During a Fairfax County School Board meeting on February 23, 2023, School Board Member-at-Large Abrar Omeish made a statement about the battle of Iwo Jima that triggered requests for clarification and criticisms. Ms. Omeish subsequently issued a statement that responded to her critics, accusing them of distorting her remarks and being motivated by religious animus towards Muslims. Ms. Omeish’s response is very problematic and raises a serious question about whether she respects her obligation under the Virginia Constitution to be accountable to the people of Fairfax County.
The Fairfax County School Board meeting was held on Thursday, February 23, 2023 and a video of it is available for viewing through the Fairfax County School Board website. Ms. Omeish’s complete remarks on the topic can be found on the video of that meeting, beginning approximately at the 3 hour, 22 minute point and ending approximately 3 minutes later. Anyone interested in this controversy should take the time to view the video and listen to Ms. Omeish’s remarks in their entirety.
A WJLA 7News story about Ms. Omeish’s remark about the battle of Iwo Jima and her response to her critics is available here.
The WJLA 7News story quotes Ms. Omeish’s remarks about the battle of Iwo Jima as follows:
“There’s also a lot of history in February. A number of community members reached out to me just a few days ago. It was Japanese Day of Remembrance,” said Omeish. “Just something for us to reflect on as we learn our history and think about it. The days when Iwo Jima unfortunately happened and set a record for really what I hate to say human evil is capable of. So that’s something just to remember especially actually in advance of Holocaust Remembrance Day.”
In response to criticisms of her remarks, Ms. Omeish made the following statement to WJLA 7News:
“I am very disappointed my statements on Iwo Jima and the Japanese Day of Remembrance have been so misrepresented. I would like to set the record straight. Before the battle at Iwo Jima in Feb 1945, Japan knew it could not defend the island, but its government still demanded its military forces to fight to the death. Even though Lieutenant General Kuribayashi knew there was no possibility of winning the battle, Prime Minster Hideki Tojo sent him on a suicidal mission to inflict as many casualties as possible on allied forces and to never surrender. The unnecessary spilling of blood was not right.
At the same time, our own government also knew in Feb. 1945 that the overwhelming number of 120,000 incarcerated Japanese Americans posed no threat to American security. By that time, the Japanese American 442 Infantry Regiment was already well on its way to becoming the most decorated American military unit in WWII. The refusal of our own government to release the Japanese prisoners was and should continue to be condemned. Our government’s actions were also not right. During the school board meeting, I mentioned both points to nuance our discussion regarding these events. The deliberate distortion of my statements is completely unfounded and frankly shocking. Truthfully, it is hard not to see how the distortion is not loaded with its own fears about me and driven by what is entirely unrelated to this subject: the false assumption articles like these depend on— that Muslim somehow implies anti-American.”
Ms. Omeish’s remark about the battle of Iwo Jima at the School Board meeting was vague and ambiguous. Was she saying (1) the American assault of Iwo Jima was evil, (2) the Japanese defense of Iwo Jima was evil, (3) both actions were evil, or (4) something else about the battle of Iwo Jima was evil? Her remarks at the School Board hearing did not give a clear picture of what the battle of Iwo Jima Ms. Omeish thought “set a record for really what I hate to say human evil is capable of.”
Ms. Omeish’s remarks at the School Board meeting that immediately followed her remark about the battle of Iwo Jima did not elaborate or clarify why she thought the battle of Iwo Jima set such a record of human evil. The Fairfax County video of the School Board meeting shows Ms. Omeish made references to: (1) the anniversary of the murder of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, (2) the need for people to be thoughtful, (3) advocacy about where the new FBI headquarters should be sited, (4) people having different experiences with law enforcement and the surveillance state, (5) a Washington Post story about the family of Malcolm X suing the CIA and FBI, and (6) different paths that people take in the same community. None of these comments shed light on what Ms. Omeish meant when saying the battle of Iwo Jima “set a record for really what I hate to say human evil is capable of.”
