The U.S. Role in Combating
Global Islamophobia

Engy Abdelkader

Photo by Joshua Rawson-Harris on Unsplash.

Last December, U.S. Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ), Ben Cardin (D-MD), and Bernie Sanders (I-VT) introduced the Combating International Islamophobia Act. The bill creates a new position – a Special Envoy – within the U.S. State Department. The envoy would monitor Islamophobia globally. 

While the House passed companion legislation around the same time, the Senate bill is languishing. In light of the exponential and persistent growth in anti-Muslim sentiment global in proportion – from China to Europe to Myanmar – the new position is deeply necessary. 

Policy makers should enact the law accordingly.

Global Islamophobia

While not a new phenomenon, anti-Muslim hatred and violence saw a steep increase in the wake of 9/11. Myriad factors created fertile soil for malevolent sentiment including racism, xenophobia, and intolerance; counter-terrorism policies that conflated the Islamic faith with a propensity for criminality; stigmatizing political rhetoric; and a network of groups that spread hateful misinformation about the community thus undermining its reputational interests. 

These racial, social, and political factors nourished the Islamophobia now manifest in innumerable contexts, from bias-based bullying in schools to the denial of service in places of public accommodation. In addition to these social hostilities, a number of state actors have also adopted official restrictions barring Muslim faith practices, from ritual slaughter practices to the observation of modest attire

Mass Atrocity Crimes

Within certain jurisdictions, social hostilities and official restrictions have culminated in genocidal acts against Muslim populations. Representative among them is the Uighur crisis in China.

The Uighurs are a persecuted religious and ethnic minority community of Turkic descent who practice a moderate version of Sunni Islam in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region in northwest China. Beijing views the Uighurs as a religiously, ethnically, culturally, and linguistically distinct group whose beliefs and practices fail to conform with dominant Han standards. As such, Uighurs are regarded as “foreigners” and denied equal legal and political status. 

Rather than working to accommodate differences, Beijing expects ethnic minorities to assimilate to achieve a unified China. Beijing regards religion as a means of social control rather than a matter of spirituality or ideology; religion either reinforces or weakens state sovereignty. Insofar as Uighur Muslims are loyal to God, the government views their piety as undermining the nation’s atheist character.

Xi Jinping, the nation’s president, emphasized that religions can “adhere to the direction of Sinicization” by “interpreting rules and dogmas in a way that corresponds to the needs attached to the progress and development of contemporary China.”

According to Beijing, the “Sinicization of religion” is intended to address real or perceived national challenges such as “infiltration, subversion, and sabotage, as well as violent and terrorist activities, ethnic separatist activities, and religious extremist activities.”

In the context of the minority Uighur Muslim population, Sinicization has translated into the de-Islamification of orthodox religious practices. For instance, Beijing has prohibited observing Muslim religious attire, fasting for Ramadan, and grooming long beards while also restricting hajj, a mandatory religious pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia. Authorities have also closed Islamic schools, destroyed religious texts, converted mosques into offices, and prohibited Arabic language and Islamic imagery from signage. In addition, officials have destroyed Islamic cemeteries, demolished minarets and domes, banned the traditional call to prayer, and shuttered mosques. 

Even more alarmingly, Sinicization has culminated in the mass internment of more than one million Uighur and other Muslims in “re-education camps” to ensure national unity. In this way, Sinicization strives to produce “normal people” while ensuring conformity in all respects.

China’s recent laws, policies, and practices undermining Uighur civil, political, cultural, and economic rights under international human rights law have received considerable attention from journalists, activists, and elected officials. In truth, much of the authoritarian state’s violations represent a longstanding pattern of abuses that evidence the need for a Special Envoy to monitor Islamophobia. 

The U.S. Role

The U.S. enjoys geopolitical and moral status as a global hegemon. As such, a Special Envoy would arguably prove influential in identifying, addressing, and challenging anti-Muslim sentiment within particular countries and regions.

In many respects, we are already a force countering Islamophobia abroad – such as in Burma and China – with diplomacy, humanitarian aid, and sanctions. Arguably, the creation of this new post would further institutionalize and formalize our efforts while signaling that counteracting Islamophobia is a priority human rights issue to allies and competitors alike. 

Ultimately, doing so would enhance our moral credibility globally while demonstrating our commitment to upholding international human rights. ♦

Engy Abdelkader teaches at Mitchell Hamline School of Law and Rutgers University. She serves as a Council Member with the ABA Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice and with the ABA Coalition on Racial and Ethnic Justice. 

Recommended Citation

Abdelkader, Engy. “The U.S. Role in Combating Global Islamophobia.” Canopy Forum, March 31, 2022.