U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota has become the center of … a lot, including talk on Anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, unbridled Twitter excesses.
It’s easy to forget that until just over two years ago, she was pretty much a political nobody.
Here’s a brief history of Omar’s rapid rise from local activist to national flashpoint.
1981: Ilham Omar is born in Mogadishu, Somalia, the youngest of seven children to educated civil servants. Her mother dies when she’s 2.
1991: As Somalia descends into lawlessness of civil war, Omar’s family flees to Kenya, eventually staying in a UN refugee camp of 30,000 Somalis.
1995: The family is approved for resettlement to Virginia. They eventually move to Minneapolis to be part of a larger Somali-American community. Omar speaks no English.
2000: At age 17, Omar becomes a U.S. citizen. She has already become interested in local politics, serving as a translator for Somalis at precinct caucuses.
2012 – 2014: Omar manages two successful election campaigns and becomes an aide in Minneapolis City Hall. She tweets: “Israel has hypnotized the world, may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel.” She’s not well-known at the point, and the post garners little outside attention.
2016: Omar suddenly catapults onto the state and national stage by defeating state Rep. Phyllis Kahn in the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party primary. Kahn is tied as the longest-serving lawmaker in state history. Many see the election as reflecting the changing demographics of parts of Minneapolis: Kahn is Jewish, while Omar, buoyed by impressive turnout among her supporters in the East African immigrant community, becomes the first Somali-American state lawmaker in America. Progressive Democrats seize on Omar’s life story as a powerful counter-narrative to the election of Republican Donald Trump. Shortly after winning her election, Omar alleges a Washington, D.C., cab driver “called me ISIS and threatened to remove my hijab.” The story gains national attention.
2016 – 2017: As a freshman state lawmaker in the minority party, it’s debatable how much Omar accomplishes at the Capitol, although she carries an outsized profile as a result of national media attention — she’s featured on the cover of Time magazine — and a growing following on social media. As an outspoken woman from a traditionally male-dominated ethnic group, her story also seems relevant in the #MeToo movement. She serves at assistant minority leader, a largely symbolic title but one that reveals how senior DFL party leaders saw her as a rising star. But there is pushback.
2018: Omar goes viral. U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison announces he won’t seek re-election to Minnesota’s 5th Congressional District so he can run for attorney general. Omar jumps into a crowded DFL field. She has quickly become a magnet for attacks from the right, including a questionable theory that she committed immigration fraud by marrying her brother. When the Associated Press undertakes a lengthy investigation into the claim, Omar denies the allegation but refuses to provide information that could fully disprove the idea. It’s one of the more noteworthy early examples of what will become a pattern of Omar not fully engaging with the mainstream media at surprising moments.
Her positions on Israel, as well as the 2012 tweet and her refusal to apologize for it, draw concern from Jewish leaders in Minneapolis, and several hold a private meeting with Omar to impress upon her the nuances of anti-Semitic words and the importance of her Jewish constituents. She prevails in the primary and easily wins the general election in the solidly blue district, becoming the first Muslim woman to be elected to Congress along with Rep. Rashida Talib of Michigan. They are among a wave of women of color elected to Congress with star power among younger liberals across the country. But some worry her rise is too fast, and not based on merit. Garrison Keillor said this on Facebook the day after the election: “I’m sorry (former House speaker and Omar primary opponent) Margaret Anderson Kelliher isn’t going to Congress but Minneapolis liberals couldn’t help but vote for a Somali woman candidate, it makes them feel better about themselves.”
January 2019: Barely two years after her embarking on a political career of her own, Omar, 37, is sworn in as a member of Congress. Controversy over her tweets start almost immediately. The 2012 Israel tweet gathers attention, and she accuses Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., of being “compromised.” The Graham remark was in the context of his reversal from Trump critic to Trump defender, but some said she was peddling in longstanding and unsubstantiated rumors about his sexuality.
Early February: Omar tweets that American political support is “all about the Benjamins” — meaning money from a pro-Israel lobbying firm — a remark that many Jewish leaders see as trafficking in the anti-Semitic trope that Jews control the world via money. She “unequivocally” apologizes but fails to quell critics, who range from Trump to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat. She says — and some liberals agree — that any criticism of Israel is immediately labeled anti-Semitic. The discourse quickly degrades into a partisan game of who-condemns-who-more, since several prominent Republicans have made similarly eyebrow-raising statements, and Trump’s brash tweets and remarks are legion. By the end of the month, Omar deletes both the “Benjamins” and the “hypnotized” tweets.
Late February: Omar goes on a fence-mending tour of sorts with Minneapolis Jewish leaders, but then she tells a group of progressives in a speech that she’s concerned about pro-Israel lobbyists pushing for “allegiance to a foreign country,” an apparent questioning of the patriotism of American Jews who support Israel. Condemnation from many — but not all — Jewish groups rises another notch, with some leaders essentially saying they’re done with her. She does not apologize.
In the meantime, Omar is attacked on two fronts: an Islamophobic poster inside the West Virginia state Capitol attempts to associate her with the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and the FBI investigates a graffiti inside a Rogers gas station bathroom that says “Assassinate Ilhan Omar.”
March: After heated internal squabbling the U.S. House of Representatives votes on a resolution condemning anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and white supremacy. Omar praises the action, which, while inspired by her, does not mention her by name.