Muslims and activists call on President Biden to protect Muslims against discriminatory federal practices.
The moment presidential candidate Joseph Biden used “inshallah” during a 2020 presidential debate, social media went wild. His culturally competent use of the Arabic phrase signaled something meaningful to Muslim Americans—a first step toward ensuring Muslim Americans feel welcome in the United States.
On his first day in office, President Biden took a second step—he signed an order rescinding former President Trump’s Muslim travel ban. Muslims across the globe, and specifically Muslim Americans, welcomed this action with relief and joy.
Undoubtedly, rescinding the Muslim ban is an important move from the Biden Administration. Even a top counterterrorism official under former President Trump agrees. But this single action is not enough to repair the ban’s damage.
According to a 2019 report conducted by the U.S. Department of State, the Muslim ban separated thousands of families, including couples, parents, and young children. It impeded educational and career opportunities. It prevented families from saying goodbye to dying loved ones. And it trapped refugees in life-threatening conditions.
The ban, however, did more than impact immigrants and travelers. It endangered Muslim Americans already lawfully residing within the United States—an impact that law professor and activist Khaled Beydoun argued has been too often ignored. For Beydoun, the ban signaled a judicially sanctioned tool to fight a “War on Terror,” and it further enabled the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to direct that war specifically against Muslim communities.
Activists and members of the Muslim community rightly demand more. Although the ban caused direct and indirect harm to thousands, a suite of other federal programs—many in place prior to the Trump Administration—has fostered the Islamophobic conditions that birthed the Muslim ban. To address those conditions, President Biden must take steps to reverse decades of discrimination practiced under the guise of national security.
For example, discriminatory policing of Muslims, both nationally and globally, began with the military actions of the George W. Bush Administration. After the attacks on 9/11, the United States marshalled forces against Iraq and Afghanistan, sparking the global expansion of the War on Terror. Despite assertions from the U.S. intelligence community, Iraq possessed no weapons of mass destruction, and tragically, the conflict resulted in the deaths of more than 100,000 Iraqi civilians. Casualties continue to grow as the war in Afghanistan approaches a third decade, and whether the Biden Administration keeps its promise to withdraw U.S. forces by this fall remains to be seen.
Within U.S. borders, the Bush Administration enacted a series of laws designed to enhance the government’s intelligence-gathering capabilities—arguably for the purpose of counterterrorism but at the expense of privacy. The implementation of stringent airport security regulations was accompanied by the establishment of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the formation of a partnership between the FBI and the National Intelligence Agency—a partnership enabling FBI agents to surveil Muslim populations for counterterrorism purposes.
Later, a program known as “Countering Violent Extremism” (CVE), established under President Barack Obama and renamed under President Trump, increased counterterrorism surveillance of Muslim Americans by allowing DHS, federal prosecutors, and FBI agents to work closely with local officials to infiltrate Muslim American communities.
But CVE failed to produce any evidence the programs succeeded in reducing terrorism. In a CVE audit report released in 2017, the U.S. Government Accountability Office stated that “it was not able to determine if the United States is better off today than it was in 2011.” Instead of providing security, the program’s surveillance pitted vulnerable Muslims against one another. FBI agents recruited informants—often at-risk immigrants—from within Muslim communities to provide intel on their own people. And the targeted nature of the travel ban amplified this practice.
The decades of harm caused by these government programs has sparked calls by Muslim Americans and human rights advocates for President Biden and the U.S. Congress to enact sweeping change—change much greater than merely rescinding the Muslim travel ban.
First, Congress should pass the NO BAN Act. This proposed law would protect immigrants and nonimmigrants from religious discrimination while strengthening congressional oversight to prevent abuses under the Immigration and Nationality Act.
Second, the Biden Administration must also act to reverse decades of religious and racial profiling conducted by past administrations. This demand includes defunding CVE’s successor, the Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention Grant Program. Furthermore, President Biden must heed the call to expedite visas for refugees and family members specifically harmed by the Muslim ban, in addition to promoting immigration reform more generally.
Finally, President Biden must do more to support Muslim representation in the federal government. President Biden’s 2020 platform promised to do so by restoring the White House Eid celebration and by filling the absent position of Muslim-American Liaison in the White House Office of Public Engagement—two actions that, although positive, leave much to be desired. So far, Biden has appointed several Muslims for roles in his Administration, but his next steps remain uncertain.
And in light of his recent retreat from a campaign promise to increase the cap on refugees, that uncertainty prevails.
President Trump’s Muslim travel ban did not birth Islamophobia. Nor did it invent federal surveillance of Muslim communities. Instead, the ban metastasized already present hate toward Muslims, resulting in violent rhetoric and actions against Muslim communities across the nation.
If the Biden Administration wishes to uphold its promise to protect the rights of Muslim Americans, it must actively reverse nearly 20 years of discriminatory policing and rhetoric reared in the post-9/11 era.