WASHINGTON – Muslim groups across the country are calling on President Joe Biden’s administration to name a special envoy to monitor and combat Islamophobia, which a U.N. expert says has escalated to “epidemic proportions.”
In the letter, the U.S. Council of Muslim Organizations told Biden a special envoy to monitor and combat Islamophobia at the State Department could help address the issue that affects the third largest religious group in the country. The envoy could support efforts both in the United States and internationally against anti-Muslim hate crimes and where Muslims are denied constitutional rights.
The White House did not respond to questions about whether the administration will appoint a special envoy to combat Islamophobia. But Biden condemned violence against Muslim Americans in a statement last week marking the beginning of Ramadan.
“Muslim Americans continue to be targeted by bullying, bigotry and hate crimes,” he said. “This prejudice and these attacks are wrong. They are unacceptable. And they must stop. No one in America should ever live in fear of expressing his or her faith. And my administration will work tirelessly to protect the rights and safety of all people.”
Biden repealed a 2017 executive order by former President Donald Trump that prevented foreign nationals from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S. He also hosted a meeting with more than 20 leading Muslim organizations, and his administration declared China’s treatment of Uyghur Muslims a genocide.
The special envoy requested by the U.S. Council of Muslim Organizations also could confront anti-Muslim bigotry internationally in countries such as Myanmar, where 130,000 Rohingya Muslims are imprisoned in 24 internment camps, and China, where Uyghurs are systematically raped, sexually abused and tortured in “re-education” camps in Xinjiang Province, according to the U.N. report.
A State Department spokesperson said the department could not speak to any potential nominations.
“The Biden administration remains fully committed to promoting universal respect for freedom of religion or belief for all, including for members of Muslim communities worldwide,” the spokesperson said. “We continue to prioritize efforts to engage with Muslims around the world on issues of mutual interest, in support of shared goals, and to advance U.S. foreign policy.”
The State Department regularly denounces discrimination and abuses perpetrated against members of Muslim communities, most notably in Myanmar and China, the spokesperson said. The Office of International Religious Freedom also tracks incidents of anti-Muslim abuses and engages with Muslim communities and Muslim leaders around the world, the department said.
Along with appointing a State Department special envoy, the group requested that Biden include Muslims at every level of government, meet with Muslim community leaders and pursue systemic policy reforms to address anti-Muslim discrimination.
Council Secretary General Oussama Jammal told USA TODAY that Muslims “have a real and genuine concern about the rise of Islamophobia.”
“We don’t believe [Islamophobia] is subsiding. We have a real and present danger that we have to consider. And we have to take every precaution to protect our communities and our civil rights,” Jammal said.
Aftermath of the Muslim ban
“Lifting the ban is not undoing the injustice,” said Hatem Bazian, director of the Islamophobia Research & Documentation Project at the University of California, Berkeley.
The council said it has reports of family members stranded abroad under difficult conditions because of Trump’s order and has been working with the State Department to bring them home.
To reverse the aftereffects of the travel ban, experts say, immigrants whose visas have been held up should be prioritized.
Even if the effects of the so-called Muslim ban are fully remedied, experts say, the U.S. still disproportionately applies to Muslim-majority countries a vetting process aimed at preventing immigrants perceived to be national security threats from obtaining citizenship.
“We need to seek that complete shift where Muslims are not presumed to be guilty until proven innocent,” Bazian said.
Signatories of the letter urged Biden to ban discriminatory immigration policies, including supporting a bill in Congress that would prohibit future administrations from implementing a similar travel ban.
The rise of Islamophobia
The Council on American-Islamic Relations recorded more than 10,000 Islamophobic incidents across the U.S. between 2014 and 2019, with the highest spike occurring after Trump’s 2017 executive order. The list includes hate crimes such as physical assault, property damage, bullying, intimidation and harassment, as well as denial of services or religious accommodation and employment discrimination.
Ahmed Shaheed, the U.N. special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, released a report to the Human Rights Council on Feb. 25 saying that institutional suspicion of Muslims has escalated to “epidemic proportions.”
In 2020, Islamophobia ranged from a Maryland mosque being the target of violent threats by residents describing Muslims as invaders to a Missouri mosque being set on fire and destroyed by a suspect with a history of mosque vandalism during Ramadan.
According to a 2018 New America survey, over half of non-Muslim Americans are concerned about extremism spreading within Muslim communities in the United States. One in three respondents reported feeling uncomfortable when they saw Muslim Americans wearing Islamic attire, said they would be concerned if a mosque was built in their neighborhood and believe Muslims should be subject to extra security screenings at airports.
In addition, 72 anti-Muslim hate groups that portray Muslims as potential terrorist threats were active in the U.S. as of 2020, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
“There is a sense of traumatization, alienation and certainly a chilling effect on the communities because of this suspicion,” Shaheed told USA TODAY.
Muslims feel pressure to conceal or underplay their religious identity by changing their names, wardrobes, diets and religious practices in order to receive equal treatment, he and other experts said.
During his election campaign, Biden promised that he would order the Justice Department to focus additional resources to combat religion-based hate crimes as well as human rights violations globally. On March 30, Attorney General Merrick Garland announced that he would launch a 30-day expedited review to determine how the Justice Department can better track hate crimes, hold perpetrators accountable, identify laws that might prevent hate crimes and engage with communities facing hate crimes.
Cyra Choudhury, a Florida International University law professor whose work focuses on Muslims, questions whether a government that has itself been a purveyor of Islamophobia can be responsible for monitoring and combating it. “It runs the risk of being window dressing,” she said.
Ending national security overreach
Countries like the U.S., Shaheed’s report states, have responded to security threats by adopting measures that disproportionately target Muslims and define them as at risk for radicalization. As a result, Muslims often feel stigmatized, the report says.
Jammal said national security overreach “has to be dealt with.”
Such policies range from the placement of Muslim leaders on terrorist lists without explanation to entrapment by law enforcement. It has made their lives difficult, embarrassed them and, in some cases, caused them to lose their jobs, Jammal said.
Surveillance is unrelenting in the lives of Muslim Americans: from Somali youth in Minneapolis as young as 16 being entrapped by friends paid by the FBI to Muslim men being placed on the government’s no-fly list because they refused to be FBI informants. It has also affected entire communities; smart street lights were directed at San Diego mosques, Boston police surveilled Muslims on social media, and New York police infiltrated Muslim student groups and put informants in mosques.
Meanwhile, federal government suspicion of Muslims continues to be the norm: The U.S. military has reportedly been collecting data on Muslims through third-party applications, including the most popular applications used by Muslims, according to a recent VICE investigation. A leaked Department of Human Services report in 2019 suggested that the administration considered tagging young Muslim men as “at-risk persons.”
“The vast majority of people on those lists are law-abiding citizens serving their country, most of them in the community service sector,” Jammal said.
Experts said the problem could be reduced with increased law enforcement accountability, training, oversight and transparency.
Muslim representation in government
In an October address to Muslim leaders, Biden said his administration would “look like America, with Muslim Americans serving at every level.”
No Muslims, however, were among his 15 Cabinet nominees. Though all but two Cabinet-level positions have been filled, the U.S. Council of Muslim Organizations urged Biden in the coming years to nominate a Muslim to a Cabinet-level position or as a deputy Cabinet secretary.
“The president is committed to furthering the fight for racial justice by continuing to appoint officials who represent the whole of America – different origins, ethnicities, religions, and socioeconomic backgrounds,” the White House official who responded to the groups wrote. “The president understands that there is more work to be done and will continue to push for justice and equity for all Americans.”
Contributing: USA TODAY’s Michael Collins, Deirdre Shesgreen