“They don’t mean anything evil.”
Rep. Ilhan Omar has been called out for a 2013 interview in which she complained that Americans say “Al Qaeda” as though it’s something negative.
Video of the conversation resurfaced after Omar, a freshman Democratic congresswoman from Minnesota, on Sunday tweeted that US support for Israel is “all about the Benjamins.” Under heavy bipartisan pressure, including from the leaders of her party, she apologized on Monday, saying she had been unintentionally anti-Semitic.
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In the several-year-old clip, Omar joked with Arab-American talk show host Ahmed Tharwat that Americans seem to preserve the Arabic names for things they don’t like.
“It’s very interesting that we keep the Arabic name to such violent and negative entities: Al Qaeda, Al Shabaab, Hezbollah,” Tharwat said, listing major terrorist groups.
Omar, who was just entering Minnesota politics at the time, agreed. “They don’t mean anything evil,” she said, apparently referring to the literal meaning of the words.
“The madrassa,” Tharwat continued, giving another example. “Nobody in the Arabic world wants to go to madrassa anymore. They are polluting our language.”
“The boogey,” Omar again concurred, laughing.
The 20-minute exchange on Tharwat’s “Bel Ahdan” talk show centered on how Americans were reacting to a recent massacre by Al Shabaad terrorists at a Nairobi mall. Omar, a Somali-American who spent four years in a Kenyan refugee camp as a child, spoke to the perspective of Minnesota’s large Muslim immigrant population, which she said had since been “under a microscope.”
Opining broadly on the cause of Islamist terrorism, Omar blamed US “involvement in other people’s affairs.”
“Nobody wants to face how the actions of the other people that are involved in the world have contributed to the rise of the radicalization and the rise of terrorist acts,” she said.
Omar further alleged that when Muslims commit terrorists attacks in America “we investigate that whole community,” rather than just the individual as is usually done.
Tharwat then offered that the notion of “guilty by association” is not relevant when it comes to citizens of authoritarian Muslim countries whose countrymen or governments commit acts of violence, as in the Nairobi mall shooting and the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States. But he said that it does apply to voters in Western democracies “because you elected those positions.”
“You elected [President George W.] Bush twice, and he invaded and caused 4 million dead so far,” Tharwat said. “You elected [President Barack] Obama twice.
“It’s legitimized,” Omar concurred.
Omar gave another interview to Tharwat at a January 2017 Women’s March event, despite his record of radical rhetorics. He has defended the Hamas terrorist group, dubbed Israel the “Jewish ISIS” and otherwise characterized it a terroristic, and said that “Obama should start bombing the Jewish state of Israel” after the United States attacked Islamic State targets in 2014.
One of the two first Muslim women to be elected to Congress, Omar has her own history of statements and actions that put her far outside the US mainstream on Israel and terrorism. In addition to repeatedly condemning Israel, as a member of the Minnesota House of Representatives, Omar in 2017 voted against limiting life insurance payouts for terrorists, and in 2016, she lobbied a judge to go easy on would-be ISIS fighters from the state.
Still, many liberals have come to her defense in the wake of the anti-Semitic tweets scandal. Omar’s female Muslim colleague Rep. Rashida Tlaib, a Michigan Democrat, bemoaned in a tweet Tuesday that the duo was being “shushed and reduced” because of their ethnic and religious backgrounds.
The hardest part of serving in Congress as a WOC & as a "first" is how people hear you differently. No matter how much we take on the hate & stay true to who we are through our experiences, our voices are shushed and reduced. We aren't perfect, but neither is this institution.
— Rashida Tlaib (@RashidaTlaib) February 12, 2019
Left-wing journalist Michael Tracey said that the condemnation of Omar only proved her point that US policymakers are beholden to pro-Israel money.
Maybe the fact that Omar was condemned by the entire House of Representatives in a matter of hours and forced to make a hostage video-style apology validates her comments last night about the power and influence of this particular interest group? Just a wild theory
— Michael Tracey (@mtracey) February 11, 2019
Omar’s views on US and Israeli culpability for Islamist terrorism are commonplace among academics. Historian Rashid Khalidi and political scientists John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, to name just a few prominent examples, make similar arguments in a more scholarly form. However, such voices are largely marginalized in US foreign policymaking, where a hardline on terrorism and firm support for Israel have been bipartisan orthodoxy for decades.
Omar and other members of the new Democratic class, like Tlaib and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, seem intent on changing that.
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- Ilhan Omar speaks to Ahmed Tharwat in a video released on Oct. 3, 2013.: Screen grab from YouTube