The chants of “send her back” reverberated across the rally of thousands on Wednesday as Donald Trump stood at the podium and attacked Representative Ilhan Omar, a naturalized US citizen who arrived in the country as a teenager after her family fled Somalia.
It was not the first time Trump had sought to vilify Omar, who in November became one of the first two Muslim women elected to the US Congress and has emerged as a key target of the president and Republicans.
But as Trump escalated his crusade against Omar on Wednesday – refusing to silence his supporters in chants that echoed the “lock her up” rallying cry against Hillary Clinton in 2016 – a prevailing theme of his re-election strategy became clear.
In Omar, the president has at long last found a face to his stigmatization of Muslims – and so, too, have his allies.
“He wants to demonize her so that he can make sure his base turns out in the next election,” said Keith Ellison, the Minnesota attorney general who previously served as the first Muslim elected to Congress in US history.
“He’s trying to whip up hate and hysteria so that he has a maximum turnout … He says vote for me because my fears and anxieties and prejudices are similar to your own, and I will champion your fears and anxieties.”
Trump’s broadsides against the Muslim community are far from new, but rather a recurring tenet of his protectionist agenda on immigration.
In 2016, then candidate Trump infamously campaigned on banning all Muslims from entering the US and once declared “Islam hates us”. He flirted with the idea of a Muslim registry and falsely claimed that Muslims celebrated on the roofs of New Jersey on the day of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
One of Trump’s first actions as president was to issue a travel ban on several Muslim-majority countries. He retweeted a series of anti-Islam videos from the fringe far-right party Britain First, publicly chastised London’s Muslim mayor, Sadiq Khan, following the 2017 terror attack in the British capital, and has appointed to his administration several people known to traffic in Islamophobic views.
But as Omar has risen as a prominent progressive voice in Washington, Trump has seen an opportunity to weaponize her faith and identity.
He has claimed she “hates America”, falsely linked her to terrorists and earlier his year shared a video juxtaposing her words with images from September 11.
Trump’s top conservative boosters have followed suit, using their powerful platforms to spread conspiracy theories about Omar’s background.
Earlier this year, the Fox News host Jeanine Pirro was briefly suspended for suggesting that Omar’s hijab and Islamic faith were incompatible with the US constitution. Trump rose to Pirro’s defense, urging the conservative network to return her on the air.
“The fact of Ilhan Omar having all of these identities that haven’t been represented at this stage makes her an easy target,” said Adam Beddawi, a policy analyst at the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC).
“I think he’s doing this in the hopes of marginalizing and isolating American Muslims.”
But MPAC and other Muslim advocacy groups said Trump’s attacks are only amplifying civic engagement among Muslims in America, who ran for public office in record numbers in the 2018 midterm elections.
“We have seen more and more Muslims having the desire to have their stories heard and to run for Congress, to run for state positions and to run for local positions,” said Mohamed Gula, an executive director at Emgage, an American Muslim civil rights group.
According to Emgage’s own analysis, as many as 100 Muslim candidates filed paperwork to pursue public office in 2018 – the highest number since 2001. The group also estimated a 25% increase in Muslim voter turnout last November compared with previous midterm elections in 2014 and 2010.
“We’re seeing that there is an ownership of what it means to be an American Muslim,” said Gula, who credited both Omar and Tlaib for being “unapologetic” about their identities.
“I think we as a Muslim community kind of derive our power from these two women.”
Omar has remained unbowed in the wake of Trump’s attacks, even as concerns grow over her personal safety.
“I am where I belong, at the people’s house and you’re just gonna have to deal!” Omar tweeted in response to the “send her back” chants, alongside a photo of her presiding over the House chamber.
In another tweet, she quoted from a poem by the late civil rights activist Maya Angelou, writing: “You may shoot me with your words, You may cut me with your eyes, You may kill me with your hatefulness, But still, like air, I’ll rise.”
This week, Omar introduced a resolution, co-sponsored by Tlaib and the Georgia representative and civil rights leader John Lewis, reaffirming the right of Americans to boycott “in pursuit of civil and human rights”. The resolution is an attempt to clap back at a planned vote in the House that would condemn the global boycott, divest and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel.
Omar’s sharp criticisms of US policy in Israel has prompted Republicans to brand her as antisemitic. Some Democrats have also protested about her actions and privately expressed discomfort with Omar’s rhetoric on Israel.
Earlier this year, Omar apologized for suggesting that American support for Israel was driven by money from the pro-Israeli lobby – a statement that was widely condemned by both sides for perpetuating Jewish stereotypes.
Her refusal to back down from challenging the US-Israel relationship has nonetheless been seized on by Republicans, who have seized on her as a foil in their upcoming campaigns.
“Anti-Semite Ilhan Omar pledges to introduce anti-Semitic legislation,” read one email blast from the National Republican Congressional Committee, the political arm of House Republicans.
Even as prominent conservatives decried the “send her back” chants from Trump’s rally, they described Omar’s views as “vile” and “unpatriotic”.
The South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, a close ally of Trump’s, went so far as to state Omar would not be asked to “go back” if she refrained from criticizing the president.
“I don’t think a Somali refugee embracing Trump would be asked to go back,” he said. “If you think he’s as racist, that’s up to you. I don’t.”
Omar rebuked Graham’s comments as antithetical to free speech, telling reporters on Capitol Hill the US was supposed to be a country “where we allow democratic debate and dissent to take place”.
“This is not about me,” she added. “This is about fighting for what this country truly should be and deserves to be.”