Why Ilhan Omar’s tweet was so predictably misconstrued by the GOP

Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn. — a Black, Muslim immigrant woman — has long been a target for the political right. After all, she’s so much of what the Republican Party despises rolled into one.

So it’s no surprise that some people on the right would fabricate claims that her recent tweet about a video of people singing a song praising Jesus to passengers on a flight was an “attack” on Christianity. It wasn’t; Omar was calling out the very real double standard of how Muslims would have been treated if they did the same.

The video shows people on a flight — possibly over Europe, according to TMZ, though not much context about the flight and the people on it has been confirmed — walking up and down the aisles of the plane. One played a guitar while others sang. The reaction of passengers ranged from some joining in to others looking displeased at being forced to listen to people singing inches from their faces. But that appeared to be the extent of any negative reaction.

Omar’s Saturday tweet was apparently too much for a slew of GOP congressional candidates, who in reaction accused the congresswoman of “hating” Christians, “disrespecting” Christians and being “anti-God,” and, of course, urged her to go back to “her own country” if she didn’t like it. There’s nothing like peddling bigotry in the name of Jesus to make it clear you have no idea what Jesus was about. But these Republicans get that demonizing Muslims plays well with the GOP base, especially given that former President Donald Trump had made anti-Muslim bigotry a central plank of his 2016 campaign.

Dec. 19, 202104:30

The truth is Omar’s point was spot on. She didn’t criticize Christianity or even the slightly off-key singing of these young people. She merely pointed out that if a group of Muslims got up from their seats on a plane and began praying in Arabic in the aisles, the response would’ve been vastly different.

Omar knows that countless Muslims have been removed from flights for far less. In 2016, The New York Times reported that an Iraqi American college student, who was about the same age as the people in the video appear to be, was speaking to his uncle by phone on a Southwest Airlines flight that had boarded at Los Angeles International Airport. The student spoke in Arabic and finished his conversation with the word “inshallah,” which means “God willing.” This apparently alarmed the woman sitting in front of him, who hurriedly went to the flight crew, the Times reported. Next thing the young man knew, he was escorted off the flight and being questioned by the FBI, he told the Times. This all happed simply because he spoke a few words in Arabic. (He was later released and booked another flight.)

Imagine how uncomfortable that flight crew member would’ve been if she saw Muslims running up and down the aisle singing about Allah.

That is just one example of “flying while Muslim.” Muslims have been asked to leave flights for doing nothing more than being themselves; I haven’t seen any reports of Muslims suddenly singing about Islam in the aisles of a plane. Also in 2016, the Cincinnati Enquirer reported that a Muslim American couple on a flight from Paris returning to their home in Cincinnati were asked to leave the plane after a flight crew member became “uncomfortable” seeing the woman wearing a hijab and saying the word “Allah.” Imagine how uncomfortable that flight crew member would’ve been if she saw Muslims running up and down the aisle singing about Allah. Of course, thelist goes on of incidents like these.

It’s important to note that it’s not just Muslims; Jews have also been kicked off flights for simply trying to adhere to their faith. For example, in 2008, The New York Times reported that an Orthodox Jewish man went to the back of his United Airlines flight before it took off to pray. When the flight crew told him to be seated, his friends explained that the prayer had to be finished once started, a witness told The Times. Even though he returned to his seat once he finished it, about two and a half minutes later, he was still ejected from the flight.

It’s important to note that it’s not just Muslims; Jews have also been kicked off flights for simply trying to adhere to their faith.

Last year, the New York Post reported that an older Jewish couple from New York filed a lawsuit against American Airlines after they said they were removed from a flight for refusing to put a bag containing their prayer shawl on the floor under their seat, despite explaining to the flight attendant that the shawl is a religious item that’s not permitted to touch the floor. A spokesman for the airline told the Post at the time that American was “reviewing the lawsuit,” which is scheduled for a hearing next month.

There’s something else that the Republicans who went after Omar don’t get about her comment and about Islam: Her remark was not in any way criticizing Jesus or people who worship him. In fact, Jesus is a very important part of Islam. As Imam Omar Suleiman, the president of Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research, explained to me in the past, “Jesus (peace be upon him) is of the highest messengers and prophets, miraculously born to the Virgin Mary, and chosen by God to be the Messiah who will return to establish justice on Earth after it has been filled with injustice.” And as Imam Shamsi Ali shared in a comedy documentary I co-directed called “The Muslims Are Coming!”: “You can’t be a good Muslim if you don’t follow the teachings of Jesus Christ.”

What we need right now — especially in this season where Christians, Jews and Muslims are all celebrating holidays simultaneously — is more understanding, not GOP politicians peddling hate to excite the bigots in their base. That is what Jesus would have wanted. But then again, nothing about today’s GOP is what Jesus would do.

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