No Going Back: How Biden Should Engage Global Muslim Communities

By: Shahed Amanullah

December 14, 2020

Responding to: Rethinking U.S. Engagement with Global Muslim Communities

No Going Back: How Biden Should Engage Global Muslim Communities

As President-elect Biden prepares to take the reins on January 20, 2021, the trust that Muslims have in the White House is at an all-time low. But it would be a mistake to think that a return to policies in place when Biden last held office would set things right.

For the last half century, but particularly since 9/11, there has been an uneasy relationship between the president of the United States and global Muslim communities. Defined primarily by national security, growing xenophobia, economic interests, and electoral politics, this relationship has been characterized by a long downward slide punctuated by brief moments of hope. At times, the relationship was guided by actions of the White House, such as President Obama's 2009 Cairo speech promising a “new beginning” in relations with Muslims around the world or President Trump's enacting of the so-called Muslim ban, and at other times was driven by geopolitical events outside U.S. control. But it has always been a relationship that is larger than the sum of its parts, demanding a mindshare far beyond that which 1% of the U.S. population would merit and the lion’s share of our military resources—and all without the concordant benefits

As President-elect Biden prepares to take the reins on January 20, the trust that Muslims have in the White House is at an all-time low. But it would be a mistake to think that a return to policies in place when Biden last held office would set things right. The nature of both the presidency and the state of global Muslim communities has been irreversibly changed since then, and only by learning lessons and recognizing the shifted landscape in which most Muslims both outside and inside the United States now find themselves, can we move forward.

As President-elect Biden prepares to take the reins on January 20, the trust that Muslims have in the White House is at an all-time low.

When President Obama gave his Cairo speech, it represented a sea change in the way that the White House interacted with Muslim-majority nations and Muslim-minority communities worldwide, and it inspired real hope in them. After years of war, the shift in attitude was welcome, and there were real and earnest efforts to engage with respect. But this was not a peer-driven relationship—it centered national security concerns even as it acknowledged this framing as problematic. Relief at the winding down of the Iraq War was halted by frustration at a drone policy whose emotional and physical toll among Muslims was incomprehensible to an administration that stubbornly believed that what it was doing was in fact beneficent. 

And all this took place in an era that was profoundly transforming—combining the Arab revolutionary uprisings of 2010 to 2011 and their tumultuous aftermath, a growing and interconnected Muslim youth demographic, and the continuing rise of anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States and other Muslim-minority countries. This was disappointing to many of us who had worked with and inside the Obama administration, but the worst was yet to come. By the time we got to the Trump administration, the United States shifted from a well-meaning if ineffectual relationship with Muslims to a truly malignant one. 

By the time we got to the Trump administration, the United States shifted from a well-meaning if ineffectual relationship with Muslims to a truly malignant one.

The impact of the so-called Muslim ban that President Trump implemented shortly after taking office cannot be understated. It was part of a Trump doctrine toward Muslims that weaponized anti-Muslim sentiment at home to fire up his base while empowering autocrats and authoritarians abroad who abused the fundamental rights of populations of their Muslim-majority nation-states or Muslim-minority communities under their control. Nearly every federal government policy or program that affected Muslims was either ended (for example, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation envoy and the special representative to Muslim communities) or transformed into something unrecognizable. 

In the United States, the growth of anti-Muslim sentiment was tempered somewhat by allies who flooded airports to welcome some of the most defenseless Muslims to our shores, as well as a notable increase in positive feelings about Muslims in the general population. But around the world, there is an increase of Muslims being targeted by states, right-wing politicians, or murderous individuals who have either been ignored or inspired by President Trump.

So how should a Biden administration approach such a broken relationship, with roots of mistrust going back so far? A good first step is to recognize how Muslims around the world have changed since he was last in office. At home and abroad, Muslims are keenly aware of their status and have mobilized themselves and their allies to respond to the many challenges that face them. While Muslims are asking for relief from policies that harm them, they aren’t asking to be saved either. What they want is to be heard as they craft solutions to their own problems. 

While Muslims are asking for relief from policies that harm them, they aren’t asking to be saved either. What they want is to be heard as they craft solutions to their own problems.

At home, Muslim political power and influence has risen as these communities meet the moment. Hundreds of thousands of Muslim voters were mobilized in swing states that supported the Biden-Harris ticket, 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. Hardened by the past four years, Muslim Americans are ready to help “build back better” regardless of who benefits. Give them the chance to do so.

Abroad, a Biden administration would be wise to craft engagement policies that seek to truly partner with global Muslim communities for mutual benefit. We need to support religious freedom for marginalized Muslims (and others) regardless of whether the perpetrators are our friends or our adversaries. Understand that any positive words will be lost if the pattern of empowering autocratic leaders and looking the other way when abuses occur continues to be the pattern. Policies should be formed not because Muslims can be a bulwark against terrorism or are so hopelessly dysfunctional that they need to be rescued, but because underneath the drama of the so-called Muslim world are a billion-and-a-half people who are increasingly understanding their role in the world and empowered enough to change it despite their challenges. 

None of this will be easy. Having been used as a political football at best and target practice at worst, Muslims both here and abroad have heard the promises before. But there are enough people who still have hope to make meaningful peer-to-peer engagement rewarding over the next four years. There remain significant pools of untapped potential among a billion-and-a-half Muslims that are on the verge of being realized, including millions of American Muslims who increasingly—and proudly—contribute to our landscape. Securing their partnership will send a powerful message to the voices of hate that stand to grow even more in the coming years. 

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