies coming out of the DOJ, that looks like a boost for the white nationalist movement. And a lot of people say that if he’s not a white nationalist himself, he’s an enabler of white nationalism, and the media and the opposition should treat him as such. He’s not a conservative or a Republican in any traditional sense; he’s way beyond that. Is that fair?
IO: Oh, that is very fair. I think — but I feel like, right, that he might not have quite the right intellect to even understand that he’s enabling white nationalists.
MH: Oh I think he knows. I agree with you on the lack of intellect and the unhinged nature, but I think when it comes to this he’s been pretty consistent in his message.
IO: But I think, right, I think that he looks at what kind of excitement he generates and the kind of backlash that he generates and he looks both of those things as being a positive thing. And so in his policies he, everything that is controversial is something he enjoys and so I don’t know if he has, if he has the ability to understand how detrimental the policies that he is furthering are. I don’t know if he understands how detrimental his speech is to the kind of nation we want to be.
I don’t think he understands how he is setting us back generations.
MH: In the past two years, especially since he started running for president, his, you know, Islamophobia has reached kind of record levels in the U.S. — anti-Muslim hate attacks unleashed by his campaign, by his presidency. I believe you yourself were threatened by a cab driver who made bigoted remarks about you being ISIS. How bad is Islamophobia in the U.S. right now? Do Trump and his Islamophobic, white nationalist pals, do they pose an existential threat to Muslim communities in the U.S., do you think?
IO: They really do and I think it’s one of the really scariest things. You know we are experiencing much higher threats than we did even did in the aftermath of 9/11, and so it is scary, but what is hopeful and exciting is to see the rise of Muslims in politics, in positions of influence.
Just this year we had over 90 Muslims on the ballot across this country. For the first time in our nation’s history we might have four Muslims. So that number is going to double, even with the loss of one Muslim not being there.
MH: In the House.
IO: And so I think with times of crisis people have an opportunity to rise to the occasion and Muslims in this country are fighting back. Muslims in this country are saying, “We are citizens and our citizenship is not conditional. We have a voice and we have the opportunity to influence our nation for the better.”
MH: I think is interesting that you mention kind of the public life, the public role aspect. Because we hear so much about anti-extremism initiatives — CVE, countering violent extremism — and yet some would argue that Muslims running for office is probably one of the best ways of countering it. You’re from Minnesota where there has been a problem with some young Somali American men going out and joining Al-Shabab or other extremist groups.
And I would argue —a lot of people say it’s religion, it’s politics — I would argue that lot of it has to do with identity crises, and not knowing your place in a society.
IO: Oh, very much.
MH: And when you see people like yourself ,for my daughter, who is a British-American Muslim, she has dual nationality, she’s also Muslim, she sees someone like you, that’s a great inspiration. Because — OK, this is very much — you know she might she Donald Trump in the White House, but she sees Ilhan Omar in the House of Representatives. That’s a big deal. She sees Sadiq Khan as mayor of London. That actually has a huge role, I think, in tamping down on some of these identity crisis and the quote-unquote radicalization that flows from it.
IO: Yeah, and, I mean, and she also, right, what she’s probably seeing on TV for the first time is that we don’t only have people who are anti-Islam going up against non-Muslims who are defending us, but you now have people like me who are speaking for what it means to be a Muslim and what it means to exist in a Western society and so I think that is going to influence the way that young people who are of the Muslim faith in this country see themselves and how they are going to develop the kind of self-esteem it takes to really resist the kind of issues that are that arise.
MH: And just before we finish, you mentioned influence, and getting influence, and now being involved on the frontline of politics. For a lot of Muslim Americans, for a lot of people on the left, both groups who haven’t had a lot of influence at the center of American power, foreign policy is a big problem. You’re going to be in the House of Representatives, you’re going to be dealing with health, Medicare For All, you’re going to be dealing with ICE, all these other domestic issues, education. But obviously foreign policy is a big issue. You’re going to be voting on issues of war and peace, a quite heavy responsibility.
One: I want to ask about how about how it makes you feel, you know voting for wars or against war, sometimes military action that comes up, how’s that going to affect you?
And the other issue is Israel: You were very outspoken in your criticism of Israel back in 2012. I think you talked about evil actions going on in Gaza. Recently a conservative columnist tried to use that against you, smeared you as an anti-Semite. And you actually stood up to him and said, “No, you know, criticizing Israel’s apartheid regime is not anti-Semitism.” That’s very strong language. Some might say that in Congress, especially even amongst your Democratic allies who are very pro-Israel, you will be attacked if you carry on taking that kind of critical stance against Israel and other American allies. Just wondering what’s your plan for that?
