December 2020

An Anti-Islamophobic President?

Can Muslim Americans trust Joe Biden to be an anti-Islamophobic president? Or, will they face more of the same in a long history of American Islamophobic policy?

America has never had a truly anti-Islamophobic president. Since this country’s inception, power-players have implemented Islamophobic policies and defended them with Islamophobic ideas.[1] Of these Islamophobic presidents, Donald J. Trump may be the most Islamophobic of them all—publicly and brazenly depicting Islam and Muslim people as the enemy of the United States. Now that Trump is soon to be expunged from office, there is reason for Muslim Americans and Muslims around the world to be hopeful. President-elect Biden has the opportunity to become America’s first anti-Islamophobic president, but will he follow through?

Throughout his campaign, Biden consistently employed anti-Islamophobic rhetoric. He made numerous promises to Muslim Americans, arguing his administration would be the antithesis of Trump’s Islamophobic administration. Biden asserted the truth that Trump and his allies “fanned the flames of hate” and that “Islamophobia is a pernicious disease. It does not belong in the halls of government.

Biden’s comparing Islamophobia to a “disease” is reminiscent of scholar Ibram X. Kendi’s comparison between racism and cancer, or racism and the spread of disease.[2] This comparison and the use of the term “disease” to describe racism or in this case, Islamophobia, lends toward a more activist approach—a call to action. It does not simply acknowledge or bring into question the problem of Islamophobia, it calls Americans to fight the injustice, just as they would fight for their lives against a disease like cancer.

In this sense, Biden’s rhetoric, declaring Islamophobia a “disease,” was an inspiring step forward in the fight against Islamophobia. It was a truly anti-Islamophobic statement—a quite uncommon occurrence for a United States president or president-elect. That being said, his remarks on Islamophobia are indeed just that: remarks, rhetoric, words.

Therefore we must ask: what will Biden’s anti-Islamophobic action look like? Following the election, Biden gave us an indication of his plans, stating, “As president, I’ll work with you to rip the poison of hate from our society to honor your contributions and seek your ideas. My administration will look like America with Muslim Americans serving at every level. On day one, I’ll end Trump’s unconstitutional Muslim ban.” This is cause of optimism, but there is also much reason for concern.

Muslim American voters resoundingly rejected President Trump, but will President-elect Joe Biden follow through on his campaign promises? Image via of Elijah Nouvelage—Bloomberg/Getty Images.

Barack Obama made similar promises to Muslim Americans. As a senator and while running for president, Obama was a staunch critic of Islamophobic Bush policies like the PATRIOT Act and the War on Terror. Regarding the PATRIOT Act—a bill which Islamophobically targeted and surveyed Muslim American citizens, Obama once declared it “shoddy” and “dangerous.”

Yet, after he was elected president, Obama’s anti-Islamophobia proved to be nothing more than rhetoric. During his time in the White House, Obama not only extended Bush’s Islamophobic PATRIOT Act, but he did so twice. No longer deeming the act “shoddy” or “dangerous,” Obama shifted his perspective, stating, “It (The PATRIOT Act) is an important tool for us to continue dealing with an ongoing terrorist threat.”

Even further, Obama famously ran on a platform of ending American war and intervention in the Middle East—a promise he did not keep. President Obama’s strategies in the Muslim world may have been different than President Bush’s, but he was still deeply involved in the region. In many cases Obama’s policies were even more damaging than Bush’s. For example, Obama bombed seven Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East, while Bush bombed four. Even though President Obama pulled more boots off the ground in the region, his administration initiated ten times more air strikes with drones in the Middle East than Bush, killing hundreds of civilians. And in 2016 alone, the last year of his presidency, the Obama administration dropped 26, 171 bombs.

As Obama’s vice-president, Biden is also accountable for many of these decisions. Beyond this, Biden has an Islamophobic record of his own. Throughout his own long career, Biden time and again supported, voted for, and wrote Islamophobic policies. Like President Obama, his rhetoric was generally friendly towards Muslims, but regarding policy, his record is littered with bills which injured Muslims both domestically and abroad.

For example, Biden himself declared the Islamophobic PATRIOT Act of the Bush era his own conception—literally taking credit for devising it years before the September 11th attacks (video). Biden also famously played a major role in the Iraq War, championing, voting for, and aiding President Bush in the reckless, Islamophobic foreign policy.

With all of this in mind, there is definitely reason for pause for Muslim Americans. Can Muslim Americans really trust Joe Biden to be an anti-Islamophobic president? Or, will they face more of the same in a long history of American Islamophobic policy?

The hope is this is a different moment and Biden has become a different leader, attuned to this moment. Yet, at the end of the day, it will likely be up to us as activists and citizens to hold Biden accountable and ensure he follows through on these promises. Some have already begun doing this work, but we must stay diligent and motivated in our anti-Islamophobic resistance.

Michael T. Barry Jr. is a doctoral candidate in history at American University in Washington, D.C. and teaches U.S. history at Montgomery College. He is also an award-winning documentary filmmaker. Follow him @MTBarryJr.

[1] This is discussed in detail in Michael’s forthcoming doctoral dissertation which chronicles as many Islamophobic ideas as possible throughout American history.

[2] Ibram X. Kendi, How to Be An Antiracist, New York: Penguin Random House, August 13, 2019.

Michael T. Barry Jr., Editor, is a doctoral candidate in history at American University in Washington, DC. Michael is also a documentary filmmaker, specializing in oral history. His films “U Street Contested” and “The Universal Soldier: Vietnam” have won and been nominated for numerous awards, as they have screened at film festivals and historic venues across the country. He teaches American history at Montgomery College in Maryland. Follow him on Twitter at @MTBarryJr.

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