US Congresswoman Ilhan Omar stirs controversy with Middle East comments

Minnesota Democrat denies equating US and Israel with terrorist groups

US Congresswoman Ilhan Omar is seeking to de-escalate a row with fellow Democratic politicians over her comments on the Middle East. AP Photo
US Congresswoman Ilhan Omar is seeking to de-escalate a row with fellow Democratic politicians over her comments on the Middle East. AP Photo

US Congresswoman Ilhan Omar on Thursday was edging away on Thursday from a bitter fight with some of her fellow Democratic legislators who accused her of likening the US and Israel to Hamas and Afghanistan’s Taliban, saying her remarks were “in no way equating terrorist organisations with democratic countries”.

A statement by the Minnesota Democrat said her comments were “not a moral comparison between Hamas and the Taliban and the US and Israel”, and seemed to dial back a more confrontational tone she had taken earlier.

In a series of tweets, Ms Omar said her critics’ public rebuke of her was shameful, accused them of “Islamophobic tropes” and said she was merely seeking justice “for all victims of crimes against humanity”.

Minutes after Ms Omar released her latest remarks, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other House Democratic leaders issued a statement making clear that they disapproved of Ms Omar’s initial comments.

“Drawing false equivalencies between democracies like the US and Israel and groups that engage in terrorism like Hamas and the Taliban foments prejudice and undermines progress toward a future of peace and security for all,” the statement said.

“We welcome the clarification by Congresswoman Omar that there is no moral equivalency between the US and Israel and Hamas and the Taliban.”

The statement seemed intended to defuse the party’s latest rancorous dispute over the Middle East. That schism generally pits younger progressives against older, establishment-leaning legislators who are more pro-Israel, a divide that has intensified since last month’s 11-day war between Israel and Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza.

The latest confrontation between Ms Omar, a Muslim-American born in Somalia, and some of her fellow Democrats began when she tweeted an exchange on Monday with Secretary of State Antony Blinken in a video conference in which she called for justice “for all victims of crimes against humanity”.

In remarks that drew the most attention, she said: “We have seen unthinkable atrocities committed by the US, Hamas, Israel, Afghanistan, and the Taliban. I asked @SecBlinken where people are supposed to go for justice.”

Late on Wednesday, Brad Schneider and 11 other Jewish House Democrats issued a statement labelling those remarks as offensive and misguided. They said she should clarify what she meant.

“Ignoring the differences between democracies governed by the rule of law and contemptible organisations that engage in terrorism at best discredits one’s intended argument and at worst reflects deep-seated prejudice,” they wrote.

They said that while the US and Israel are imperfect and merit occasional criticism, “false equivalencies give cover to terrorist groups”.

On Thursday, Ms Omar tweeted that it was shameful that fellow Democrats who sometimes sought her support on issues did not ask her for an explanation by simply calling her.

“The Islamophobic tropes in this statement are offensive. The constant harassment and silencing from the signers of this letter is unbearable,” she wrote.

She said her comments did not reflect prejudice and cited an International Criminal Court investigation of the recent fighting between Israel and Hamas. “You might try to undermine these investigations or deny justice to their victims but history has taught us that the truth can’t be hidden or silenced for ever,” she wrote.

In her later statement, Ms Omar said her conversation with Mr Blinken “was about accountability for specific incidents regarding those ICC cases, not a moral comparison between Hamas and the Taliban and the US and Israel. I was in no way equating terrorist organisations with democratic countries with well-established judicial systems”.

Mr Schneider tweeted that he was pleased with that comment and said: “I hope all can avoid such offhanded statements in the future.”

Underscoring the party’s split, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Cori Bush of Missouri also tweeted support for Ms Omar. In 2018, Ms Tlaib and Ms Omar became the first Muslim women elected to Congress.

Ms Tlaib said Democratic leadership “should be ashamed of its relentless, exclusive tone policing of Congresswomen of colour”.

Ms Bush said she expected criticism from Republicans, but it was “especially hurtful” that Ms Omar was facing backlash from Democrats. “We’re your colleagues,” she tweeted. “Talk to us directly. Enough with the anti-Blackness and Islamophobia.”

Updated: June 11, 2021 01:06 PM

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