The disgusting Ilhan Omar poster is just part of a wider campaign of American Islamophobia

There is a concerted effort by dark money groups to sow the seeds of hatred and division.

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Ilhan Omar, who recently became one of the first two Muslim women to serve in the US House of Representatives, has become the target of a concerted attack by the right. That attack has come on multiple fronts: first, she was accused of anti-Semitism for remarks she made about the pro-Israel lobbying group AIPAC.

Accusing one of Congress’s first Muslim women of anti-Semitism is a deeply unpleasant line of attack. But the attack on Omar has taken an even darker turn, evidenced by a poster that appeared at an event sponsored by the West Virginia GOP. At the top of the poster is a photograph of the 9/11 terrorist attack, with the caption “‘Never forget’, you said”. Beneath that is a picture of Omar, with the caption “I am proof you have forgotten.”

The poster was attacked from all sides, and the Republican Party of West Virginia disavowed the poster after it spiked a backlash. But it represents a deep current of hate for Muslims in America that the Republican Party – up to and including the president – have fueled. Responding to it on Friday, Omar said “No wonder why I am on the ‘Hitlist’ of a domestic terrorist and ‘Assassinate Ilhan Omar’ is written on my local gas stations.”

Trump, in fomenting fear for the migrant “caravan” during the midterm election campaign, hinted that there were “Middle Eastern” men were among the group of refugees from Central America. Of course, there is zero evidence for this preposterous claim, but the fact that the mere presence of people from the Middle East could be used as a dog-whistle scaremongering tactic shows how deep the Islamophobia runs in American political discourse.

Over the past few years, according to an investigation by Al Jazeera, the size of the “Islamophobia industry” – groups funded with dark money that portray Islam as a threat – has more than tripled. According to a 2016 report by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the University of California, Berkeley, more than $200m was spent by 74 groups promoting “hatred” of Muslims between 2008 and 2013.

And it’s not a phenomenon limited to the political right. “A diverse and eclectic litany of prominent Islamophobes occupies the left,” law professor Khaled Beydoun wrote in the Guardian last year. “These liberal Islamophobes, like Bill Maher and Sam Harris, weaponize atheism as an ideology that not only discredits the spiritual dimensions of Islam but also demonizes it in line with longstanding orientalist, political terms. For these new atheists, Islam is illegitimate because it is a religion, but unlike other religions, is distinctly threatening because it is inherently at odds with liberal values.”

Omar, whose election in 2018 made her one of the highest-profile Muslims in the country, has become a focal-point for these groups. The poster in West Virginia was ugly, but the campaign of which it is a part is a much wider phenomenon, a concerted effort to use race as a wedge to sow division and hatred across America. It must not be allowed to continue.

Nicky Woolf was the launch editor for New Statesman America and has formerly written for the Guardian and the New Statesman. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

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