Progressive US lawmaker Omar faces censure over mistranslated speech

Omar, a Somali American Congress member, says the attacks are the latest instance of hardline Republican ‘Islamophobia’.

Ilhan omar
US Congress member Ilhan Omar has repeatedly said she has been attacked by Republicans due to her ethnicity [Jacquelyn Martin/AP Photo]

Washington, DC – A new Republican firestorm has ignited around United States Congress member Ilhan Omar — this time over alleged statements she made during a speech to Somali Americans.

The only problem, according to two independent analyses of the speech, is that the words that fuelled the uproar appear to be mistranslated.

Omar is accused of saying in Somali that she would put foreign interests before those of the US — but multiple news outlets have since debunked the accusations, pointing to major flaws in a viral translation of her speech.

That, however, did not stop firebrand Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene from seizing on the speech. On Thursday, she introduced a resolution in the House of Representatives to censure Omar, who is the first Somali American and first former African refugee to serve in the US Congress.

Greene accused Omar of “serving as a foreign agent for a foreign country”. In an apparently intentional gaffe, she referred to Omar as the representative from “Somali — I mean, Minnesota”.

Her resolution comes one day after House Majority Whip Tom Emmer demanded an ethics investigation into Omar. Florida governor and former Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis also called for Omar to be “deported”.

For her part, Omar quickly rejected the attacks, saying they were only the latest attempt by Republicans to weaponise her ethnicity and religion.

In a statement to the Minnesota Star Tribune, Omar called the attacks “not only completely false, they are rooted in xenophobia and Islamophobia”.

“This is a manufactured controversy based on an inaccurate translation taken entirely out of context,” she said.

Critics also see the controversy as the Republican Party’s latest attempt to attack a group of progressive Democrats known as the “Squad”.

In February 2023, Omar was removed from the House Foreign Affairs Committee in a vote divided along party lines, amid accusations that she had voiced “anti-Semitic” and “anti-Israel” rhetoric. At the time, Omar said she was being targeted because of her identity as an African Muslim woman.

In November, the House also voted to censure Representative Rashida Tlaib for comments critical of Israel. Tlaib has stood by her remarks, rejecting claims they were anti-Semitic.

Mistranslated speech

The Star Tribune — a newspaper based in Minneapolis, Minnesota — and another publication, the Minnesota Reformer, have both independently translated Omar’s speech, which was delivered to Somali Americans in the state on January 27.

Both found the words that stoked the Republican ire were not actually what Omar said.

The flawed translation, which spread widely on social media, read: “The US government will only do what Somalians in the US tell them to do. They will do what we want and nothing else. They must follow our orders, and that is how we will safeguard the interest of Somalia … Together we will protect the interests of Somalia.”

According to the more accurate translation, verified by the Star Tribune, Omar expressed a different message, one that encouraged civic engagement among Somali Americans.

“My answer was the US government will do what we tell the US government to do. We as Somalis should have that confidence in ourselves. We live in this country. We pay taxes in this country. It’s a country where one of your own sits in Congress … The woman you sent to Congress is aware of you and has the same interest as you,” she said.

According to the Star Tribune, Omar used the speech to recount how she had responded to constituents’ concerns over a new agreement between Ethiopia and the self-governing region of Somaliland, which Somalia claims as its own. The agreement would see Ethiopia lease a portion of Somaliland’s coastline, a move vehemently opposed by Somalia.

Observers have noted the Congress member was also speaking in support of longstanding US policy. The US maintains some ties with Somaliland — but does not recognise its independence or its authority to unilaterally strike a deal with landlocked Ethiopia.

While that position has stoked condemnation from Somaliland officials, Democrats have roundly rejected the notion that it indicates Omar is working on behalf of Somalia or that she puts her Somali roots before her congressional duties.

On Thursday, House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries condemned Greene’s move to censure Omar as “frivolous”. He called it “designed to inflame and castigate and further divide us”.

Source: Al Jazeera