John Parker-Der Boghossian spent Tuesday afternoon closely watching C-SPAN and Twitter with anticipation as the U.S. House considered a historic resolution recognizing the Armenian Genocide of a century ago. When he saw a “present” vote pop up on the screen, he was perplexed.
“Who votes ‘present’ on a genocide resolution?” he thought.
Minutes later, the St. Anthony resident learned that the vote was cast by his own congresswoman, U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar. Shock and anger set in.
“I don’t understand how morally, when asked to affirm or deny, that you would vote ‘present,’ ” said Parker-Der Boghossian, whose mother’s family escaped death during the systematic murders and expulsions that affected some 1.5 million Armenians, a Christian minority within what was the Muslim-majority Ottoman Empire, with most of the violence taking place in modern-day Turkey. “I don’t know morally how you do that.”
The resolution passed the House by an overwhelming 405-11 vote, marking the first time a U.S. congressional chamber has formally acknowledged the killing of Armenians by Ottoman Turks as an act of genocide. The vote, scheduled amid worldwide criticism of Turkey’s expulsion of the Kurds along the Turkish-Syrian border, was celebrated by Armenian-Americans and political leaders and activists ranging from former Vice President Joe Biden to Kim Kardashian.
Omar’s vote was one of three “present” votes. The 11 “no” votes came from Republicans who have previously expressed reservations about alienating Turkey.
Omar’s decision to abstain and the subsequent explanation she gave has triggered another round of intense criticism for the freshman Democrat, in Minnesota and across the nation. Many members of the Twin Cities Armenian community expressed shock and deep dismay.
“Given her record and her stance as a human rights advocate and a new-generation politician who is going up against the powers that be, we were expecting she would be with the Armenian community on this issue,” said Artyom Tonoyan, of Maple Grove, a University of Minnesota researcher and the photographer behind a local art exhibit memorializing those who perished in the genocide. “We are really, really disappointed.”
Omar said in a statement Tuesday that while she believes accountability is “paramount” for human rights abuses, including genocide, such acknowledgments should not be “used as cudgel in a political fight.” She pointed to the slave trade and genocide of American Indians as examples of atrocities that receive too little recognition. She later defended her vote on Twitter, reiterating that she acknowledges the World War I-era Armenian genocide and that her concern was “not with the substance of this resolution.”
“My issue was with the timing and context. I think we should demand accountability for human rights abuses consistently, not simply when it suits our political goals,” said Omar, a champion of Palestinian rights on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “My focus has and will always be to make sure our foreign policy is consistent, coherent and my votes will as well.”
The explanation confounded some experts. Alejandro Baer, director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, called it a “very problematic position” based on a “logical fallacy.”
“Acknowledging the Armenian genocide, which is an incontestable fact in the scholarly community, doesn’t come at the expense of not recognizing the victim status of any other group,” he said. “It is by acknowledging the fact of this genocide that we come closer to shedding light on [other] atrocities.”
Omar’s defense also drew rebukes from some leading Minnesota Democrats, who argued the current conflict in Syria makes the resolution all the more important. House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, called the vote “deeply troubling.”
“The current Turkish regime is a dictatorship and is bent on destroying the Kurdish people in what could be a genocide in present time. …[All] Americans, especially progressive Americans, should be speaking with one voice against Turkish genocide historically and currently,” said Winkler, who lives in Omar’s district.
DFL Gov. Tim Walz, who sponsored a similar resolution as a member of Congress, tweeted that “the Armenian Genocide is historical fact, and the denial of that fact is a continuation of the genocide.” Both Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, who is the highest-ranking American Indian woman serving in elected office nationwide, declined to comment further.
Jaylani Hussein, who leads the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, defended Omar’s track record on human rights. Hussein argued that as a refugee, Omar is uniquely qualified to understand the complexities of such issues.
“She’s a champion of human rights, and this vote in no way is any different than what she’s been doing,” he said. “We need to hold up all human rights violations whether now or in the past, with the same respect and dignity for all humans regardless of where these atrocities are committed and who commits them. I think that’s what she is trying to imply in her vote.”
Her explanation failed to mollify both friends and foes. The Rev. Tadeos Barseghyan, pastor at St. Sahag Armenian Church in St. Paul, called Omar’s statements a “poor attempt” to explain her decision. “She’s trying to justify something that is not justifiable,” he said.
Others expressed concerns that Omar’s actions suggest undue sympathy for Turkey and its president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has denied the genocide. The abstention coincided with her vote against a package of sanctions against Turkey. Omar defended her position in a recent Washington Post opinion piece arguing that sanctions are part of a “failed foreign policy playbook” that hurts the poor.
The latest controversy also appeared to further strain relations between Omar and members of the local Jewish community concerned about her support for sanctions against Israel and her past criticism of pro-Israel lobbying groups in Congress, which some interpreted as anti-Semitic. “Our local Armenian and Jewish communities celebrate together, commemorate together, learn together and now we are appalled together by this manifest example of suborning Armenian Genocide denial,” said Steve Hunegs, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas.
Several members of Minnesota’s Armenian community said they want to meet with Omar to discuss the Armenian diaspora. Among them is Parker-Der Boghossian, a constituent who supported Omar in 2018. “This is making me seriously re-evaluate if I can even vote for her,” he said. “Right now, I don’t think I could.”