Is the new Congress American enough?

Walid Jawad
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The new 116 Congress brought with it numerous firsts: youngest woman, the first Native American, and many other groundbreaking claims by minorities. Many disenfranchised groups now have a representative at the powerful US Congress.

Among these vanguards are two Muslim-Arab-women: Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, a Palestinian and a Somali respectively. Each claimed for herself a significant part of the American ethos, more than most.


In a country that prides itself on individuality and the opportunities it avails to its citizens, Rashida and Ilhan have done well for themselves. Yet their individual achievements can and should be claimed by those who share their identities. It is a victory for Islam, for Arabs, and for women. This momentous achievement demands a moment of reflection.

No exclusion of mosque from state

The latest Pew Research analysis of the most recent CQ poll on Faith on the Hill revealed the complexity of religious affiliation in Congress. No surprise, the majority of members are Christians, followed by Jewish, Buddhists and then Muslims, with three members.

The percentage of members representation is not reflective of the religious composition in the general population — for instance, non-affiliated Americans, as in atheists, agnostics and those who say “nothing in particular” is 23 percent of the population while there is only one member of Congress who is religiously unaffiliated, Senator Kyrsten Sinema.

Religious representation would have been null and void if it weren’t for the prevalence of religious expressions on the Hill including bills guided by religious beliefs. Chaplins and morning prayers are part of the normal course of business blurring the line between church and state.

The US never wanted war with Islam, but the constant conflicts within the Muslim world confused America’s intent making US interest appear to be predicated on fighting Islam, which it is not

Walid Jawad

The coveted freedom of religion allows for all to pray to the god they want and follow their own interpretation of the belief system they ascribe to; Ilhan wears a Hijab while Rashida doesn’t, both Muslim.

Last year on Ilhan’s account, Congress made an exception for wearing “headgear” for religious reasons, including Hijab, relaxing the 181-year-old ban. A ban that is imposed on its members while on the legislative floor and was put in place in defiance of a British tradition. Further, Rashida was sworn-in on Thomas Jefferson’s copy of the Quran. Islam has its place in America - Muslims around the world see their kin speaking up on their behalf.

As patriotic Americans, Rashida and Ilhan’s Islamic faith combined with their worldview and family connections to Africa and the Middle East will benefit America during a period of global turmoil. The increasingly myopic American worldview must resist complacency and the false comfort of global retreat.

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Rep. Tlaib and Rep. Omar are already contributing to that end by being themselves, and since Thursday by leveraging their new podium. They offer the potential of advancing America’s national interest more softly and effectively in regards to the Arab and Muslim worlds. Obviously, neither of them have direct leverage over US foreign policies, but they will be able to offer their views as members of Congress on such matters.

The US never wanted war with Islam, but the constant conflicts within the Muslim world confused America’s intent making US interest appear to be predicated on fighting Islam, which it is not. Rashida and Ilhan will be more effective in pointing out those pitfalls as they are better positioned to insist on avoiding them.

The new face of Arab women

Arab women have stepped in a major way into the limelight of American politics. Without diminishing the accomplishment of the new Lebanese-American member of Congress Donna Shalala, Rashida wore a traditional Palestinian Thobe on her first day on the job creating a twitter buzz with the hashtag #TweetYourThobe. Ilhan with her Hijab and refugee status.

A moment of transformation for Arab women. No longer are they faceless. No longer tirelessly working in the shadows of men as perceived by the outside world. As much as Arabs know the value and sacrifice of the women of their communities, it is beneficial for the world to see first hand what Arab women are capable of achieving.

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Opportunity is knocking on the door of Arab women to rebrand their global image. They are gaining momentum as media shed a light on them in the US. Journalists looking for points of connection have found the story of Saudi Arabia driving to be of interest. Saudi women are taking the wheel literally and figuratively.

I am hopeful for Arab women to be inspired enough to unleash the powers they typical reserve for their nuclear families to include their wider family, their societies.

Your piece of the American pie

If you remove the politics, overlook the dysfunction, and ignore the darker ugly sides, you will find America to be a symbol for basic human aspirations. Now, these aspirations are far from being the reality of American life, yet it strives to achieve the ideals it was built upon.

Although, there isn’t a single American aspect that is most worthy of everyone’s attention, each and every person around the globe has his/her own view of which character is most worthy. In a way, we all claim our share of America - our own piece of the American pie.

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You don’t need to pledge allegiance to the flag to claim a part of American pop culture in TV shows, movies or music. You don’t have to be born in Dallas, Texas to cheer when the Cowboys score a touchdown. As innovative as America is in creating the Internet and social media, creativity is not exclusively an American trait. Steve Jobs, the Syrian-American, gave us Apple and revolutionized our existence with the iPhone.

If America can claim different aspects of different civilizations incorporating it into its culture, every person around the world has a right to claim their own part of the American ethos. Your passport might not be blue but, otherwise, you have the right to claim as much of the inspiring aspects of America as suits you; freedom, responsibility, equality, and innovation being some of the most admirable.
Walid Jawad is a former Senior Policy Analyst at U.S. Department of State and a former Washington, DC correspondent. He covered American politics for a number of TV outlets since 1997. Walid holds an undergraduate degree (B.A) in Decision Science and Management Information Systems and a Masters in Conflict Analysis and Resolution. You can follow him @walidaj.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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