Ilhan Omar's trip to Islamabad may boost Pakistan's far-right - analysis

Ilhan Omar went on an apparently unofficial trip to Pakistan where she met with a number of officials including ousted PM Imran Khan.

U.S. Representative Ilhan Omar (D-MN), December 13, 2019. (photo credit: REUTERS/ELIZABETH FRANTZ)
U.S. Representative Ilhan Omar (D-MN), December 13, 2019.
(photo credit: REUTERS/ELIZABETH FRANTZ)

US Congress member Ilhan Omar visited Pakistan recently on a trip that potentially raises controversial subjects because she went to Kashmir and the trip could inflame Pakistani far-right nationalists. The Times of India noted that Omar’s visit was “unofficial” and that her visit to “occupied Kashmir (PoK) did not represent the United States government in any way.” The report noted that India had condemned her trip to contested Kashmir as violating India's territorial integrity and sovereignty.

Omar has been outspoken in condemning Israel, Saudi Arabia and other US partners and allies, and it was unclear why she chose to make a controversial visit to Pakistan at this time. 

Recently, Pakistan carried out an airstrike in Afghanistan that massacred civilians. Reports say that dozens were killed in the airstrike and the New York Times said that 45 had been killed, citing to Afghan officials. Omar has in the past slammed the US for airstrikes in Somalia and Syria and in Afghanistan but has been silent on the Pakistani airstrike and human rights abuses.  

Omar tweeted about her trip from her personal Twitter account to her 3 million followers rather than her Congressional one which has 1 million followers. This was apparently an example of how this was a personal trip even though Pakistan officials took time to meet with her and highlighted her role as a member of Congress.

Omar’s selective highlighting of human rights issues was noted by the Times of India. It noted that she has critiqued India and has been critical of the Biden administration for not critiquing human rights issues in India. The Tribune in India asked who funded the visit by the member of US Congress since it appeared the visit was not sponsored by the US. India External Affairs Ministry Spokesperson Arindam Bagchi told reporters in New Delhi, "We have noted that US Representative Ilhan Omar has visited a part of the Indian Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir that is currently illegally occupied by Pakistan.”  

U.S. Rep Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (credit: REUTERS/KEVIN LAMARQUE)U.S. Rep Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (credit: REUTERS/KEVIN LAMARQUE)

Meanwhile, Omar’s Twitter account has highlighted her trip. She retweeted an article published in the Asian Telegraph over the weekend that was headlined “Ilhan Omar exposes Indian deceitfulness.” She also posted a photo of her meeting a person at a “refugee village.” She retweeted a photo visiting a university and also visited a fence that apparently divides Pakistan-controlled Kashmir from India. She met the foreign minister of Pakistan, according to a video posted online; and she met with Pakistan Prime Minister Muhammad Shehbaz. She also met Pakistani president Arif Alvi at Aiwan-e-Sadr in Islamabad and the speaker of the national assembly, according to tweets she shared. She also met with recently ousted Pakistan leader Imran Khan. A member of the Pakistan PTI party posted the photo of her and Khan, noting that they discussed Islamophobia and working against Islamophobia globally.

Even as she met Pakistani officials, there were a series of attacks on Shi’ite Muslims in Afghanistan. Bombings targeted a boys' school and mosques during Ramadan. Some 33 people were murdered in the attack on a mosque in Kunduz province, including children. There were other attacks on Muslims in Mazar-i-Sharif in northern Afghanistan and in Kabul. Despite speaking about Islamophobia, it does not appear Omar condemned or mentioned the attacks. She did reference Ramadan, however, in tweets about Christians singing on an airplane in the US. She tweeted that “the original snowflakes had a complete and glorious meltdown,” noting in response to criticism that “it’s Ramadan and I am gonna pray for y’all….May God cleanse your hearts.” 

The trip to Pakistan is unusual for a member of Congress. India condemned the trip and her visit to “a part of the Indian Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir that is currently illegally occupied by Pakistan. If such a politician wishes to practice her narrow-minded politics at home, that may be her business.”  

While Pakistani officials who met Omar appeared to treat it as an official visit, The Dawn in Pakistan highlighted US comments that the visit was unofficial: “Imran Khan is still blaming the US for his ouster from PM’s office while he’s also asking his supporters to keep protesting outside the White House. But yesterday, Congresswoman Ilhan Omar met with Mr. Khan in Islamabad. It was an hour-long meeting. Close associates of Mr. Khan claim that the United States is trying to clear the air with Mr. Khan."

