Ever since the midterm election, conservative media in the United States have targeted with special zeal Ilhan Omar, an incoming Somali-American Democratic congresswoman and a devout Muslim who wears hijab. In response to Democrats’ push to remove a headwear ban on the House floor to accommodate Omar, conservative commentator and pastor E.W. Jackson complained on a radio show that Muslims were transforming Congress into an “Islamic republic.”
The Democratic Party has several rising political stars with Arab or Muslim backgrounds, all of whom have become objects of such conspiracy theories. But it’s not only American conservatives who have been indulging in this culture war. The organized attacks have also been coming from abroad—specifically, from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
The midterm elections have amplified an existing suspicion in Middle Eastern media of Muslim political activism in the United States. Academics, media outlets, and commentators close to Persian Gulf governments have repeatedly accused Omar, Rashida Tlaib (another newly elected Muslim congresswoman), and Abdul El-Sayed (who made a failed bid to become governor of Michigan) of being secret members of the Muslim Brotherhood who are hostile to the governments of Saudi Arabia and the UAE. On Sunday, Saudi-owned Al Arabiya published a feature insinuating that Omar and Tlaib were part of an alliance between the Democratic Party and Islamist groups to control Congress. The article accused the two of being “anti-Trump and his political team and options, especially his foreign policy starting from the sanctions on Iran to the isolation of the Muslim Brotherhood and all movements of political Islam.”
In another example, a talk show on Saudi-owned station MBC discussed the Muslim congresswomen and more broadly the implications of Democrats taking the House. Prominent Arab anchor Amr Adib debated the matter with Egyptian political scientist Moataz Fattah, who suggested that Trump’s successful combating of Islamists would be undermined by the Democrats’ victory. The attacks have become so ubiquitous in the Persian Gulf that the trend itself is the subject of debate, both online and on television.
Occasionally these attacks have been made by officials of those governments, in apparent anxiety that their countries’ expensive public relations and lobbying efforts might be undermined. Just hours after Omar won her election, for example, a staffer at the Saudi Embassy in the United States accused her of following the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood, which he said has permeated the Democratic Party. “She will be hostile to the Gulf and a supporter of the political Islam represented in the Brotherhood in the Middle East,” tweeted Faisal al-Shammeri, a cultural advisor at the Saudi Arabian Cultural Mission to the United States, which is part of the embassy, and a writer for Al Arabiya.
El-Sayed, an American born to Egyptian immigrants, noticed the attacks from the region during his campaign. Media in the Middle East amplified accusations by a Republican candidate for governor, Patrick Colbeck, that El-Sayed had links to the Brotherhood. Egyptian newspaper Youm7, for instance, reported that El-Sayed likely lost the election to his link to the “radical” Nation of Islam, and his relationship with Muslim-American activist Linda Sarsour, “known for her radical views.”
El-Sayed told me that political elites in places like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE felt threatened by American politicians who are also Muslim. For average Middle Easterners, his story is inspiring. (The clearest instance of Middle Easterners drawing such inspiration, ironically, was the first presidential election victory of Barack Obama, who faced false accusations of being a Muslim.)
The rise of politicians like El-Sayed, Omar, and Tlaib also undermines a core argument advanced by dictators in the Middle East: that their people are not ready for democracy. “People would not have access to power in their countries but they would if they leave; this destroys the argument by Sisi or bin Salman,” El-Sayed said, referring to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. “What’s ironic is there is no way I would aspire to be in leadership in Egypt, the place of my fathers.”
American allies in the region also fear that the Democratic Party’s new Arab leaders will advocate for political change in their countries. Having spent millions of dollars for public relations campaigns in Western capitals, the Persian Gulf countries feel threatened by any policymakers with an independent interest in and knowledge of the region. They have thus framed these officials’ principled objections to regional violations of human rights and democratic norms as matters of personal bias. One commentator, who is known to echo government talking points and is frequently retweeted by government officials, recently spread the rumor that Omar is a descendent of a “Houthi Yemeni” to undermine her attacks on the Saudi-led war on Yemen.
The most common attack online by the Saudi-led bloc on the Muslim-American Democrats has been to label them as members of the Muslim Brotherhood, or more generally as ikhwanji, an extremist catch-all term. These attacks started long before this year’s elections. In 2014, the UAE even announced a terror list that included the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) for its alleged links to the Muslim Brotherhood.
The attacks attempting to tie Omar and Tlaib to the Muslim Brotherhood started in earnest after CAIR publicly welcomed their election to Congress. One UAE-based academic, Najat al-Saeed, criticized Arabic media for celebrating the two Muslim women’s victories at the midterms, and pointed to CAIR’s support for them as evidence of their ties to the Brotherhood.
The attacks on Omar have also indulged in racism. While Tlaib and Omar have both been the targets of smears, it’s been easier for Gulf Arabs to single out Omar for insults because of her African heritage. Negative stereotypes about Africans— who serve as poorly treated migrant workers in the Gulf’s oil economy— are widespread throughout the region.
This was evident in the social media campaign launched last month against Omar by Ahmad al-Farraj, a Saudi writer and researcher with UAE-based Trends Research and Advisory—a firm founded by a former Dubai police official and consultant. He attacked Omar for criticizing Trump’s muted response to the CIA assessment that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman likely directed the murder of former U.S.-based Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul. “These miserable beings coming from the underdeveloped worlds are more hateful to their race and to you than any enemy,” Al Farraj tweeted to his more than 60,000 followers. A steady stream of racist attacks followed in response. One person tweeted a picture of Omar accompanied by the caption “whenever you buy a slave, buy a stick along with the slave. The slave is miserable filth.”
Other than the flurry of racist comments, Omar was trolled based on two false accusations: that she was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and that she had married her brother. Hashtags also began trending with dozens of anonymous accounts tweeting slightly different variations of the same language, and echoing known government-affiliated accounts. The pattern is typical of Twitter troll armies that seem to be used regularly by Mohammed bin Salman to silence the kingdom’s critics.
It should be little surprise that America’s authoritarian allies have responded with panic and fear to voices like Tlaib and Omar. These regimes have always benefited from the false choice they present to policymakers in the West—in Muslim countries, they say, extremists are the only alternative to dictators. That argument is eloquently undermined by American politicians who share those regimes’ religion, but not their cynicism about democracy.