Ilhan Omar Draws Fire for Opting Out of House Vote to Acknowledge the Armenian Genocide—and Rile Turkey

Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.)
Photo: Chip Somodevilla (Getty)

Rep. Ilhan Omar is drawing fire for basically abstaining on a House vote taken to formally acknowledge, for the first time in more than a century, the genocide of some 1.5 million Armenians in what is today the nation of Turkey.

Omar—the progressive Democrat and one of the collective of politically aligned freshman members of the House known as “the Squad”—angered advocates for the Armenian community when she voted “present,”rather than “yes,” as the House voted 405-11 Tuesday in favor of a resolution recognizing the Armenian atrocity, NBC News reports:

Omar’s “votes and actions ... do not represent the best of American or Muslim values,” Van Krikorian, of the Armenian Assembly of America, told NBC of the Minnesota congresswoman, who is Muslim. “Innocent people were and are being slaughtered, and there is a universal need to defend the victims of genocide and ethnic cleansing, not to stand with or defer to the murderers.”

The atrocities committed in 1915 against the Armenians in what was then known as the Ottoman Empire have long been a source of anger and pain, but until Tuesday, the U.S. had avoided commenting on the matter, not wanting to anger its Turkish ally, according to the New York Times.

But with growing bipartisan anger against Turkey for its recent treatment of the Syrian Kurds after Donald Trump abruptly decided to pull U.S. troops out of Syria, had the House wanting to make a statement, as the Times explains:

“Recent attacks by the Turkish military against the Kurdish people are a stark reminder of the danger in our own time,” [House] Speaker Nancy Pelosi [said before the vote].

[...]

“Too often, tragically, the truth of the staggering crime has been denied,” she said. “Today, let us clearly state the facts on the floor of this House to be etched forever into the Congressional Record: The barbarism committed against the Armenian people was a genocide.”

Turkey, which denies that what happened was genocide, categorizing the deaths as the result of civil war, took to Twitter to express its displeasure at the House vote.

“This shameful decision of those exploiting history in politics is null & void for our Government & people,” Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, wrote, according to the Times.

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However, at least one prominent Turk—Boston Celtics center Enes Kanter—a critic of Turkey’s current government, also took to Twitter to express disappointment in Omar:

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Omar was actually one of three House members who voted “present,” according to NBC News. The other two were Democrat Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas and Republican Paul Gosar of Arizona.

While it was not immediately clear why Johnson and Gosar voted “present,” it was Omar’s decision that raised the most criticism.

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For her part, according to NBC, Omar said that while she believes holding nations accountable for atrocities and human rights abuses they’ve committed is “paramount,” she felt uncomfortable using the matter as a “cudgel in a political fight,” a seeming reference to the House’s ire over Turkey’s aggression in Syria.

She also justified her “present” vote by stating that perhaps the U.S. needed to hold itself to account for the “crimes against humanity” that were U.S. slavery and its treatment of Native Americans before calling out others.

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“A true acknowledgment 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 country,” Omar said in a statement. “For this reason, I voted ‘present’ on final passage of H.Res. 296, the resolution Affirming the United States record on the Armenian Genocide.”

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