The Omeish clan – formerly of Tripoli, now Virginia – are Muslim-American political royalty, somehow straddling the worlds of traditional Libyan Ikhwani elite and ultra-progressive American avant-garde. Some of my friends call them the Muslim Kennedys.
The Omeish clan pops into and out of the spotlight every few years. They are back in it, thanks to a new profile by Al-Jazeera Mubasher (the more explicitly Ikhwani-friendly branch of the Qatari network). It’s a puff piece, whose title translates roughly as: “Between the values of the East and the Western science, a Libyan Muslim family achieves academic and professional success in America.” (I watched it, dear readers, so you don’t have to.)
The patriarch is Dr. Essam Omeish, a son of Tripoli who moved from Libya to the US when he was just 15, speaking little English. Essam became a classic American success story. A brilliant student, he won many awards, attended Georgetown University School of Medicine, and became a renowned surgeon. He even treated some 9/11 attack victims as the surgeon on call at Alexandria Hospital.
While at Georgetown, Essam already displayed civic leadership ambitions, establishing a campus chapter of the Ikhwani-affiliated Muslim Students Association. He soon joined the board of Dar al-Hijrah (the DC metro area’s most prominent masjid, also Ikhwan-affiliated) and quickly rose to be its vice-president. Then-governor Tim Kaine appointed him to Virginia’s Commission on Immigration.
Essam is clearly ambitious, but his nerdy ideological fervor sometimes gets him into trouble. As a leader of Dar al-Hijrah he played a key role in hiring Anwar al-Awlaki as the imam in 2000. Al-Awlaki might have seemed like a young fresh face, but he soon became a leading al-Qaeda propagandist, inspiring folks like the Fort Hood Shooter and Times Square Bomber before a 2011 US drone strike killed him in Yemen. And in 2007, after some of Essam’s more radical speeches surfaced, Governor Kaine demanded his resignation from the Virginia Commission on Immigration.
With his own political ascent blocked, Essam has shifted some of his attention to his homeland, serving as president of the Libyan-American Association. The group appears to be an influence operation to secure US policy support for fellow Libyan Ikhwanis against arch-nemesis “Marshall” Khalifa Haftar. (اللهم أضرب الظالمين بالظالمين وأخرجنا من بينهم سالمين – both sides are absolute disasters, but I digress.)
The chance to fulfill the Omeish clan’s political potential now falls to Essam’s children, who seem as academically gifted as their father. Like the Kennedys, they have an Ivy League pedigree (which Essam likes to show off): Abrar (Yale), Anwar (Harvard and Oxford – and with her father on NPR), Yusef (Yale), and another son still in high school. The oldest, Abrar, is already following in her father’s footsteps, having been elected to the board of Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia.
If Essam is trying to build a dynasty around his worldview, then its scion would be his eldest Abrar, who appears in the Al-Jazeera video speaking excellent Arabic for someone born in America. But while linguistically fluent, Abrar shares some of her father’s tone-deaf political impulses. Last June she stirred up controversy when she took a hard left turn during a high school commencement speech. As one angry parent complained: “A rich girl who went to Yale and won a political election in one of the richest counties uses her position to teach our kids that they will be oppressed by a racist and capitalist society. Such a disgrace!”
It’s actually an impressive accomplishment that in one generation the Omeishes have become elite upper-class American Brahmins, despite their beards and hijabs. Maybe they are less Kennedys than the Muslim version of the Bush dynasty (though patriarch Joe Kennedy Sr. held some wacky views Essam might agree with).
Either way, the biggest controversy here is how an Ikhwani ideologue and his family have managed to define Muslim-American identity and placed themselves in the media spotlight, courted by journalists on the left and scrutinized by those on the right. No one appointed them as our elite spokespeople. They just inserted themselves.
It will be interesting to see how the Omeish dynasty evolves. Will their Ikhwani roots or their newfound wokeness win out? Embracing woke rhetoric might be politically expedient right now for Omeish generation 2.0 (despite their Ivy League privilege), but there is no saying when the dragon will turn around and burn the whole thing down. If you don’t get the reference, watch Game of Thrones.