Responding to a journalist who had asked if it was true that Omar was representing the Biden government on her trip, US State Department spokesman Ned Price replied, "Well, as I understand it, Representative Omar is not visiting Pakistan on US government-sponsored travel, so I’d need to refer you to her office for questions on her travel." 

This is one of the concerns that the trip raises. Imran Khan is a right-wing populist who often blames the US and others for problems in Pakistan. Pakistani politics leans to the far-right and has numerous extremist groups. In addition, there are often attacks on minorities in Pakistan. These include recent attacks on Sikhs, Hindus and Christians. Often in Pakistan, minorities are lynched or arrested on the basis of accusations of blasphemy. A man from Sri Lanka was beaten to death last year, and courts said that up to 88 people engaged in the lynching of the man. Videos were posted online of his corpse being burned by mobs.  

Pakistani leaders like Khan complain about Islamophobia, but Pakistan is one of the leading countries when it comes to attacks on Muslims, such as Shi’ites who are frequently attacked. More Muslims are killed in far-right Islamist attacks in Pakistan than in most countries in the world, meaning that it is Pakistan that appears to push Islamophobia. For instance, in March, a bombing of a mosque in Pakistan killed 56 Shi’ite Muslims.  

While Omar’s visit did not appear to mention human rights or condemn attacks on minorities in Pakistan, she has in the past raised issues of human rights in Kashmir, when it comes to Indian-controlled areas. In 2019,  she led six members of Congress in a letter to call on the US ambassador to India and Charge d’Affaires in Pakistan to “use diplomatic relationships with the Indian and Pakistani governments to respect human rights and deescalate the current crisis in Jammu and Kashmir.” The letter noted that “this presents a tremendous danger to global peace and a clear national security risk for the United States. Pakistan and India are both valued allies, crucial to our interests in the region, including the Afghanistan peace process. It is of the utmost importance that we leverage our relationships with their governments to deescalate the situation.” The letter was signed by Reps. Raúl M. Grijalva, Andy Levin, James P. McGovern, Ted Lieu, Alan Lowenthal and Donald S. Beyer. 

In the past, Pakistan has supported extremists in Kashmir. This led to the Kargil war in 1999 which could have ignited a larger regional conflict. In 2008, Pakistani extremists from the group Lashkar-e-Taiba attacked the Indian port city of Mumbai, murdering 164 people. The murderers, who had been based in Pakistan, arrived by sea. The BBC noted that “ten heavily-armed militants, all Pakistani nationals, had arrived by sea in the evening, split into groups, hijacked vehicles and attacked targets including the main railway station, two luxury hotels, a Jewish cultural center and a hospital. The 60-hour siege of the city had left 166 dead and soured ties between India and Pakistan.” The Jewish cultural center in question was a Jewish Chabad center where Jews were purposely targeted. 

The recently ousted Pakistani leader Khan has often used dog whistles that could lead to antisemitism. For instance, his former wife was the target of antisemitic abuse. In 2021, Sky News reported that the vice-president of the Pakistan Muslim League had said her son was not being “raised in the lap of Jews.”   

Recently, as Khan was trying to avoid being ousted as Pakistan’s leader, he pushed conspiracies. “Embattled Pakistani premier Imran Khan is brandishing a big conspiracy, based on anti-Americanism and antisemitism. How many voters buy his claim of a coup will decide the country's future,” an oped at Haaretz noted. 

The overall context of all this is that Pakistan is a volatile place currently in political turmoil. The Pakistani air force attack on Afghanistan harmed civilians, and it appears extremists targeting Shi’ites are gaining more influence in Afghanistan which could spill over to Pakistan. The fact that Pakistani officials gave the US member of Congress a lot of time in meetings and a trip to Kashmir could portend Pakistan’s attempt to use the Kashmir issue to inflame tensions. Overall, the visit was a missed opportunity for Omar to hold Pakistan to the same standard as India in terms of human rights issues and to raise the rights of minorities in Pakistan. It’s possible that far-right populists in Pakistan might see the visit as an opening to push their agenda. This could be bad for Afghanistan and India and spread tensions in South Asia.