To Repair Trust and Relationships, Biden Must Act Boldly

By: M. Arsalan Suleman

December 14, 2020

Rethinking U.S. Engagement with Global Muslim Communities

When President Obama took office, he inherited the legacy of President George W. Bush’s disastrous Global War on Terror and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those wars—along with the U.S. abuses at Abu Ghraib, CIA black sites, Guantanamo Bay, and discriminatory domestic policies—created an impression that America was at war with Muslims globally. In response, President Obama sought to deconstruct that perception and pivot toward a “new beginning” with Muslims around the world, featuring partnerships based on mutual interest and mutual respect. That effort was successful in marking a departure from the calamitous Bush era, but it left unachieved a number of key policy goals (most notably progress on an Israel-Palestine two-state solution) and arguably maintained an imagined construct of the “Muslim world” that in effect problematizes Muslims.

President-elect Biden is inheriting a similarly tarnished American reputation and a set of failed Trump-era policies that are steeped in anti-Muslim animus. For the most part, President Trump’s foreign policy has been an embarrassing failure. His Trump-first, unilateral, transactional approach has undermined America’s power and prestige, and the list of issues requiring urgent attention by the Biden administration is long and daunting. 

President-elect Biden is inheriting a similarly tarnished American reputation and a set of failed Trump-era policies that are steeped in anti-Muslim animus.

Many of the hallmarks of Trump’s failed foreign policy—including xenophobia, hostility to multilateralism, an abandonment of human rights, and the gutting of the State Department—have directly impacted Muslim-majority countries and communities. Trump’s presidential campaign started off with an announcement of his Islamophobic “Muslim ban,” which he haphazardly implemented once in office. He withdrew the United States from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action to deal with Iran’s nuclear program and reinstated various sanctions, which have only brought Iran closer to developing a nuclear weapons capability. He has coddled authoritarian leaders around the world, including those who lead Muslim-majority countries, and has dropped any pretense of concern for human rights. As a gross example of this, he reportedly endorsed Chinese President Xi’s internment of over a million Uighurs in Xinjiang. And as part of his gutting of the State Department, Trump did not appoint a special envoy to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, allowing many years of progress in that relationship to languish. 

Furthermore, Trump’s unequivocally pro-Israel approach to the Israeli-Palestinian issue has created diplomatic facts on the ground that may have ended prospects for a two-state solution. Trump shut down the Palestine Liberation Organization’s mission in the United States, and eliminated U.S. funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East. He moved to Jerusalem the U.S. Embassy to Israel, closed the U.S. consulate general there, recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Syrian Golan Heights, and has brokered several agreements in which Arab states establish relations with Israel—all without any Israeli concessions regarding the Occupied Palestinian Territories. 

As Biden reinvigorates U.S. diplomacy and leadership globally, there are several considerations that can help him and his administration successfully re-engage with Muslim-majority countries and communities globally, without repeating mistakes of the past. 

First, end the bigotry, at home and abroad. 

President-elect Biden has pledged to repeal Trump’s “Muslim ban” on his first day in office and also to urge Congress to adopt the No Ban Act, which would prevent similar discriminatory policies in the future. Those steps would help to mark a clear repudiation of Trump’s anti-Muslim bigotry. But further than that, it is important to ensure that other areas of policy—including counterterrorism policy or efforts to prevent extremism—do not reinforce anti-Muslim discrimination. And thinly disguised efforts to further marginalize and discriminate against Muslims and Muslim institutions—like the sporadic efforts to ban the Muslim Brotherhood—must also be rejected, whether they originate domestically or are promoted by foreign states. 

Second, prioritize human rights and democracy. 

Muslims are the victims of some of the world’s most pressing human rights crises. Myanmar perpetrated a genocide against the Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar, over 800,000 of whom are living as refugees in neighboring Bangladesh. China has imprisoned over a million ethnic Uighur Muslims in internment camps, as part of a concerted effort to destroy the Uighur religious and ethnic identity—a crime against humanity and potential genocide of colossal proportions. Syrians continue to endure horrific crimes under the Asad regime, and the Yemeni people remain victims of a protracted conflict involving many of its neighbors. Millions of Muslims and other religious minorities in India are facing targeted discrimination, and the Kashmiri people remain under an oppressive lockdown as the Indian government centralizes control of the once semi-autonomous region. The Palestinian people also continue to suffer human rights violations while under Israeli occupation. 

There are also pressing human rights concerns in a number of Muslim-majority states who are close American partners, including Saudi Arabia and Egypt, where the crackdown on dissent and democratic participation continues unabated. And the democratic transitions in Tunisia and Sudan, among others, will require ongoing support. Addressing these urgent human rights situations, and reinstating human rights and democracy as core components of U.S. foreign policy, must be a top priority for the incoming Biden administration. 

Third, actions speak louder than words. 

Policy change, not rhetoric, will be the ultimate barometer of a successful Biden foreign policy. The situations mentioned above and long-standing policy concerns—like the Israeli-Palestinian situation and the continued operation of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility—need to be addressed with boldness and expediency. Indeed, this may be the last chance for the United States to resuscitate the Israel-Palestine two-state solution and prevent Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands from becoming a full annexation. Public diplomacy efforts are certainly an important component of U.S. diplomacy, but they cannot make up for bad or failed policies. And public diplomacy initiatives should be based on policy—and not based on religious identity, which can inadvertently reify false constructs like the “Muslim world.” 

Finally, personnel makes all the difference. 

President-elect Biden has made a commitment to ensuring that his administration truly looks like America, representing the full diversity and talents of Americans from all backgrounds. That laudable commitment must include Muslim Americans, who continue to enrich American society in all of its aspects. Visible inclusion of Muslim Americans in the Biden administration is the most effective way to repudiate Trump’s “Muslim ban” and will help signal America’s return to inclusion and equal rights for all.

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