January 29, 2024 - 6:25pm

Ilhan Omar has a reputation as one of the most progressive politicians in the United States. She is a prominent member of “the Squad”, the most Left-wing faction in the US Congress, and is especially vocal when it comes to foreign policy. Yet she recently gave a speech in which she sounded less like a bleeding-heart progressive and more like a full-blooded ethno-nationalist. 

While addressing a Somali American crowd in a Minneapolis hotel in her native tongue, Omar proudly spoke of how “we, as Somalians […] are brothers and sisters, people of the same blood.” After taking a swipe at those who “claim to be Somalis” — referring to the semi-autonomous breakaway territory of Somaliland — for signing an agreement with Ethiopia on sea access, Omar assured her audience that she will “protect the interests of Somalia [and Somalis] from inside the US system”. As one of the community’s “daughters”, she is in the US Congress to make sure this is the case. 

Right-wing commentators expressed their outrage at Omar for apparent “disloyalty”. That she was elected to represent her district in Minnesota in Congress, not the interests of the Somali ethnic group who form only a small part of her constituency, adds fuel to their claims. But this “long-distance nationalism”, as Benedict Anderson termed it, isn’t unprecedented. America is known for having a plethora of ethnic lobbies attempting to shape US foreign policy for the benefit of a particular country of ancestral origin. The Irish American diaspora has made notable efforts to lobby the US government to support the cause of Irish unification. Most of the time this isn’t threatening, but if it becomes politically influential — even affecting foreign policy — these old prejudices can become rather toxic.

What was ironic about Omar’s speech, however, is that if a Zionist at an Aipac meeting were speaking in those terms about Israel (for example, Donald Trump saying to a meeting of American Jews that Benjamin Netanyahu was “their” prime minister) she would lambast them. But the terms Omar used to describe how Somali Americans should band together and fight for their interests in the American political arena seem reminiscent of the Israel lobby and its real and imagined effectiveness in advancing its interests. 

It shouldn’t be surprising that immigrants can be shamelessly nationalistic about their homeland, have intense pride in their identity and history and not quite shake off long-held ethnic grievances. It’s why someone like Dua Lipa can be an Albanian irredentist — or why German Turks tend to vote for the Social Democrats in German national elections, but when the Turkish elections come around many vote for Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s conservative Islamic party, the AKP. 

This may sound like a paradox, but there is a rationality to it. For ethnic minorities in a Western country, it’s usually the Left-liberal or social democratic party that will try the hardest to garner their vote, even if they aren’t particularly liberal in outlook. Meanwhile, the Right-wing parties are often regarded as, ironically, not conservative enough or too hostile because of racism. So they have more to potentially gain from voting for the centre-left party even if they’re not particularly progressive socially and politically. 

Of course, ethnic groups are not hive minds. There are wide variations of politics and social views within them. Many American Jews have long been discontented with groups such as Aipac and their links with Netanyahu. Likewise, many Somali Americans aren’t irredentists, nor do they think in terms of narrow clan allegiances. This is why it is increasingly important to have a political vision of politics which isn’t based on ethnic lobbying or communalism, especially in a multi-ethnic democracy. Omar would be wise to tread more carefully in future.

Ralph Leonard is a British-Nigerian writer on international politics, religion, culture and humanism.