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How Ilhan Omar symbolises the struggle of Black American Muslims

Omar's tremendous impact on US political discourse stands as a testament to the enduring legacies of Black American Islam
Congresswoman Ilhan Omar speaks in Washington on 25 July (AFP)

On a sweltering weekend in July, hundreds of US Muslims convened at a hotel and conference centre in Malvern, Pennsylvania, about 45 kilometres outside of Philadelphia’s city centre. 

Many had travelled long distances to attend the fifth annual Black Muslim Psychology Conference (BMPC), a gathering spearheaded by mental health professional and social justice activist Kameelah Rashad to focus on the intersectional experiences comprising Black Islam.

Panel topics included everything from fashion, to intimacy in Muslim marriages, to the prison industrial complex and homeschooling. 

A keynote address was delivered by Yusef Salaam, perhaps best known as a member of the Central Park Five - one of five New York teenagers falsely convicted of rape, in a notorious 1989 case given support by Donald Trump, then a property mogul in the city. 

A leading voice

In long skirts and dresses, slacks and thobes, flowing headscarves and meticulously wrapped turbans, Black Muslim attendees at times drew curious glances from other hotel guests - mostly white, dressed in tank tops, shorts and sundresses - as they moved through common areas in between sessions, greeting one another with as-salaam alaikum (“peace be upon you”). 

I reflect on BMPC in the wake of a horrific week of white-nationalist-fuelled gun violence in the United States, as mass shootings took place in Gilroy, California; El Paso, Texas; and Dayton, Ohio.

Conversations are taking place all over the country this week about how white supremacist ideologies inspired the shooters (for example, the El Paso shooter posted a manifesto to his social media accounts characterising Latinx immigration as "an invasion"), and how such beliefs are being perpetrated and inflamed by US President Donald Trump and Republican leaders.

For some time now, Trump and his supporters have stoked racism and xenophobia with rhetoric that demonises immigrants, Black Americans, Islam, and Muslims. In particular, they have singled out a figure I first met when attended the BMPC in 2017, when she was the conference's keynote speaker: then-Minnesota State Representative Ilhan Omar, who is now a congresswoman.

Characterisations of Omar as 'un-American' ... are contemporary iterations of white supremacist and white nationalist ideologies

At the 2017 conference, Omar elicited pride as she spoke of bringing her full perspective as a Black American Somali Muslim woman to her political work. She generously took the time to speak, and snap selfies, with everyone who approached her afterward

As a scholar and researcher of race, religion, and gender in the US, and specifically the history of Islam and Muslims in the country, I see the current vilification of Omar as crucial to understanding the scourge of white nationalism in the US.

Characterisations of Omar as “un-American” or taunts of “Go back to where you came from” reveal how Islam and Muslims have come to figure in the nation racial calculus, driven by same sentiments that fuelled the removal of indigenous peoples from their native lands, enslaved Black Americans, and interned Japanese Americans during the Second World War.

The 'real' Americans

Currently, this type of ideology can be seen in Trump’s ban entry of those from “Muslim” countries and in the erection of detention camps at the US-Mexico border. For the president and his supporters, there is a racial and religious litmus test around who is and isn’t a “real” American.

US social structures confer value upon whiteness as an identity, ideology and political power structure. For those who embody non-white racial and religious identities, such as Omar, the risk is high; as this past week's shootings demonstrate, they can, quite literally, kill you.

Though Omar was not at this year’s conference, her presence was felt. The conference took place just days after Trump’s racist, xenophobic tweets telling Omar and other progressive female Democrats of colour to “go back” to where they came from, followed by a rally in North Carolina where followers chanted “send her back”. 

Omar arrives at Ghana’s parliament on 31 July, during a visit to mark 400 years since the first slave shipment left for the US (AFP)
Omar arrives at Ghana’s parliament on 31 July, during a visit to mark 400 years since the first slave shipment left for the US (AFP)

These events were certainly on the minds of conference attendees. They were a reminder of the challenges confronting Black American Muslims in this current political moment, while a member of their community is being threatened by the president for speaking her truth - the truth of an unapologetically Black American refugee Muslim woman - to power.

Yet, neither Trump nor the congresswoman were central points of conversation throughout the weekend. For while Omar and the volatile political discourse around her function to amplify the dangers confronting Black American Muslim communities - these dangers come as absolutely no surprise to Black American Muslims.

Rather, they are the very reasons for Islam's flourishing in Black American communities. Despite the fact the Black Muslims know their lives are circumscribed at the junctures of anti-blackness, anti-Muslim racism and Islamophobia, they also know that to simply be Black and Muslim challenges racist and xenophobic narratives of who does or does not belong, of whose lives hold value in the eyes of God.

Structures of power

To put it another way, Omar - and the tremendous impact she is having on US political discourse - stands as a testament to the enduring legacies of Black American Islam. 

Somali. Black. Muslim. Woman. Refugee. American: The making of Ilhan Omar
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From the times of chattel slavery, when enslaved West African Muslims practiced their religion in secret, to Black Americans who converted en masse to Islam in the early 20th century, to the work of freedom fighters such as Malcolm X, Betty Shabazz, and Muhammad Ali, Black American Islam has produced critical counter-narratives of being American that do not rely on, or serve to bolster, US nationalism and exceptionalism. Instead, they articulate the nation’s failings, while looking towards possibilities of reckoning and promise. 

Like last month’s conference attendees, Omar walks in this counter-narrative; her spotlight reveals both the structures of power that have historically produced conditions of profound danger for Black Muslim communities, alongside the ways in which Black American Muslim-ness is explicitly predicated upon critiques of white-dominated structural power. 

As a Black American Muslim woman who is also a Somali refugee, Omar symbolises the transnationalism of Black American Islam - an expansive expression of US legacies of liberation and struggle, and of how Black American Muslims have continually sought to build bridges, not walls. In this national moment of darkness, this is an expression we urgently and desperately need.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Sylvia Chan-Malik
Sylvia Chan-Malik is an Associate Professor of American and Gender Studies at Rutgers University-New Brunswick. She is the author of Being Muslim: A Cultural History of Women of Color in American Islam (New York University Press, 2018)