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Biden and global Islamophobia

The Biden campaign’s recent criticism of a progressive Palestinian-American activist doesn’t inspire confidence that he and his team know what it takes to confront a mounting global crisis of anti-Muslim hatred.

Analysis | Washington Politics

If elected in November, a Biden administration must be prepared to confront a teeming pile of crises, including a devastating pandemic, an economic catastrophe, and mounting climate chaos. In his speech last week at the Democratic National Convention, Biden appeared clear-eyed about this reality. However, there is at least one global crisis that Biden seems unprepared to meaningfully confront — intensifying anti-Muslim bigotry and violence.

Anti-Muslim hatred has been rising for years, always soaring ever higher. From bigoted surveillance and incarceration policies in the wake of 9/11, to the crimes of endless wars in the Middle East and Africa, to the Trump administration en masse, the United States has been a leading incubator of Islamophobia.

Globally, the crisis is manifesting from India to Israel to the whole continent of Europe. Its most severe symptoms include the ongoing persecution and genocide of the Rohingya in Myanmar, the repression and forcible internment of more than a million Uyghurs in China, and the massacre of more than 50 worshippers in Christchurch, New Zealand. Leaders including Donald Trump, Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, India’s Narendra Modi, the UK’s Boris Johnson, and Hungary’s Viktor Orbán have all successfully weaponized Islamophobia to win elections, proving its political viability and so securing its longevity. Despite our naming Islamophobia as a global crisis and marching in streets and airports to oppose it, the phenomenon flourishes.

If a president Biden truly wants to safeguard communities and confront the global crises Trump has facilitated, combatting anti-Muslim hatred must be high on his agenda.

While courting Muslim voters, Biden has promised to repeal the Muslim ban on his first day in office, called for greater education on Islam, and committed to rebuilding the U.S. refugee program. His agenda for Muslim-American communities condemns the violence against Muslims in Myanmar, China, and Kashmir. But these commitments represent the barest minimum. Words and promises are woefully insufficient to confronting a crisis with tentacles in genocide, torture, and endless war. Political courage is needed — a courage demonstrably absent during the Democratic National Convention.

Instead of centering Muslims in the fight to unseat a president who won partly by demonizing them, the DNC included no Muslim speakers in its primetime lineup. Meanwhile, the DNC managed to find the space for Republicans and Michael Bloomberg, who infamously oversaw and never apologized for the surveillance of New York’s Muslim communities in the wake of 9/11.

To make matters worse, the Biden campaign capitulated to Republican criticism of the briefest appearance of Palestinian-American Muslim organizer Linda Sarsour at an associated event, distancing her from the Biden campaign and smearing her as antisemitic for her support of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement and criticism of Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians. Such bad-faith accusations of antisemitism are particularly leveled against Muslim critics of Israel from both sides of the aisle, silencing Muslim voices by weaponizing the very real threats faced by Jewish communities.

Subsequent outrage from Arab and Muslim groups prompted the Biden campaign to issue a private, off-the-record apology for a very public affront. The message Biden’s campaign sends to Muslim-American voters — particularly those calling for Palestinian rights and dignity — seems clear, one Rokia Hassanein aptly summarized as, “We want your vote, but not your voices.”

At best, Biden is taking Muslim voters for granted, assuming his quality of “not being Trump” will be enough to win him their votes. But the global crisis of anti-Muslim hatred is much larger than November’s election. And if Biden fails to counteract latent Islamophobia at his own party’s convention, it bodes poorly for his ability to do so while in office. Fortunately, it’s not too late for Biden to prove that he can rise to meet this challenge.  

Biden must begin at home. He should support abolishing the Department of Homeland Security, a post-9/11 relic that has been at the vanguard of inflicting trauma on Muslim communities in the United States. Biden must commit to terminating the $80 million discriminatory federal surveillance program, Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention — rebranded from the Countering Violent Extremism program pioneered by the Obama administration. By categorizing Muslims as either terrorists or assets against terror, these policies undermine the security of communities through disproportional policing, incarceration, and surveillance. They amount to nothing short of American militarism creeping onto American streets.  

Instead of sidelining Muslim voices, Biden should elevate them by naming at least one Muslim-American to his cabinet — the first in U.S. history. He must lead the Democratic Party by example and defend Muslim voices in Congress, throwing his support in particular behind Reps. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, who have been subject to attacks by members of their own party for their constitutionally protected criticism of Israel’s discriminatory policies. Where House Speaker Nancy Pelosi failed to come to their defense, Biden must prove he will — without qualification. He must hold his own party to account for anti-Muslim rhetoric and policies and, unlike Obama, finally pursue accountability for the crimes of the ongoing post-9/11 wars. This includes finally closing Guantanamo Bay prison.

Rooting out Islamophobia in the Democratic Party is more important than ever when faced with an increasingly anti-Muslim far right and the Trump administration in particular. “Proud Islamophobe” Laura Loomer raised more than a million dollars to win her Republican primary in Florida. And while she is unlikely to walk the halls of Congress, Republican nominee for Georgia’s 14th district, Marjorie Taylor Greene, who said Reps. Omar and Tlaib were part of “an Islamic invasion of our government,” likely will.

As a Muslim growing up in post-9/11 America, very little Islamophobic rhetoric phases me. But I find Greene’s comments on Islam shocking. If elected, she will write and vote on legislation that directly impacts Muslims in the United States and across the world. Biden must be ready to protect Muslim communities from this bigotry and disavow it in the plainest possible terms. 

Biden must also reject American militarism in the Middle East and Africa, which is directly linked to anti-Muslim hatred and bigotry. Not only will doing so help him meaningfully combat the climate crisis — already a stated priority — ending endless war is also necessary to tackling systemic racism. For too long, Muslim communities abroad have been diminished as security threats — justifying military occupation and airstrikes that have cost too many civilian lives, with little to no accountability. Biden needs an approach to foreign policy in the Middle East and Africa centered on uplifting the rights and dignity of its inhabitants, one that refuses to replace endless war with endless sanctions, revitalizes diplomacy with both allies and adversaries alike, and denies allies blank checks to act with impunity. That includes Saudi Arabia, and, despite Biden’s repeated and loud reluctance, Israel.

Only by making confrontation of anti-Muslim hatred a priority of U.S. domestic and foreign policy can a Biden administration meaningfully diminish not just American militarism and bigotry, but also anti-Muslim violence in other countries, like China, India, Myanmar, and Israel. Given the continued rise of global Islamophobia, the stakes of tackling this issue are higher than ever.

Photo: Andrew Cline via
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