Muslim Leaders in U.S. Are ‘Cautiously Optimistic’ About Biden | Sojourners

Muslim Leaders in U.S. Are ‘Cautiously Optimistic’ About Biden

WASHINGTON – For Muslim religious and political leaders, President Joe Biden’s inauguration ends the “nightmare” of the Trump administration; nevertheless, Muslim leaders remained cautious in expressing optimism about the Biden administration’s promises.

Several hours after taking office, Biden ended the so-called “Muslim ban” through an executive order. The ban, part of an executive order first signed by former President Donald Trump in January 2017 and re-issued in three different iterations upheld by the Supreme Court in June 2018, prevented foreign nationals from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S.

Muslim advocacy groups who had been fighting to repeal the ban in courts for years are relieved that fight is now over, and they can focus on other issues affecting the Muslim community.

Rep. André Carson (D-Ind.), one of three Muslims in Congress, said he “was incredibly pleased” that ending the Muslim Ban would be among Biden's first acts in office. “Not since the Chinese Exclusion Act of the 1880s has America instituted a policy that so explicitly and unfairly targets an entire group of people from entering the country, simply because of their heritage,” said Carson.

Ismahan Abdullahi, national executive director of the Muslim American Society, a national nonprofit focusing on Muslim youth, told Sojourners that the ban’s end fills her with “gratitude and tears of relief.”

“People forget the human impact of this ban. Every iteration of the ban not only affected Muslims living in America, but all those who had their hopes crushed as they awaited to come to this country and found that they no longer had a flight to freedom, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in America.”

For Salam Al-Marayati, president and co-founder of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, a Muslim advocacy organization, the repeal is proof that the Biden administration views Muslims as an equal part of the country — a welcome change from the previous administration.

Muslim Americans have “endured four years of stigmatization, scapegoating, and scare tactics by Trump in his endeavor to appease white nationalism, to maintain power,” said Al-Marayati.

Public opinion follows rhetoric

“I think Islam hates us,” Trump said in a 2016 interview. Throughout his campaigns and presidency, Trump made a slew of Islamophobic remarks: In November 2015, Trump called for surveillance of mosques and falsely claimed “thousands and thousands” of Muslims in New Jersey cheered when the World Trade Center collapsed on Sept. 11, 2001. At a 2016 rally in North Carolina, Trump said the children of Muslim Americans are responsible for a growing number of terrorist attacks: “We're having problems with the Muslims, and we're having problems with Muslims coming into the country.”

Remarks like these are significant because public opinion concerning Muslims follows political leaders’ rhetoric rather than actual events, said Dalia Mogahed, research director at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU), which aims to provide objective information on Muslim Americans.

Mogahed said that anti-Muslim sentiment has never been higher than during the Trump years. Polling from Pew Research Center shows growing distrust of Muslims among Republicans in the past couple decades: In 2002, only 33 percent of Republicans said that Islam promoted violence more than other religions; in 2016, that number rose to 70 percent.

And for Muslim Americans, the impact of this increased negative sentiment has been palpable.

“The Muslim community has felt more vulnerable and more targeted during the Trump Presidency, but we have also grown more united,” said Carson.

Nihad Awad, executive director and cofounder of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a Muslim civil rights group, called the past four years a “nightmare” for Muslim Americans, filled with an “unbelievable sense of alienation.”

Imam Talib Shareef of Masjid Muhammad, a mosque in Washington, D.C., said that the religious discrimination his community experienced throughout the Trump campaign and administration was worse than ever before. The mosque received phone calls, emails, mail, and in-person hate speech from people calling Muslims terrorists and other slurs. In 2016, the mosque received threats of an attack from a white supremacist group that had planned to target different mosques around the country during Friday prayer.

The FBI’s 2019 hate crime statistics suggest that, of the reported 1,715 victims of anti-religious hate crimes, 13.2 percent were victims of anti-Muslim bias.

According to 2020 polling from ISPU, 60 percent of Muslims and 58 percent of Jews in the U.S. reported personally experiencing religious discrimination; by comparison, only 26 percent of Catholics, 29 percent of Protestants, and 43 percent of white evangelicals in the U.S. said the same.

Expectations for Biden

During the 2020 election, Muslims exhibited significant dissatisfaction with the incumbent administration: Associated Press exit polls showed 35 percent of Muslims voted for Trump and 64 percent for Biden.

As president, Biden has promised not only to repeal the Muslim ban, but also to add Muslims to his cabinet. He already has named Reema Dodin, a Palestinian Muslim, as deputy director of the White House Office of Legislative Affairs.

Awad said CAIR would “call this administration to the highest standards of inclusion,” but said his top priority is making sure Biden is actively pushing against hate groups that promote Islamophobia. Assigning a special envoy to monitor and combat Islamophobia would help, he said.

Shareef expects Biden will help create meaningful relationships between Muslims and other groups — relationships Shareef believes will combat hate and extremism. “We're looking forward to working with his administration to try to make a change,” Shareef said.

The advocacy groups also hope to see more oversight into Muslims being targeted by different law enforcement agencies. They said law enforcement has treated the Muslim community as a “pool of suspects.”

“It's important to shift the conversation about the American Muslim community, from talking about the community as a possible threat, to really understanding how the community is a vital organ to the body of America,” Mogahed said.

The Muslim advocacy groups said Biden’s promises are a good start to a more inclusive administration.

Abdullahi of the Muslim American Society said the “hope of working on these issues collectively, instead of the onslaught of attacks we had to defend our communities from, would be a welcome change.”

“While history has shown us that the Muslim community has been left off from decision-making spaces and often forgotten, I will remain cautiously optimistic,” Abdullahi said.

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