On the first day President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris take office, the pair have said they want to end the controversial Muslim Ban that banned Muslims from a list of Muslim countries from entering the United States, a relief for Muslim Americans across the nation. But is our bar for progress really that low, especially for Muslim women?
As the founder of MuslimGirl.com, it’s been made clear to me that these last four years have pulled back the veil on what was always festering beneath the surface in America. When President Trump first proposed the idea of a Muslim Ban in 2015, the alarming turn in our political climate compelled our staff to publish the “Crisis Safety Manual for Muslim Women,” and eventually suspend all coverage of Trump’s hateful rhetoric. Over the past four years, we’ve had messages, comments, and emails pour in from Muslim women in the United States and across Western countries, chronicling the heightened levels of openly acceptable racism that we were now being forced to survive anew.
And while we’d like to believe that Biden and Harris are rescuing an Islamophobic America, it’s going to take a lot more than resetting the clock when their policy records indicate that they, at best, contributed to it.
It’s no secret that Muslim women have become one of the most targeted minority groups in America; as a group that also includes a significant population of historically discriminated against Black Muslim women, this comes as no surprise.
It’s no secret that Muslim women have become one of the most targeted minority groups in America; as a group that also includes a significant population of historically discriminated against Black Muslim women, this comes as no surprise. Countless polls have attempted to quantify the anti-Muslim hate: the Pew Research Center found that following the surge of anti-Muslim assaults in 2001, attacks remained consistent over the past decade until the assaults exploded again in 2015 and 2016, surpassing those immediately post-9/11. The Institute for Social Policy and Understanding recorded an increase in its 2020 Islamophobia Index, which it acknowledges as “only measur[ing] anti-Muslim sentiment among the public and not the degree to which Islamophobia is institutionalized by the state.”
While normalized public opinions of Islam are challenging enough, many of Trump’s predecessors helped fossilize them into the systemic Islamophobia we are living out today. Through the War on Terror, the Bush administration was able to institute many of the systems that were upheld, and in some cases advanced, by the Obama administration. The PATRIOT Act, which destroyed the due process rights of Muslim Americans and defined the Bush era for mosques and Muslim communities across the country, was the breeding ground for Obama to establish wide-sweeping CVE (“countering violent extremism”) programs. This devastating approach squarely framed extremism as being Muslim, rather than including all quantitative forms of extremism, such as white supremacy, mass shooters, and beyond. Even with Biden as vice president, I still had to find “religiously ambiguous” ways to wrap my headscarf on the anniversary of 9/11 for fear of hate crimes.
Even with Biden as vice president, I still had to find “religiously ambiguous” ways to wrap my headscarf on the anniversary of 9/11 for fear of hate crimes.
The reality is that the Trump era didn’t create the extreme levels of Islamophobia that we see today. Rather, it openly welcomed and exploited the hate that American Muslims and other minorities have known in our country for a very long time. The only thing Trump did was prove a lesson we’ve already learned over the course of history: Islamophobia can win elections.
And though Harris, our first female vice president, is also a woman of color and recently started talking about Palestinians as equal actors in the peace process, for years she has supported the contentious American Israel Public Affairs Committee (as has Biden). AIPAC, which accounts for the “vast majority of lobbying spending by pro-Israel groups,” advocates for unilateral U.S. support for Israel in spite of Israel’s human rights violations. It is the second largest lobby in the country after the National Rifle Association. Last year, the group demonized a few congresswomen as being “radicals” who push “their anti-Semitic and anti-Israel policies down the throats of Americans,” with public attacks against the first Muslim Congresswoman, Rep. Ilhan Omar, and attacks on. Rep. Betty McCollum, who in 2019 introduced bill H.R. 2407, aimed at protecting Palestinian children against Israeli military detention and abuse.
The lobby has also been criticized for stifling free speech by advocating that criticism of Israel to be punishable by law. The Israel/Palestine conflict was a top policy priority for Muslim Americans in 2020. This makes Harris’s support of AIPAC, which Senator Bernie Sanders described as a platform to “express bigotry and oppose basic Palestinian rights,” as possibly the most revealing indication of Harris’s views on the issues that Muslim women care about the most.
But in times like these, it’s necessary to remind ourselves that anti-Muslim sentiment is not just a hallmark of right-wing politics. Even before his role in the Obama administration, President-elect Biden was the chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, where he used his considerable influence to rally support in the legislature and among 28 other Senate Democrats to authorize Bush’s invasion of Iraq. Even though he’s backtracked on that decision almost 20 years later—hindsight is, after all, 20/20—he’s deflected blame and misrepresented his stance numerous times over the course of his presidential campaign, rather than indicate an understanding of and assume responsibility for his role in a policy failure that irreversibly ravaged a Muslim country.
The reality is that the Trump era didn’t create the extreme levels of Islamophobia that we see today. Rather, it openly welcomed and exploited the hate that American Muslims and other minorities have known in our country for a very long time.
Let’s be clear: Muslim women unequivocally helped secure the win for Biden and Harris. It is in large part due to the relentless organizing of Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib that Michigan, a battleground state, flipped blue after going red for Trump in 2016. Michigan’s heavily Muslim and Arab communities helped deliver the victory after a seismic new voter turnout. Yet, Biden/Harris winning the election is far from an indication that equality will be restored for women that look like me or Rashida.
For many of us that have still had our everyday lives battered by latent racism and a system that doesn’t want us, we have given up on the idea that our liberation will be delivered by historic “firsts.” A new administration doesn’t inherently mean that Pandora is going back in the box or that America’s problems for Muslim Americans will suddenly be eradicated. Rather, the administration must take serious and deliberate action to offer full equal protection for all its citizens, with a president who stands for “all Americans,” as Biden has repeatedly proclaimed.
In succeeding Trump, the bar is, in fact, very low, but to use Trump as the standard by which to measure the next administration is only to concede that that is in fact who we are. It is crucial to the health of our democracy that we don’t surrender to the thought that “anything is better than this.” The real question we should be asking ourselves is: “Are we any better than this?”
Amani is an author, activist and founder of MuslimGirl.com, the biggest online platform for Muslim women’s voices in Western society, and the host of ANTIDOTE, the culture and politics podcast for millennials and Gen-Z. She is the first Muslim woman to run for U.S. Congress from New Jersey.