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Ilhan Omar speech proved to be mistranslated but outrage continues spread

Tuesday February 6, 2024

A week after a mistranslated clip of Ilhan Omar sparked outrage online, some far-right House Republicans are still following through with calls for the progressive lawmaker to be censured. And the repercussions of the misinformation extend beyond the country.

The Republican representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, has gone furthest in her response to the clip, calling Omar a “foreign agent in our government”. Greene, a leading supporter of Donald Trump, who also attempted to censure the Michigan Democrat Rashida Tlaib in November, called Omar a “terrorist sympathizer” on X last week, adding: “Somalian first. Muslim second. She never mentions America.”

Greene said she would introduce a censure bill which could see the Minnesota Democrat removed from the remaining committees she serves, a year after Omar was forced out of the foreign affairs committee by Republicans for her criticism of Israel. The bill was on the House agenda Monday, though it is unlikely to move past political stunt.

Omar, a Somali American congresswoman, had been filmed delivering a speech at a hotel in Minneapolis on 27 January where she addressed members of her constituency on a recent agreement reached between the breakaway Somali region of Somaliland and Ethiopia in early January, which bypassed Somalia’s federal government in Mogadishu.

The preliminary deal, termed a memorandum of understanding, would see Somaliland lease Ethiopia a naval base on the Gulf of Aden and grant it widened access to its Berbera port. In exchange, Somaliland officials claim, Ethiopia would become the first country to recognise its independence unilaterally from Somalia.

In an interview with the Observer, an adviser to Somalia’s president warned that Somalia was ready for war with Ethiopia if it doesn’t reverse course on the deal.

A video of the speech was circulated soon after on X by Rhoda Elmi, Somaliland’s deputy foreign minister. The video’s translation wrongly claimed Omar had said she was “Somalian first and Muslim second”.

Mocking the faulty translation, Omar pointed out that the demonym for someone from Somalia is Somali, not Somalian. “If you are gonna talk about us, at least try to get our ethnicity right,” she posted on X.

The video, which has been viewed at least 4.5m times, also misquoted Omar as saying she would “liberate” Somali territories, which were “occupied” by neighbouring Kenya and Ethiopia, a polarising issue among Somalis, some of whom weren’t satisfied with the post-colonial settlement when the Horn of Africa was partitioned by Italy, France and the UK.

Elmi, Somaliland’s deputy foreign minister, took umbrage at the Minnesota lawmaker’s purported remarks about her position on the memorandum and Somalia’s relations with its neighbours, accusing her of “ethno-racist rhetoric”.

Omar defended her comments in the days that followed, saying the subtitles in the video were “not only slanted but completely off”, expressing her support for the government of Somalia, where she was born, as it finds itself embroiled in standoff with Ethiopia.

Omar vowed to thwart the deal, which the US has also expressed concerns over, telling people at the gathering in Minneapolis: “For as long as I am in Congress, no one will take over the seas belonging to the nation of Somalia and the United States will not support others who seek to steal from us.”

Several Somalis also posted on X about the errors in the subtitles, including the translator and author Aziz Mahdi, who objected to Omar’s remarks but said: “The translation offered fails to accurately convey the essence of her talk, leading to a distorted understanding of her message. So don’t cite it.”

The Minnesota Reformer, a Minnesota-based news outlet, worked with two independent Somali translators who recorded Omar as saying: “We are people who know that they are Somali and Muslim”, not that she was “Somalians first” as the video suggested.

Abdirashid Hashi, a former Somali government minister, called on Elmi to retract the video and issue an apology.

Despite attempts to clarify Omar’s message, several Republicans and rightwing figures seized upon the video without verifying the misleading translation, to launch a fresh attack on Omar, including Elon Musk, whose own ties with third countries were questioned by Joe Biden. On his X account, Musk posted: “The United States or another country. Pick one.”

Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor, called for Omar’s denaturalization and deportation, while Tom Emmer, the House majority whip, decried her comments as a “slap in the face” to her constituents and called for an ethics investigation into her remarks.

The Greene censure bill could be a further thorn in the congresswoman’s side, but Omar shrugged it off on Thursday. “I truly do not care about what that insane woman does,” she said, according to Politico.

And her party is standing behind her. Hakeem Jeffries, the House minority leader, criticised the move as a “frivolous censure resolution, designed to inflame and castigate and further divide us”.


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