Why US Congress should pass the ‘Combating Islamophobia Act’

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India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses a joint meeting of Congress as US Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy look on at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on 22 June 2023 (AFP)

Advocacy, boycotts and condemnations are a good start, but the work to end Islamophobia and religious discrimination in India must not end with Modi’s departure from Washington

Last week, the Biden administration hosted a state dinner to honour Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi – a special occasion reserved to honour special allies and to strengthen the friendship of nations.

Beyond the fancy decor and rich cuisine of a state visit, one hopes that the Biden administration found the willpower to discuss the US State Department’s recent International Religious Freedom report, which recommended that India be designated a “country of particular concern” for religious and caste discrimination against minorities including Muslims, Christians, Sikhs and Dalits.

The report further criticises India for “engaging in systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom”.

But something about this dinner suggests that might not have been the case.

On Capitol Hill, however, it was a different story. More than 70 House representatives and senators sent a letter to the White House urging President Joe Biden to raise India’s human rights issues with Modi during the state visit.

Even former President Barack Obama called on his former vice president to raise the issue of India’s treatment of minorities with Modi.

In a recent interview, he asserted: “The protection of the Muslim minority in a majority-Hindu India, that’s something worth mentioning.”

Raising concerns

On 22 June, as Modi delivered an address in a joint session of the US Congress, a few House Democrats came forward and committed to boycotting his appearance. They have made their reasons known.

These House Democrats further underscored well-documented evidence of Modi’s effort to weaken Indian democracy and persecute religious minorities, especially where India’s 220 million Muslims continue to face widespread discrimination and violence.

The calls for boycotting Modi’s address were a remarkable demonstration to uphold our best democratic values. As the House representatives rightly put it: “We must never sacrifice human rights at the altar of political expediency.”

But those who confront Modi or raise concerns about the human rights situation in India often face relentless cyber attacks and bullying by his supporters.

When Wall Street Journal reporter Sabrina Siddiqui posed a reasonable question to Modi regarding India’s commitment to protecting religious minorities at a White House press conference last week, Modi insisted through a translator that “there is absolutely no discrimination” in India with Biden looking on silently.

Siddiqui has since been subjected to a ruthless online harassment campaign by officials associated with Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party and members of right-wing extremist circles.

The White House rightly denounced the attacks on Siddiqui as “unacceptable“. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby added: “It’s antithetical to the very principles of democracy that…were on display last week during the state visit.”

A good start

Advocacy, boycotts and condemnations are a good start, but the work to end Islamophobia and religious discrimination in India must not end with Modi’s departure from Washington.

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In the wake of Modi’s state visit, the US Congress should pass the Combating International Islamophobia Act reintroduced earlier this month by US Senator Cory Booker and Congresswoman Ilhan Omar.

The bill would establish an Office of the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Islamophobia within the State Department.

It would implement a comprehensive plan to monitor anti-Muslim incidents across the globe and incorporate those findings into two annual reports on human rights practices and international religious freedom.

Monitoring religious intolerance is nothing new for the US government. The long-established special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism, for example, contributes to these annual reports.

Along with the secretary of state, the special envoy would consult with domestic and international partners to strengthen US efforts to combat global Islamophobia. Canada and the European Union have appointed special representatives of their own to combat Islamophobia, presenting an opportunity for the US to send a powerful message about placing values over political expedience when confronting the rise of anti-Muslim bigotry across borders.

And make no mistake, we live in dangerous times. Anti-Muslim incidents are becoming exponentially more widespread and dangerous. A recent UN report found that anti-Muslim hatred has reached “epidemic proportions“.

The bill would establish an office to monitor and combat Islamophobia within the US State Department

Globally, Muslims have faced numerous threats – harassment, discrimination, online attacks, arson, vandalism, ethnic cleansing and even genocide. From India to Kashmir to Burma to China to Canada to France to the US and elsewhere, Islamophobia is alive and well in our societies.

It is for this reason that around 500 American Muslims representing more than 20 states came to the US Capitol two weeks ago and met with their representatives to advocate on a number of issues.

Though the White House and Congress may have rolled out the red carpet for Modi, the Muslim delegation urged their elected officials to boycott Modi’s address and pushed them to support the bill to combat global Islamophobia.

We are at a critical crossroads. Rather than turning a blind eye to the persecution of religious minorities in India – and contradicting its government’s own findings – the US must act now to end these abuses in the purported democracy and against Muslims worldwide.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Ammar Ansari is the Research and Advocacy Coordinator at the Council on American-Islamic Relations, America’s largest Muslim civil liberties and advocacy group, in Washington D.C. He is a recent graduate of the University of California, Berkeley and has studied at the London School of Economics.
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