2021 Islamophobia in Review: United States

Published on 05 Jan 2022
Overall, 2021 demonstrated that Islamophobia remains a constant and growing threat around the globe. Anti-Muslim racism in 2021 remained ever present as hate crimes and individual attacks targeting Muslims persisted. Across the globe, the key players of anti-Muslim racism were again states themselves, as this year witnessed increasing discriminatory legislation and policies. China continued to deny the growing body of evidence pointing to genocide being committed against Uyghur Muslims and an international tribunal was held in the U.K. with testimony from survivors of Xinjiang’s concentration camps. In Canada, a man killed a Muslim family of four in a horrific calculated hit-and-run, leading to Canadian Muslims demanding the government take concrete measures to tackle Islamophobic violence. In France, President Emmanuel Macron’s government took a page from China’s book by implementing legislation aimed at constructing a state-approved Islam, resulting in widespread discrimination targeting Muslim civil society and curtailing the rights of French Muslims, especially women. Similarly, the Austrian government took measures to intimidate and silence Austrian Muslim activists and organizations, even going so far as to publish a map detailing the locations of hundreds of mosques and associations. In the United Kingdom, the ruling Conservative party persisted in evading calls to address institutional Islamophobia within its ranks. State hostility and prejudice towards Muslims was present across the European continent, with rulings aimed at restricting Muslim identity such as halal meat and hijab bans. In India, the country’s growing Hindu nationalist forces retained last year’s theme of conspiracy theories, claiming Indian Muslims were engaging in “love jihad,” “economic jihad,” and even “narcotics jihad.” Additionally, there were large episodes of anti-Muslim violence in various parts of the country such as Tripura, Gurgaon, and Assam, all of which were supported by the rising Hindu nationalist voices. The year was also spent uncovering the role of social media platforms in larger campaigns of violence targeting Muslims as seen in India and Myanmar. In the United States, the country marked twenty years since the deadly September 11th attacks and reckoned with the impacts and consequences of two decades of the War on Terror at home and abroad.


2021 Islamophobia in review: United States

With the inauguration of Joe Biden as the country’s 46th president, American Muslims welcomed the new administration and celebrated as Biden reversed Trump’s Muslim Ban. While applauding the measure, many noted that a reversal would not bring back the time and lives lost as a result of the previous discriminatory measure, and called on Biden to use this moment to tackle the presence of anti-Muslim racism in society, calling for accountability and justice.

As Biden took office, new Republican representatives took their positions following the 2020 elections, including Representatives Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert, whose numerous stunts of harassment and bullying played out throughout the year. They repeatedly targeted Minnesota Representative Ilhan Omar with anti-Muslim slurs, such as calling her “pro Al-Qaeda,” a member of the “jihad squad” (a slur that also plays on the “the Squad” label given to Rep. Omar and her fellow three progressive congresswomen), and a terrorist. Following Boebert’s discriminatory and dangerous remarks, Omar received an uptick in hate mail and played one of the many death threats she had received in which a man called her a “Muslim sand n***** bitch,” and threatened “there’s plenty that will love the opportunity to take you off the face of this f*cking earth. You will not live much longer, b*tch, I can almost guarantee you that.”

The episode highlighted the growing acceptance and even tacit approval of Islamophobia in the GOP, as leadership failed to take action against Boebert and did not publicly condemn her comments. Boebert herself refused to publicly apologize to Omar, and even doubled down on the anti-Muslim harassment and bullying, claiming the Muslim congresswoman was “playing the victim.” House minority leader Kevin McCarthy’s silence in the face of these discriminatory remarks could be explained by the fact that data demonstrates that Republican voters largely hold anti-Muslim views. A 2018 study conducted by Dr. Maneesh Arora found that 54 per cent of Republicans surveyed would vote for an anti-Muslim candidate, and separately noted that a 2020 YouGov survey found that 37 percent of Republicans approved of discrimination against Muslims. Further, the GOP fully supported former President Donald Trump, who arguably made Islamophobia a part of his campaign and presidency, and repeatedly targeted Rep. Ilhan Omar with anti-Muslim smears and rhetoric. Boebert it appears is simply following standard party practice by employing Islamophobia to amp up her base. This year also demonstrated that Republican representatives who’ve aligned with former President Trump (and embodied his tactics) are not some “fringe” figures, rather they’ve become “indicators” of where the party is headed and the values it upholds.

While the GOP leadership fails to hold Boebert accountable, House Democrats passed a new bill (led by Omar and Rep. Jan Schakowsky) that would establish a new special envoy position at the State Department to monitor and combat Islamophobia worldwide. It’s unlikely this bill will get passed in the Senate but it is indicative of where the country stands: despite the entrenchment of Islamophobia in society, there is a growing movement against it.

