Ilhan Omar and the Turkey Question

Ilhan Omar is one of the most forthright critics of imperialism in US politics. That’s why her recent stances on Turkey, the Kurds, and the Armenian genocide are so disappointing.

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) arrives to a closed session before the House Intelligence, Foreign Affairs, and Oversight committees October 22, 2019 in Washington, DC. Alex Wroblewski / Getty

Since her election to Congress in 2018, Minnesota representative Ilhan Omar has emerged as one of the most important progressive leaders in contemporary US politics. She has used her considerable rhetorical skills to push for Medicare for All and a Green New Deal. She has championed legislation to cancel student loan debt and provide all school children with three meals a day. Last month, she endorsed Bernie Sanders for president.

But it is as a critic of US foreign policy that Omar has really stood out. She opposed the Trump administration’s attempts to foment a coup in Venezuela; skewered resurrected Reagan-era ghoul Elliott Abrams for his role in US-backed atrocities in Central America; harshly criticized Saudi autocracy, even calling for a boycott of the Hajj; stood on the side of Kashmiris under siege by the Indian government; signed congressional letters drawing attention to the human rights crisis in Brazil; and spoken up for the rights and basic humanity of Palestinians (still a controversial point in much of Washington).

For all of this, Omar has been hit with endless hatred and vitriol. President Trump has singled her out on social media and at rallies. House Democrats moved to censure her as an antisemite. Yet she has handled the death threats and bile with uncommon courage, righteous anger, and good humor. Instead of flinching from foreign policy minefields, Omar has taken bold stance after bold stance. Global affairs and the creation of a just international system are clearly near and dear to Omar’s heart.

That’s why her position on issues related to Turkey and the Kurds has been so disappointing. While Omar has made important statements on the invasion of Syria — which has quickly emerged as one of the defining foreign policy issues of the Trump era — she didn’t vote on a resolution last month condemning Trump’s purported withdrawal and subsequently voted against a set of targeted sanctions on Turkey’s defense industry.

To many on the Turkish and Kurdish left, Omar — for all her exemplary words and stances — is failing to stand up for the oppressed in her usual unequivocal terms.

Turkey, Armenia, and the Kurds

Criticism of Omar’s relationship with Turkey is not new. In 2017, Omar (then a Minnesota state representative) met with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan — the same Recep Tayyip Erdoğan who had suppressed the 2013 Gezi protests, ramped up the war against the Kurds, allowed jihadis to flow into Syria, and jailed academics and journalists. Left critics wondered how Omar could advocate for Palestinian rights while remaining silent on the oppression of the Kurdish people or, more generally, the autocratic élan of Erdogan.

Since Omar’s ascension to Congress, Erdoğan’s authoritarianism has only deepened. Repression has been ratcheted up against elected Kurdish political leaders, who are imprisoned on the flimsiest of grounds. Last year, Turkey invaded the Kurdish-held Syrian province of Afrin, displacing thousands. And then of course most recently, Turkey launched an incursion into northern Syria to wipe out the Kurdish-led autonomous region of Rojava.

Yet Omar didn’t vote on a resolution last month condemning Trump’s ostensible withdrawal. Omar has also been critical of placing sanctions on Turkey. In an October 23 op-ed published in the Washington Post, she linked calls for sanctions against Turkey to the US’s indiscriminate and wide-ranging measures against countries such as Venezuela and Iran, noting:

Research has shown that sanctions rarely achieve their desired goals. In the worst-case scenario, they hurt the people of a country — generally the very people we’re purporting to help — without making a dent in the country’s behavior. And in the case of human rights abusers, research suggests that more abuses typically occur with economic sanctions in place than without them.

This is undoubtedly a legitimate criticism of most US sanctions. Yet the PACT sanctions offered up by Congress, and which Omar voted against earlier this week, were not the kind of blanket punishment that have caused so much suffering in Iran or Venezuela. They targeted Turkey’s defense industry and political leaders — a move that would undermine Erdogan’s ability to wage war and a type of sanction that Omar, in her op-ed, claims to support. In voting against PACT, she showed solidarity not with those being murdered by Turkish forces in northern Syria but with Erdoğan and the fifteen Republicans who voted against the resolution.

