RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Freshman Congresswoman Ilhan Omar has made a name for herself with controversial comments against Israel. Some other American Muslims believe the controversy around her is more about who she is than what she says. Here's Omar speaking at a rally organized by black women leaders.
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ILHAN OMAR: They could not stand that a refugee, a black woman, an immigrant, a Muslim shows up in Congress thinking she's equal to them.
MARTIN: NPR's Leila Fadel has more.
LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Omar has caused a lot of controversy in her few months in office. Her critics accuse her of anti-Semitism. After an offensive tweet, she apologized. But she refuses to back down from questioning lobbyists' influence in policymaking, from groups that support Israel to gun rights. Her prominent presence in Washington is being met with violent death threats, many incited by a tweet from the president of a video that interspersed Ilhan Omar speaking with video of the 9/11 attacks. Movita Johnson-Harrell says it's all very familiar.
MOVITA JOHNSON-HARRELL: Historically, we have not occupied these spaces. And now that we are - that it is a threat to the misogyny and the white supremacy in this country.
FADEL: Johnson-Harrell is the first black Muslim woman in the Pennsylvania Statehouse. For her, it started before she was even sworn in this spring when State Representative Stephanie Borowicz gave an invocation that Johnson-Harrell says made her feel unwelcome and implied that her election was wrong.
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STEPHANIE BOROWICZ: God, forgive us. Jesus, we've lost sight of you. We've forgotten you, God, in our country. And we're asking you to forgive us, Jesus.
JOHNSON-HARRELL: It was laced with bigotry. And it was very, very offensive.
FADEL: Johnson-Harrell says since saying she was offended...
JOHNSON-HARRELL: I've gotten hate mail. I've had people put comments on my social media telling me to go back to where I came from, telling me to remove the rag from my head. I mean, it's been absolutely insane.
FADEL: Backlash like this is something Vanessa Taylor thinks about a lot.
VANESSA TAYLOR: I'm a black Muslim writer based in Philadelphia whose work focuses on black Muslim womanhood and the taboo.
FADEL: For black Muslim women in politics, the chorus of critics from both parties is a familiar tune. Taylor says they become symbols of marginalized people rising to power.
TAYLOR: Black women, historically, when they speak, are punished and humiliated and publicly shamed.
FADEL: So she says in the case of Ilhan Omar, many critics are seizing on anti-black, anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant tropes.
TAYLOR: So it's not even a matter of if she actually did that or if it's actually a wrong thing to do. It's really just a matter of a black woman's position is to be in atonement.
FADEL: And the congresswoman, Taylor says, is not atoning. Now, it's not just black Muslim women who deal with this. It happens frequently to Muslims in politics who publicly identify with their faith.
YASMINE TAEB: Hi.
UNIDENTIFIED VOTER: Hi, how are you doing? It's good to see you.
TAEB: It's good to see you. Thank you for being here.
FADEL: Yasmine Taeb is greeting voters at the public library in Falls Church, Va., at a town hall.
TAEB: For me, as someone who came to the U.S. as a refugee originally from Iran, grew up undocumented, for me...
FADEL: She's running on a progressive platform for the Virginia State Senate - clean energy, getting corporate money out of politics. But the headlines attacking her read pro-Iran socialist. She's accused of hating Israel. Now, foreign policy - it's never come up in this race.
TAEB: This is a state legislative race. These are dog whistles. These are, you know, again, Islamophobic tactics.
FADEL: She gets messages from across the country calling her a terrorist, trash, asking ICE to deport her.
TAEB: Why is it that every single time we have a Muslim declare their candidacy and run for office, why is it that we have to jump this hurdle to prove that, you know, we are loyal to this country?
FADEL: There are brief moments, she says, when she wonders if staying in politics is worth it, when she looks at the hundred or so hateful messages she gets a day.
TAEB: And then it just makes me remember that it's all the more important why we should. These are individuals that are trying to silence us. These are individuals that don't support a more inclusive commonwealth and country.
FADEL: Instead, she looks at the vitriol as a challenge and the reason to keep talking.
Leila Fadel, NPR News.
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