US Congresswoman Ilhan Omar says she will not be silenced after committee ouster

US Congresswoman Ilhan Omar says she will not be silenced after committee ouster
Just before her removal from the Foreign Affairs Committee, Ilhan Omar vowed to continue speaking out for those affected by US policy.
5 min read
Washington, D.C.
03 February, 2023
Ilhan Omar gave an impassioned speech just before being removed from the Foreign Affairs Committee. [Getty]

On a cold February day, a diverse group of protesters gathered in front of the US Capitol to condemn what they saw as a baseless and bigoted vote to remove Representative Ilhan Omar from the Foreign Affairs Committee.

Meanwhile, on the House floor, members made speeches and then voted on whether or not to remove her. In the end, the resolution passed 218-211 along party lines , with the slim Republican majority voting to oust her.

At issue were accusations against Omar that she made anti-Semitic statements while criticising Israeli policy. 

Just prior to the vote, Omar gave an impassioned speech that lasted more than five minutes, promising that she would not be silent in the face of what appeared to be her impending removal from the committee.

Standing next to a picture of herself as a 9-year-old refugee, she began by saying, "This debate today, it's about who gets to be an American. What opinions do we have to have to be counted as American?"

With other members of the 'squad' of progessive Congresswomen taking their seats behind her, she continued, "There is this idea that you are suspect if you are an immigrant, or if you are from certain parts of the world or a certain skin tone, or a Muslim."

She went on to remind people that Barack Obama, the country's first Black president, was accused by members of the Republican Party of being a secret Muslim, and singled out former President Donald Trump for his outspoken promotion of this false rumour. The idea, she said, was that Obama was less American.

"Well, I am an immigrant, and interestingly from Africa," she said. "Is anyone surprised that I am being targeted? Is anyone surprised that I am somehow deemed unworthy to speak about American foreign policy? Or that they see me as a powerful voice that needs to be silenced?"

Expanding the idea of who is an American and who can take part in the American experiment was a good thing, she said. 

"I am an American, an American who was sent here by her constituents to represent them in Congress," she said defiantly, and was met by a standing ovation by those behind her. 

She continued, "A refugee who survived the horrors of a civil war, someone who spent her childhood in a refugee camp, someone who knows what it's like to have a shot at a better life here in the United States, and someone who believes in the American dream and the American possibility, and the promise and the ability to participate in the Democratic process. That is what this debate it about."

She went on to stress the importance of the Foreign Affairs Committee - a place for oversight, where the American myth of a moral foreign policy could become a reality. 

Referring to those around the world affected by US policy, she said, "We owe it to them to make this not a myth, but a reality."

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As she concluded, she raised her voice, promising that her voice would not be diminished, even if she didn't serve on the committee for one term.

"My voice will get louder and stronger, and my leadership will be celebrated around the world as it has been," she said, as she was met with another standing ovation. "So, take your votes or not. I am here to stay, and I am here to be a voice against harms around the world and advocate for a better world."

Supporting Ilhan Omar was Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who highlighted the discrimination Muslims have faced since 9/11, as well as threats to women politicians of colour; and Representative Eric Swalwell, who pointed to instances of violent statements and anti-Semitism by Republican members of the House.

"When I heard we’re going to remove a member of this House from their committee for anti-Semitism, I raced down here because I thought, finally, finally in this chamber there’s gonna be some accountability," Swalwell said, pointing to some Republicans' support for 6 January insurrectionists, as well as a tweet by Representative Jim Jordan that mentioned the name of the musician Kanye West, who has openly praised Hitler.

"So don’t come here looking at us for anti-Semitism. Look in your own damn mirror before you ever come over here!" 

Outside the Capitol, rights advocates who had gathered to protest, knowing the likely outcome of the vote, still seemed optimistic in the long term about Omar's effectiveness in Congress and in bringing people together.

"This unjustified baseless decision really brought together a diverse group of people -- Iranian, Jewish, men, women," Edward Mitchell, national deputy director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, told The New Arab. "It shows a wide variety of Americans are valuing Omar's voice on the committee, whether standing up for the rights of Palestinians or speaking up about arms sales."

Robert McCaw, CAIR's government affairs director told TNA, "If they were thinking of diminishing Ilhan Omar's profile, they just put it on steroids."