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House GOP leaders face calls to confront Islamophobia among their ranks

Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) condemned months-long Islamophobic comments from Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) on Nov. 30. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

House Republican leaders are facing calls to condemn Islamophobic remarks by members of their conference, amid mounting concern that their silence is enabling extremist rhetoric that contributes to bigotry and potential threats of violence toward Muslims.

At a Capitol news conference Tuesday, all three Muslim lawmakers currently serving in the House — Democratic Reps. Ilhan Omar (Minn.), Rashida Tlaib (Mich.) and André Carson (Ind.) — urged Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) to make clear that such attacks will not be tolerated within his party’s ranks.

“We cannot pretend that this hate speech from leading politicians doesn’t have real consequences,” said Omar, who recently introduced a bill to monitor and combat Islamophobia globally.

She played a threatening voice mail that she said she received the previous day, after Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) accused her of “anti-American and anti-Semitic” rhetoric in a video posted on social media.

“I myself have reported hundreds of threats on my life, often triggered by Republican attacks on my faith,” Omar said. “And this week, once again, we saw another increase.”

The embrace of Islamophobic rhetoric on the right is not new. In 2015, then-candidate Donald Trump called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” and after winning the White House, Trump quickly acted on that promise by instituting a ban targeting foreign nationals from several Muslim-majority countries.

But even after Trump’s departure from the White House, the use of anti-Muslim language among some Republican lawmakers has grown, with recent statements by Boebert and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) among the latest examples.

Both lawmakers have referred to Omar as a member of the “Jihad Squad.” Boebert has repeatedly told a story in which she likened Omar to a suicide bomber, while Greene on Tuesday described the Minnesota Democrat as “bloodthirsty,” “pro-al Qaeda” and “basically an apologist for Islamic terrorists.”

Robert McCaw, director of government affairs for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, denounced the attacks on Omar and said that rooting out Islamophobia within their party’s ranks should be an “urgent priority” for Republican leaders.

“The rhetoric in these anti-Muslim sneers being targeted at Congresswoman Omar is not new, and we have heard it for the past several years, since the election of the first Muslim member of Congress, Keith Ellison,” McCaw said. “House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy needs to publicly, once and for all, make it clear that the GOP does not welcome anti-Muslim rhetoric, especially before the 2022 midterm elections. Anti-Muslim hatred cannot be a Republican Party talking point.”

The civil rights group Muslim Advocates and the liberal Jewish group Bend the Arc: Jewish Action on Tuesday urged the House Ethics Committee to investigate Boebert over her “virulent, anti-Muslim” remarks, which they said had created a “dangerous environment,” particularly in the wake of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol by a pro-Trump mob.

Republicans have long been critical of Omar for her criticisms of Israel, and members of both parties have denounced some of her statements as anti-Semitic. 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.

At an event in her Colorado district last week, Boebert told supporters that an encounter with Omar was “not my first ‘Jihad Squad’ moment.” Boebert also shared a story in which she once rode a Capitol elevator with Omar and remarked to a Capitol Police officer: “Well, she doesn’t have a backpack. We should be fine.”

Omar said the story was “made up” and called for Boebert to be disciplined by House leaders.

Boebert sent a tweet Friday in which she apologized “to anyone in the Muslim community I offended with my comment about Rep. Omar.” But in a phone call with Omar on Monday, Boebert refused to publicly apologize and instead accused the Minnesota Democrat of “anti-American and anti-Semitic” rhetoric, prompting Omar to end the call.

Boebert told a similar story at an event in September, according to a video reported by CNN on Tuesday.

McCarthy has not publicly commented on Boebert’s recent Islamophobic remarks about Omar. In response to questions Tuesday about Republican leaders’ silence on the matter, McCarthy’s spokesman, Matt Sparks, said that Boebert had apologized.

Spokesmen for House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.), Republican Conference Chair Rep. Elise Stefanik (N.Y.) and Republican Study Committee Chairman Rep. Jim Banks (Ind.) did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Greene, meanwhile, has already been removed from her House committee assignments over her embrace of extremist beliefs. But that move was led by House Democrats, after McCarthy and other top Republicans refused to do so.

