Rep. Omar Speaks to VOA About Remarks That Sparked Controversy

Mohamud Mascade contributed this report from Minneapolis; Katherine Gypson and Carla Babb contributed from Washington

MINNEAPOLIS / WASHINGTON –The California synagogue shooting that left one dead Saturday has revived a simmering debate over U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar’s comments about the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and U.S. lawmakers’ relationship with lobbyists for Israel.

U.S. Senator Ted Cruz and conservative commentator Meghan McCain suggested Sunday that Omar’s recent comments are part of rising anti-Semitism on the left and that all sides of the U.S. political spectrum have contributed to an extremist dialogue that targets Jews.

Omar – the first Somali-American member of Congress – pushed back against those claims, retweeting a post by journalist Peter Beinart on Sunday saying: “Islamophobia and Anti-Semitism are two sides of the same coin. Let us stand together as Americans in rejecting hate.”

In an interview Friday with VOA’s Somali service, Omar said criticism of her outspoken comments were the “product of hate and ignorance mainly driven by President Donald Trump and his far right supporters.”

“The controversy is just there only because the U.S. president and his supporters are not happy with that a Muslim, a refugee, and a minority woman of color has her say on his leadership misbehaviors and wrongdoings,” the Minnesota Democrat said.

“We have a president who believes we are not here, who has been attacking us – the minority Americans and people of color. Now, when we get an opportunity and platform to speak out, he wants to silence our legitimate voices,” Ilhan, one of two Muslim women in Congress, added. “I believe I am in a legitimate fight and I hope I will win it.”

Controversy details

Omar ignited a controversy earlier this year with a tweet insinuating that U.S. lawmakers’ support for Israel was swayed by money from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a powerful lobbying group.

Shortly after apologizing for that tweet, Omar suggested in a public statement that some lawmakers held a dual loyalty to the U.S. and Israel.

Omar’s comments were criticized by both Democrats and Republicans and triggered two congressional resolutions condemning hate speech. Jewish leaders in Omar’s diverse Minneapolis district have met with the Congresswoman to discuss ways of furthering an open dialogue.

In a speech in March to the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Omar spoke out against discrimination against and suspicions of Muslims.

“CAIR was founded after 9/11 because they recognized that some people did something, that all of us were starting to lose access to our civil liberties. For far too long, we have lived with the discomfort of being a second-class citizen, and frankly, I’m tired of it. And every single Muslim in the country should be tired of it,” she said.

President Donald Trump and other critics lashed out at Omar over the “some people did something” line, accusing her of trivializing the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil.

In one tweet, President Trump included that one line from Omar’s speech followed by more than 40 seconds of video footage from September 11th and a large graphic repeating the words “somebody did something.”

Omar said she received an increase of death threats since that tweet. Earlier this month, a New York man was arrested for allegedly threatening to assault and murder Omar.

Will not be ‘quiet’

On Friday, Omar met in her home state with prominent figures from the Somali-American community. Asked about why she has chosen to be in this heated political controversy, being new to Congress, when she could keep a low profile, Omar said she was not elected to be “quiet” or “invisible.”

“I was not elected to remain still like a self-portrait and think I am protecting my seat. I have to use my seat and leverage to represent the voices of those who elected me, those who have been crying and demonstrating in the streets to get an opportunity to have representatives at the U.S. Capitol, who can say no to the president’s wrong policies,” she told VOA.

Omar told participants in the meeting she has discussed many things of concern with the Somali community.

“We have discussed about the prevention and the reduction of our Minnesota youth incarceration, how we can address public housing problems facing our community in Minnesota, the future withdrawal of African Union peace keepers in Somalia and U.S drone attacks in Somalia,” she said. “We are working on how we can get a bill that would help prevent civilian casualties by the counterterrorism drone strikes in Somalia, ensuring the civilian protection and how the families of the victims would get compensation.”

The U.S. military has stepped up its campaign of air strikes in Somalia against al-Shabab and IS militants since President Trump took office.

U.S military commanders in the region said the strikes have killed more than 800 militants in two years. Earlier this month, the U.S. Africa Command said a woman and a child were killed last year in a U.S. strike in Somalia, the first civilian casualties acknowledged in the U.S. military’s war against Islamist militants there.