Editor’s Note: Naaz Modan is the former executive editor for Muslim Girl, a publication focused on Muslim women’s issues and empowerment. She is currently the communications manager for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
The nation watched on Tuesday night as Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, two Muslim-American women, made history alongside many other trailblazers. At the same time, the nation also saw a striking number of Islamophobes get voted into public office. Witnessing two of our country’s most polar opposites collide – those who support American Muslims and those who fear or hate us – was for many alternately inspiring and scary.
On one hand, the significance of Tlaib and Omar’s achievements in becoming America’s first Muslim women in Congress is undeniable. For believers of a religion that has been demonized and scapegoated fiercely for nearly two decades and with renewed vigor during the last two years, the moment two Muslim women were announced as projected winners in their respective states was one that we will recall for our grandchildren.
Tlaib, the child of working-class Muslim Palestinian immigrants who celebrated her win wrapped in a Palestinian flag, and Omar, a former refugee and Somali-American who wears hijab and danced to Somali music upon winning, showcase not only the American Muslim community’s diversity but also its strong spirit. Tlaib and Omar embody the determination to rise above years of unjust treatment at airports, of false representation in the media, and of discriminatory policies. Instead of accepting the assault on our liberty and civil rights by the people and government, Muslim-Americans demanded a seat at the table.
On Wednesday morning, for the first time, Muslim children woke up to celebrations of their faith and its representation in the government instead of fearing the opposite.
But Muslim-Americans, along with everyone else, also woke up to find Islamophobes like Steve King in Iowa, Paul Gosar in Arizona, Jeff Duncan in South Carolina, and Mark Harris of North Carolina still in power.
Steve King has repeatedly singled out Muslims and attacked immigration with the attitude of a white supremacist. In 2017, Paul Gosar voted yes for an amendment proposed by Arizona’s Trent Franks, which (had it not failed) would have allowed the US government to evaluate Islamic teachings as “unorthodox” and survey Muslim religious leaders. Also in 2017, Jeff Duncan posted (then deleted) an image of a white man, labeled “Europe,” with a hangman’s noose around his neck tied to the trunk of a small tree labeled “Islam.” Mark Harris has used slurs to describe Muslims and, preaching as a pastor, called the Islamic faith “dangerous” and the work of Satan.
Witnessing at once Muslim-Americans writing political history – paving the way for new representation of a large group – and a string of unashamed Islamophobes being elected into power by the American people was a bittersweet tug of war.
While watching Islamophobes tighten their grip on power was disappointing, watching Muslims get elected into Congress was a huge and overdue win the for the American Muslim community that has for so long sought representation. Everyday American Muslims can now look to their branches of government and know that someone is vouching for their rights instead of trying to strip them in the name of “patriotism.”
Yesterday’s win could also signify a cultural shift for those who staunchly believed that Islam and democracy are incompatible. Having visible Muslims in office who celebrate their faith and background while also espousing the leadership qualities and understanding of the Constitution that should be demonstrated by American leaders overturns the false yet popular belief that Islam and Western democracy are at odds with one another.
But, perhaps most importantly, the election of Muslims into Congress could result in real policy change or, at the least, representation of the American Muslim community’s views on policy, which are often otherwise overlooked.
One of Tlaib’s initiatives, the Justice For All Civil Rights Act, aims to “drastically expand US civil rights protections to cover discriminatory impacts.” One of Omar’s outstanding visions is one for a “just immigration system” that treats immigrants as potential citizens instead of criminals. For a community that was hit with three versions of a Muslim ban aimed at “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” and, more recently, threatened with the revoking of the 14th Amendment’s citizenship clause, these kinds of policies signify tangible hope.
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Muslim-Americans and those who support us are walking a tightrope right now. We’re more represented in a branch of government that has traditionally leaned against us, but the voters also gave renewed voice to those who spread hate and fear about us. There is a hard, long game yet to be played before the champion emerges.
This article has been updated to correct an erroneous statement that Rep. Jeff Duncan had been indicted. CNN Opinion regrets the error.