Ann Arbor (Informed Comment) – Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) is making an attempt to keep Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) from taking her seat on the Foreign Affairs Committee. Omar is the only African Muslim woman in the House, and it is hard not to conclude that she is being targeted on racial and religious grounds.
McCarthy’s planned course of action is ugly and recalls a previous Congressional decision, in 1869. As the site A History of Racial Injustice points out, John Willis Menard was the first Black man to be elected to Congress, from New Orleans. A poet and newspaper publisher as well as politician, Menard handily defeated his white opponent, Caleb S. Hunt. Hunt, like a lot of Republicans today, refused to acknowledge that he had been defeated fair and square in an aboveboard election. His claims were taken up in the halls of Congress, but he did not show, and in any case Hunt’s case was without merit. Menard was permitted to address the House on his own behalf, becoming the first Black man to speak to Congress.
Despite Hunt’s collapse, the House voted by a margin of 130 to 57 to refuse to seat Menard on the grounds that he was . . . Black. James Garfield, then a representative, spoke in favor of refusing to seat the elected representative, saying that it would save the $5,000 salary. Garfield later became president.
A substantial number of voters in Louisiana thus had their political will thwarted by arbitrary and bigoted white men.
Although Omar is a first generation immigrant from Somalia, Muslim Africans have been present in North America for 500 years. Even before the Emancipation Proclamation, African Muslim Americans like Omar had played a significant role in US history. The Smithsonian notes,
- “African Muslims also fought alongside colonists during the Revolutionary War (1775-1783). Multiple men with Muslim names appear on the military muster rolls, including Bampett Muhamed, Yusuf ben Ali (also known as Joseph Benhaley), and Joseph Saba. Other men listed on muster rolls have names that are likely connected to Islamic practice, such as Salem Poor and Peter Salem, whose names may reflect a form of the Arabic salaam, meaning peace. These men often distinguished themselves on the battlefield.”
Along with singling out an African-born Muslim woman for marginalization, McCarthy is playing revenge politics. Democrats led by Nancy Pelosi had removed Republican Representatives Paul Gosar and Marjorie Taylor Greene from their committees. Gosar put out a snuff video about his colleague Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Greene is a 9/11 denier and a school shooting denier who harassed a survivor of a school shooting in the street, and compared vaccine and mask mandates during the pandemic to the Nazi Holocaust against Jews. She also compared Joe Biden to Hitler. She has retracted some of her conspiracy theories but always seems to find more.
Greene and The Lying Man, George Santos, have both been given choice committee assignments by McCarthy, so that his attempt to sideline Omar, along with Democratic Reps. Adam Schiff and Eric Swallwell, is especially egregious and makes a farce of his speakership. Buckle in, folks, we’re in for a Clown Roller-coaster on the Hill.
McCarthy accuses Rep. Omar of antisemitism. As Dean Obaidallah points out, however, some significant number of Omar’s Jewish constituents in Minneapolis disagree, publishing a statement against McCarthy’s move. Undoubtedly, Omar did put her foot in her mouth in some comments on the Israel lobbies, but she swiftly apologized, as Ubaidallah says. The mistakes she made came from an unfamiliarity with how anti-Jewish bigotry has operated in the United States, and she has become more sure-footed as she has settled into her role as a legislator.
It should also be pointed out that some of the charges of Antisemitism against Omar are simply a way of twisting her stance for Palestinian human rights into something sinister, and are in bad faith on the part of vociferous ‘Israel-can-do-no-wrong’ fanatics.
Kevin McCarthy himself tweeted out that Jewish billionaires such as George Soros and Michael Bloomberg were trying to “buy” an election. The notion that Jews are somehow especially powerful and control elections behind the scenes is a key trope in antisemitic discourse. McCarthy later deleted the tweets. So he is denying himself committee assignments, right? Nope.
Apparently some principled Republicans are putting their feet down against McCarthy’s petty prejudices. Unlike Garfield in 1869, they may take the path of the American Way, and common decency.