US Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, a controversial figure with a chequered record, is definitely playing the fertile fields of South Asian politics. Easy targets make for easy fundraising from special interest groups, with few questions asked.
Omar’s latest salvo is an anti-India resolution in the House of Representatives, condemning New Delhi’s human rights record and the targeting of Muslims, Sikhs, Dalits and other minorities. The resolution has three co-sponsors, including Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, a Palestinian American whose politics have already landed her in considerable trouble with both Black and Jewish Americans.
Based on two recent reports, the resolution asks the State Department to declare India as a “country of particular concern” and says the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi is well down the path “to systemize the ideological vision of a Hindu state”. The resolution was introduced more than a week ago but didn’t garner much attention on Capitol Hill or in mainstream US media. It is likely to wither and die in the legislative process machine, as hundreds of such resolutions do every year.
US Congresswoman Ilhan Omar’s latest salvo is an anti-India resolution in the House of Representatives, condemning New Delhi’s human rights record and the targeting of Muslims, Sikhs, Dalits and other minorities.
Campaign donations, not principles, often drive a member’s interest in certain foreign policy issues.
History or geography, or foreign policy nuances, are not Omar’s concern or forte. Her stance on the Paul Rusesabagina resolution shows how she failed in a case where one would expect her to have a better understanding
The bottom line is this: performance art on Capitol Hill is done for the benefit of interest groups, and Omar and Rashida Tlaib are no exception. They are only the latest entrants.
An obvious question is, why do members of Congress introduce resolutions they know have no chance of gaining traction, leave alone getting passed? Why undertake a task when failure is more or less certain? The answer is because these apparently pointless endeavours are ‘paid projects’ in a manner of speaking – voters pay, members of Congress project … the voters’ viewpoint.
Campaign donations, not principles, often drive a member’s interest in certain foreign policy issues. A few interventions during a Congressional hearing, like the one Omar made in 2019 when she berated Aarti Tikoo Singh, an Indian journalist, pay huge dividends within a desired community of voters. Singh was testifying in front of the Asia subcommittee about Kashmir – the only Kashmiri on the panel – in the wake of the revocation of Article 370 by the Modi government.
The one-sided hearing gave Omar a perch from which she shouted down a journalist who was actually trying to say that Muslim victims of terrorism in Kashmir deserved attention. But Singh was not allowed to make her point because of repeated interruptions by Omar, who was clearly performing for a certain audience.
Since the hearing, Omar has continued to firm up her ‘street creds’ with various advocacy groups by periodically slamming the Modi government (an easy task), India in general, and repeating the talking points of pro-Pakistan groups. So much so that Omar even took a trip to Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) in April 2022, posing for photographs on the border in an obvious attempt to please her vote bank. India’s foreign office called the visit “condemnable” and reminded her that the territory is illegally occupied by Pakistan.
The Paul Rusesabagina Saga
But history or geography, or foreign policy nuances, are not Omar’s concern or forte. She failed in a case where one would expect her to have a better understanding. Or, why would she not help Paul Rusesabagina, the hero of the famous movie Hotel Rwanda and whose bravery during the 1994 genocide got worldwide praise? In 2020, Rusesabagina was lured to go to Rwanda from Texas, where he had moved only to be tortured and sentenced to 25 years in prison on what appear to be trumped-up charges.
In February this year, the US House Foreign Affairs Committee approved a resolution calling for Rusesabagina’s release. But guess what, Omar was against it. She said the man was “credibly accused of terrorism, tried and convicted”.
All one can say is “wow” to Omar’s leap of faith in defending a government routinely accused of “arbitrary arrests” and “enforced disappearances” by the same State Department whose judgment she approves of so heartily in India’s case.
The point one is trying to make is for a semblance of consistency – it’s not to defend any government’s condemnable conduct against minorities, including India’s. A further point is to understand the real politics of the politicians hailed by a side as defenders of human rights.
Omar is not interested in South Asia’s history or politics, she is interested in identity politics. Both Omar and Tlaib as the first Muslim American women to be elected to the House of Representatives use their religious identity openly and unabashedly, skirting difficult questions about the clear problem of radicalisation in their own communities.
Performance Art on Capitol Hill
It’s easier to point fingers at another – India under the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has made it easier for every rogue politician with an agenda to do so – than to take on extremists at home. These extremist elements, often fronting for Pakistan, hide within large, sprawling national organisations of Muslim Americans. They often encourage members of Congress to follow the line against the Modi government.
Omar’s arc of interest in subcontinent politics is linked directly to Muslim advocacy groups and their activism on Capitol Hill. She was cultivated and nurtured by interest groups from the time she won a seat in the House of Representatives in November 2018 from Minnesota.
An additional problem is her personal conduct, which is far from exemplary. Democratic Party insiders cringe when asked about her alleged use of campaign money for purposes less than straightforward. In 2019, a conservative group filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission that Omar improperly diverted campaign funds to the tune of $369,000 to a company from August 2018 to September 2019 because she was involved with the firm’s CEO. Although the complaint was thrown out on legal grounds, moral questions remained.
Omar married the man in 2020 but did she divert funds to Timothy Mynett and his firm E Street Group while being in love, thereby using taxpayer money to promote a company, which would benefit her later?
Tlaib, meanwhile, may lose her seat in the House come November. She faces a strong challenge from black business and civic leaders who want to unseat her on grounds that Detroit, a majority Black city, should be represented in Congress by an African American. Tlaib has also angered Jewish Americans with her anti-Israel statements.
The bottom line is this: performance art on Capitol Hill is done for the benefit of interest groups, and Omar and Tlaib are no exception. They are only the latest entrants.
(Seema Sirohi is a senior Washington-based journalist. She can be reached at @seemasirohi. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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