Dalia Al-Aqidi is a woman, a refugee, and a Muslim, but she insists her similarities with DFL U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar end there.
A week ago, the former White House correspondent from Iraq announced she was running for Congress as a Republican, against Omar. She told the New York Post that Omar was too divisive, spreading “hatred” and “racism” while neglecting her home district.
“We might seem nearly alike,” she says in a recent campaign ad. “But we couldn’t be further apart.”
There are certainly many ways in which that’s true. For example, Omar has lived in Minneapolis since 1997, and Al-Aqidi moved here... last fall.
As Al-Aqidi told City Pages in an email:
"As a journalist, I went back and forth to Minneapolis to learn, first-hand, about the people of the district I visited different neighborhoods and spoke to a wide range of people. It didn’t take long to fall in love with the city and the people who welcomed me with open arms. I discovered the true meaning of the phrase, ‘Minnesota nice.’ Last summer, I made the decision to relocate to Minneapolis and I finally moved to the district—the North Loop—in October. Around the time I moved, I began to seriously think about running for office."
Al-Aqidi’s main problem with Omar seems to be the way the congresswoman criticizes the United States and Israel.
"Ihan Omar is not only for open borders, but she supports those we are fighting against in the Middle East," she said in a statement sent to City Pages. "I love America. Maybe Ilhan Omar also does but you wouldn't know it from her public comments... Her constant anti-Semitism and hateful rhetoric are toxic and serve only to gain attention for hereself and position herself as a celebrity."
Al-Aqidi's platform will focus on Minneapolis' economy and security. "I believe in smaller government, lower taxes, less government spending, freedom of employment, and election integrity," she told City Pages. "These are all issues Ilhan Omar doesn’t care about."
She also told the Post she wants to do something about homelessness in Minneapolis because “it’s getting very cold.” (On that note, we have some bad news for her).
But conservative outlets are aflutter with excitement about this new challenger, from the Post to Fox News to right-wing Twitter. It’s easy to politely intuit why, but some social media users are saying the quiet part loud.
“I TAKE DALIA AL-AQIDI, AN IRAQI REFUGEE RUNNING FOR CONGRESS AGAINST THIS ANIMAL-ILLAN OMAR-ISIS. ANY TIME OF DAY,” one Twitter user blasted the day after Al-Aqidi announced her campaign. “DO YOU SEE I AM NOT A RACIST OR ANTI-IMMIGRANT. I AM FOR THOSE WHO LOVE AND ARE LOYAL TO THIS OUR COUNTRY.”
Locally, Al-Aqidi's early impact is anecdotal: "Just yesterday my Uber driver recognized me," she told City Pages. "He was Somali-American and he told me that Omar doesn't speak for him."
Omar's origin story, of fleeing war-torn Somalia to a Kenyan refugee camp before arriving in the United States, is well known.
Al-Aqidi's circumstances were wildly different. She is the daughter of esteemed artists—her mother an actress, her father a notable figure in Iraqi theater—and the family had “a special status,” which shielded them from the worst of the political upheaval surrounding them.
In a Chicago Tribune profile back in 2004, Al-Aqidi recalled becoming a star of Middle Eastern television at the tender age of 7, a sort of after-school song-and-dance program that the Tribune compared to The Mickey Mouse Club. By the time she was in fifth grade, the first tremors of the Iraq-Iran war were underfoot, and her parents were getting a divorce.
In a life-changing move, Al-Aqidi’s mother asked former Iraq President Saddam Hussein for a favor: custody of her daughter. Iraqi law automatically would have assigned young Dalia to her father’s care. Hussein agreed.
“He saved my life at that time because I couldn’t live with my father,” Al-Aqidi told the Tribune. She and her mother’s acting careers soared, and Al-Aqidi ended up hanging out in the same clubs as Hussein’s sons. It wasn’t until adulthood that she became a vocal critic of Hussein’s tyrannical regime.
In 1988, when she was in her 20s, Al-Aqidi, her mother, and her infant half-brother fled the country. From there she joined Radio Free Iraq in Saudi Arabia and cut her journalistic teeth. She was later able to get a passport and move to the United States in the early '90s, and has lived here ever since.
Though unkown to Americans, in the Middle East, Al-Aqidi was one of the most recognizable reporters on television. In 2014, she made waves by wearing a cross-shaped pendant on air to show solidarity with Iraqi Christians.
“Growing up, I never knew the difference between Eid and Christmas, because we celebrated it all,” she told Clarion Project correspondent Shireen Qudosi in a 2019 interview. “I didn’t feel that anybody looked at me differently. Nobody ever bothered to ask me if I was a Muslim or Christian.”
She is, she says, “an American before anything else," and has called Islamphobia "a construct" and "a myth."
"I've met many in the Somali community who came to the U.S. for a better life and the opportunity afforded to individuals to excel as entrepreneurs," she said in a statement to City Pages. "They aren't looking to live off of a welfare state or have their wings clipped by the bloated bureaucracy of government."
In the summer of 2019, Al-Aqidi “dared” Omar on Twitter to give her a 30-minute, face-to-face interview, “from one Muslim immigrant to another.” Omar didn’t accept, and Al-Aqidi claims Twitter subsequently shadow-banned her.
The Daily Caller’s coverage of the one-sided exchange attributes the ban to a subsequent tweet. After Al-Aqidi dared Omar to an interview, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) followed her on Twitter, and Al-Aqidi posted a claim that CAIR had connections to the Muslim Brotherhood. She still frequently reminds Twitter that CAIR “does not” stand for her.
Like her conservative colleagues, Al-Aqidi has her work cut out for her. Minnesota’s 5th Congressional District is overwhelmingly Democratic, and elected the freshman congresswoman in a landslide in 2018. Although Omar has become a national media lightning rod, recent polls suggest she has little to fear from competition at home.
Al-Aqidi said people often ask her about the "political math" here. Why does she think she can win?
"The answer is that change has to start somewhere and this district needs to be represented by someone who believes in the politics of inclusion and attraction, not divison based on identity politics," she said in a statement.