Editor’s note: This interview was conducted in January, several weeks before Rep. Ilhan Omar wrote, in a since-deleted tweet, that House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s threat to punish herself and Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib for their criticism of Israel was “all about the Benjamins baby.” Omar publicly apologized for the tweet, which was widely condemned — including by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, with whom she appears on Rolling Stone‘s March cover — for employing an anti-Semitic trope. She declined a request for a follow-up interview, and responded to only one of a series of emailed questions from Rolling Stone. We have included that response at the end of this piece.
As a teen in Minnesota, Ilhan Omar didn’t wear a hijab often. “I, regretfully, was one of the folks who would only wear it the days I didn’t have the time or energy to fix my hair,” says Omar, who arrived in the U.S. in 1995 as a refugee of the Somali civil war. Her attitude evolved after September 11th: “I knew we had a responsibility to help shape a narrative about our faith that is positive.” This year, she became the first woman sworn in to Congress in a head scarf, after negotiating the end to a 181-year-old edict that representatives must “remain uncovered” while on the House floor. Lifting the ban caused an outcry from some conservatives, but, as an unapologetic progressive, Omar is getting used to that. For now, though, she’s trying to stay focused on the agenda she came to Washington to advance, and on advocating for people like herself — refugees, immigrants, Muslims, women, Minnesotans. “The last two years of dealing with this administration has been the biggest adjustment of my life,” she says. “I just want to hide. But I can’t because I represent people who feel as much pain — if not more — because they don’t have the voice that I have.”
You came to the U.S. when you were 12. What were your first impressions?
We had a layover in New York. I remember seeing homeless people and panhandlers on the streets. There was trash everywhere, and graffiti. I remember turning to my dad and saying, “This doesn’t look like the America you promised.” He said, “Girl, you ask too many questions. We’re gonna get to our America.”
What was it like being a Muslim woman in America after 9/11? You had just become a citizen.
You were afraid as an American and you were mourning, [but] you were seen now as a suspect. I remember there was an enormous fear that the community felt. It didn’t matter if you were a new citizen or if you’d been here all your life, there was a feeling like your existence here could be temporary.
I imagine that fear was realized with the Muslim ban in 2017. What was it like?
I had just gotten sworn in [to the Minnesota Legislature] two weeks before. There was lots of chaos, people being stopped at the airports. I had a flight scheduled a week after to speak at a human-rights conference in Turkey. I didn’t know whether I could go. My father said, “I looked at the lineup at this human-rights conference — they’re risking everything. You are not gonna sit home.” I ended up going.
How do you anticipate progressive items, like Medicare for All, will actually get done?
Medicare for All is an issue that’s supported by the majority of Americans, and so that’s where we begin, right? It’s not a progressive idea, it’s not a Democratic Caucus idea, it is an idea that solves one of the greatest problems we have. So now it’s just figuring out what pieces of the legislation we put forth.
You’re on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. How has your experience as a refugee colored your view of, for instance, Trump’s decision to pull out of Syria?
By principle, I’m anti-war because I survived a war. I’m also anti-intervention. I don’t think it ever makes sense for any country to intervene in a war zone with the fallacy of saving lives when we know they are going to cause more deaths. I also don’t believe in forced regime change. Change needs to come from within.
There have been reports of Saudi-backed news outlets attacking you and Rashida Tlaib, the first Muslim women in Congress. What do you think they are scared of?
Our presence terrifies them. These are totalitarian regimes that have retained their power and influence in the West by setting themselves up as the gatekeepers and the ushers of peace for the Muslim community. They are threatened, really, by Muslims who have now come to Congress who have the roots and understanding of the problems and can speak to solutions that do not involve them.
You might be asked to vote on impeachment at some point. What are your thoughts about that possibility?
I believe that impeachment is inevitable. It also is a terrifying notion. Pence is an ideologue, and the ideology he holds is more terrifying to me and my constituents. And we have not had a full impeachment that removes the president from office. Nations struggle any time [they] overthrow a dictator, and Trump really has the markings of a dictator.
In a tweeted apology, you wrote you were grateful to ‘Jewish allies and colleagues who are educating [you] on the painful history of anti-Semitic tropes.’ What do you think you still have to learn about the Jewish faith or Jewish culture to avoid repeating such mistakes?
I know what intolerance looks like and one thing that has been painful about this whole process is knowing that I used language that caused hurt to others. My hope is that as much as I hold others accountable and help them learn, that people will also hold me accountable. I work every day to make sure we are living in a more tolerant world. And I hope people understand how deeply I care about creating that world. That’s why one of the first things I did as a member-elect was to speak about the rise of anti-Semitism — and one of the first bills I cosponsored as a new member was legislation to elevate the position of a Special Envoy to combat anti-Semitism. I’m an organizer at heart. I’ve given an earful to others who traffic in bigotry, so I need to listen and learn. Listening and working with communities directly impacted is what will make me a better public servant. Speaker Pelosi has been a mentor throughout this whole process and I look forward to working with her in furthering the people’s agenda.