Ann Arbor (Informed Comment) – It is a truism that there are some ethnic groups in the United States toward whom it is still permitted to show bigotry. Whereas public figures can be cancelled for racism against African Americans, Hispanics, and other groups, ragging on Muslim Americans is a blood sport in American politics. Trump instituted a Muslim ban and said “Islam hates us,” tagging nearly 4 million Muslim Americans as traitors.
One of the problems is that “Muslims” had not been considered an ethnic group, and the main law enforcement tool against hate crimes is Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It says, “No person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”
This language is problematic not only for Muslims but also Jewish Americans. Where you have a white American of Jewish faith, does that person fall under Title VI? It doesn’t say anything about religious groups.
So it is huge, enormous news that the Biden administration has issued an interpretation of Title VI that underlines its applicability not only to Jews but also to Muslim Americans and Sikh Americans. Jewish Americans are the most frequent victims of hate crimes among religious groups in the US, and antisemitic tropes such as that George Soros controls the country are routinely repeated by American politicians. But Muslims and Sikhs also feel the lash of such bigotry.
Eight key federal government departments joined this initiative, including the Department of the Interior. Interior issued a statement saying that “Today, the U.S. Department of the Interior joined seven other agencies across the federal government to clarify for the first time in writing that Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits certain forms of antisemitism, Islamophobia and related discrimination. Today’s announcement is the latest step of the implementation of the Biden-Harris administration’s historic U.S. National Strategy to Counter Antisemitism, released in May 2023.”
Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, herself a member of the Pueblo of Laguna, remarked of this historic initiative, “Every person in this country should have access to the resources that the federal government provides. Today, the Biden-Harris administration is leading by example and making it crystal clear that antisemitism, Islamophobia and related forms of discrimination have no place in America. Interior is committed to living up to our values as a country and enforcing these important civil rights protections.”
The change is a vindication of thinkers such as Sahar Aziz, who argued in her The Racial Muslim that Muslim Americans have been discriminated against because they were treated not as members of a religion with first amendment rights but as an unprotected ethnic group that could be surveilled and discriminated against with impunity.
Muslim Americans had not been involved in the September 11, 2001, attacks — they were carried out by a small cult of fanatics based in Afghanistan. The some 4 million Americans are famously law-abiding and most often are the pillars of their communities, being physicians, professors, scientists, attorneys, and business people. Trump’s head of Operation Warp Speed, a public-private collaboration that produced the Moderna vaccine against COVID-19, was a Moroccan-American Muslim, Monçef Slaoui.
Muslim Americans have been treated as pariahs by many local, state and federal authorities and have widely had their constitutional rights infringed. Their mosques have been subject to arson attacks, veiled women have been attacked, and some white nationalist groups have subjected them to hate speech.
We had the campaign against a New York Muslim community center to be built several blocks away from the World Trade Center, which opponents called the “ground zero mosque.” We had a political campaign against a mosque expansion in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, in which white Christian city council members openly speculated that their Muslim fellow residents might use it as an opportunity to plot out murders.
We had an NYPD surveillance program targeting Muslim Americans. It was only one such surveillance project– Muslim Americans widely had their fourth amendment rights infringed on by security and law enforcement agencies.
Even then Rep. Peter King of New York, who is an open supporter of the Irish Republican Army who defended its violence as “legitimate,” dared come out and hold hearings on the terrorism danger allegedly emanating from Muslim Americans.
We had a rash of unconstitutional “shariah bans,” mainly in Republican-ruled states, which tried to forbid law-making on the basis of Muslim law. There is no reason to think that the 35,000 Muslims and Arabs of Oklahoma want to have the state legislature adopt shariah, which is analogous to the Jewish halakha, the religious law by which believers regulate their lives. Nor is there any reason to think that they could succeed even if they did want this, which they do not.
Moreover, the measures were nonsense. Since US law is in the British common law tradition, actually precedents can be cited from anywhere and a Muslim or Jewish or Catholic law that became customary in an American community would certainly lend itself to citation in court cases. Muslim Americans who make contracts, including marriage contracts, on the basis of Muslim law or shariah, can have US courts enforce them.
Wherever the shariah bans were challenged in court, as in Oklahoma, they were struck down as unconstitutional, and surely the legislators who passed them knew that they would be. They were just grandstanding, and trying for Evangelical votes. Ironically, Evangelical Christians themselves often wish to erode the wall between church and state in the US, but only in favor of Christian law. The Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade was the imposition of Catholic and Evangelical Christian shariah on Americans, which is apparently all right.
President Biden has put the enormous power and influence of the federal government behind a new push to ensure that Muslim Americans have their full constitutional rights. After all, if they are going to be de facto racialized and treated as a “dangerous” ethnic group by many whites, then they should have Title VI protections against discrimination on grounds of heritage.