Muslim Americans sceptical as White House launches strategy to combat Islamophobia

Community leaders say President Joe Biden needs to 'establish credibility' with them as discontent over US support of Israel mounts

Demonstrators from American Muslims for Palestine pray during a protest against Israel's actions in Gaza. . EPA
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President Joe Biden's administration has announced that the US would develop the first ever National Strategy to Counter Islamophobia, as discontent among Muslim and Arab Americans rises over Washington's response to the Israel-Gaza war.

The White House said on Wednesday it was still developing the strategy and is working “with community leaders, advocates, members of Congress and more” to solidify specific deliverables “which will be a joint effort led by the Domestic Policy Council and the National Security Council”, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said in a statement.

But many Muslim Americans are sceptical that the Biden administration is putting forward a good-faith effort.

“Anytime an effort is launched to combat Islamophobia, we would welcome it and appreciate it,” Samina Sohail, vice chairwoman of the Islamic Centre of Greater Cincinnati in the state of Ohio, told The National.

“However, this time, with this administration, they need to first establish credibility with Muslim Americans.”

Ms Sohail said that “on occasion after occasion”, the White House “has really alienated us”.

Vice President Kamala Harris noted on Wednesday that the US has seen a sharp rise in anti-Palestinian, anti-Arab, anti-Semitic and Islamophobic incidents “as a result of the Hamas terrorist attack in Israel and the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.”

“Muslims in America and those perceived to be Muslim have endured a disproportionate number of hate-fuelled attacks,” Ms Harris said in remarks announcing the launch of the national strategy.

In the aftermath of the Hamas attack in Israel last month, a landlord fatally stabbed six-year-old Wadea Al Fayoume, a Palestinian-American boy, and gravely injured his mother. The Department of Justice is investigating the stabbing as a hate crime.

Mr Biden held a closed-door meeting with Muslim-American leaders last week, a source told The National, as community resentment grows over his support for Israel, including a multibillion-dollar request for increased funding for the US ally.

Ms Sohail hopes that the administration will look to community leaders and take accountability for Muslim-American mistrust as it shapes its strategy to combat Islamophobia.

The President, she said, needs to “look at your own tone, look at your own rhetoric, issue apologies to the Muslim-American community which is so hurt by what you are doing”.

“And we don't even have a voice and where our tax dollars go,” she added.

“Talk to the Muslim-American constituency and make a plan that there is buy in from our end.”

Many leaders in the Arab-American community, an important and often Democratic-voting bloc, have warned Mr Biden that the administration's approach could lose him their critical vote in 2024.

“Nothing could have prepared us for the complete erasure of our voices and radio silence from those whom we elected to protect and represent us,” Abdullah Hammoud, the Democratic mayor of Dearborn, Michigan, wrote on X, formerly Twitter.

The new White House strategy on Islamophobia has been expected since the administration first unveiled a national strategy to combat anti-Semitism earlier this year.

Spikes in anti-Muslim sentiment in the US long predated the current crisis in Gaza, most visible in a wave of federal surveillance of mosques and Muslim community centres following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Ms Sohail said fears, especially among Muslim women who wear hijab in her predominantly conservative and Christian community, hearken back to those years.

“Many, many Muslim women are visibly Muslim … And to be reminded just like we were after 9/11, to watch your back, to go out in groups, because Islamophobia is real and people are being targeted.”

A 2021 report from Pew Research found that “many Americans know little about Islam or Muslims, and views toward Muslims have become increasingly polarised along political lines”.

In 2017, during the first few months right-wing former president Donald Trump's administration, Pew found that 48 per cent of Muslim-American adults “had personally experienced some form of discrimination because of their religion in the previous year”.

By comparison, that was 43 per cent in 2011 and 40 per cent in 2007.

This current spike in fears of anti-Muslim hatred is already shifting community dynamics, said Ms Sohail.

Pro-Israel politics have dominated the community response, including at many of their children's schools, where she said they have been asked to wear blue and white in support of Israel.

She said this is creating a sentiment among the community's few Muslims that “we can't even mourn our own”, as the death toll in Gaza skyrockets.

“We have friends in the Christian community and Jewish community, and many have reached out and validated our hurt. But we have also felt the silence of others who have not,” said Ms Sohail.

“And so I think only time will tell what our relationships will look like.”

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Updated: November 02, 2023, 8:21 PM