Biden Administration Engagement with Muslim Communities Must Recognize Diversity via Expertise

By: H. A. Hellyer

December 17, 2020

Rethinking U.S. Engagement with Global Muslim Communities

The end of the Trump administration, and the imminent arrival of a Biden presidency, raises different questions in terms of foreign and domestic policies. The Berkley Forum asks us to consider an issue that, ostensibly, cuts across both: that of “engagement with global Muslim communities.” But because such an issue cuts across so many different domains, a conceptual departure may be long overdue.

Over the past 13 years, as a non-partisan academic, I’ve advised different policymakers in the Beltway and in my native United Kingdom on issues pertaining to different Muslim communities worldwide, via policy think tanks like the Brookings Institution or the Royal United Services Institute in London. My research focuses on Muslim-majority and Muslim-minority communities, primarily in the Arab world and the West—two areas where the United States has engaged quite heavily, of course.

For better or for worse—and often for worse—I have seen the impact of American policy from within the Arab world, as well as within the West.

(I hasten to add: In DC, in London, and elsewhere, my advice may have been listened to but not always heard.)

​Post-Obama Changes

With that in mind, it’s important to note two points from the outset. First, just because many of the incoming officials in the Biden administration were also in the Obama administration, that doesn’t mean they will behave the same as they once did. Four years is a long time, and their perspectives will have changed; their positions in the new administration will be different; and the structure of many of the institutions they will lead are different.

Secondly, the world is different. That’s true when you look domestically at how Muslims in the United States, both as Muslim Americans and as Muslim residents, have developed in terms of their political organization and the challenges they face. That’s true when you look at Muslim-majority states and their geopolitical situations. That’s true when you look at Muslim-minority communities worldwide. Four years is a long time.

​Complexity of Engagement

Because the Trump administration was so vividly immersed in far-right discourse, including wildly anti-Muslim and Islamophobic tropes, it will be tempting for the Biden administration to revert back to the Obama era of global Muslim engagement. In this regard, I’m in full agreement with Peter Mandaville’s contribution to the forum—in particular, his recommendation that “the Biden administration should resist the temptation to create anew a global Muslim engagement industrial complex.”

It will be tempting for the Biden administration to revert back to the Obama era of global Muslim engagement.

I would go a step further, following a similar logic—policymakers should take a more complex approach to engagement which privileges situations that ought to be privileged, and for no longer than necessary. In an office that is aimed at religious freedom, for example, if it is identified that Muslim minorities are among the most targeted in the world (they are, as the Uighurs and Rohingya can attest), then they should be prioritized. Once they are not so targeted, then they needn’t be so prioritized. 

The alternative, if reverse, approach, was followed shortly in the UK. The British Foreign Office commissioned specific attention on Christian communities internationally, in a way never done previously, for either Christians or other communities. What made it worse in the UK is that Christian communities internationally are certainly not the most persecuted—see the Yazidis, the Uighurs, and others—and the way in which the report unfolded did not help matters. The Biden administration should focus on non-ideological, expertise-driven work in this area.

​Domestic and Foreign Policy Priorities

There are three areas where I would argue “Muslim engagement” appropriately takes place and which require specific attention. These areas should not be approached as part of some kind of overarching global Muslim engagement strategy. Rather, they should be situated within the appropriate policymaking processes that already exist.

Domestic Policy

Muslim Americans and other Muslim residents now live in a country that has mainstreamed far-right discourse problematizing Muslims over the past four years. It’s no longer just rhetoric but also policy, in a way that is very different than for any other religious group. A Biden administration needs to proactively take that on board—not to permanently exceptionalize Muslim Americans, but to proactively ensure that the message from government is that Muslim Americans are as American as anyone else. And that anyone who claims otherwise is wrong, until the point when such voices are drowned out.

As another piece in this series by Shahed Amanullah notes, “hundreds of thousands of Muslim voters were mobilized in swing states,” “hundreds of Muslim policy professionals entered public service in all three branches of government,” and “a flood of Muslim candidates for political office emerged including the first two female Muslim members of Congress, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib.” Muslim Americans are ready to help “build back better”—and the American mainstream political elite should likewise stand by to ensure they can.

Foreign Policy

It’s long overdue to retire the notion of a singular “Muslim world” which American policy ought to engage. There are Muslim-majority states, almost all of which have religious minority communities. There are also Muslim-minority communities in states without a Muslim majority.

I’m not sure there is a case for lumping all 57 members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) into one basket, except insofar as I would argue there continues to be a case for a U.S. special envoy to the OIC, as there has been for the past 12 years. That does not make the OIC exceptional. A U.S. special envoy is simply another arena through which dialogue between OIC member states and the most powerful member of the Western alliance can discuss.

Beyond that, however, Muslim-majority states ought to be engaged in accordance with non-religious criteria, just as any others. Authoritarian states should be treated as authoritarian states, democratic states as democratic states, and so forth.

Muslim Minorities

When it comes to Muslim-minority communities worldwide, the existing international religious freedom architecture should shape U.S. response. There exists already an Office of International Religious Freedom in the U.S. Department of State, led by Ambassador Sam Brownback. Brownback is not responsible simply for Muslim-minority communities but for religious minority concerns worldwide, as is appropriate. He’s done an outsized amount of work on Muslim minorities, because those concerns are objectively important: the Uighurs in China, the Rohingya in Myanmar, and others.

When it comes to Muslim-minority communities worldwide, the existing international religious freedom architecture should shape U.S. response.

Where Muslim minorities are not an issue of international religious freedom, the U.S. government need not engage with them on a central level. That should be left to U.S. embassies and U.S. consulates around the world, as part of their understanding of the broader national contexts and in the same way they would and should approach other religious minorities.

​Lead with Expertise

I’m not arguing that the U.S. government, or indeed any government, should not have specific expertise allocated to understanding Islam, different Muslim communities, or indeed the interchange between religion and politics. For example, the Office of Religion and Global Affairs in the Obama State Department was useful because it served to inform the broader policy arena. But as an office, it was not specific to Islam—it housed not only experts who had a great deal of expertise on Islam but also those focused on other religious traditions.

Without proper expertise, government engagement of all kinds will make even more mistakes and errors than it does already. Of course, governments will make political decisions that are not the function of expertise or scholarship—they’re just the result of powerful offices deciding to engage in a certain way for all the wrong reasons. We’ve seen a great deal of that in the Trump administration, but this trend extends well beyond the last four years. Those decisions can become much worse—and even good intentions can have truly terrible consequences—if the expertise base is poor and inaccurate.

Without proper expertise, government engagement of all kinds will make even more mistakes and errors than it does already.

Relying on expertise will not solve the problems endemic within American foreign and domestic policy structures—but at the very least, doing so won’t make them worse, and it may well make them a lot better

Opens in a new window