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Why do elected leaders keep getting a pass on anti-Muslim hate?

There is a direct line connecting anti-Muslim and antisemitic political attacks to violence.

Left, Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., and right, Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo.  (AP Photos/J. Scott Applewhite, left, and Andrew Harnik, right)

(RNS) — At a Staten Island dinner party in September, Rep. Lauren Boebert looked more like an insult comic than a member of Congress. Speaking to a laughing crowd, Boebert told a made-up story about running into Rep. Ilhan Omar in an elevator and smirking, “Well, looky there, it’s the Jihad Squad,” before telling a fellow staffer in mock reassurance, “she doesn’t have a backpack … so we’re good.”

This wasn’t the only time Boebert told an audience a version of this bigoted fairy tale. Similar comments surfaced from an event over the Thanksgiving holiday. Now, Congress and the Republican Party have been thrust into a debate about anti-Muslim hate in politics that has been decades in the making. 

It should be shocking for a member of Congress to imply that a Muslim colleague is a suicide bomber, but this shameful episode fits into a long history of anti-Muslim hate in our politics. Both anti-Muslim bigotry and antisemitism are weapons aimed at minorities to generate division and fear for political gain. This is a tactic used by those who derive their power by dividing us, which is Boebert’s strategy here.

Her story about the Capitol Hill elevator, as well as her subsequent videos and tweets, falsely cast Omar as an anti-American, pro-terrorist suicide bomber just because of her faith. Instead of doing the hard work of legislating to help her constituents, Boebert has chosen to rile up her supporters by attacking an imagined, scary “other.” It’s an effective political strategy that politicians have deployed over and over.

Anti-Muslim hate has existed in American society and politics for centuries, but after 9/11, it was turbocharged and turned into an enduring political weapon. Former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Rep. Michele Bachmann spread the lie that Huma Abedin, an aide to Hillary Clinton and an American Muslim, was affiliated with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. Right-wing broadcaster Glenn Beck asked Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress, to prove he’s not with “our enemies.” Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a colleague and ideological ally of Boebert’s, visited the Capitol to try to force Omar and Rep.Rashida Tlaib to re-swear their oaths of office on a Bible instead of a Quran (and has endorsed antisemitic conspiracy theories).

These attacks have ramifications outside of politics. The FBI reported that anti-Muslim hate crimes in the U.S. skyrocketed to all-time highs immediately after 9/11, when politicians were out in force demonizing Muslims as anti-American terrorists. In the following years, anti-Muslim hate crimes fell before spiking once again in 2015 and 2016 — around the time Donald Trump was running for president.

Trump primarily worked as a celebrity pitchman and reality television host before gaining a real political audience by shamelessly embracing the inherently anti-Muslim “birtherism” conspiracy. As a Republican candidate for president, Trump famously ran on a promise to ban all Muslims from entering the U.S. — and he followed up once elected by banning travelers from several Muslim-majority countries.

When Trump, Greene and Boebert use their megaphones to say people of certain faiths are threats, millions listen — including the unhinged. The armed killers at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, and at the Poway and Tree of Life synagogues take this belief to an extreme by embracing the white nationalist “great replacement theory” that casts Muslims and Jews as invaders who must be stopped at all costs.

There is a direct line connecting anti-Muslim and antisemitic political attacks to violence. We saw another heartbreaking example of this recently when Omar played a terrifying, profane death threat she received after Boebert’s anti-Muslim tirade made headlines.

Of course, this isn’t the only time Omar, or the other Muslim members of Congress, have received threats inspired by right-wing, anti-Muslim hate. Omar received hundreds of death threats after Trump invoked the same stereotypes as Boebert by outrageously associating Omar with 9/11. Tlaib has also received death threats. Additionally, a man came to Washington, D.C., for the Jan. 6 insurrection armed with guns, bombs and a hit list that singled out Rep. Andre Carson as a Muslim

That is why Muslim Advocates and Bend the Arc: Jewish Action just asked the Office of Congressional Ethics to investigate Boebert. Her anti-Muslim hate has already inspired threats against Omar. We need a full investigation into everything Boebert said and we need action from congressional leaders to hold her accountable. Anti-Muslim hate, and any kind of hate against minority faiths and communities, should not belong in Congress and should not go unanswered.

(Sumayyah Waheed is a senior policy counsel at Muslim Advocates, a national civil rights organization working in the courts, in the halls of power and in communities to halt bigotry. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)