2021 also marked 20 years since 9/11 and the inauguration of the war on terror that saw the U.S. invade Afghanistan and Iraq and wage drone strikes across the globe including in Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, and Syria (to name a few). This year was one of reflection of the global impact of this borderless and timeless war. New data from Brown University’s Costs of War project found that in the last three years alone, the U.S. has been active in counterterrorism operations in at least 85 countries. The domestic and global impacts of the War on Terror were painstakingly explored in American journalist Spencer Ackerman’s book, “Reign of Terror,” published in August of this year, which explored how the structure and framing of America’s counterterrorism operations, which were aimed at fighting an “amorphous concept like terrorism,” that allowed for two decades of mass state-sponsored violence.


The following excerpt from Ackerman’s book sums up the past two decades:

In response to 9/11, America had invaded and occupied two countries, bombed four others for years, killed at least 801,000 people — a full total may never be known — terrified millions more, tortured hundreds, detained thousands, reserved unto itself the right to create a global surveillance dragnet, disposed of its veterans with cruel indifference, called an entire global religion criminal or treated it that way, made migration into a crime, and declared most of its actions to be legal and constitutional. It created at least 21 million refugees and spent as much as $6 trillion on its operations. Through it all, America said other people, the ones staring down the barrel of the War on Terror, were the barbarians.


August also witnessed the U.S. pull all of its troops out of Afghanistan, resulting in what can only be described in a humanitarian catastrophe as the Taliban returned to power and millions of Afghans faced uncertainty with the new regime and economic hardship. It’s hard to forget the devastating images and video of Afghans desperately trying to flee for safety, rushing to the airports and clinging to the wings of planes. During this time period, a U.S. drone strike killed ten members (seven of them children) of a family, drawing international outrage to an act that has been occurring for at least the last 15 years but too little attention. The drone strike brought the use of unmanned arrival vehicles into conversation and called attention to the number of civilian deaths these weapons were responsible for. A powerful investigation by Azmat Zahra for the New York Times revealed that the Pentagon’s own records showed how “the air war has been marked by deeply flawed intelligence, rushed and often imprecise targeting, and the deaths of thousands of civilians, many of them children, a sharp contrast to the American government’s image of war waged by all-seeing drones and precision bombs.” In a rare turn of events, the U.S. government admitted that they had killed innocent civilians in the Kabul strike, calling it “a horrible tragedy of war,” but upheld the last two decades war on terror mantra that no crime has been committed; there was no “criminal negligence.” No one was held responsible for the deaths of those 10 civilians and drone strikes continue to be supported by authorities despite even greater evidence supporting the argument that drone strikes don’t work and have routinely killed civilians.

This year also marked the deaths of former Secretary of State Colin Powell and former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfled, both men who played a leading roll in the construction and promotion of the war on terror. Powell sold the war in Iraq to the United Nations, claiming that Saddam Hussain had ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction’ (all of which proved to be false). The total number of Iraqi civilian deaths as a result of the war is unknown but the Iraq Body Count project places the number of deaths since 2003 between 185,724 and 208,831, as of June 30.

Rumsfeld was the individual who authorized the “enhanced interrogation,” aka torture, of individuals U.S. authorities arrested and detained during the war on terror. A 2002 memo signed by Rumsfeld authorized “20-hour interrogations, use of phobias, and stress positions.” Rumsfeld’s orders resulted in the abuse of hundreds of prisoners in US custody, including those held at Guantanamo Bay. Since it was opened in 2002, the prison at the military navel base has held 780 Muslim boys and men; today it remains open with 39 prisoners, 14 of whom are being held indefinitely without charge. The prison continues to be a living contradiction to the values the U.S. claims on the global stage: a living remnant of the atrocities committed by the United States in the name of security.

The year also marked 20 years of a domestic war on terror and the ramifications of government surveillance and suspicion has had on the American Muslim community. From reflecting on the consequences of being on the government’s no-fly list to the Supreme Court deciding “whether a lawsuit can go forward in which a group of Muslim residents of California allege the FBI targeted them for surveillance because of their religion,” it was a year of reckoning.

20 years later and the long-lasting devastation as a result of state-sponsored Islamophobia is finally being acknowledged and spoken about. American Muslims reflected on government rhetoric and programs that for the past two decades marked them as threats and suspicious, and how that resulted in widespread violations of their civil rights and liberties

As mentioned earlier, while Islamophobia remains ever-present within American government and society, the U.S. also witnessed greater a political involvement from Muslims, inaugurating a new set of American Muslim politicians who won seats in local elections across the country.  In New York, Shahana Hanif became the first Muslim woman elected to NYC council, while in Boston, MA, Tania Fernandes Anderson gained her council seat by defeating her opponent “who had relied heavily on anti-Muslim rhetoric in his campaign.” Other successful campaigns in Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey and Pennsylvania also put Muslims in key local offices, with the city of Hamtramck in Michigan electing the country’s first all-Muslim city council. Further, President Biden nominated and the Senate confirmed the appointment of Rashad Hussain as Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom (IRF). 

2021 was a year of reflection and calls for accountability as the country marked twenty years since the 9/11 attacks and the onset of the global war on terror, which has had catastrophic reverberations abroad and at home. Despite the entrenchment of Islamophobia in certain segments of the government and amongst portions of the public, there is a vocal and growing movement pushing back against this dangerous bigotry. 

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