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House votes for legislation to combat Islamophobia abroad after Republican falsely accuses Rep. Omar of being ‘affiliated with’ terrorist organizations

Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) speaks about Islamophobic insults from Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) on Nov. 30 on Capitol Hill as Rep. André Carson (D-Ind.) listens. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

The House on Tuesday voted for legislation to monitor and combat Islamophobia globally, after a rancorous debate in which a Republican falsely accused the measure’s co-sponsor, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), of being “affiliated with” terrorist organizations.

The party-line vote was 219 to 212.

Muslim civil rights groups argued that the attacks on Omar underscored the need for the legislation she introduced with Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), the Combating International Islamophobia Act, in October.

The measure calls for the State Department to establish an office headed by a special envoy to be appointed by the president. The office would record instances of Islamophobia, including violence against and harassment of Muslims and vandalism of their mosques, schools and cemeteries worldwide, in reports created by the State Department.

The reports would also highlight propaganda efforts by state and nonstate media “to promote racial hatred or incite acts of violence against Muslim people,” the bill says. And it would include the documentation of “any instances of forced labor, reeducation, or the presence of concentration camps, such as those targeting the Uyghurs” in China’s Xinjiang region.

“I believe as Americans, we should stand united against all forms of bigotry,” Omar said during Tuesday’s House floor debate. “In fact, this legislation is modeled on the Special Envoy to Combat Anti-Semitism, and I was proud to co-sponsor and vote last Congress on legislation to elevate that envoy to a Cabinet-level position.”

She added that “it is important … that we live in a world where everyone is free of persecution based on their religious background and beliefs. And until everyone is free to practice their religion, no one is.”

Some Republicans countered that the bill is unnecessary because the State Department already engages in religious-freedom efforts, while others argued that the legislation does not sufficiently define the term “Islamophobia” and could be used to stifle free speech.

“This word appears nowhere in the federal statutes,” said Rep. Michael McCaul (Tex.), the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “It is so vague and subjective that it could be used against legitimate speech for partisan purposes. Even the term ‘phobia’ [connotes] irrational fear, not discrimination.”

He claimed that the bill “also prioritizes the religious persecution of Muslims over the persecution of other religions.”

While the legislation was introduced two months ago, Tuesday’s vote comes amid growing calls for the House Republican Conference to take action against Islamophobia within its ranks. In recent weeks, GOP Reps. Lauren Boebert (Colo.) and Marjorie Taylor Greene (Ga.) have increasingly targeted Omar, who is one of three Muslim lawmakers in Congress. Both Republican lawmakers have referred to the Minnesota Democrat as a member of the “Jihad Squad,” and Boebert has repeatedly told a story in which she likened Omar to a suicide bomber.

Greene on Tuesday afternoon repeated her Islamophobic attacks on Omar in a lengthy Twitter thread, falsely describing the bill as Omar’s “latest effort to force the entire world to submit to Islam.”

In response, the civil rights group Muslim Advocates said Greene’s “ignorant and bigoted attacks” demonstrate why Omar’s legislation “is necessary and should be passed by Congress.”

“Greene’s crude stereotypes and sweeping smears of all Muslims are shocking, even for her, and will serve to encourage more hate and violence,” the group’s senior policy counsel, Sumayyah Waheed, said in a statement.

Hours later, during the House floor debate on Omar’s bill, Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.) falsely claimed that the goal of the legislation is “to silence dissent and critiques of terrorism.”

“By intentionally leaving the definition of ‘Islamophobia’ blank in this bill, the gentlelady and my friends on the other side of the aisle are creating an office in our State Department that will likely spew antisemitic hatred and attack Western ideas throughout the world under the farce of protecting Islam,” he said.

Perry also baselessly claimed that Omar is an associate of terrorists, declaring that “American taxpayers shouldn’t be forced to pay terrorist organizations, organizations that the maker of this bill is affiliated with.”

Democrats immediately objected to Perry’s remarks and formally asked for his words to be “taken down” from the Congressional Record.

Another House Republican, Rep. Beth Van Duyne (Tex.), took a swipe at Omar without naming her. “This bill brought to the floor today is for one purpose only: to appease the hurt feelings of members who themselves have well-documented backgrounds of anti-American and antisemitic remarks,” Van Duyne said.

The comments by GOP lawmakers targeting Omar prompted a rebuke by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.), who described herself as “really overwhelmed by the constant battering of our colleague Ilhan Omar.”

