In a series of racist tweets on Sunday, President Donald Trump told a group of four Democratic congresswomen, all of whom are people of color, to “go back” to their supposed home countries, though three of them were born in the US. On Monday, he aggressively defended the tweets – and falsely accused one of the congresswomen, Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar, of having praised al Qaeda.
Trump said he is angry “when I hear people speaking about how wonderful al Qaeda is.” He emphasized: “That was Omar. How great al Qaeda is.” And he said, “She said you can hold their chest out, you can – ‘When I think of America, huh. When I think of al Qaeda, I can hold my chest out.’ “
Facts First: Omar has not praised al Qaeda or said she can hold her “chest out” when thinking of al Qaeda. Trump was inaccurately describing remarks she made in 2013 about how one of her college professors acted when he discussed al Qaeda.
Trump was referring to an Omar comment that has circulated this year in conservative media, including Fox News.
Only a short video clip has been posted on conservative websites. Even that clip does not include Omar praising Al Qaeda in any way, but here is the full context.
In a 2013 appearance on the Twin Cities PBS show BelAhdan, which discussed Middle East issues, Omar told host Ahmed Tharwat that it can take a long time for citizens of a country to condemn their own governments’ atrocities, since they don’t want to be seen as unpatriotic.
Omar, who came to the US as a refugee from Somalia, said that when the people committing the atrocities have not been elected, as in the case of “entities like al Qaeda or al-Shabaab” in Somalia, then “it is easier for you to say ‘this is not OK,’ because it is not a legitimized action, right, by laws.”
Tharwat mused about how Americans use the Arabic names for “violent or negative entities” like al Qaeda rather than translating them to English.
Omar responded that the use of the Arabic names was a product of media sensationalism. When a word is said with “such intensity,” she said, people think “it must hold a bigger meaning.”
She then spoke about a college class she said she took on terrorist ideology. She said, laughing, that the professor reacted with particular body language whenever he said the name “al Qaeda.”
“The thing that was interesting in the class was every time the professor said ‘al Qaeda’ he sort of like – his shoulders went up,” Omar said.
After some banter with Tharwat, she continued, “You don’t say ‘America’ with an intensity, you don’t say ‘England’ with an intensity, you know, you don’t say ‘the army’ with an intensity. But you say these names because you want that word to carry weight.”
She concluded: “So yes, a lot of it is deluded, I think. When you hear a lot of people speaking in Arabic, you know, suspicion arises.”
It is possible to argue that Omar was making light of al Qaeda’s crimes in suggesting that its name itself is what makes people recoil, or that she was implying that there is an equivalence between al Qaeda and the US army. But accusing her of praising al Qaeda is simply inaccurate.
Trump also made reference on Monday to another set of comments from Omar. In March, she told the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) advocacy group that average Muslim Americans need to “raise hell” to stand up for the civil liberties they had lost because “some people did something” on 9/11. Trying to quietly demonstrate good behavior is insufficient, she said.
“Here’s the truth. Far too long we have lived with the discomfort of being a second-class citizen. And, frankly, I’m tired of it, and every single Muslim in this country should be tired of it. CAIR was founded after 9/11 because they recognized that some people did something and that all of us were starting to lose access to our civil liberties,” she said. “So you can’t just say that today someone is looking at me strange, that I am going to try to make myself look pleasant. You have to say, ‘This person is looking at me strange, I am not comfortable with it, I am going to talk to them and ask them why.’ Because that is a right you have.”
Omar was criticized for the phrase “some people did something.” Here too, though, she did not come close to praising al Qaeda or suggesting al Qaeda made her proud. Rather, she omitted its name.
Omar has tweeted the name al Qaeda twice, in February and March, both times critically. In February, she wrote, “Not getting enough attention: US-made weapons shipped to Saudi Arabia and UAE ended up in the hands of al Qaeda and other extremists, violating the law.” In March, she wrote, “The Saudi royal family has literally helped fund al Qaeda. This is the debate no one wants to have but needs to be had. Saudi accountability is long overdue.”