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February 5, 2020 8:24 am

The Anti-Islamist Muslim Challenging Ilhan Omar

avatar by Abigail R. Esman


Congresswoman Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) in 2016. Photo: Lorie Shaull via Flickr.

All that journalist Dalia al-Aqidi was asking for was a brief interview, one-on-one, to air on a TV station in the Middle East. She was, after all, one of the region’s best-known and most accomplished international reporters. But then-newly-elected Minnesota Congresswoman Ilhan Omar refused even to respond to the request.

Now al-Aqidi, an Iraqi refugee who has lived in the United States since 1988, is challenging Omar to represent Minnesota’s 5th Congressional district.

The decision to run for office didn’t come easily to the 51-year-old al-Aqidi. But “after Omar was elected, her activities and her statements — it offended me as an American, as a Muslim, and it offended me as an immigrant, and that made me concentrate on her activities,” she explained in a recent Skype interview. Omar’s non-response to her interview request, though, was what ultimately set her on her current path. “After that I said, ‘I don’t want to interview her. I’m going to talk to her district, and talk to her people.'”

In the process, she found that although Omar is herself a Somali refugee, many of her constituents, and particularly those in the Somali community, felt much the way al-Aqidi did. “Ilhan Omar is trying to give a false picture of what immigrants want,” al-Aqidi says.

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Worse, the former journalist believes, is that Omar insists she speaks for Muslims. “No,” al-Aqidi says. “She speaks for Islamists, not Muslims. But people don’t always understand that. That’s when people like me come to explain: your faith is between you and God, but Islamism is an agenda. Like this she is harming the Muslim communities.”

It was this realization, too, that inspired her to run for office. “No one told me, ‘Dalia, go run.’ I chose it because I really believe she is harming the country, she is harming the state and our district here, by her positions, locally, nationally, and internationally.”

Seated in her new home in Minneapolis — al-Aqidi moved to the city from Washington, DC just four months ago, after deciding to join the Congressional race — her anger is overpowered by a very clear sense of purpose: to oppose what she sees as efforts by organizations such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and others to groom Islamists for local and national elections. “That is extremely scary for someone like me who fled and ran away from these agendas,” points out al-Aqadi, whose work for the past 10 years has focused on exposing radical Islam and Islamist movements.

Hence, despite their superficial similarities — both Muslim, both refugees, both women — al-Aqidi and Omar couldn’t be more different. While Omar hews to the far “radical” left of the Democratic Party, al-Aqidi is running as a Republican. And while Omar pushes an identity politics agenda, al-Aqidi adamantly opposes the identity politics trend.

Similarly, she roundly condemns the Somali-American Congresswoman’s frequent antisemitic remarks. In a statement to the publication City Pages, she declared: “I love America. Maybe Ilhan Omar also does but you wouldn’t know it from her public comments. … Her constant antisemitism and hateful rhetoric are toxic and serve only to gain attention for herself and position herself as a celebrity.”

By contrast, al-Aqidi has already tasted celebrity; she has no need to run for office or speak on controversial subjects to get there. As a child growing up in Baghdad, she went to school with Saddam Hussein’s sons. Her parents, both famous in the Iraqi theater world, separated when she was a small child. Hussein, she explained in The Chicago Tribune in 2004, allowed young Dalia to remain with her mother, rather than live with her father, as mandated by Iraqi law. By then, Dalia was already a child television star herself.

“But growing up,” she explains now, “probably by the age of 16, 17, when I started looking around and seeing what was happening, say, to my neighbors, to others, not me and my family but what was happening to others in the country, that’s when I started thinking this is not right — that these — the Iraqis, and I was one of them — are being brutalized by Saddam Hussein. And that was when my ideas and my political life started to mature. I started noticing and analyzing what was happening around me. You don’t have to be a victim of someone to stand against him.”

Celebrity found her as a journalist; she reported for The Voice of Free Iraq from Saudi Arabia, for Voice of America from Washington, DC, and later became a White House correspondent for various Middle Eastern venues, including Al Arabiya, until entering the Minnesota race. Along the way, while working in Saudi Arabia, she met the late Ambassador Christopher Stevens. “He was the one who convinced me my future was in America, and he was the one who made it possible for me and my family to come to the United States,” she recalls.

It is perhaps the same sense of injustice that drove her as a teen to oppose Saddam that has made her so vehement in her opposition now to Ilhan Omar. She is also particularly concerned about Muslim women in America, especially immigrants, who are often subjected to the oppressive, patriarchal rules and traditions of their lands of origin.

“Sometimes when immigrants come to the US, or any Western country, they don’t integrate with the community and with the country,” she explains. “They have their own rules that they brought from back home. And that puts pressure on girls and young women growing up.”

“I’m not calling on them to leave their beliefs,” she adds, “but to understand the values of the country they’ve moved to.”

What’s more, she says, many of these women are often afraid to reach out. Consequently, she believes they will continue to be endangered — the more so as long as non-Muslims refuse to address these issues in the name of political correctness. “You have to be politically correct,” she laments, “and I will never be politically correct. If I see something that is wrong, I will be clear. I will call things by their real name. It’s the journalist instinct in me, which I think will make me a very good politician.”

This too distinguishes the Iraq-born candidate from the Somalia-born incumbent: Omar has long used identity politics, born of the emphasis on political correctness, to silence discussion about such uncomfortable topics as honor killings and domestic abuse in American Muslim families. “She uses that system designed to push any serious discussion or debate by using her identity as a shield,” al-Aqidi argues. “She has this defense mechanism that if you criticize her for her stance or her statement or not doing her job, you are ‘Islamophobic’ or ‘anti-colored women’ or ‘anti-immigrant.'”

At the same time, she notes, laughing, “I am also exactly like her. I am a woman. I am Muslim. I am a refugee. I am not a white supremacist.” This, she believes, makes it possible for her to debate Omar on the issues and the problems of both the community and the nation.

But al-Aqidi has her work cut out for her. She has been criticized heavily for the fact that she only just moved to the state, while Omar has lived there for nearly a decade. But the candidate counters that she has been coming to the area for the past few years.

She is among six Republicans listed for an August primary. And the state’s 5th district, which she hopes to represent, is heavily skewed for Democrats. It voted heavily for Omar, and according to Jewish Insider, “the last time a Republican served as its representative was in 1962.”

Moreover, she is likely to receive some pushback from other Republicans, most notably for her insistence that Saudi Arabia, as she told the Investigative Project on Terrorism, “works with the United States to fight extremism” and that support for Saudi Arabia is in the interest of the United States — a position that contradicts the beliefs of many in the counter-terrorism community.

Despite these hurdles, Dalia al-Aqidi remains undaunted. “It’s not for me,” she says. “This is the first time in the US political history that Muslims stand against Islamists. And it should be just the beginning. It will be the beginning of many to come.”

Abigail R. Esman, the author, most recently, of Radical State: How Jihad Is Winning Over Democracy in the West (Praeger, 2010), is a freelance writer based in New York and the Netherlands. Her next book, on domestic abuse and terrorism, will be published by Potomac Books. Follow her at @radicalstates.

A version of this article was originally published by The Investigative Project on Terrorism.

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