Essay: The Disruptors - Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar

Rep. Rashda Tlaib is the first Palestinian-American woman elected to the U.S. Congress. And it shows! She and Rep. Ilhan Omar are the first two Muslim women elected to Congress. And it shows!

It shows in the ways they have challenged the sacrosanct U.S, support for Israel, creating a “tectonic” shift among Democrats towards a country accustomed to unquestioned bipartisan support. It shows in the way they have expressed their support for Palestinians as an expression of both their identities and also their progressive politics. Neither Tlaib nor Omar were in Congress during Israel’s bombardment of Gaza in 2014, and the difference their presence makes shows in the ways they spoke up during Israel’s most recent bombardment.

Tlaib and Omar are disruptors who signal that if there was a way to do things before they arrived, that way was not their destination.

It is thrilling to hear Rep. Ilhan Omar call a fascist what he is:

"The Israeli government and their far-right, ethno-nationalist leader Benjamin Netanyahu has legally razed Palestinian ancestral homes, levelled entire neighbourhoods, and violently suppressed any resistance,” she said in Congress. "This is all to make way for illegal Israeli settlement outposts, designed to displace Palestinians from their homes and prevent a future Palestinian state."

It is thrilling to see Rep. Rashida Tlaib call out the primary enabler of that fascist:

"Palestinian human rights are not a bargaining chip and must be protected, not negotiated," an aide said Tlaib expressed to President Joe Biden on the tarmac in Michigan, when he visited last week.  "The U.S. cannot continue to give the right-wing [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu government billions each year to commit crimes against Palestinians. Atrocities like bombing schools cannot be tolerated, much less conducted with U.S.-supplied weapons."

President Biden speaks with Democratic Reps. Rashida Tlaib, left, and Rep. Debbie Dingell, both of Michigan, on his arrival at Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport on May 18. (Evan Vucci/AP)

It was an unprecedented move because Tlaib is unprecedented: it matters that Tlaib is the first Palestinian American woman in Congress.

“This is so personal for me. I am a reminder to colleagues that Palestinians do indeed exist; that we are human; that we are allowed to dream. We are mothers, daughters, granddaughters. We are justice-seekers, and are unapologetically about our fight against oppressions of all forms,” she began a powerful speech from the House floor.

She was born in the United States but her grandmother—sity (my grandmother)—and extended family live in the Palestinian village of Beit Ur Al-Fauqa in the occupied West Bank.

“If there’s one thing Detroit instilled in this Palestinian girl from Southwest, it’s that you always speak truth to power, even if your voice shakes. The freedom of Palestinians is connected to the fight against oppression all over the world. Lastly, to my sity in Palestine, ‘aqaf huna bsbbik. I stand here because of you. Thank you.”

It matters that Tlaib, from Michigan’s 13th District, has proudly vaunted her Palestinian heritage. She took her oath using a Quran that was a gift from a best friend of 25 years and wore a Palestinian thob, a traditional dress with elaborate embroidery. The aesthetic choice inspired novelist Susan Muaddi Darraj to launch #TweetYourThob as a call for Palestinian American women to post pictures wearing their thob. 

It matters that a few hours after she took her oath, Tlaib was filmed at a private gathering with friends and supporters celebrating the importance of being true to oneself.

“I didn’t change or try to run away from being Arabeyya, Muslimah, Falestenyya (Arab, Muslim, Palestinian) and… it’s such an addition on top of that to being a badass organizer. Don’t ever let anyone take away your roots, culture, who you are because when you (don’t change) people love you and you win.”

She ended that celebratory speech with her now famous statement of intent with regards to Trump: “We’re gonna go in there and we’re going to impeach the motherfucker.”

It matters that one of Israel’s strongest U.S. critics is an elected member of the U.S. Congress and it matters that Tlaib supports the one-state solution that would combine Israel and the occupied territories into one democratic country.

And it matters because, as she told Congress, “To read the statements from President [Joe] Biden, Secretary [of State Antony] Blinken, General [Lloyd] Austin and leaders of both parties, you would hardly know Palestinians existed at all.” 

It matters that a Palestinian-American, Muslim woman disrupts and disturbs the white men of the U.S. political patriarchy, on both sides of the aisle. Long before she called Trump a “motherfucker,” Tlaib was telling him to fuck off.

In August, 2016, along with 12 other women, Tlaib disrupted a speech Trump was giving in Detroit. It matters that, as Tlaib did during her election victory remarks, she highlighted her identities as fueling her determination to disrupt Trump.

