As Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota was wrapping up her remarks to the crowd at a Ramadan gathering on Capitol Hill late Monday, she spotted a familiar face in the front row.
It was Khizr Khan, the Gold Star father who was famously mocked by then-candidate Donald Trump during the 2016 race. Omar told the audience she remembered how Trump had belittled Khan’s wife by saying he wasn’t sure if Muslim women were allowed to speak.
“Little did they know they were going to get the two loudest Muslim women in the country in Congress!” Omar said, drawing cheers from the largely Muslim audience.
Omar and Michigan Democratic Rep. Rashida Tlaib, the first two Muslim women elected to Congress, certainly are known for their words. Exuberant outbursts, tone-deaf tweets, ahistorical musings, slips of the tongue – whatever the intention, virtually anything they say becomes fodder for right-wing media outlets that depict them as dangerously anti-American.
In the relentless noise surrounding Tlaib and Omar, the gathering Monday night stood out for the quiet.
The two were in the Capitol for an invitation-only iftar, the meal that breaks the fast at sundown each day of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, traditionally a time for introspection and goodwill. Apart from brief remarks, both women stayed away from the microphone. They hugged friends and exchanged the seasonal greeting, “Ramadan mubarak.”
At one point, Omar bowed her head and seemed to tune out the world, as if she weren’t being stared at by a roomful of fans who all wanted selfies with her. After an imam recited the Islamic call to prayer, signaling it was time to break the fast, Omar plucked a date from a bowl on her table and took a bite. Camera shutters clicked like paparazzi on a Hollywood red carpet.
The small expressions of faith that make Omar and Tlaib curiosities on the Hill are what make them familiar and thrilling to the dozens of Muslim supporters who clamored around them. Several offered prayers and encouragement. “Stay strong!” one man told Omar.
In speeches from the podium and in conversations over ice-cream sundaes, Muslim guests repeated two main themes: pride in having their faith reflected in Congress and dismay at the ferocity of the criticism leveled at the Muslim representatives.
“Everything that they say is picked apart, 10 times more, every single day, no matter what it is,” said Haval Salih, who works in the medical field and was invited to the iftar by a friend. “It just shows how strong they are. They’re still here, they’re still pushing for change, they’re still giving us hope.”
The iftar was organized by the nonprofit Muslim Advocates in coordination with the offices of Tlaib, Omar and the third Muslim in Congress, long-serving Democratic Rep. André Carson of Indiana. Several prominent Democrats attended, including Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois and Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, respectively the number-two ranking Democrats in the Senate and House, and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York.
The event filled a void on the social calendars of Muslims in the Washington political class. The White House iftar once was the highest-profile invitation of the season, but that’s changed since President Barack Obama left office.
Trump, who’s repeatedly bashed Islam and Muslims, issued a Ramadan greeting this year that called for work toward “a more harmonious and respectful society.” The White House iftar’s guest list, however, has narrowed to mainly diplomats. No more invitations for Muslim community leaders – a relief for many who privately say they’d boycott, anyway, because of the travel ban and Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric.
“Four years or five years ago we never would’ve imagined the door of the White House would be closed to an iftar,” Ocasio-Cortez said on the sidelines of the dinner. “But four or five years ago we also never imagined celebrating and breaking fast with the first hijabi woman and the first Palestinian woman to serve in Congress.”
Muslim Advocates had invited some Republican members; organizers said they didn’t see any at the event.
Carson said he wasn’t surprised that his Republican colleagues didn’t show. He suggested that they weren’t willing to risk the political stigma attached to Islam in the GOP.
“You have a lot of good Republicans who understand our global Muslim community, who, because of political restraints, are probably not as bold as they should be,” Carson said.
Another no-show was House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., a headliner who bowed out at the last minute because of an unspecified emergency. Organizers were disappointed but, for this crowd, the draw was never Pelosi.
“I had my fangirl moment because I went to take a selfie with Rashida Tlaib and she said she’d heard about me, and she gave me a hug,” said Sadaf Jaffer, the mayor of Montgomery Township, New Jersey.
As mayor, Jaffer says, she swears in the volunteer firefighters and throws out the first pitch at local baseball games. She holds town-hall meetings on building projects.
And even at the municipal level, she’s felt the sting of anti-Muslim political smears. Jaffer said that when she first ran for the local township committee in 2017, opponents sent thousands of mailers to voters, misquoting her and calling her extreme and dangerous.
Jaffer won the election, but the episode gave her a glimpse of what Omar and Tlaib deal with on a much larger scale, at every moment.
“It’s scary because people are just waiting to take things out of context, to really just misrepresent what someone is saying,” Jaffer said.
She said changing negative stereotypes about Muslims will take years of deeper Muslim public engagement, especially in politics.
“It’ll only happen when we have so many people elected to office that we don’t hold one or two of them to be the absolute representation,” Jaffer said. “Because that’s too much of a burden to bear.”