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Ilhan Omar’s Many Firsts

eye on the news

Ilhan Omar’s Many Firsts

Did a celebrated Somali-American legislator marry her brother? September 15, 2017
Politics and law

A little over a year ago, I recounted “The Curious Case of Ilhan Omar” for City Journal readers. Omar had just won a primary victory over 22-term incumbent Phyllis Kahn to secure the Minnesota Democratic Farmer Labor Party (DFL) endorsement to represent House District 60B in the state legislature. Minneapolis’s Star Tribune trumpeted Omar’s victory in a huge headline on its front page, proclaiming that the Somali immigrant’s victory had “made history.” The paper followed up with two more stories admiring Omar’s triumph.

Omar was elected in November to represent the heavily Democratic district in the state house of representatives. Given her status as a Somali Muslim woman and her devoutly orthodox left-wing politics, Omar has achieved instant celebrity on the left. As Ricardo Lopez and Faiza Mahamud aptly wrote in a postelection profile for the Star Tribune after Omar had been in office for just a month, she had “cultivated the kind of political star power that most state legislators don’t accumulate in an entire career.”

In its September 18 double issue, Time recognized Omar in its collection of women “Firsts” for being the “First Somali-American Muslim person to become a legislator.” As I noted last year, Omar is also probably the first state legislator to have taken out a marriage certificate naming her brother as her husband. If so, she is certainly also the first state legislator—Muslim or not—to be married to her brother (the marriage would be illegal and void ab initio under Minnesota law), while also having a “cultural” husband, who happens to be the father of her children. And if so, I want to emphasize, I believe that her purpose was certainly dishonest, rather than incestuous or romantic. 

When I sent Omar’s campaign some questions about her marital arrangements last year, I received this response from Minneapolis criminal attorney Jean Brandl:

Dear Mr. Johnson:

I have been contacted by the Ilhan Omar campaign. Their response to your email from this morning is as follows:

“There are people who do not want an East African, Muslim woman elected to office and who will follow Donald Trump’s playbook to prevent it. Ilhan Omar’s campaign sees your superfluous contentions as one more in a series of attempts to discredit her candidacy.

Ilhan Omar’s campaign will not be distracted by negative forces and will continue to focus its energy on creating positive engagement with community members to make the district and state more prosperous and equitable for everyone.”

If you have any further questions regarding this matter, please direct them to me in writing so we have a record of any further communications.

Sincerely,

Jean Brandl

I did have further questions, which I directed to Brandl in writing, but I never got a response. I haven’t taken it personally, though. Omar has not only failed to respond to questions from me; she has also failed to respond to questions on the subject from the Star Tribune, Minnesota Public Radio, and local television-news outlets.

Probably not referring to the practice of sibling-marriage, Omar told Time that she views her election as one that “will shift the narrative about what is possible.” She presented herself as someone who has overcome obstacles hobbling her progress:

People think of Minneapolis as a very liberal, progressive city. We have a lot of immigrants here. The incumbent I was running against was a trailblazer when it comes to women in politics, so you would think that my gender wouldn’t be a big issue. But everybody wanted to make that an issue. To her, people were excited to vote for me because I was pretty. To the Muslim and Somali communities, my gender was a problem because politics is supposed to be a man’s role. Then there was the typical stuff that women candidates deal with—as a mother, how irresponsible I must be to want to run and devote as much time out of the home. No one ever asks the male candidates who are also fathers how they expect to balance family life. Gender was a big thing.

The double standards Omar has allegedly overcome, however, are nothing compared with those from which she has benefited. If Omar weren’t a Somali Muslim woman on the Democratic Party’s left wing, she might have been expected to answer a few questions about her marital arrangements. Time might have asked her about them. If she were a conservative Republican . . . well, it isn’t hard to imagine how that would have played out.

As it is, however, Omar has become a celebrity of international renown. Her complicated marital situation goes without mention. She is held up as a role model. She is called a “First.” Which she may well be, though not precisely as Time means it.

Photo: Ilhan Omar on Facebook

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