During an appearance Tuesday on former White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon’s “War Room” podcast, Greene defended Boebert and said she did not owe Omar an apology.

Greene went on to make further Islamophobic attacks against Omar.

“She hates Israel,” Greene said of the Minnesota Democrat. “She’s pro-Hamas. She’s pro-al-Qaeda. She’s basically an apologist for Islamic terrorists. There is no need to apologize to that woman because she will never stop. She’s bloodthirsty. She wants Republicans completely taken out. She wants Republicans jailed. She does not care about our country. She’s anti-American.”

She added: “It’s never enough for Ilhan Omar. It’s never enough for the Jihad Squad. Nothing is good enough for them. No one could bow deep enough for them to be satisfied because they want all of us gone.”

As a House candidate in 2020, Greene posted on Facebook an image of herself holding a rifle with photos of Omar and two other liberal congresswomen of color and vowed to “go on the offense” against members of the “Squad.”

Some Republicans outside of Congress have defended Boebert, as well.

“I think that Congresswoman Boebert probably expressed the sentiment of many Americans,” Pueblo County Republican Chairman Robert Leverington told Colorado Springs-based radio station KRDO. “This Congresswoman Omar has been poking her finger in the eyes of many Americans over the last couple of years, and we’re sick of it.”

Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.) condemned Boebert’s anti-Muslim remarks and soon faced a barrage of criticism on social media from Greene, who called her “trash” and accused her of being a “RINO,” or “Republican in name only.”

After a day of tweets sent back and forth, Mace told reporters at the Capitol Tuesday night: “All I can say about Marjorie Taylor Greene is bless her . . . heart.”

During a news conference focused on recruiting women to run for the House, Stefanik was asked about how to bridge the divides that have been exposed among members as leaders eye the midterm election, including the back-and-forth between Mace and Greene.

“Listen, we’re working as a team. . . . The issues people care about are not the Twitter infighting,” she said. “They care about issues that impact their daily lives, and that’s what Republicans are focused on.”

It remains unclear whether House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) will seek to take action to censure Boebert or further punish Greene.

At their weekly meeting Tuesday night, House Democratic leaders discussed a possible resolution condemning Islamophobia but didn’t make any decisions, according to a person with knowledge of the meeting who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the private gathering.

In an exchange with reporters earlier Tuesday, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said there was yet to be a “significant” discussion on whether to punish Boebert but that there is a possibility, given the congresswoman’s ongoing “toxic” rhetoric.

Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) on Tuesday afternoon suggested that McCarthy himself should step down over his handling of the issue.

“The GOP is a serial-offending, malicious anti-Muslim party,” Swalwell said in a tweet. “@GOPLeader McCarthy’s silence is a permission slip for his members to keep assaulting the Muslim community. His green-lighting this will lead to violence. He must resign.”

Trump weighed in, as well, issuing a statement in which he falsely accused Omar of “wishing death to Israel” and of “essentially abandoning her former country, which doesn’t even have a government — Exactly what she’d like to see for the United States!”

The heightened Islamophobic rhetoric comes at a time when many Republicans are also speaking out against Afghan refugees coming to the United States after President Biden ended the country’s military presence there.

A Quinnipiac poll in September found 60 percent of Americans supportive of accepting Afghan refugees into the United States and 32 percent opposed.

Nearly two-thirds of Republicans — 62 percent — said they were opposed to accepting Afghan refugees into the United States, while 30 percent were in support. That compared with 87 percent of Democrats and 62 percent of independents who supported accepting Afghan refugees.

Overall support for accepting refugees increased to 83 percent if the potential refugee was an Afghan national who assisted the United States during the war. Seventy-one percent of Republicans supported accepting Afghan refugees if they assisted the United States, along with 84 percent of independents and 91 percent of Democrats.

At Tuesday’s news conference, Tlaib, Omar and Carson were also joined by Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.), who said that he wanted to show solidarity with the trio as a non-Muslim.

Carson told reporters that House GOP leaders must recognize that “words have consequences and can incite violence.”

“This is also about ensuring the safety of the Muslim community,” he said. “Hateful words against Muslims from elected officials and public figures embolden many to engage in acts of violence that hurt our community. We cannot let this happen.”