Ms. Omeish’s statement to WJLA 7 News is problematic. Ms. Omeish offers an after-the-fact elaboration of her remark about the battle of Iwo Jima that goes far beyond what she actually said at the School Board meeting. A simple comparison between the Fairfax County video of the School Board meeting with Ms. Omeish’s statement to WJLA 7 News shows she does not “set the record straight” but tries to retroactively clean up the vague and ambiguous comment she made about the battle of Iwo Jima at the School Board hearing. Trying to do damage control in the face of controversy is understandable. But it is not credible for Ms. Omeish to claim in her statement to WJLA 7 News that “During the school board meeting, I mentioned both points to nuance our discussion regarding these events.” A review of the video of February 23, 2023, School Board meeting shows that (1) Ms. Omeish made no reference to, or mention of, the Japanese General on Iwo Jima or the Japanese strategy to inflict maximum casualties; and (2) Ms. Omeish’s brief reference to the Japanese Day of Remembrance offered nothing close to the after-the-fact elaboration made in her statement to WJLA 7 News. Ms. Omeish’s critics cannot be fairly accused of distortion and misrepresentation of her remarks made at the School Board meeting based on the substance of Ms. Omeish’s after-the-fact elaboration given to WJLA 7 News.
It is unwarranted for Ms. Omeish, in her explanation to WJLA 7 News, to impugn the motives of all people who criticized her Iwo Jima remarks by claiming that they deliberately distorted her School Board meeting remarks and had to be motivated by “the false assumption articles like these depend on— that Muslim somehow implies anti-America.” Given the ambiguous, vague nature of her remark at the School Board meeting about the battle of Iwo Jima, it was not unreasonable to ask whether she was saying the American assault on Iwo Jima was evil. Asking for clarification or explanation of an ambiguous, vague statement is not evidence of distortion or religious animus. Furthermore, a criticism of Ms. Omeish’s Iwo Jima remark as implying the American assault of Iwo Jima was evil does not, on its face show distortion or religious animus.
There is no good reason to label a criticism or request for clarification or explanation about whether Ms. Omeish was calling the American assault on Iwo Jima evil as being motivated by animus toward her religious beliefs unless it contains language that denigrates or maligns her religious beliefs. Any elected official making a statement about the battle of Iwo Jima demonstrating evil that is as ambiguous and vague as Ms. Omeish’s comment made during the School Board meeting should expect to get asked for clarification or explanation or challenged about why he or she meant the American assault of Iwo Jima was evil.
Ms. Omeish’s assumption that all criticism of her is motivated by religious animus towards Muslims is unfair and unwarranted. She is not above criticism. She is not above being called upon to explain or clarify a vague or ambiguous statement. She is not immune from the glare of public scrutiny that all elected officials must submit to. She is not entitled to summarily impugn the motives of other people without reasonable evidence of improper motivation. Just as Ms. Omeish is entitled to not have her motives impugned solely because of her religious beliefs, other people are entitled to not have their motives impugned solely based on an unsubstantiated charge of religious animus toward Muslims, or a stereotype that any criticism of a Muslim must be inherently tainted by religious animus.
Ms. Omeish should differentiate between (1) fair, reasonable criticism and (2) unfair, unreasonable criticism. Moreover, even if any specific criticism of her uses language that reflects religious animus towards Muslims, that would not justify assuming all criticisms of her are similarly motivated. Mere suspicion is not enough to justify branding any person or all persons asking for clarification or explanation or making a criticism as being motivated by religious animus. Stereotyping all Muslims is unfair and wrong. Stereotyping all criticisms of a Muslim person as being motivated by religious animus is also unfair and wrong.
Under the Virginia Constitution (Article I, Section 2) government officials are accountable to the people at all times — not just during election campaigns. Like all elected officials in Fairfax County, Ms. Omeish is accountable to the people of Fairfax County for actions taken and statements made in her official capacity. If she makes ambiguous, vague or controversial statements then she should respond to any fair, reasonable criticism or request for clarification or explanation of such statements, without cavalierly impugning the motives of people making such criticisms or requests.
Ms. Omeish’s First Amendment freedom of speech protects her from government censorship. Ms. Omeish’s First Amendment freedom of religion protects her right to worship as a Muslim. But, her freedom of speech and her freedom of religion: (a) do not provide her with immunity from criticism or disagreement directed against her remarks or statements; (b) do not protect her from being held accountable by the people of Fairfax County for her conduct in office and for any inappropriate statements she may make as a public official; and (c) do not give her the right to indiscriminately label criticisms made about her as being based on religious animus.
If Ms. Omeish runs for re-election in 2023, the voters in Fairfax County should consider the overall track record of how she has responded to questions and criticisms during her tenure on the School Board. Fairfax County voters should not vote for Ms. Omeish’s re-election if they conclude Ms. Omeish: (a) is unwilling to take responsibility for her comments or actions; (b) has demonstrated a pattern of deflecting questions or criticisms by impugning the motives of people who ask fair questions or make fair criticisms of her, (c) acts as if she thinks she is not accountable to the public, or (d) some combination of these.