Tuqa Nusairat is the deputy director of the Rafik Hariri Center & Middle East Programs at the Atlantic Council, where she oversees initiatives on promoting security and human development in the Middle East and North Africa. She writes frequently on the intersection of MENA policy and Muslim-Western relations, with a focus on democracy and human rights.
Biden Should Silence Islamophobes and Amplify Voices of Democracy and Human Rights in the “Muslim World”
By: Tuqa Nusairat
December 14, 2020
While much of the Muslim world (really, the whole world) was wary of the election of Donald Trump, none could have predicted the scale of the damage that would soon impact Muslims in the United States and around the world with the president’s new policies. There was little time to process the inauguration of President Donald Trump before he started one of his first and most restrictive policies: the so-called Muslim ban. From there, a consistent stream of statements, tweets, and policies targeted Muslims directly and indirectly, rolling back any progress that was made during the Obama administration in the aftermath of the most difficult period for Muslims—the post-9/11 era.
Now, a triumphant Biden administration may find itself more focused on undoing many such harmful policies instead of making real progress on issues of importance to Muslims in the United States and around the world. Still, there are steps the new administration can take: dismantling Islamophobic policies and showing zero tolerance for anti-Muslim rhetoric from any government officials; approaching Muslim-majority countries and communities individually rather than monolithically; and using the various tools of U.S. diplomacy to call out human rights violators at the highest levels while supporting political legitimacy where it is being demanded in the Muslim world.
Perhaps one of the most disturbing legacies of the Trump administration will be its fanning of the flames of Islamophobia at the highest levels of government. From appealing to the growing constituency of the alt-right movement that mainstreamed anti-Muslim sentiment during the 2016 presidential primaries and elections, to the eventual selection of prominent anti-Muslim voices as advisors to the president, the Trump administration was heavily invested in trafficking anti-Muslim conspiracies that fed into policies and resulted in real-life consequences for millions of Muslims. The ban on millions of citizens of Muslim countries from entering the United States, the demonization of refugees and near elimination of long-standing policies that welcomed those fleeing the worst tragedies, and the rise in anti-Muslim violence in the United States and around the world will be the backdrop to the new administration’s engagement with Muslim communities globally. It comes as no surprise that ultra-nationalists the world over were inspired and motivated by the Trump administration’s anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant rhetoric, and they wasted no time in applying the same sentiments to their local context.
Perhaps one of the most disturbing legacies of the Trump administration will be its fanning of the flames of Islamophobia at the highest levels of government.
First, the Biden administration needs to be unequivocal in its condemnation of Islamophobic policies and rhetoric, be they domestic or international. This includes, for example, policies specifically targeting Muslims being championed at the highest levels of the French government, the targeting of Muslims in India by a Trump-doting leadership, and most importantly, in our own legislatures targeting elected members of Congress (not to mention the wider Muslim population in the United States). Public statements condemning any future instances of Islamophobic violence or rhetoric would be a start, followed by support for legislative measures against hate crimes and hate speech, as well as private diplomacy in the international context. There should be no tolerance for the type of anti-Muslim sentiment that permeated the Trump administration and will continue to have wide-ranging impact on Muslim-Western relations. More proactively, President-elect Biden should tap the existing and growing network of Muslim Americans for senior policy positions, and not just those related to counterterrorism or Muslim-centric roles (such as the former office of the Special Representative for Muslim Communities).
The Muslim World is Not a Monolith
While consistently and repeatedly elevating anti-Muslim rhetoric, President Trump ironically and proudly proclaimed from Riyadh just a few months into his presidency that he chose to make his “first foreign visit a trip to the heart of the Muslim world.” Still reeling from the devastating impact of the travel ban, Muslims around the world begged to differ. Not only was the purpose of the visit lacking any genuine outreach to this faith community, but it was overtly a business and security transaction with a ruling family that no longer carried the weight it once did among the global Muslim community.
Indeed, the most populous Muslim-majority countries lie outside of the Arab world, with their own unique challenges and opportunities. While the Trump administration focused almost exclusively on engaging undemocratic Middle Eastern governments, and the Obama administration faced the complexities of the Arab Spring, the Biden administration will be well served to not limit its engagement with Muslims to the Arabian Peninsula. Conflating the idea of the “Muslim world” with the Middle East is deeply problematic, and even more is equating the interests of undemocratic leaders of Muslim-majority countries with those of their citizens. U.S. interests in the Middle East have been shaped by security and energy concerns, contributing directly and indirectly to several wars that have dominated the “Muslim-Western” relationship. The audience of royals and lifelong presidents that President Trump addressed in Riyadh are so far removed from the challenges facing their subjects, and with the support of Republican and Democratic administrations, continue to stand in the way of popular aspirations for more open and free societies.
The Biden administration will be well served to not limit its engagement with Muslims to the Arabian Peninsula.
The Biden administration should approach Muslim-majority countries as it does Christian-majority countries—with strategic interests and shared values in mind, not as a monolithic religious entity devoid of individual interests. There is no need to paint the “Muslim world” with a broad brush and overlook the unique contributions that each country and subregion can offer. More importantly, the relationship with Muslim countries should be mutually beneficial. A refreshed approach would mean the United States would see each country and population for what they can offer—from educational exchanges to economic investments to security arrangements—and not just as transactional relationships.
Human Rights and Democracy Still Matter
Just as the “Muslim world” should not be synonymous with the Arab world, neither should the interests of unelected leaders be confused for the interests of their populations. Despite our own human rights challenges at home, inflamed by Trump administration rhetoric and policies, the United States still has a responsibility, legal if not moral, to condemn, through words and actions, human rights violations around the world.
The United States still has a responsibility, legal if not moral, to condemn, through words and actions, human rights violations around the world.
If there’s anything that can be generalized about the “Muslim world,” it’s that most of it is facing some form of political repression, state-sanctioned violence, suffocating corruption, or religious persecution, among other forms of human rights abuses. While it’s unlikely that President-elect Biden will have any “favorite dictators” as the current president does, he will need to go the extra mile to reverse the perception of impunity created by this administration, especially when it comes to those governments and autocrats who are considered long-time American allies. From arbitrary detention to silencing of dissents in the most gruesome of ways, to crackdowns on peaceful protests and media freedoms, there is no shortage of violations to condemn. As millions of citizens push back against them and raise their voices demanding freedoms like those we enjoy here, the Biden administration can make significant progress in using its diverse toolbox to support these calls for political legitimacy, respect for human rights, and economic prosperity.
While the Trump administration boasted positive relations with many autocrats leading Muslim-majority countries, and the Obama administration shied away from long-term and strategic support for the complicated democratic transitions during the Arab Spring while abdicating its responsibility to protect Syrians in favor of a tenuous legacy agreement, the Biden-Harris administration has the opportunity to undo President Trump’s policies and turn former President Obama’s famous speeches about freedom and democracy into actionable support for democrats and human rights defenders around the world who happen to be Muslim.