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Why Republicans are melting down over an unremarkable Ilhan Omar speech

Saturday February 3, 2024
By Zeeshan Aleem

Calls for the lawmaker's censure and, more outrageously, her deportation are the latest manifestation of the rank xenophobia that animates the Republican Party.

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., is preposterously claiming that remarks Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., made in the Somali language to a Somali audience in Minneapolis on Saturday were “treasonous” and warrant her being censured by the House. Omar’s Republican colleague from Minnesota, House Majority Whip Tom Emmer, has called for an ethics investigation into what she said and absurdly said that she should “resign in disgrace.” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis says that she should be expelled from Congress, stripped of her citizenship and deported.

The right-wing reactions stem from a video of Omar’s speech that went viral on the platform X and features captions translating her remarks. But the source of that translation is unclear, and the language appears to be either poorly translated or deliberately mistranslated, according to multiple fact-checkers. One news source that Emmer linked to, Alpha News, acknowledged in its article that it had “not independently verified the accuracy of the translation.” It should have done so before running with the story.

After Omar’s remarks were mistranslated, they were then stripped of their context and amplified by bad-faith critics such as Greene and others. In reality, there was nothing untoward about Omar’s remarks. Calls for her censure and, more outrageously, her deportation, are simply the latest manifestation of the rank xenophobia that animates the Republican Party.

Omar spoke at a Minneapolis hotel Saturday at a celebration of regional elections in Somalia. She was born in Somalia and, after fleeing the country’s civil war, came to the U.S. in the 1990s as a refugee. (Omar became a U.S. citizen at the age of 17.) So there’s nothing strange about her commenting on Somali political life or identifying with it.

A critical bit of context for understanding Omar’s remarks is that she was expressing support for the Somali government in its dispute with a breakaway republic within Somalia that recently made a deal with Ethiopia to give Ethiopia access to the sea using the Somali coastline. This breakaway republic is not recognized by the international community.

“We are people who know that they are Somali and Muslim,” Omar said, according to the Minnesota Reformer, which consulted two independent translators, one of whom is a federally certified court interpreter. But that report came after captions on the viral video claimed she’d described Somalis as “people who know they are Somalians first, Muslims second.” This apparent mistranslation was then somehow twisted by right-wingers as Omar declaring her allegiance to Somalia “first.”

Emmer said on X, “Ilhan Omar’s appalling, Somalia-first comments are a slap in the face to the Minnesotans she was elected to serve and a direct violation of her oath of office.”

But as the Minnesota Reformer translation puts it, there was no ranking of identity. (Also, notably, Somalis prefer the term “Somalis,” not “Somalians,” the newsroom points out.) Crucially, though, Republicans’ response to the initial viral mistranslation makes no sense either. How would Omar commenting on Somali national identity versus religious identity in a Somali context have any bearing on whether she considers herself a Somali or an American “first”? The right’s response is simply another bad-faith and xenophobic attempt to damage the representative’s reputation.

The second viral moment involves Omar allegedly saying “the U.S. government will only do what Somalians in the U.S. tell them to do! They will do what we want and nothing else. They must follow our orders.”

This is not only confusing and nonsensical when stripped of context (in what world would any U.S. politician imply the U.S. can be bullied around by a tiny country like Somalia?) but it’s also another instance of poor translation.

The Reformer’s translation — in consultation with verified experts — has a different gloss on what Omar said. I’ve also included a few of Omar’s sentences before and after the contentious portion to clarify the context:

So when I heard that people who call themselves Somalis [from the breakaway republic] signed an agreement with Ethiopia, many people reached out to me and said I needed to talk to the U.S. government. They asked, what would the U.S. government do? My answer was that the U.S. government will do what we tell the U.S. government to do. That is the confidence we need to have as Somalis. We live in this country. This is the country where we pay taxes. This is the country that has elected a woman from your community. For as long as I am in Congress, no one will take over the seas belonging to the nation of Somalia, and the United States will not support others who seek to steal from us. So feel comfortable, Somali Minnesotans, that the woman you sent to Congress is aware of this issue and feels the same way you do.


This is decidedly not, as right-wingers are claiming, evidence that Omar sees her job in Congress as chiefly about protecting Somali interests. Instead, she’s saying that Somali Americans should work to petition the government (as the Constitution says they can) on U.S. foreign policy toward Somalia, and that when they do they should have confidence that they will be heard by her because she herself supports Somalia’s sovereignty.

There is nothing weird about this in a multicultural society formed by immigrants. It is commonplace, for example, for Florida politicians to take firm positions on U.S.-Cuba policy to appeal to local Cuban American communities. Another example is how it’s common for politicians in New York to take outspoken positions on Israel policy when courting local Jewish American voters (who are not recent immigrants, though older generations of Jewish Americans often consider U.S. support for Israel an important issue).

That Omar is using language like “we” because she was born in Somalia and identifies with that identity makes her ripe for right-wing attacks, but it is not inappropriate given the context. Nor is it evidence that she has somehow turned on the U.S.

Omar has not been committing treason — and to be clear, wanting the best for the country of one’s birth does not constitute treason — but doing the basic work of politics. The sad thing about the attacks on her is that Omar is not just a U.S. citizen; she’s a kind of model citizen. She came as a refugee to this country and immersed herself in its civic life. She works hard to represent her constituents — who hail from all kinds of backgrounds in her cosmopolitan district — and she likes to talk about how she loves this country. I don’t always agree with her positions, but there’s no question that she’s fiercely committed to bettering American society. People shouldn’t be trying to kick her out of the country, but instead hoping for more citizens just like her.

Zeeshan Aleem is a writer and editor for MSNBC Daily. Previously, he worked at Vox, HuffPost and Politico, and he has also been published in, among other places, The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Nation, and The Intercept. You can sign up for his free politics newsletter here.


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