“To make her the centerpoint of opposition in this place, it is beneath the dignity of this House,” she said.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) also condemned the attacks, noting that “the bigotry is targeted at one of our own, shamefully, from within this congressional community.”

“Racism, bigotry of any form — including Islamophobia — must always be called out and condemned in any place it is found,” Pelosi said. “This is particularly true in the halls of Congress, which are the very heart of our democracy and where we have a responsibility under the rules of the House to behave in a way that brings dignity to this body.”

Omar has noted that the anti-Muslim attacks by her fellow members of Congress have frequently led to a rise in violent threats against her. At a Capitol news conference last month, Omar played a threatening voice mail that she said she had received the previous day, after Boebert, in a video posted on social media, accused her of “anti-American and antisemitic” rhetoric.

“I myself have reported hundreds of threats on my life, often triggered by Republican attacks on my faith,” Omar said at the time.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) has not publicly condemned the recent Islamophobic remarks about Omar by GOP lawmakers.

Republicans have long been critical of Omar for her criticism of Israel, and members of both parties have denounced some of her statements as antisemitic. In 2019, House Democratic leaders swiftly condemned Omar’s suggestion that Israel’s allies in American politics were motivated by money rather than principle; Omar apologized later that day.

But the attacks on Omar have intensified in recent years, going far beyond criticism of her policy positions and often suggesting that she is a threat because she is Muslim, while also distorting her words and baselessly claiming that she supports terrorists.

While there has been bipartisan condemnation of anti-Muslim violence abroad, including against the Uyghurs in China, Republican leaders on Tuesday urged GOP members to vote against the measure.

“Republicans firmly believe that no one should ever be attacked or denied their human rights or dignity because of their religious faith, but this rushed, partisan legislation does not represent a serious legislative effort and is instead a divisive messaging bill that is unlikely to become law,” GOP leaders said in a statement issued by Republican Whip Steve Scalise (La.).

The Biden administration said it strongly supports the bill.

“Our country’s commitment to defending freedom of religion and belief goes back centuries, and the Administration strongly believes that people of all faiths and backgrounds should be treated with equal dignity and respect around the world,” the White House said in a statement Tuesday.

Rep. Pressley introduces resolution to condemn Rep. Boebert

In a meeting of the House Rules Committee considering the parameters for the House vote, Rep. Gregory W. Meeks (D-N.Y.) voiced his support for the bill Tuesday and expressed his frustration that the legislation has not received more bipartisan support.

“I think we all know that anti-Muslim sentiment and violence is an issue whether we’re talking about here at home or overseas,” he said Tuesday.

Many Republicans rallied around President Donald Trump’s plan early in his administration to limit the ability of people from several majority-Muslim countries to come to the United States. Critics and federal judges branded it a “Muslim ban.” In recent months, several Republicans have also been warning about letting too many Afghan refugees into the country after the end of the U.S.-led war in that country.

Supporters of a tougher line on Israel split over tactics and message

Democrats added a provision to the bill stating that “no funds made available pursuant to this Act or an amendment made by this Act may be used to promote or endorse a Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement ideology or used to promote or endorse a Muslim ban, such as the one instituted by former President Trump.”

The BDS campaign aims to change Israel’s policy toward the Palestinians by encouraging boycotts, stock divestiture and sanctions against Israeli and international companies that operate on land that Palestinians consider theirs — areas that include the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

In floor remarks Tuesday, Omar said anti-Muslim hatred has reached “epidemic proportions,” quoting the U.N. special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief.

In a March report to the agency’s Human Rights Council, independent expert Ahmed Shaheed said that in 2017, 30 percent of Americans viewed Muslims “in a negative light,” and that 4 in 10 people in surveys conducted in Europe in 2018 and 2019 “held unfavorable views of Muslims.”

Schakowsky said anti-Muslim hate “has reached out in ugly ways, including in my own community, in my own district, to a member of my staff and her family.”

Schakowsky has previously said that her Illinois district has the largest group of Rohingya in the United States and has termed their killings in Myanmar a “genocide.”

Speaking on the House floor, Schakowsky also noted that Omar “has been subjected to relentless attacks and horrifying threats — not just from her fellow Americans, but even within the halls of Congress — and enough is enough.”

“This should not be a controversial bill. … As a Jew myself, I see the parallel quite directly between antisemitism and Islamophobia,” she said. “And we need to be combating both.”

Eugene Scott contributed to this report.