When President Donald J. Trump tweeted out a piece of video propaganda that overlaid footage of the burning twin towers of the World Trade Center with a deceptively clipped quote from Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, we at Right Wing Watch recognized the messaging. In one form or another, it’s been wending its way through the internet channels of the far right since Omar was first elected—long before her awkwardly-stated description of the dynamics facing American Muslims in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, in remarks she made at a March 23 event sponsored by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).
Like the president they revere, right-wing leaders appear not to care whether their incendiary rhetoric about Omar results in threats or actual violence against the congresswoman, her family or members of America’s many Muslim communities.
Islamophobia has long been a cottage industry of the U.S. right, both religious and secular, but has been scaling up in the Age of Trump. So it was sadly unsurprising to see Omar maligned and smeared as a likely terrorist by right-wing talkers and writers as the national media highlighted Omar as the first Muslim woman in Congress to wear the hijab, or headscarf, on the House floor.
ACT for America is an anti-Muslim group helmed by Brigitte Gabriel, who was a featured speaker at the 2018 Values Voter Summit, an annual conference hosted in Washington, D.C., by the Family Research Council’s political arm, FRCAction. At a March 1 event titled WV GOP Day at the West Virginia state capitol building, ACT for America sponsored a table laden with anti-Islam materials, and displayed a poster that juxtaposed an image of the burning towers with that of Omar’s face. First brought to our attention by Hemant Mehta of The Friendly Atheist, the poster displays the two photos one atop the other. On top is the picture of the fire-spewing buildings emblazoned with the words, “NEVER FORGET” – YOU SAID. The bottom half of the poster features a picture of Omar—a black woman in a hijab—featuring the text: “I AM THE PROOF YOU HAVE FORGOTTEN.” Mangled syntax notwithstanding, ACT’s false and fear-mongering message was loud and clear: This Muslim in Congress poses a threat akin to that posed by al Qaeda.
On its Facebook page, the West Virginia Democratic Party posted a video of an unnamed person attempting to question Brenda Arthur, leader of the Charleston, West Virginia, ACT chapter, who was staffing the ACT table, about the poster.
However deceitful, the ACT poster concept proved meme-worthy. When Omar spoke to CAIR on March 23, she attempted to address the threat to their civil rights experienced by U.S. Muslims in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Mistakenly dating the birth of CAIR to 2001 (it was founded in the 1990s), Omar said, “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.” Once Omar’s comments came to light, right-wingers, who have long sought to paint CAIR as a terrorist organization (it’s not), pounced.
The New York Post, owned by the same parent company as Fox News, did the ACT for America poster one better, displaying a photo of the burning towers on its front cover, with the headline, “Here’s your something.”
That appears to have given some unnamed propagandist an idea: Why not do a video version? And so was born the video embedded in the president’s April 12 tweet, apparently uploaded directly into Trump’s tweet, with no indication as to its source.
Since Trump’s tweet, Omar has reported an uptick in death threats against her, leading House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to ask law enforcement to assess the risk of harm to Omar as a result.
However, the smear campaign against Omar didn’t begin with that poster. It began as soon as right-wing communicators discovered that a Muslim in a headscarf was about to take a seat in Congress.
In January, Bishop E.W. Jackson, who won the Virginia Republican Party’s nomination for the office of lieutenant governor in 2013, sounded an alarm about Omar, attempting to paint her as ineligible for her congressional seat because, he claimed, she wasn’t actually elected by Americans. As RWW’s Kyle Mantyla reported, on the January 4 edition of his radio program, Jackson said:
“First of all, she wasn’t really elected by Americans. She was elected by a Somali community that maintains its sense of difference and distinction and, to use her words, ‘otherness.’ That’s who elected her. That’s why she’s in Congress…”
Omar’s election, Jackson said, “points out something else, folks, that you need to understand: Islam doesn’t assimilate, Islam infiltrates.”
Once Chris McDonald—a conspiracy-theorist YouTuber who would be easy to dismiss were it not for the fact that the Trump administration has proven itself loath to distance itself from conspiracy theorists such as McDonald’s frequent guest, Ann Vandersteel—sunk his teeth into the anti-Omar narrative, he just couldn’t let go. As Mantyla reported, McDonald made similar comments about Omar numerous times, staring on February 15, when he said this during his “The Mc Files” program:
“This lady is so radical, this lady embraces Islamic jihad,” McDonald said. “It would not be surprising to me if this lady don’t strap on a bomb and do something dastardly, that’s how radical she is.”
On his February 19 installment, Mantyla reported, McDonald continued on the theme, demanding that Omar be removed from Congress, allowing that perhaps it wouldn’t be Omar herself blowing things up were she allowed to continue her term in the House:
“Even if it’s not her,” McDonald added, “she very well could be getting information and getting instructions from ISIS and other terrorist groups overseas, because this lady has got her hand in every freaking terrorist organization from here to Saudi Arabia. This lady is evil and I don’t see how she is hanging on to her seat without somebody stepping up and saying, ‘You must go, you must resign.’”
It was a message irresistible to at least one host on the Fox News Channel. As RWW’s Peter Montgomery reported, Fox personality “Judge” Jeanine Pirro leapt into the act on March 10, when she said of Omar:
Think about it. Omar wears a hijab, which according to the Quran 33:59 tells women to cover so they won’t get molested. Is her adherence to this Islamic doctrine indicative of her adherence to Sharia law, which in itself is antithetical to the United States Constitution?
The hijab is Islamic (& a misogynistic tool of oppression against women).
Islam & its “bible,” the Quran, are steeped in Sharia law.
Sharia law is steeped in totalitarianism.
Totalitarianism is anathema to the US Constitution.
It’s not that difficult. https://t.co/IoZIN7y85V
— Matt Barber (@jmattbarber) 11. března 2019
Not to be outdone, on March 12, McDonald claimed that Omar wants to abolish the Department of Homeland Security so that “her Islamic jihadist buddies can run roughshod over this land.”
It’s been barely a month since a white nationalist attacked two mosques in New Zealand, killing 50 people. After expressing condolences for the families of the victims, Trump said he didn’t see white nationalism as a major problem, calling the movement “a small group of people with very, very serious problems.” That “small group” is likely pleased with his targeting of the very visible Ilhan Omar.