US can’t hide its poor human rights record
Editor’s Note: A self-proclaimed defender of human rights around the globe, the US has a very poor record of defending Muslims’ rights at home. Three scholars and an institute for global religious studies share their views on the issue with China Daily:
Bias against Muslims has roots in US history
The United States has always masqueraded as a “defender of democracy” and “human rights”, yet it has been playing down the discrimination against American Muslims, and not taken any concrete measures to ensure their religious freedom.
The situation has worsened in the 21st century, with rising Islamophobia in the US. Worse, both the Democratic and Republican parties have taken advantage of Muslims to fulfill their own political goals.
American Muslims have always been considered “distrusted outsiders”, even though many historians say the first group of Muslims came to North America in the early 14th century. The first real wave of Muslims, forcibly shipped from Africa as slaves, reached the United States soon after it declared independence in 1776. Historians say 10-15 percent of the Africans forced into slavery in the US were Muslims.
Although the US’ founding fathers sought to ensure Muslims practiced their religion freely, it was difficult for Muslims to do so. So they practiced their religion, wore their traditional clothes and used their names in secret to avoid being discriminated against or persecuted. In fact, many Muslims were forcibly converted to Christianity.
In general, before the 20th century, Muslims in the US were mainly from Africa and the Middle East, most of whom later abandoned their religion, and their descendants no longer identify themselves as Muslims. Muslims from the Middle East and Africa, like other black people, didn’t have many job opportunities and could only get jobs that other religious groups didn’t want to do.
And in 1924, the US Congress passed the National Origins Act, which “restricted immigration from Asia and other Muslim-sending regions and thus stemmed the flow of new Muslim arrivals”.
Thanks to the 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act, more than 1.1 million Muslims arrived in the US by the end of the 20th century. Unfortunately, the American public opinion toward Muslims was shaped largely by geopolitical encounters between the US and the Middle East at that time, with media reports constantly feeding into the negative narrative about Islam, leading to hate crimes against Muslims.
The terrorist attacks on Sept 11, 2001 were a watershed for American Muslims. Although Muslim clerics in the US denounced the attacks and strived to change the public attitude toward Islam, most Americans continued to distrust, even hate Muslims. The FBI reported a 1,600 percent increase in anti-Muslim hate crimes in 2001. The 9/11 attacks, as a matter of fact, sparked a debate on whether American Muslims should be considered “equal citizens”.
Along with the US-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, some Americans spread extreme views about Muslims, saying they are violent, sinister and anti-US by nature.
It is hard to estimate the exact number of Muslims in the US because religious census is forbidden in the country. But according to surveys conducted by Pew Research Center over a period of more than 10 years, there were about 2.15 million Muslim adults, accounting for 1.1 percent of the US population in 2017. And the Muslim population is estimated to reach 8.1 million in 2050, surpassing Jews as the second-largest religious group in the US.
This trend has led both the Democrats and Republicans to woo Muslims in order to win elections and fulfill their goals. The Republicans even have three Muslim Congress members. Yet Muslim politicians are still viewed with suspicion and face discrimination.
Zhou Qi, a researcher at the Institute of American Studies, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences; and Zhang Xudong, a researcher at Tongji University
American Muslims face persecution
Although the US claims to be the biggest defender of religious freedom, it does not protect all American citizens’ right to freedom of religion. After declaring independence in 1776, the US welcomed immigrants from all over the world due to labor shortage. But these people didn’t enjoy the same freedom that the white people did.
Although US mainstream society pretended to be tolerant to Muslims, the administration saw the growing number of Muslims as a threat. So it implemented policies to restrict the size of this religious group. Even today, the American public, in general, has not fully accepted Muslims as fellow citizens, despite their population accounting for just less than 2 percent of the total.
After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Muslims have been generally treated as dissidents by the US society, and continue to be discriminated against. Even the administration has implemented laws to restrict their freedom. For example, the USA Patriot Act requires internet companies to provide the government with users’ information on a regular basis, prompting many to say such laws have legalized racial profiling and discrimination.
Besides, the clearinghouse for labor evaluation and research and the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System also restrict people’s freedom, especially of Muslim immigrants and Arab groups. Some Muslim religious groups believe these policies are aimed at excluding them from the mainstream public.
As for US President Joe Biden, he may not have taken any overt steps to persecute Muslims, but there is enough evidence to suggest the already marginalized religious group is becoming the victim of Islamophobia, including discrimination in employment, and the target of hate crimes.
A report by the Council on American-Islamic Relations and University of California, Berkeley, in 2016 named 74 groups that contribute in some ways to Islamophobia.
The primary purpose of 33 of those groups “is to promote prejudice against, or hatred of, Islam and Muslims”. And the core group accumulated funds of up to $206 million between 2008 and 2013. Islamophobia is most commonly seen among conservatives and Republicans, who hold more negative views toward Muslims than Democrats.
The Institute of World Religions, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences
Racism a bolt on US democracy
By slandering other countries for their human rights records and playing down its own failure to protect human rights, the US has again revealed its hypocrisy on race-related issues.
Previous president Donald Trump’s policy of separating children from their immigrant parents caught crossing the border illegally triggered public outrage across the country in 2018.
The same year, Trump reportedly told lawmakers during talks on an immigration deal. “Why do we want all these people from Africa here? They’re shithole countries ... We should have more people from Norway.” By doing so, Trump revealed a hidden rule in US foreign policy: that the US considers other countries as “shitholes”.
In 2020, The Washington Post’s review of news stories since the 2016 presidential election found more than 300 incidents of school children being harassed by students or teachers using Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric. At least three quarters of those victims were black, Hispanic or Muslim children.
The US has failed to deal with the fatal threat white supremacist and farright groups pose to the country and its people. Instead, it has been focusing on investigating American Muslims, according to Michael German, a former FBI agent.