First signs of changing attitude
The House of Representative, the lower house of US Congress, passed on December 14, a piece of legislation to monitor and combat Islamophobia globally. The Combating International Islamophobia Act, which passed by 219-212 votes, calls for the State Department to establish an office headed by a Senate-confirmed special envoy to be appointed by the president.
Why the new office?
The legislation, which was introduced by Democrats Ilhan Omar and Jan Schakowsky, is modelled on a similar bill that institutionalised the State Department’s special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism, which the House passed 411-1 in 2019. “I believe as Americans, we should stand united against all forms of bigotry,” Omar said during the House floor debate. “In fact, this legislation is modelled on the Special Envoy to Combat Anti-Semitism, and I was proud to co-sponsor and vote last Congress on legislation to elevate that envoy to a Cabinet-level position,” she added.
“We are here today at a time when anti-Muslim hatred has risen to epidemic proportions,” House Rules Committee Chairman James McGovern said on the floor before the vote. He highlighted regions across the world where anti-Muslim sentiment “continues to build”.
Mr McGovern cited a March report from the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion that found about 40 percent of Europeans and 30 percent of Americans view Muslims negatively.
Purpose of Office
The office would record instances of Islamophobia, including violence against, and harassment of, Muslims and vandalism of their mosques, schools and cemeteries worldwide, in reports created by the State Department.
The reports would also highlight propaganda efforts by state and non-state media “to promote racial hatred or incite acts of violence against Muslim people.”
It would include the documentation of “any instances of forced labor, re-education, or the presence of concentration camps, such as those targeting the Uyghurs” in China’s Xinjiang region.
It also plans to establish a comprehensive strategy for promoting US leadership in combating Islamophobia internationally.
Support for Ilhan Omar
The bill was sponsored by Minnesota Democrat Representative Ilhan Omar, a Muslim immigrant from Somalia. While congress-people must be commended for the vote, perhaps they would be better off fighting racism and bigotry at home. Omar, as a member of ‘The Squad’ — a nickname for a group of young, mostly female progressive Democrats — has already been a target of vilification from the Republican party and even more conservative Democrats. Her staunch criticism of Israel’s repressive government has led to her being accused of anti-Semitism, even though she has been equally critical of authoritarian regimes in Muslim countries.
But despite often appearing to be in a lonely corner due to her outspoken support for the rights of the oppressed in the US and abroad, her entire party, and several independent thinkers outside Congress, came to her support.
Republicans have denounced the bill, calling it rushed and partisan. They have argued that an office to combat Islamophobia is redundant, given that the State Department already delivers an annual report on international religious freedom.
Republican Michael McCaul of Texas said he supports the “spirit and intent” of the bill. But he raised concerns that it could empower executive branch officials to crack down on protected speech because the word “Islamophobia” isn’t defined in the legislation.
“It’s so vague and subjective that it could be used against legitimate speech for partisan purposes,” McCaul was quoted as saying on the House floor.
Some, including Rep. Scott Perry, went further, alleging that the office created in the bill would “likely spew anti-Semitic hatred.”
Other Republicans attacked the bill’s sponsor, Ms Omar, over her previous criticism of pro-Israel lobbying activity as well as a 2012 tweet stating that “Israel has hypnotised the world,” which she has since apologised for.
Ms Omar and several other Democrats have called on congressional leaders to sanction Republican Lauren Boebert for attacks she made implying that the Muslim congresswoman is a terrorist.
White House Position
The White House issued a statement on December 14 supporting Ms Omar’s bill to combat Islamophobia. The statement read:
“The Administration supports passage of H.R. 5665, the Combating International Islamophobia Act. Religious freedom is a fundamental human right. This freedom is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and is also part of the First Amendment to the US Constitution. Our country’s commitment to defending freedom of religion and belief goes back centuries, and the Administration strongly believes that people of all faiths and backgrounds should be treated with equal dignity and respect around the world.
The Administration also supports language in H.R. 5665 that calls attention to instances of forced labor, reeducation, or the presence of concentration camps, such as those targeting Uyghur and other minorities in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of the People’s Republic of China.
The Administration looks forward to working with Congress to ensure the Secretary of State has the necessary flexibility and permissive authority to designate such an office and special envoy and to provide for an annual report monitoring concerning acts of Islamophobia in foreign countries.”
By calling for the appointment of a special envoy Ms Ilhan Omar has raised a pertinent issue at a time when anti-Muslim incidents are on the rise in many countries. In Europe and North America far-right groups have indulged in anti-Muslim violence, deadly in some cases, emboldened by demagogues and populist politicians looking to grab a few votes by demonising the other.
She has singled out China, India and Myanmar as state actors responsible for “violations against … Muslims”, while also calling out white supremacist groups for spreading anti-Muslim hate. In India, Hindu zealots have lynched Muslims for eating beef, knowing they can get away with their crimes as the state is sympathetic to their hateful ideology. Myanmar and Sri Lanka have also seen incidents of mass violence against Muslims, often instigated by extremist sections of the Buddhist clergy.
Therefore, an effort on the global level against Islamophobia is clearly needed. Instead of the US taking the lead — as it may punish geopolitical enemies such as China and look the other way when friends such as India persecute Muslims — perhaps the effort should be led by the United Nations. Prime Minister Imran Khan has raised the issue of Islamophobia at the multilateral body, and it is through the combined efforts of the international community that the menace of anti-Muslim hate can be confronted.
The writer is a member of staff.