Ilhan Omar’s meeting with Imran stirs controversy

US Congresswoman Ilhan Omar (centre) meets Hina Rabbani Khar, the minister of state for foreign affairs, on Wednesday.—AFP

ISLAMABAD: US Rep Ilhan Omar’s visit to Islamabad — the first by an American legislator since the new government took office last week — was dominated by a controversy over her meeting with ex-premier Imran Khan who claims Washington had conspired to dislodge his government.

Ms Omar met a range of Pakistani leaders, including President Arif Alvi, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Hina Khar and National Assembly Speaker Raja Pervaiz Ashraf, but it was her meeting with Mr Khan that hogged the spotlight.

Former human rights minister in Khan’s cabinet, Dr Shireen Mazari, tweeted about the meeting. “US Congresswoman Ilhan Omar called on Chairman PTI in Bani Gala. They discussed Islamophobia & related issues. @Ilhan expressed her admiration for @ImranKhanPTI & his position on & work against Islamophobia globally. IK appreciated her courageous & principled position on issues,” Dr Mazari said.

Social media immediately questioned Mr Khan about the meeting with the American legislator and reminded him of his criticism of US officials meeting opposition figures.

US congresswoman also meets president and PM

Not only journalists, ordinary tweeples and users of other social media platforms asked for the justification of the meeting, government functionaries also jumped into the debate and could not resist criticising Mr Khan over it.

Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah led the charge by asking Mr Khan if his meeting with Ms Omar was “a conspiracy or interference”.

“Which conspiracy is being hatched?” he asked while recalling Mr Khan’s stance that opposition’s meetings with the American officials were conspiratorial. Warning of an investigation into the meeting, the interior minister said that if Mr Khan did not himself divulge the details, he (as the minister) “will investigate since the nation should know the truth, lest Imran Niazi, according to his tradition, brings out another letter a few days later”.

Omar, a Somali-American lawmaker representing Minnesota in the US House of Representatives, is not new to controversies. This time it has got more to do with the timing of her visit, which took place when Mr Khan has crafted a narrative of conspiracy by the US around his removal from office through a vote of no-confidence in the National Assembly. Besides taking a hardline on the private interactions between politicians and US officials, he has in his speeches at public rallies vowed no subservience to the US while accusing his opponents of toeing Washington’s line.

In background discussions with US officials, it transpired that Ms Omar was on a “personal trip”, which had not come through the administration. The trip had been arranged in her personal capacity as the congresswoman, one official explained.

Her meeting with Mr Khan had been directly scheduled by her office through a US-based Pakistani businessman, a PTI leader said.

There have been several explanations about her trip, even though she has in the past never shown any interest in Pakistan. One of the more plausible ones is that her constituency has a sizeable Muslim population and she has herself worked extensively on Islamophobia and may have wished to connect with the PTI chairman, who had highlighted the issue leading to UN designating March 15 as the international day to combat Islamophobia.

Meanwhile, President Alvi, while talking to Ms Omar, called for “constructive engagement between the two countries” and emphasised the need for strengthening bilateral ties.

Ms Omar highlighted the potential for improving and strengthening ties between the two countries and “appreciated the role played by Pakistan in combating Islamophobia”.

She also met Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, who told her that Pakistan “wanted to further deepen bilateral cooperation based on mutual respect, trust and equality”.

In her meeting with Ms Omar, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Hina Khar said: “Pakistan is committed to further strengthening bilateral relations with the United States and advancing bilateral cooperation in various fields of mutual interest.”

Published in Dawn, April 21st, 2022

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