The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Some people did something’: Rep. Omar’s remarks in context

The remarks of the freshman member of Congress during an address to a Muslim rights organization spawned controversy, but it was just a snippet. (Video: Meg Kelly/The Washington Post, Photo: Atthar Mirza/The Washington Post)

“CAIR was founded after 9/11, because they recognized that some people did something and that all of us were starting to lose access to our civil liberties.”

— Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), in remarks to a Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) banquet, Woodland Hills, Calif., March 23, 2019

Omar’s 20-minute address was broadcast live (even on Fox News online) when she gave it, but it suddenly became a thing after this tweet by Mohammad Tawhidi, a controversial Australian who calls himself the “imam of peace:”

This tweet in turn received a retweet from a fellow member of Congress:

Tens of thousands of retweets and likes later, Brian Kilmeade of “Fox and Friends” wondered: “You have to wonder if she’s an American first.”

It’s often easy to be bedazzled by a video clip that ends up in your Twitter or Facebook feed. But short clips may lack context. So, as a service to readers, here’s how that particular sentence fit into the themes of the overall speech.

The Facts

First, let’s get a few things straight.

CAIR was founded in 1994, not after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Jeremy Slevin, Omar’s spokesman, said she misspoke and meant to refer to the fact that the organization had doubled in size after the Sept. 11 attacks.

CAIR is not a terrorist organization, but an aggressive Muslim civil liberties organization, modeled on the Anti-Defamation League. The U.S. government has never charged it with terrorism, but it was named as an “unindicted co-conspirator or joint venturer” in the Holy Land Foundation case — an Islamic charity that in 2008 was convicted of funding Islamist militant groups.

But CAIR was not alone in that designation; nearly 250 other organizations and individuals were also named. The federal government said the organizations were included on the list to produce evidence at the trial, but the district court and a federal appeals court later ruled that it had been a mistake to make the list public. CAIR’s association with groups later deemed to have links to terrorism predated any official U.S. designation.

An aide to Crenshaw said that he was not endorsing the tweet by Tawhidi.

Omar’s speech attracted 450 people inside — with 600 on a waiting list, according to CAIR-LA Executive Director Hussam Ayloush — and hundreds of protesters outside, according to media reports. The chants included: “Burn the Koran,” “Ilhan Omar go to hell,” and “Shame on you terrorists.”

The speech took place about a week after the March 15 shootings by a white-nationalist-inspired gunman at two New Zealand mosques that left 50 people dead. Omar used the opportunity to make the case for Muslim activism.

“Many people expect our community to feel like it needs to hide every time something happens,” she said. “But repeatedly we have shown them that we are not to be bullied, not to be threatened, we are not to be terrorized, we are strong and resilient, and we will always show up to be ourselves because we know we have a right to a dignified existence and a dignified life.”

Omar noted the “very fascinating people outside” and said she found the irony “very entertaining” that many say Islam oppresses women but that “today they gather outside to protest a Muslim woman who is in Congress.”

She said that “tragic nightmare” of the shootings in New Zealand was not shocking or surprising to many in the room. “Many of us were holding our breath waiting for something like this to happen,” she said, pointing directly at President Trump in assigning the blame.

“Many of us knew this would get worse, we finally have a leader, a world leader, in the White House who publicly says ‘Islam hates us,’ who fuels hate against Muslims, who thinks it is okay to speak about a faith and a whole community in a way that is dehumanizing, vilifying and doesn’t understand — or at least makes us want to think he doesn’t understand — the consequences his words might have,” she said.

Omar added that she thinks Trump knew the impact of his words: “He knows there are people he thinks he can influence to threaten our lives, diminish our influence … but love trumps hate.”

Omar argued that even a “good Muslim” may find roadblocks in the United States — and that that was the moment to stand up for one’s rights. “Once you are willing to stand up for yourself … then others will show up for you,” she said. She ticked off several examples, such as a Muslim being unable to find a place to pray in a hospital, even in “a country that was founded on religious liberty.”

“To me, I say, raise hell,” she said. “Make people uncomfortable.”

At this point, she uttered the words that raised controversy. We highlighted the passage in boldface.

“Here’s the truth. For far too long we have lived with the discomfort of being a second-class citizen and, frankly, I’m tired of it, and every single Muslim in this country should be tired of it. CAIR was founded after 9/11 because they recognized that some people did something and that all of us were starting to lose access to our civil liberties. So you can’t just say that today someone is looking at me strange and that I am trying to make myself look pleasant. You have to say that this person is looking at me strange, I am not comfortable with it, and I am going to talk to them and ask them why. Because that is the right you have.”

In the speech, Omar defended herself from criticism that she was too critical of some Islamic countries, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, for their human rights records. “It doesn’t matter if that country is being run by my father, my brother, my sister,” she said. “I will still criticize that country because I know every country is capable of living up to its best.”

She concluded: “I know as an American, as an American member of Congress, I have to make sure I am living up to the ideals of fighting for liberty and justice. Those are very much rooted in the reason why my family came here.”

The full speech can be seen here:

We will leave it to readers to determine whether Omar should have referred to “terrorists” or if the context for “some people” is clear from the speech.

When we listened to the whole speech, we were reminded of President George W. Bush’s phrasing in two famous moments after the Sept. 11 attacks.

“I can hear you! I can hear you! The rest of the world hears you! And the people — and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!”

— Bullhorn address to Ground Zero rescue workers, Sept. 14, 2001

“America counts millions of Muslims amongst our citizens, and Muslims make an incredibly valuable contribution to our country. Muslims are doctors, lawyers, law professors, members of the military, entrepreneurs, shopkeepers, moms and dads. And they need to be treated with respect. In our anger and emotion, our fellow Americans must treat each other with respect.

"Women who cover their heads in this country must feel comfortable going outside their homes. Moms who wear cover must be not intimidated in America. That’s not the America I know. That’s not the America I value. I’ve been told that some fear to leave; some don’t want to go shopping for their families; some don’t want to go about their ordinary daily routines because, by wearing cover, they’re afraid they’ll be intimidated. That should not and that will not stand in America. Those who feel like they can intimidate our fellow citizens to take out their anger don’t represent the best of America, they represent the worst of humankind, and they should be ashamed of that kind of behavior.”

— Address at Islamic Center, Washington, Sept. 17, 2001

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For the Record
“CAIR was founded after 9/11, because they recognized that some people did something and that all of us were starting to lose access to our civil liberties.”
at Council on American-Islamic Relations, Woodland Hills, Calif.
Saturday, March 23, 2019