The firebrand congresswoman tells Josh Glancy how her traumatic escape from war‑torn Somalia prepared her for the cut and thrust of America's politics.
Aside from Donald Trump himself, there probably isn't a more controversial — or divisive — figure in America today than Ilhan Omar. The diminutive Democrat from Minnesota is the joint-first Muslim woman to serve in Congress and one of the president's favourite foils: a 37-year-old former child refugee from Somalia who burst provocatively onto the political scene in 2018 and has been setting off fireworks ever since. Love or hate her, and many do, it is impossible to overlook Omar. She won't let you. Nor will her enemies.
To her fans, she is a brave pioneer, a war child, a voice for the voiceless, whose hijabbed presence in Congress represents all that is great about their country. "I am America's hope and the president's nightmare," is the motto framed in her office. Since their election in 2018, Omar and her fellow "Squad" members, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib (the other first Muslim congresswoman), have become progressive icons, the faces of what Omar calls "new America".
To her detractors, she embodies everything that's wrong with this new America — a toxic combination of wokeness, antisemitism, anti-Americanism, intemperance and indulgent student politics. Or, as the Fox News host Tucker Carlson put it recently, a "parody of repulsiveness".
I'm used to seeing Omar on stage or screen, railing against injustice in an iridescent green hijab. But when we meet earlier this month it is on a grainy Zoom, Omar in a grey Nike sweater, hood pulled up as a modesty barrier. Both of us are at home in DC, barely a mile apart. She is relaxed and chatty as we exchange the usual "aren't things weird" lockdown pleasantries. Hers: three kids, three congressional committees, sprawling legislative projects and 18-hour days. Mine: a protracted quest to master the art of making shakshuka. She's finding the isolation very manageable, though, because she knows what real lockdown feels like.
Omar recalls her youngest daughter lamenting the closure of schools and shopping centres on a recent walk: "I told her, around your age I was in a similar situation where we were in a complete lockdown, but I was completely confined to the house because there was a war happening. You get to smell the fresh air and walk — you're not running from bullets, you're not hiding under a bed." That told her, then.
Being in Omar's family sounds fairly intense. Being in her company for 90 minutes is pretty intense too, a barrage of war stories and leftist screeds, demands for pandemic rent cancellations and free healthcare for all. Yet for once, this fiercely private congresswoman is in the mood to open up. She's written a memoir, This Is What America Looks Like, about her journey from bullet-ridden Mogadishu to marble-clad Capitol Hill. "I am a living, breathing monument of what the American dream is about," she says grandly.
To understand this political meteor, we must first go back to 1980s Somalia, as armed clans fought to overthrow the military junta led by Siad Barre. Omar's mother died young, so she was raised by her father and a large extended family, until her comfortable middle-class childhood was shattered by conflict, their Mogadishu compound attacked by neighbours.
When Omar was eight, the family took flight to Kenya and spent four years in the Dadaab refugee camp, where malaria and malnourishment were rife — the former claiming her beloved aunt Fos. It was, she writes, a time of "pain and death, laughter and love". When Omar was 12, the family were granted asylum in America. They flew to New York, where she was "appalled" by the filth — "How is this America?" She has been searching for the America of her imagination ever since.
Eventually they ended up in frigid Minneapolis, home to the US's largest Somali community, where Omar heaved herself through motherhood, college, an "elopement" and a nervous breakdown before eventually trying her hand at local politics, rising in a few years from community organiser to the Minnesota state house before running successfully for Congress in 2018, a career turbocharged by her adamantine self-belief and immense symbolic value as a poster child for diversity.
Omar says her remarkable journey has made her "compassionate" and "optimistic", those early traumas imbuing her with a wrecking-ball fearlessness. "My mother died before she reached my age, so I'm just glad I'm here," she says. This might account for the astonishing number of controversies she's racked up since entering Congress, just 18 months ago. There was the occasion she described the revered Barack Obama as a "more polished" Donald Trump, suggesting that behind the pretty face was a milquetoast moderate, whose policies, like Trump's, included detaining immigrant children at the southern border and making heavy use of drone strikes overseas (she later tweeted that her remarks had been "distorted" and that she is a "fan" of Obama). Or that time she compared migrant shelters on the US-Mexican border to "dungeons" used in the African slave trade. After the Trump administration assassinated the Iranian general Qasem Soleimani in an airstrike, Omar was accused of dishonouring America's veterans for claiming that she finds herself "stricken" with post-traumatic stress disorder during conversations about war.
She stands by those comments. "I am forever in bondage to that horror, to the deaths that I saw," she says. The PTSD is still with her, often in the form of claustrophobia. Going into road tunnels in the car reminds her of those nights "hidden in dark spaces as mortars flew on top of us".
Some of Omar's worst political moments have come in relation to Israel, when she dredged old antisemitic tropes by accusing pro-Israel American Jews of "pushing for allegiance to a foreign country". Or when she said Israel had "hypnotised the world"; or that American support for Israel was "all about the Benjamins" — the Jews and their money, in short.
She insists she's "moved past" her antisemitic tweets. "My expression of those things was hurtful to people, that has really broken my heart," she says. "I talk about Saudi blood money and them being bloodsuckers and no one says 'This is Islamophobic', but I know if I use those terms for another country, that could be [a problem]. And so you learn what history is tied to words. As someone who didn't have an understanding, I now do."
