The Nation / October 31, 2019
Ilhan Omar’s commitment to principle is one of her great strengths, but declining to recognize the Armenian Genocide is an unforced error.
The House of Representatives on Monday overwhelmingly voted to recognize the mass killing of Armenians by the Turkish government in 1915 and 1916 as a genocide. Armenian Americans have been pushing for this since at least 1984. This week’s vote happened in the context of widespread condemnation of Turkish human rights abuses and war crimes in Syria. Shockingly, 11 Republicans voted against the measure. One Republican, Paul Gosar of Arizona, voted “present,” a kind of affirmative abstention. Two Democrats joined him: Eddie Johnson from Texas, and Ilhan Omar, from Minnesota.
Omar believes the Armenian Genocide was, in fact, a genocide. She wanted to point out that our foreign policy is driven by politics rather than principle and that she’d like to change that. But the “present” vote alone didn’t communicate that well, and the statement her office put out only further muddied the water. A line about relying on “academic consensus” was misinterpreted to imply that Omar doesn’t think there was consensus about the genocide. She does, and told me over the phone (after initial publication of this piece) that she was not questioning the academic consensus on the genocide, but rather that she wants recognition of genocide to be based on that consensus, not politics. What’s more, the statement seemed to say that we can’t talk about one genocide—of the Armenians in this case—without also discussing other genocides such as those of indigenous Americans or the violence of North American slavery. She later had to clarify on Twitter, “*Of course * we should acknowledge the Genocide” and that her whole goal was to argue that “we should demand accountability for human rights abuses consistently, not simply when it suits our political goals.” That’s a laudable principle, but what she’s done is generate a news cycle that undermines her own political work as well as the broader progressive goals she champions.
Having just spent months reporting on Omar for The Nation, the pattern seems clear. She places her ideals above practicalities, even though it can create distractions or even harm people she might otherwise count as allies. In our conversation, we talked about Israel and Palestine and how she’s made it sometimes more difficult for progressive Jews to support her, despite sharing the goals for peace in the Middle East and the desire to protect Palestinian rights. This time, she’s hurt Armenians who rightfully want their historical trauma recognized. Omar’s office tells me that she is working to set up meetings with Armenians in her district.
Here’s a quick history. In 1915, the military and political leaders of Turkey began forcibly deporting the approximately 1.5 million Armenians living in the Empire, driving them to the north and east of Anatolia. Over the next year and half, hundreds of thousands of people were displaced, with somewhere between 664,000 and 1.2 million killed. Those who survived endured forced migration, torture, rape, family separation, enslavement, and other horrors. The fracturing Ottoman government, run by the “Young Turks” of the Committee of Union and Progress sought to promote political and cultural homogeneity among Turks by scapegoating Armenians. They also confiscated Armenian wealth and distributed it to their supporters. The recognition of its horrors paved the way for the modern definition of genocide as a specific crime against humanity.
In the meantime, the post-Ottoman Turkish government has been denying the reality of the Armenian genocide since the end of World War I. But with the exception of Turkish-government funded academic centers and programs, scholars of genocide are in agreement about the basic facts I’ve written above. In Congress, both Republican and Democratic lawmakers have worked to bring acknowledgement of these facts, while other lawmakers, both Republican and Democratic, have been hesitant to challenge Turkey. Turkey was a key ally against the Soviets during the Cold War, and after that, the US saw it as an Islamic secular democracy and thus an ally during the Iraq Wars and myriad other conflicts in the region. Only now, with Turkey bombing our erstwhile Kurdish allies, was momentum sufficient in the House to get the resolution to the floor. A Senate resolution is not close to a vote, and I doubt Trump would sign it.
Omar’s “present” vote has sparked more coverage in the past 36 hours—of which this column is admittedly part—than the Republicans who voted “nay,” the GOP senators who aren’t even voting, or Trump’s complicity in Turkey’s ongoing massacre of Kurds. Good faith critics on the left are concerned about “academic consensus” and “whataboutism,” but of course bad faith critics on the American right are having a field day. As has been true since she took office, national right-wing media is eager to portray Omar as non-American, and now have fixated on a meeting Omar held with the Turkish president in 2017, alleging she’s a foreign agent.
That’s not what’s going on. Omar does not operate like other politicians. Her commitment to principle is one of her great strengths, but it creates the conditions for what seem like unforced errors. She’s bringing Bernie Sanders to Minnesota this weekend, and I wonder if this vote will overshadow it. More important, Armenians are upset. I spoke over the phone with Rev. Tadeos Barseghyan, pastor at St. Sahag Armenian Church in St. Paul. The church is located in the adjacent district to Omar’s, but serves Armenians throughout the region (including neighbouring states). Barseghyan told me that the vote was long past due, but that it’s “wonderful to see that the country that we all respect and love officially recognizes and hears the voices of our people.”
He said that although Armenians have been in Minnesota since at least the 1890s, the first survivor of the Armenian Genocide arrived in Minnesota in 1919, the marks of enslavement literally tattooed on her body. Rev. Tadeos said that he found it difficult that Omar chose not to vote for the passage. “It is discouraging,” he said, that a representative who serves many Amenians in her district, “chose not to hear their voices. It goes against her work, as she claims to be fighter for justice, for doing what’s right.”
Rev. Tadeos added, “Denying the Armenian Genocide is denying gravity.” And I’m sure Ilhan Omar agrees. She voted “present” to make a statement against a foreign policy of convenience. I’m sure she didn’t want to derail the conversation around the truth of the Armenian Genocide or to cause pain to Armenians still searching for justice and recognition. Yet, she did both. She’s seeking to make a better politics, but the jury is still out whether she can succeed without alienating people who would otherwise support her.
David M. Perry is a journalist and historian