Bigots speak in code or in tropes not simply to hide or deny their message, but because speaking indirectly requires the audience to recognize and draw on the underlying beliefs—to become participants in the bigotry. Representative Ilhan Omar, Henry Olson wrote in the Washington Post yesterday, “has already created significant controversy for her anti-Semitic tropes.” This made her, in Olson’s account, the Democratic equivalent of Representative Steve King, the Republican white nationalist from Iowa—proof that “where there’s smoke, there’s fire” and that “bigotry can be a deep-rooted plant.”
Olson’s account of Omar’s bigotry relied heavily on paraphrasing her specific remarks while quoting her critics. This approach is necessary sometimes, when deciphering anti-Semitic messages. It is also, however, an easy way to put across a different code of one’s own.
There is a vigorous and expanding debate about the meaning and the limits of the language people use to criticize America’s policy toward Israel in general and the role of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in particular, and about the role of anti-Semitism and anti-anti-Semitism in that discourse. Are mentions of “allegiance” unambiguously slurs? Is it necessarily loaded to mention AIPAC’s lobbying work?
But there’s a comparative and corresponding silence around the question of why, exactly, these long-running debates are suddenly focused so emphatically around Ilhan Omar. Omar is not, as some people have noted, even necessarily “the most outspoken critic of Israel’s settlements in the Minnesota delegation.” Yet, only two months into her career on the Hill, Omar was the one a Washington Post column was equating with Steve King, a notorious repeat sympathizer with neo-Nazi and neo-Confederate causes and figures.
There is nothing in Ilhan Omar’s record that comes remotely close to Steve King’s history—no remarks about replacing our civilization with other people’s babies, no trips to fraternize with European extremist politicians, no expressions of support for ethno-nationalists. To claim any resemblance between the two is to pretend King didn’t do all the things he did; that is to say, it is to protect and defend a bigot. It doesn’t make sense.
Unless, that is, you go below the surface and look at the obvious tropes involved. What Olson was expressing, not at all subtly, was that his case against Omar did not depend on evidence. He concluded his argument by comparing her to Julius Caesar’s wife, divorced for merely having been circumstantially capable of possibly having committed adultery—any possibility of Omar holding anti-Semitic beliefs meant that the Democrats “must remove Omar from all of her committees now.”
This is a strikingly low standard for stripping a newly elected member of Congress from their committee positions. Nor is it a standard that has been applied across the rest of Congress, as Steve King’s career before 2019 made clear. It is a zero-tolerance policy, but anti-Semitic rhetoric is not what it has zero tolerance of.
Olson felt safe calling Omar a bigot, and the Washington Post felt safe printing it, because Omar is a hijab-wearing Muslim, and mainstream American political discourse presumes Muslims to be anti-Semitic. It doesn’t matter what she said, specifically. Everyone from the wingnut grifters at the Conservative Political Action Conference to the Democratic leadership of the House acts as if her true position is pre-established as dangerous.
The structure of this belief system is a familiar one. Omar is assumed to be concealing her real, malevolent agenda—an agenda which is part of her religion’s worldwide scheme to undermine and dominate others. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. Her loyalties are divided; her allegiance is not to the American mainstream. The Democrats, in a panic, are putting forward a resolution to affirm their own support for that mainstream, by emphasizing their categorical rejection of anti-Semitism.
What are the Democrats trying to say about this historic moment? The rise of the far right, here and abroad, has relied on a joint demonization of Muslims and Jews: the globalists and George Soros plotting to overrun the West with hordes of Muslim migrants from Africa and the Middle East. “Open you Eyes!” the man charged in the Tree of Life massacre reposted on Gab. “It’s the filthy EVIL jews Bringing the Filthy EVIL Muslims into the Country!!”
Muslims, like Jews, have been singled out in this country for violence and abuse. Moreover, Muslims have been specifically targeted for official mistreatment by the current administration. The House draft resolution circulating right now contains a single mention of anti-Muslim bias, in a subsection about the historic mistreatment of people accused of dual loyalties. That’s one more mention of Muslims than was in the resolution criticizing Steve King’s support of white nationalism. It would be easy enough, in principle, to write Islamophobia into the center of the whole new measure, in a condemnation of the full interconnected monstrousness of 21st century bigotry. Would Congress be willing to support it, though?