There are some dates that are forever etched in the minds of Muslim Americans – dates that live more in infamy or misery, marking moments of unprecedented scapegoating or fear, anxiety and the collective bracing of backlash. 9/11 and 11/9 rush to mind, numbers that memorialise two days when everything changed for Muslim Americans – the terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, DC and the election of an orange-skinned man who rode on a wave of Islamophobia all the way into the White House.
Now, 11/6 not only stands apart from those dates, but directly counters the evils and ills they directed at 8 million Muslims that call the United States home. On November 6, 2018, two Muslim American women officially made history. Ilhan Omar, a Democrat out of Minnesota, soundly defeated her Republican opponent to claim a US Congressional seat. Two states over to the east, Rashida Tlaib overwhelmed two contestants in Michigan’s 13th congressional district to claim her place in Washington, DC.
Two Muslim women are headed to US Congress, a place they have never been a part of. And in the aftermath of their historic wins, the collective prayer of “Please don’t be Muslim” that follows every terror attack was replaced with “I’m so proud to be Muslim”, uttered by Muslims across the US.
Two Muslim American women, one a daughter of a Palestinian refugee and the other a refugee herself, made history by becoming the first Muslim American congresswomen in American history. Their transformative feat cannot be timed any better, converging with a moment when Islamophobia has never been more intense in Washington, and the collective morale of Muslim Americans in dire need of a glimpse of hope.
Their stories are equally profound, and a direct blow to the white supremacist vision summoned to the fore by Trump and the legion of candidates that followed his lead. Tlaib grew up in Southwest Detroit, a predominantly Latinx and Black community sprinkled with Arab families, like her own, who embraced the blue-collar culture of the city.
Omar found safe haven from her country’s civil war as a refugee in Kenya, ultimately settling in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1995, which eventually became the home of the most populous and thriving Somali community in the United States.
From the Middle East to the Midwest and from the Horn of Africa to “Little Mogadishu”, Tlaib and Omar grew up in cities that simultaneously represent the American heartland and Muslim America. Tlaib’s Detroit is widely regarded as an Arab and Muslim American capital, with towns like Dearborn and Hamtramck boasting minarets in their skylines and established and immigrant Muslim communities on the ground. Omar’s Minneapolis is a vivid and lurid ballad of Muslim life, replete with Somali sisters and brothers working in the airport, a string of exclusively Somali malls standing alongside American strip malls, and the routine perils of FBI surveillance converging with the mundane routine of everyday life.
11/6 has become a landmark date because of who Tlaib and Omar are, not what they became with their victories. They are both archetypes of the communities they hail from, and the quintessentially Arab and Muslim, and Somali and Muslim, narratives integral to the stories of Detroit and the Twin Cities. Seconds after declaring victory in her hotly contested primary, Tlaib’s mother draped her in the Palestinian flag as she thanked her grandparents in the West Bank, surrounded by a diverse sea of supporters, including myself, in Detroit’s Northwest side.
Tlaib was, at once, unapologetically Palestinian and Muslim, wed with that quintessentially Detroit drive that motivated her to knock on thousands of doors seeking support during her campaign and ultimately knock down a wall in Washington, DC that made her the first Palestinian and Muslim congresswoman in American history.
Omar, the first Somali congresswoman in a state home to approximately 100,000 of her countrymen and women, braved freezing, xenophobic and unprecedented terrain to join Tlaib. “We’re going to Washington everyone!” she proclaimed, surrounded by a community of Somali immigrants, who travelled the same path that she did, and their children who are now inspired to follow in her footsteps.
Omar, a progressive supporter of “single-payer healthcare, tighter gun restrictions and more expansive immigration policies”, harmonises the liberal leanings of her city with the aspirations of her Somali Muslim base. And like Tlaib, she was able to form a supremely diverse coalition of supporters that included everybody from white college students to the LGBTQ community, from conservative Muslims to Black Lives Matter activists.
While their religious identities will draw them immediate press and praise and invite backlash and bigotry, their substance and what they symbolise is what sets them apart. In an era where identity is flattened, and stripped from the entire anatomy of the story, Tlaib’s and Omar’s faith will monopolise the headlines. But the faith their communities had in them, and their rooted love for community and clear progressive agendas, is what delivered them to Washington, and into the history books.
This, in large part, is why 11/6 will forever stand as a landmark date for Muslim Americans, today and moving forward. Tlaib and Omar’s trailblazing victories help reclaim some of the hope lost with the election of Trump on 11/9, and seventeen years after 9/11, retrenches some of the darkness still looming above Detroit, Minneapolis and Muslim communities beyond and in between.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.