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Muslim Lawmaker: ‘I Don’t Externally Practice My Faith’

Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) with colleagues on the floor

WASHINGTON – Freshman Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), one of the first Muslim women in Congress, explained that she is able to represent her constituents of different religions because she does not “externally practice” her faith and focuses on “the things we have in common.”

Omar said the “religious diversity” among lawmakers in the new session of Congress has started to cause some tension.

“This new diversity creates some uncomfortableness and, oftentimes, when we as a society are the most uncomfortable that’s when real shift happens. And so I know there initially already are lots of tensions between many of the members of Congress around our religiosity and I think it will eventually inform our policies in a positive way and, hopefully, help us build relationships that transcends that,” Omar said during a “Reclaiming Religious Freedom” discussion at the Center for American Progress on Tuesday.

Omar was asked how she represents her own faith in an “authentic way” while representing people of different faiths in her congressional district or those who do not practice a religion. In her response, Omar described her district as the most progressive in the nation.

“My district is about nearly 70 percent white and the rest of the 30 percent is shared among us minorities. Our district has very vocal, diverse faiths but we also have a huge segment of our district that is of no faith – and for me, really, my faith has always been a very personal thing. It’s one that’s – it’s internalized, and I think I visually present my faith but I don’t externally practice my faith,” she said. “It’s a bit complicated, but for a lot of the people in my district it really was about connecting on the things that we have in common rather than focusing on the things that we don’t.”

Omar said part of the job of being a lawmaker is to “speak about our God of love.”

“I don’t practice in defending my faith, I practice in celebrating my faith,” she said.

When asked to describe the state of her union, she replied, “The state of my union is one that is fully awakened from the complacency of thinking that there is prosperity for all, one that is awakened to the reality that there isn’t freedom and liberty and justice for all, and one that is no longer interested in only resisting but one that wants to go in full force in achieving the America we all deserve.”

Omar, a Somali who as a child was resettled in the U.S. as a refugee with her family, said that the Trump administration doesn’t see her as “fully American.”

“Religious freedom is under attack,” she said, referring to the administration’s ban on travel from several Muslim-majority nations. “I know how it feels to be hated for my religious beliefs.”

Omar argued that the administration “uses religion to justify behavior that violates the rights of others while maintaining it’s their right to do so.”

“If we are going to truly practice religious freedom, we cannot favor one faith over another,” she said at the event.

According to Omar, the Trump administration has contradicted its support for religious freedom by blocking transgender individuals from serving in the military and allowing businesses to discriminate against LGBT Americans “who want to buy a cake for a wedding.”

Last year, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a baker who declined to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding.

Omar criticized conservative politicians and the media.

“We also must recognize that religious hate of all kinds, whether it is against Muslims, Jews, Christians or atheists, are linked. For too long right-wing politicians and the media have focused on violence perceived to be perpetrated by Muslims or crimes allegedly committed by Central American immigrants,” she said. “This single-mindedness has itself fanned the flames at times, giving rise to policies like the Muslim ban or Trump’s hateful border wall. I reject those policies and the hateful place they come from.”

Omar predicted that the new Congress is going to break down many “cultural and societal barriers of the past.”