They have gathered in defiance of the freezing temperatures on a late February’s night, scores of them twirling Somali flags in one hand and American flags in the other, crowding around the arrivals terminal and waiting to welcome one of their own. The vast Somali community in the Twin Cities is like one sprawling extended family, explains Ali Aden, a 39-year-old engineer who came to the U.S. two decades ago, as we survey the scene. When a prominent member of the family arrives, it’s customary to greet them this way.
“Is it Congresswoman Omar they’re waiting for?” I ask, referencing the freshman Democrat whose district we’re standing in.
“Ilhan?” he smiles broadly. “No, no. If it were Ilhan, the whole city would be here.”
As it turns out, the reception is for an obscure Somali government dignitary. In normal times, his arrival would be the talk of the local expat community; some 80,000 people of Somali descent are estimated to live in Minnesota, the largest community of the Somali diaspora in the United States, one that has distinctly flavored the Twin Cities’ culture and caused some occasional unease on the right, such as when then-candidate Donald Trump warned in 2016 of the “disaster” of Somali refugees moving into Minnesota and becoming radicalized by Islamic State.
But these are not normal times. The voters of Minnesota’s 5th Congressional District knew they were making history last November: Omar’s victory made her both the first Somali-American to serve in Congress and, along with fellow newcomer Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, its first Muslim female member. What they didn’t expect was that in her first seven weeks on the job she would become one of the most prominent, polarizing and recognizable politicians in America—the subject of fierce debates on the House floor and cable news, lauded on the left for standing up to Israel and vilified on the right for comments seen by many as anti-Semitic.
Omar was destined to stand out: After Congress changed its 181-year-old rule prohibiting headwear to accommodate her, she became the first person to wear a hijab on the House floor. But it wasn’t her wardrobe, or her religion, or her gripping biography as the congresswoman who came of age in a refugee camp, that distinguished Omar in her early days on Capitol Hill. Rather, it was her usage of social media and the uproar that ensued.
First, Omar tweeted that Lindsey Graham had been “compromised,” suggesting that his support for Trump—whom he’d verbally mauled throughout the 2016 campaign—owed to blackmail collected on the South Carolina senator. (Conservatives accused Omar of playing on the long-running, unsubstantiated insinuation that Graham is gay; she denied this, but apologized.) Then, after being seated on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Omar was lampooned for a 2012 tweet in which she wrote during an Israeli military campaign in the Gaza Strip, “Israel has hypnotized the world, may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel.” (Omar later apologized and deleted the tweet; she claimed ignorance of the anti-Semitic trope that conceives of Jewish hypnosis.)
Notes of support on Ilhan Omar’s name plate.
After uproar over an Omar tweet that some called anti-Semitic, supporters placed notes on Omar’s nameplate in the Longworth House Office Building on Feb. 11, 2019, in Washington, DC. | Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Finally, in early February, after just over a month on the job, Omar made the jump from occasional agitator to permanent lightning rod. Arguing that U.S. lawmakers back Israel because of campaign donations from Jewish donors, the congresswoman tweeted, “It’s all about the Benjamins baby,” a reference to $100 bills. The fallout was fierce: The entire House Democratic leadership denounced Omar, forcing yet another apology, and both the president and vice president piled on, skewering the congresswoman for her remarks, with Trump even suggesting that she should resign from Congress. (Notably, neither Trump nor Mike Pence has ever criticized Congressman Steve King despite his well-documented record of openly racist rhetoric.)
All of this proved agonizing for Omar’s constituents, particularly those in the Somali community. Her arrival in Congress was meant to bring them legitimacy and representation. Instead, almost immediately, it invited controversy and humiliation. “I was shocked. I don’t like her on Twitter,” Aden tells me. “She’s very smart, and I didn’t think she would talk that way. It was an embarrassment for me as a Somali-American, because we do not like extreme left or extreme right. But she will do better. This is new to her—she will learn how to handle it.”