Part of Omar's appeal, though, is her taboo-breaking radicalism and willingness to say the unsayable, not unlike her nemesis in the White House. She's still firmly convinced that Israel and its domestic friends have too much influence over American foreign policy. Her new approach is to pivot to Saudi Arabia whenever this comes up, so she isn't singling out the Jews. "We know the amount of money and influence and connection that the Saudis have with the administration is really the reason that everything destructive they do is nullified," she says. "And that really is no different to what's happening with Israel."
As the most visible Muslim in Congress, Omar has been a lightning rod for racism and bigotry, her every misstep amplified by her enemies. At Trump rallies the crowd has been known to chant "send her back" when Omar's name is mentioned. Trump encourages this and last July tweeted that Omar and the other young congresswomen who make up the Squad (Ocasio-Cortez, Tlaib and Pressley) should "go back" to "the broken and crime-infested places" they came from.
How does it feel to be on the receiving end of such naked xenophobia from the president? It doesn't upset her personally, she insists, but she worries about the message it sends to newer immigrants. "The president knows I don't care, I'm a member of Congress, I'm home, he's not deporting me," she says. "But to the people who are still in that process of feeling welcome, this is a painful thing. His messages are for everything I represent and everyone who sees themselves in me."
Does she view Trump as a fully fledged racist? "I think he's probably one of the most racist people in our country," she says. "There's no sugar-coating it, no ifs or buts, he is racist, he's xenophobic, he's a deranged, really sad man."
Why do Trump and co keep singling her out? "I am a constant reminder to people who hate Muslims, who hate the idea of immigrants from those 'shithole countries' having any influence in our government, that it is happening," she says. "All of their fears, everything they worried about and lost sleep over … it is happening, she is here, she's in Congress."
Omar believes that she is "harassed more than anyone else since Reconstruction, since the Civil War, when we first allowed African-Americans to join Congress", which glides rather dismissively over the violent Jim Crow era. Nonetheless, the threat of real harm does hover menacingly. Last April, a Trump supporter in New York was arrested after calling Omar's office and threatening to kill her. "Why are you working for her? She's a f****** terrorist," Patrick Carlineo, 55, said. "I'll put a bullet in her f****** skull."
It wasn't the first such threat. Omar insists she has no fear, but does fret about those around her, recalling that after the arrest her son worried he would grow up without a mother. "I don't worry about my life ending, I do worry about the anxiety it causes my family members to worry about my life ending. I know my time will end only when my time is supposed to end."
Even in a hoodie on a shonky Zoom call, Omar's political skill is conspicuous, the way she weaves her personal odyssey and progressive politics together, her convoluted polemics gift-wrapped in charisma and a glimmering smile. She's an adept media performer and doesn't blink when I ask her about the most sensitive of subjects, her second marriage. It's a complex and unresolved tale. In 2002, at the age of 19, she married Ahmed Hirsi, who is the father of her three children, in a "faith-based" ceremony not legally recognised in America. The pair split, and in 2009 she "eloped" with Ahmed Nur Said Elmi, a British citizen. She later remarried Hirsi, this time legally, though they are now divorced and she lives with her third husband, Tim Mynett, a 38-year-old political consultant with whom she was accused of having an affair while he was working for her last year.
The real controversy, though, is the claim that Elmi is actually her brother and that the marriage was a sham, criminally concocted for visa purposes so he could live in America. The story has done the rounds on the right-wing blogosphere (Trump has echoed it, of course), but it's also been investigated by Omar's hometown paper, the Minnesota Star Tribune, which said it wasn't able to conclude either way and was stonewalled by Omar's family.
So, is it true? A racist smear, Omar insists, not dissimilar to the "birther" claims that Barack Obama was born in Kenya. "It's not something I care for," she says. It doesn't matter how many times she talks about it, the "right-wing crazies" won't let it go. She says she's no longer in touch with her second husband.
The only time Omar really bristles is on the subject of her hijab, which she has worn since 2005. She made history in 2018 by becoming the first woman to wear a hijab on the floor of Congress — a ban on head coverings was modified in her honour. She's obviously from a traditional background. "I don't look my father in the eye when he's talking to me," she says. But how does she respond to those who don't find the covering very, well, feminist? "It's like asking someone who wears the cross … How do you respond to that?" she flares. "It's really because I'm a feminist that I wear the hijab. For me it's been about creating a barrier in transgression … protecting my heart, my soul, my values and my beliefs. That's why I wear it."
She also reveals a surprising heroine: Margaret Thatcher (her father's nickname for her is "Iron Lady"). "When I was younger, no one was like Margaret Thatcher. To many people, even my father, my ability to get to Congress has been shocking. I can't imagine what it must have been like in her day, to just show up and say, 'I can do this.' " Omar loathes Thatcher's "horrific" politics, she quickly clarifies, but admires "her ability as a woman, in her time, to do it on her terms".
Say what you like about Omar, and people have, and people will, she is undeniably a woman doing it on her own terms. "I am a natural starter of fires," she writes in the book and she finishes with one more burst of flame, emphasising that she believes the sexual assault allegations made by Tara Reade against Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, which Biden has denied. "I do believe Reade," she says. "Justice can be delayed, but should never be denied." If it was up to her, she says, Biden wouldn't be the candidate.
With that final flourish, she clicks off: more meetings to attend, feathers to ruffle, clangers to deliver, feuds to wage; a riveting hot mess of a political career unfolding at warp speed. "I've always felt I was living on borrowed time," she reflects. "When so many people you know have died in front of you … I'm just happy I reached 30. I wake up every morning, surprised I am alive."
Written by: Josh Glancy
© The Times of London