“American, parent, Muslim, Arab-American, and woman. As I thought about my identities, I felt more and more that confronting Trump was the most patriotic and courageous act I could pursue,” she later said. 

Tlaib and Omar are disruptors who signal that if there was a way to do things before they arrived, that way was not their destination.

It matters that Tlaib and Omar are supporters of the pro-Palestinian Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS), a nonviolent global movement. This in a country where, as of May 2021, 35 states have passed anti-BDS laws, resolutions or executive orders. Most measures explicitly ban states from doing business with companies that support the BDS movement, while some non-binding resolutions merely condemn the movement.

It matters that lhan Omar is one of the first two Muslim women elected to Congress because while Tlaib insists you remember the dispossession and apartheid that Palestinians--Muslim and Christian--have been subjected to, Omar reminds you that Jerusalem is Islam’s third holiest site and that the slaughter in Gaza was happening during Eid, one of the two main holidays in the Islamic calendar.

It matters that Omar survived a war and is the first Muslim refugee elected to Congress because she can so movingly connect her lived experience with that of Palestinians, whose pain and dispossession are rarely acknowledged in the U.S. political and media landscapes. 

Omar and Tlaib matter because their very existence so incarnates the nightmares of fascist fucks: Muslim women, one Black, the other Palestinian, both loudly disrupting smug supremacists. So much so, that in 2019, at the behest of Trump, Netanyahu blocked entry to Omar and Tlaib. It was the first time a U.S. president urged another country to bar entry to representatives of one of the three branches of the U.S. government. 

Whether Israel barred them entry because of their support for BDS or because Trump pushed for them to be barred, it matters that they so disturbed these two fascist fucks who appeal to a racist, misogynist, and bigoted base for support.

It matters that both Tlaib and Omar ran on progressive platforms that included rare and unprecedented questioning of U.S. support for Israel. 

Omar and Tlaib matter because their very existence so incarnates the nightmares of fascist fucks: Muslim women, one Black, the other Palestinian, both loudly disrupting smug supremacists.

Both congresswomen have come under repeated Republican attacks, and have been criticized by supporters of both parties, for their divergent views on Israel. Their support for Palestinians and criticism of Israel is rooted in the progressive platforms on which Tlaib and Omar ran and which propelled other Black, Indigenuous and women of color to electoral victories across the U.S.

Tlaib for example, focused on issues like a $15 minimum wage, Medicare For All and reducing student debt. Omar describes hersef as an “intersectional feminist,” and has been resolute in challenging powerful men who are more accustomed to being pardoned, not confronted.

In 2019 when she made comments that suggested American support for Israel was fueled by political donations from the pro-Israel lobby group, the American Israel Public Foreign Affairs Committee (AIPAC), Omar apologized. It mattered that she insisted that Americans reexamine the role of lobbyists in their politics, including the role of American foreign policy on Israel. 

She caused a firestorm and she forced the most forthright examination I have seen since I moved to the U.S. in 2000 on that policy. And that mattered.

It has certainly mattered to AIPAC, which has used Islamophobic and racist incitement against Omar, a Black, Muslim woman

In 2020, an AIPAC ad said that Omar and Tlaib were more “sinister” than ISIS.

Notably, AIPAC also lumped in with Omar and Tlaib, Rep. Betty McCollum, possibly the longest-standing critic of Israeli human rights abuses in the U.S. Congress. McCollum has sponsored legislation, backed also by Omar and Tlaib, that would link assistance to Israel to its treatment of incarcerated Palestinian children. Since 2000, Israeli security forces have detained more than 10,000 Palestinian children.

McCollum, who is white, has not been subjected to the hate and near-daily death threats that Omar and Tlaib receive.

During her first campaign for Congress, Ilhan Omar famously said, “I am America’s hope and the president’s nightmare.”

From disrupting Trump to confronting Biden, from disrupting the sacrosanct to confronting the smug, it is thrilling to see Tlaib and Omar remain the nightmares of fascist fucks everywhere.

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Mona Eltahawy is a feminist author, commentator and disruptor of patriarchy. Her first book Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution (2105) targeted patriarchy in the Middle East and North Africa and her second The Seven Necessary Sins For Women and Girls (2019) took her disruption worldwide. It is now available in Ireland and the UK. Her commentary has appeared in media around the world and she makes video essays and writes a newsletter as FEMINIST GIANT.  

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