On November 1, less than a month after the start of the Israeli attack on Gaza, the administration of US President Joe Biden announced a national strategy to combat Islamophobia. This decision comes as anti-Muslim incidents are increasing across the country.
On October 14, Wadea Al-Fayoume, a six-year-old Palestinian American child, was stabbed to death in Chicago when his mother was seriously injured during a racially motivated attack perpetrated by their landlord. Five days later, Jasmer Singh, a 66-year-old Sikh man, was beaten to death in New York by a man shouting “turban man.” (Practicing Sikhs are often confused with Muslims.) On October 28, Muslim American doctor Talat Jehan Khan was stabbed to death in Texas.
Biden’s initiative has been echoed by some US academic institutions, which have adopted anti-Islamophobia measures, generally alongside policies to prevent anti-Semitism. Stanford, the University of Maryland, Columbia and Harvard are among the educational institutions that have announced such initiatives.
But the White House’s strategy to combat Islamophobia has been widely met with scorn and ridicule. Users of X (formerly Twitter) responded to Vice President Kamala Harris’ announcement of the initiative with criticism and pointed questions about US complicity in atrocities in the Gaza Strip. On campus, the crackdown on pro-Palestinian activism and advocacy has belied universities’ anti-Islamophobia initiatives.
These reactions reflect Muslim Americans’ growing rejection of attempts to replace systemic policy demands with those focused on intolerance or exclusion. This marks a break from the past two decades, when an emphasis on cultural acceptance or interfaith dialogue, rather than political criticism and action, shaped American Muslim advocacy and organizing.
This change was manifested in the funeral of the murdered child Wadea, which was attended by thousands of people and became a true rally for a free Palestine. Speakers condemned the pro-Israeli bias in American media coverage, the blank check given by the United States to Israeli occupying forces to commit atrocities, and the years-long siege of Gaza that hampered the life of its inhabitants. Wadea’s death was lamented not as a matter of bigotry or anti-Muslim hatred, but as a frightening flashpoint within the U.S.-Israeli alliance.
A similar position was adopted following shooting of three Palestinians students in November, whose keffiyeh scarves likely marked them for the attack. Asked about the assault, Kinnan Abdalhamid, one of the survivors, insisted the focus should remain on calls for a permanent ceasefire in Gaza rather than his personal experience.
Abdalhamid’s friend Hisham Awartani, who was paralyzed from the waist down in the shooting, also refused to allow his ordeal to be turned into an example of anti-Muslim intolerance. Awartani said he was “just one victim in a much larger conflict.” If I had been shot in the West Bank, where I grew up, the medical services that saved my life here would likely have been denied by the Israeli military. The soldier who shot me would go home and never be convicted.
Meanwhile, Muslim and Arab communities demonstrated en masse to demand an end to U.S. material support for Israel and an immediate and permanent ceasefire.
This mobilization is a far cry from the dynamics of the last two decades, as my research on Muslim multiculturalism during the years of the “war on terror” is an illustration of this.
After 9/11, American Muslim organizations engaged in cultural and behavioral projects intended to combat misconceptions about their communities. Many believed that changing American perceptions (by teaching the importance of Hajj or Ramadan or refuting stereotypes about the hijab) would legitimize the Muslim presence in the United States. In my ethnographic fieldwork, I was told that raising questions about American militarism would jeopardize the fragile project of American Muslim legitimacy.
These years have seen a proliferation of cultural awareness events. On university campuses, Muslim student associations have organized Islam awareness weeks, again motivated by the belief that correcting misconceptions about Muslims would help overcome Islamophobia. Every year, International Hijab Day invites non-Muslim women to wear the headscarf as a sign of solidarity with Muslim women. The museum’s exhibits featured inventions from the Muslim world.
Diversity initiatives, such as that of Gap, in which Sikh actor Waris Ahluwalia was featured in an advertising campaign, have been widely praised. After a billboard featuring the ad was defaced with racist graffiti, Gap used it as a Twitter banner, celebrating their diverse casting and inspiring a viral #thankYouGap campaign across Sikh and Muslim America.
American Muslim activists also joined various interfaith initiatives, such as the Brotherhood of Salaam-Shalom, which aimed to bridge divisions between Muslims and Jews through dialogue and friendship, and NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change, whose mission was to build Muslim-Jewish relations. Jewish relations.
Not all Muslim Americans have embraced these initiatives. Some voices, often marginalized, have issued harsh criticism, accusing these programs of “washing the faith,” that is, using interfaith dialogue to divert attention from the colonial violence of the Israeli state. against the Palestinian people. For these critics, mixtures of tolerance and understanding transformed Palestinian dispossession into a matter of opinion and individual differences while opposition to Israeli apartheid was explained by an alleged “primordial hostility” between Jews and Muslims. , which could be overcome by social exchange.
Similar rifts emerged around the White House’s annual Ramadan dinner, which brings America’s Muslim leaders together for an iftar with the president. President Bill Clinton’s administration hosted the first community iftar at the White House, and every president since then has followed suit. Even Donald Trump, who issued a “Muslim ban” during his presidency, held the event while in office.
While some viewed the White House iftar as an opportunity for Muslims to connect with powerful Americans, others condemned attendees for breaking bread with the architects of coups across the Muslim world, assassination programs and systematic surveillance and deportations of Muslims. Many American Muslim organizations boycotted the White House iftar in 2021, citing Biden’s policies toward Israel.
Today, these fissures within Muslim and Arab communities are closing. With growing fervor, Muslim America is uniting to demand change in U.S. policy in the Middle East.
The refusal of Muslims and Arabs to support Biden, particularly in key states like Michigan, has alarmed Democratic Party leaders. “In my view,” writes Palestinian-American academic Steven Salaita, “liberals who expect Arab Americans to forget Biden’s support for Zionist genocide in November are deeply mistaken. »
Rejection of attempts to whitewash the faith is now widespread. Muslim Americans are joined by legions of non-Muslims campaigning for Palestinian liberation. Rather than wishing to see more colorful boardrooms or government liaisons on Islamophobia, they now keep an eye on the enduring system of apartheid and its undeniable project of ethnic cleansing and genocide.
Biden’s national strategy on Islamophobia has failed with Muslim voters. It remains to be seen whether this will be enough to push this voting bloc beyond two-party electoralism, opting instead for third-party options and the organization of mass movements. Yet it marks a seismic shift in American Muslim consciousness, one that no longer accepts cultural tolerance and interfaith understanding as a remedy for the problems of empire.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.