If Omar has been disappointing on sanctions, perhaps the biggest self-inflected blow has been on a symbolic issue: the recognition of the Armenian genocide. While Omar did not vote against the measure this week (registering as “present,” along with Texas Democrat Eddie Bernice Johnson and Republican Paul Gosar), her response to criticism has been frustrating for many of her supporters and defenders.

I believe accountability for human rights violations – especially ethnic cleansing and genocide — is paramount. But accountability and recognition of genocide should not be used as a cudgel in a political fight. It should be done based on academic consensus outside the push and pull of geopolitics. A true acknowledgement of historical crimes against humanity must include both the heinous genocides of the 20th century, along with earlier mass slaughters like the transatlantic slave trade and Native American genocide, which took the lives of hundreds of millions of indigenous people in this county. For this reason, I voted “present” on the final passage of H.Res 296, the resolution Affirming the United States record on the Armenian Genocide.

This statement is troubling on numerous levels. First, Omar might balk at the use of genocide recognition as a “cudgel.” However, given Turkey’s ongoing campaign of ethnic cleansing and brutalization of the Kurds it is precisely the moment for such recognition. Indeed, Eroğan’s plan to “cleanse” Turkey of three to four million Syrian refugees by deporting them to a small strip of desert — a plan announced to the whole world at the United Nations in late September — also has ominous echoes of what the Ottomans did to the Armenians in 1915.

Second, it seems naive at best to believe that the debate on the Armenian genocide can be decoupled from politics, especially given the social and political taboo in Turkey against discussing the massacre. Worse still, the “leave it to the academic consensus” echoes Turkish talking points. There is no serious debate about whether the Armenian genocide was a genocide. Decades of scholarship have shown that the Committee of Union and Progress that governed the Ottoman Empire during the First World War sought to destroy its Armenian population. Most recently, Turkish scholar and dissident Taner Akçam has provided extensive documentation of the systematic nature of the assault visited upon the Anatolian Armenians. To draw an analogy, the debate about Armenian genocide is akin to the debate about whether Hitler sought to annihilate the Jewish people.

Finally, Omar’s demand that no recognition of the Armenian genocide take place until other historical crimes are acknowledged is a case of what-aboutism — one that is especially jarring because it comes from the mouth of such a committed advocate of solidarity and human rights. It’s precisely because of Omar’s exceptional record that we should demand more of her as a progressive, anti-imperialist tribune.

Recognizing Injustice

What accounts for Omar’s lackluster stance on Turkey, Kurdish issues, and the Armenian genocide?

One potential explanation stems from Turkey’s role in Somalia. In recent years, Turkey has shrewdly deployed its soft power across Africa, including by providing extensive humanitarian assistance to Somalia. Erdogan himself visited the country in the summer of 2011, at the height of a devastating famine. Omar, whose family is from Somalia, represents a district with a strong Somali community. Perhaps her willingness to overlook Turkey’s unsavory actions reflects the reality that all politics is local.

Whatever the reason, Omar’s shortcomings in this area are extremely disappointing. They are all the more disappointing when compared to her bold stances on issues ranging from Palestine and Saudi Arabia to Venezuela and El Salvador.

Omar has positioned herself as a critic of imperialism, an opponent of tyranny, and a defender of the oppressed. But just as a leftism that ignores the plight of Palestinians is hollow, so too is one that fails to recognize the horrors inflicted upon the Armenians in 1915, the brutalities of the Republic of Turkey, and the systematic oppression facing most of the Middle East’s Kurdish population.

Note: This piece has been updated to reflect the statements that Representative Omar has recently delivered on the Turkish invasion and Kurdish rights, including here and here.

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Djene Bajalan is an assistant professor in the Department of History at Missouri State University. His research focuses on Middle Eastern affairs and he has previously taught and studied in the United Kingdom, Turkey, and Iraqi Kurdistan.

Michael Brooks is host of The Michael Brooks Show and cohost of The Majority Report.

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