Rep Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) is drawing criticism for echoing language used by Turkey to deny the Armenian genocide took place.
Omar is one of two Democrats who voted “present” on a House resolution recognizing the systematic massacres of Armenian-Christians that took place in the early 20th century.
The resolution drew widespread bipartisan support in the House, passing with a vote of 405 to 11, and was brought to a vote alongside Democratic efforts to sanction Turkey for its incursion into northeastern Syria.
In a written explanation for her vote, Omar said that the recognition of genocide and mass atrocities should be done outside politics and “based on academic consensus,” a phrase that Armenian rights groups say Turkish deniers use to sow doubt.
“Rep. Omar’s suggestion that there is no ‘academic consensus’ effectively denies the Armenian Genocide,” said Aram Hamparian, executive director of the Armenian National Committee of America. “It basically takes a page from the Turkish Embassy’s denial playbook.”
Omar’s office, on Thursday, sought to clarify that the congresswoman was stating she believes there is academic consensus on the fact that the genocide happened, emphasizing that her vote was a protest to the House using the genocide as a “political cudgel.”
The congresswoman also voted ‘no’ on legislation sanctioning Turkey for its offensive against U.S.-allied Syrian Kurds, saying sanctions hurt civilians more than the government.
The congresswoman wrote a thread on Twitter further clarifying her comments.
“This is classic “real politique!” My issue was not with the substance of this resolution. *Of course* we should acknowledge the Genocide,” she wrote.
About 1.5 million Armenian-Christians were systematically murdered by the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century. Turkey denies that there is enough historical evidence to point to genocide and criticizes the events as disputed and controversial.
Efforts to have foreign governments recognize Turkish atrocities are often struck down to preserve foreign relations with Turkey. Only 29 countries, now including the United States, recognize the Armenian genocide, according to the Armenian National Institute.
“The International Association of Genocide Scholars, the preeminent body on the subject, has repeatedly and unequivocally affirmed the fact of the Armenian Genocide,” said Bryan Ardouny, executive director of the Armenian Assembly of America.
“The suggestion that consensus is lacking is but a gloss of the Turkish denial argument. It is precisely for that very reason the resolution includes a firm rejection of genocide denial,” he said.
Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) was the one other Democrat to vote ‘present’ on the bill but did not offer an explanation for her abstention. Her office did not respond to request for comment on the congresswoman’s reasoning.
Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Arizona) also voted ‘present,’ and issued a statement condemning the resolution as a pretext to attack President Donald Trump and described deaths of Armenian-Christians as “legitimate war casualties.”
The 11 no votes came from Republicans. The Hill reached out to the offices for comment.
Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okl.) criticized the resolution for using “tragedies of the past” to hurt present-day U.S.-Turkish relations.
“There’s no denying that horrific atrocities were committed against the Armenian people by the Ottoman Empire in the midst of the confusion and carnage of the First World War,” he said in a statement to The Hill. “But I think we need to be careful not to allow tragedies of the past to complicate and endanger lives of Americans engaged in critical work in a dangerous and volatile region.”
House Democrats on Thursday were tightlipped about the Minnesota congresswoman’s criticism of the House resolution.
A spokesman for Rep. Eliot Engel, Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, of which Omar is a member, declined to comment about the congresswoman’s reasons for abstention.
Outside Capitol Hill, Enes Kanter, a Swiss-born Turkish basketball player for the Boston Celtics and an outspoken critic of Turkish President Recepp Tayipp Erdogan, criticized the Minnesota congresswoman for siding with Erdogan, who he called a dictator. Kanter accused Omar for working for Erdogan’s political interests.
Armenian-Christians in Minnesota, however, said politics kept the congresswoman from standing up for human rights.
“Is there a right or wrong time to … stand up for justice that she claims to be a champion for?” Rev. Tadeos Barseghyan, pastor at St. Sahag Armenian Church in St. Paul, told the Star Tribune, Minnesota’s largest newspaper.
Parish council chair Michele Byfrield Angell also told the paper she wished Omar had approved the resolution. “If [Omar] is going to be representing our community here, she should hear us. … If she’s voting present as acknowledging it but not doing anything about it, then what is she doing?”
Rep. Omar is frequently the center of media attention on controversial and offensive statements, most notably against Israel and Jewish-Americans who support Israel.
She’s been criticized for playing on antisemitic tropes, saying Israel “hypnotized the world,” that Congressional support for the Jewish state is “all about the Benjamins” and that American-Jews push for “allegiance to a foreign country.”
In March, Omar’s controversial comments instigated a House resolution condemning antisemitism but was broadened to include all hate speech after an image of the Minnesota congresswoman was the center of an Islamophobic poster in the West Virginia State House.