IO: I mean, I think there are there are going to be a lot of opportunities for us to have a conversation that is honest about where our individual values are, and what our collective values are.
There was a clear answer to the people that didn’t think I should be in in Congress with the number of votes that we got in a six-way primary. So I know that the people in Minnesota are interested in making sure that they’re sending someone who is going to have moral clarity and courage.
And so it is —
MH: Moral clarity is a good phrase. You know, a lot of progressives all very good on domestic policy and it’s easier to be stronger on domestic policy because people are interested in that — there’s stronger lobbying groups, unions, organizing — foreign policy for a lot of Americans, American politicians, it’s something far away, it’s something more opaque and you end up moderating your lines. I’m just wondering, on issues of foreign policy, on issues of war and peace, on issues of Middle East, Israel, do you think you’re going to be forced to kind of moderate your lines and take a quieter, more — you’re shaking your head.
IO: Yeah, no, I am very clear about where my values are when it comes to the Middle East, when it comes to war, when it comes to, you know, the kind of foreign policy we should be engaging in.
We have now moved from conversations of peace. We have now, you know, really have become bold enough to go and say it is OK for us to have our embassy in Jerusalem, which we know sort of puts a stop to any further conversations about peace in the Middle East .
IO: We are now cutting foreign aid to Palestine.
IO: And so, for me, it is important that we get people in Washington who have the moral clarity and the courage to say, “That is not OK. If we are going to be a country that talks about peace, we must further it around the world. If we’re going to be a country that says, ‘If we want a two-state solution, then we can’t have policies —”
MH: Ilhan, if you’re going to carry on talking like this, we’re going to be very excited come January 2019. One last question, because I know you have to run: Do you think, is it fair or is it an exaggeration to say that the future of the United States of America given the current controversies, given the dangerous crossroads we’re at as we discussed, do you think the future is going to be a battle to decide whether America is defined by and represented by people who act and speak and look like you, rather than act and look and speak like Donald J. Trump?
IO: [Pauses.] I think we must work towards an America that has people who act speak and look more like me, because what Donald Trump represents is against everything America should stand for.
MH: Specifically? You’re talking about diversity?
IO: Yes. Diversity in thought, in representation, in inclusiveness. Donald Trump’s America is one that is xenophobic, Islamophobic, racist, and that’s not the America that my family dreamt about coming to. That’s not the America that even Donald Trump’s grandparents dreamt about coming to. And that is not the America our founding fathers were thinking about.
And so — I am excited to fight for the America that I know we should have and we deserve, and I am excited to see so many others around this country are too.
MH: Ihan Omar, thank you very much for joining me on Deconstructed.
IO: Thank you for having me.
MH: That was Ilhan Omar, soon-to-be member of Congress from Minnesota.
And, look, I’m not going to hide the fact that normally I’m quite cynical about this kind of stuff, but I’m actually really excited by the prospect of all these progressive women of color heading for the House of Representatives in the new year — Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib and many more. Not just because they’re going to be strong and necessary voices on domestic policy — on Medicare for All, on debt-free college, on a higher minimum wage, criminal justice reform — but also potentially on foreign policy, as you just heard, coming up with a more internationalist, more humane, more just, less belligerent, less biased U.S. approach to the rest of the world.
Perhaps above all else, they’re going to change what Congress looks like, they’re going to make the legislature of the United States look much more like the people of the United States.
And I know people like Tucker Carlson of Fox News lose their minds at any mention of the D-word, but the fact is that diversity matters. It’s hard to explain to a white person what it means to be a member of a minority group and see one of your own represented in the corridors of power.
Ilhan Omar is an inspiration to me and my family — I can point at her, a proud hijab-wearing Muslim woman of color, and say to my young daughters, “There’s someone of your faith, there’s someone who wears a hijab like your mother does, and she’s in Congress, she was elected by a majority-white, majority-non-Muslim district and now she’s making laws, taking names, kicking ass.” Well, maybe I won’t say “kicking ass” in front of my daughters, but you get my point.
It matters that people like Ilhan Omar are heading for Capitol Hill. The change that these midterms are going to bring about could be, should be, I hope, historic. This could be, it just might be, the beginning of a new chapter in U.S. political history.
MH: That’s our show.
Deconstructed is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept, and is distributed by Panoply. Our producer is Zach Young. The show was mixed by Bryan Pugh. Dina Sayedahmed is our production assistant. Leital Molad is our executive producer. Our theme music was composed by Bart Warshaw. Betsy Reed is The Intercept’s editor in chief.
And I’m Mehdi Hasan. You can follow me on Twitter @mehdirhasan.
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