America Must Combat Global Islamophobia

By Rishab Chatty and Patrick Fox

Protesters march in support of China’s Uyghurs in Istanbul, Turkey in 2019.
Image Credit: REUTERS/Umit Bektas

Around the world, institutionalized violence against Muslim populations is taking hold. 

The Rohingya minority of Myanmar is hunted by its government, the Uyghur minority in China is subjected to inhumane systems of control, the Israeli occupation and “settlement” of Palestine’s West Bank continues into its 55th year and rising Hindu nationalism in India threatens the lives of the third largest Muslim population in the world. 

Despite all of this, none of the superpowers in modern geopolitics speak on behalf of the world’s second largest religious group. The United States, although it has a complicated history with Islam, is uniquely situated to combat this injustice. 

Uncle Sam and the Crescent

After the end of the Second World War, the United States embarked on a highly destructive mission of anti-communism. This strategy included organizing mass killings in Indonesia, destabilizing anti-imperialist movements in Africa and building regimes of terror in Latin America. Through all of this, however, the United States found an uneasy ally in Islamist movements.

Islamist movements during the Cold War proved to be useful to the United States for suppression of secular leftist political movements. For example, Islamist youth in Indonesia were leveraged into anti-communist deathsquads. 

Islam was regarded by anti-communist foreign policymakers as a “green belt” in the Middle East to restrict the USSR’s southern borders. American planners even considered using majority-Muslim regions of the USSR in Central Asia and the Caucus mountains to encourage domestic terrorism against the Soviets.

The most famous example of this was Washington’s significant military support for the Mujahideen, who waged a bloody war of attrition against the Red Army during its invasion of Afghanistan. 

Plenty of political commentary has pointed out the stark irony of America’s later 20-year occupation of Afghanistan to defeat the Taliban, but the relationship with Islam began to fray even before then. 

The genesis of the rift between American neoliberalism and Islamism was the 1979 Iranian Revolution against the American-backed Shah, the Iran Hostage Crisis and the subsequent US military support for Saddam Hussein in the brutal Iran-Iraq War. 

American Islamophobia continues today in the country’s choices of friends.

Blackwater founder Eric Prince, whose mercenary army opened fire on innocent civilians in the 2007 Nissour Square Massacre, was later revealed to have considered himself an “anti-Muslim crusader.” 

President Donald Trump’s decision to pardon the Blackwater mercenaries thirteen years later seemed to be a natural byproduct of his campaign’s insistence on the use of the term “islamic terrorism” in 2016.

There is a dangerous circular logic in equating Islam with anti-Americanism. Violent and radical Islamist movements can gain popular support simply because they are the most effective means by which to resist global American soft power. 

Growing Persecution of Muslims Globally 

While Islamist groups can certainly find allies who also wish to expedite the end of American primacy, America’s competitors are by no means willing to fight against global Islamophobia themselves. 

The scale of Xi Jinping’s violent suppression of the Muslim Uyghur minority is often difficult to comprehend, but millions in China’s western Xinjiang region are oppressed under the same logic of the “War on Terror” in America. 

Xi similarly associates Islam with terrorism and Beijing is willing to support the military regime in Myanmar that caused a Muslim refugee crisis so massive that the U.S. designated it as a genocide.

One of the most outspoken opponents of “the West” would be Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, but his track record would also indicate little likelihood of sympathy for Islam globally. Putin’s role in crushing the mostly Muslim separatists of the Chechen wars of the 1990s played a major factor in his rise to power. 

Putin’s modern relationship with Islamism is complicated. He has embraced Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, who recently arrived in the Ukrainian city of Mariopul to aid Russian forces. Kadyrov’s macho militarism plays well with Putin, for whom political loyalty is valued over religious differences. 

However, Putin’s government in practice has limited the construction of mosques and restricted protests against systemic Islamophobia. The Wagner Group, a Russian paramilitary company often described as “Putin’s private army” because of its links to the president, has been responsible for or associated with multiple violently Islamophobic events. These include the 2021 Boyo killings and the desecration of the Niffati Mosque in south Tripoli. Russia is not a viable advocate for Muslim communities.

There is a rising global power that could be interpreted as the most direct threat to the world’s Muslim population. India has a massive population of 1.4 billion, with about 80% Hindu and 13% Muslim. India holds the world’s largest Muslim minority and the world’s third largest Muslim population overall. The country is growing so quickly that India will have the world’s largest Muslim population within the next several decades.

Indian politics were dominated by the largely secular INC party until the rise of Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2014. The BJP has consistently leveraged aggression from the large Hindu majority against the Muslim minority, with BJP officials promoting political and religious violence. 

The Indian diaspora has adopted some of the BJP’s anti-Muslim dialogue. Some experts warn that Hindu nationalist policies could lead to a later genocide. Whether or not this turns out to be true, India’s rise as a global superpower is unlikely to be beneficial for an already marginalized Muslim population.

Finally, Islamophobic legislation and activity has been especially prominent in European countries over the last decade. This has been largely catalyzed by the refugee crisis in the Middle East. 

In France, women have been restricted from wearing hijabs and burqas in public. The National Observatory of Islamophobia observed a 53% increase in attacks against Muslims between 2019 and 2020. 

Many other restrictions and bans have been placed on face veils in European countries, including in Albania, Belgium, Bulgaria, Denmark, Germany, Kosovo, Latvia, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland

What America Can Do

The United States should dedicate itself to breaking away from existing Islamophobic sentiments and advocate for Muslims on a global scale. Massive right-wing populist movements in Europe take advantage of nativist fears toward the Muslim immigrant minority. Any change in the attitude of the Global North will have to come from its long-standing leader: the United States. 

In October of 2021, Representative Ilhan Omar (D-MN) and Representative Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) introduced the Combating International Islamophobia Act (HR-5665). It narrowly passed the House on partisan lines.

The legislation would not only mandate the monitoring of state-sponsored Islamophobic violence in the State Department’s yearly human rights reports, but would also result in the appointment of a Special Envoy with the purpose of monitoring and combating Islamophobia. 

With only this minimal cost, the United States could leverage these human rights reports in diplomatic negotiations. Attractive American aid funds could be tied to the equitable treatment of Muslim communities. Despite this opportunity to increase justice in the world, the act currently faces long odds in the Senate.

This is a grim prognosis, given how unlikely it is that anyone else might speak up about growing Islamophobia in the world. The United States Senate must pass this bill, or else President Joe Biden should consider enacting it as an executive order. 

The global Muslim population will be targeted amid rising global tensions. The United States has the global influence to save millions of these lives. 

Giving a sizable portion of the planet’s population a strong reason to cheer for the United States is not only the right thing to do, it is an excellent strategy for winning over many parts of the world in an era of renewed great power competition.

Rishab Chatty is a regular writer for the Review. He majors in Global Studies and Political Science at Arizona State University.

Patrick Fox is also a regular writer for the Review. He majors in International Relations at Syracuse University, where he is president of the Syracuse John Quincy Adams Society.

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