The surge in Islamophobia on Biden’s watch is unprecedented

We are seeing levels of Islamophobia in the US that surpass the ones triggered by Trump’s Muslim ban. This necessitates urgent action.

FILE PHOTO: Mourners attend a vigil service at the Prairie Activity & Recreation Center for Wadea Al-Fayoume, 6, a Muslim boy who according to police was stabbed to death in an attack that targeted him and his mother for their religion and as a response to the war between Israel and Hamas, in Plainfield, Illinois, U.S. October 17, 2023. REUTERS/Jim Vondruska/File Photo
Mourners attend a vigil service for six-year-old Wadea Al-Fayoume, who was stabbed to death, in Plainfield, Illinois on October 17, 2023 [File: Reuters/Jim Vondruska]

The surge in Islamophobic bias in the United States in late 2023 horrifies the soul. Wadea al-Fayoume, a six-year-old Muslim Palestinian boy, was stabbed to death in Chicago. A Georgia teacher threatened to decapitate a student for criticising an Israeli flag he put up in the classroom. A Maryland-based Muslim’s routine donation to a place of worship in Ohio was reportedly delayed by PayPal “[i]n light of the ongoing national emergency in Israel”.

In the last three months of 2023, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy organisation, received a staggering 3,578 complaints about discrimination based on race, ethnicity, or religion. This number illustrates the alarming reality that, under President Joe Biden, Islamophobic bias has reached unprecedented levels, surpassing in some ways even the appalling track record of the previous administration.

By comparison, in the three months following then-presidential candidate Donald Trump’s December 2015 campaign pledge to ban Muslims from entering the US, our organisation received 1,098 complaints. After Trump was elected, he issued an executive order enacting the ban on January 27, 2017. In the following three months, CAIR received an additional 1,813 complaints, bringing the total of the two surges to 2,911 complaints.

Trump’s surges were fuelled by the intentional deployment of Islamophobic and anti-immigrant stereotypes. This started with the press release by his campaign announcing his pledge to ban Muslims, which referred to a deeply flawed and inaccurate survey by an Islamophobic organisation about Muslim Americans’ purported beliefs about Islamic law and violence. The deliberate decision of his campaign to make the announcement of the Muslim ban pledge on Pearl Harbor Day also helped portray Muslims as “foreign invaders”.

In the following year, until he became president and enacted the ban, Trump’s campaign continued to use Islamophobic and anti-immigrant rhetoric, encouraging growing anti-Muslim bias. Violent incidents that took place after the ban included a break-in into the apartment of a Muslim couple in Virginia who came home after visiting family to find “f*** Muslims” written on a wall, their Quran torn to shreds, and all their valuables gone.

During his presidential campaign, Biden accused Trump of fanning “the flames of hate” in the country and promised to repeal what he called the “vile Muslim ban”. After he took office, he did follow through on his vow.

But Biden’s rhetoric has changed sharply since the escalation of violence in Israel-Palestine in October. He and other liberal politicians have not only provided unconditional political and military support to Israel amid accusations of genocide against Palestinians, but also repeated Islamophobic Israeli propaganda.

Biden’s early dismissal of the Palestinian Ministry of Health’s casualty reports, which a Department of State official later admitted may actually underestimate the true death toll, deployed a common anti-Arab and Islamophobic trope: they lie. The fact that he used numbers reflecting the ministry’s data in his State of the Union speech on March 7 cannot undo the damage done.

National Security Council official John Kirby, who with visible emotion has mourned the lives of Ukrainian civilians killed by Russian forces, has attributed mass Palestinian civilian casualties to the inevitability of war, mirroring the use of dehumanising Islamophobic rhetoric seen in Trump’s administration.

Meanwhile, Biden’s allies in Congress joined the Republican Party in throwing absurd allegations at the only US congressperson of Palestinian descent, Rashida Tlaib, and voted to censure her.

Amid outrage at the growing surge in Islamophobia, the Biden administration made an attempt to intervene, but it fell short of inspiring any confidence.

In October, we urged President Biden to follow in the footsteps of past leaders, like President George W Bush who visited a mosque in the aftermath of 9/11, which resulted in a noticeable drop in bias attacks on those perceived as Muslim. Yet, this simple request remains unacknowledged.

While the president condemned the brutal murder of six-year-old Wadea and announced plans for a national counter-Islamophobia strategy, these measures do little to address the root causes of the surge.

It is clear that we will not see an end to this round of violence against Muslims in the US until we see an end to the violence against Palestinians in Gaza. And yet the crucial step of calling for a permanent ceasefire in Gaza and acknowledging the decades of occupation and apartheid faced by Palestinians remains elusive. Instead, Biden has decided in recent days to approve yet another arms shipment to Israel worth billions of dollars.

It is important to note here that our data does not paint the full picture. We are only able to report those incidents submitted to CAIR, usually by Muslims. We suspect that many more of those advocating for Palestinian humanity – a coalition that includes Christians, Jews, Arabs, Asian Americans, African Americans, and others – face hate crimes and other acts of bias at a dangerous scale.

President Biden’s rhetoric may have improved from his initial unequivocal support for Israel, but the weapons continue to flow to Israel. He has yet to improve his intervention in domestic Islamophobic bias. Without meaningful action, the recent surge in Islamophobia will persist, casting a dark shadow on Biden’s claim of pursuing justice and equality.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.