"I don't yet trust him": 5 Muslims reflect on Biden's record of surveilling their communities

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With the inauguration of President Biden, many in the United States felt they could breathe for the first time in four years. Even before he was officially inaugurated, Biden's election win symbolized a pending promise to remove people from under the boot of fascism that had come to define former President Donald Trump's administration, particularly towards its end when his supporters stormed Capitol Hill. Yet, even with Trump out of the White House, not everybody is breathing quite so freely.

Throughout his campaign, Biden tried appealing to Muslims as a voting bloc by positioning himself as the solution to the virulent Islamophobia demonstrated by the Trump administration. His campaign launched platforms for both Muslim and Arab American communities, where Biden promised to end Trump's infamous travel ban on Muslim-majority countries, as well as the Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention program. TVTP, an "evolution" of the Obama-era Countering Violent Extremism program — which Vice President Kamala Harris publicly expressed support for during her presidential campaign — draws from CVE's debunked framework and planned to distribute $10 million in grants that, given CVE's history, would likely be used to surveil Muslim youth.

Although Muslims overwhelmingly voted for Biden, his campaign did not exist without criticism. Some were concerned by Biden's conflation of Muslim with Arab, as demonstrated by his promise to end TVTP being included in his platform for Arab communities broadly. Given that CVE's targets in two of its three pilot cities — Minneapolis and Boston — were Somali youth, Biden's positioning of TVTP as an issue for Arabs generally ignored how anti-Blackness shaped CVE and TVTP. As many today celebrate the end of a Trump era, many Muslims are balancing a complicated reality: While most are relieved that Trump is no longer in power, a Biden administration still does not guarantee safety.

The growth of white supremacist movements under Trump has led to reheated conversations about national security. As some look to Biden's administration to pass domestic terrorism laws to address white supremacy, many Muslims are worried these laws will only further empower the surveillance state to target their communities. Pushback around domestic terrorism laws' ineffectiveness in addressing white supremacy are based in history; once again, you don't need to look further than CVE. And even without those concerns, Muslims are also pointing out that Biden's own political record isn't so clean.

While Biden promised to end Trump programs targeting Muslims, he has supported policies that aren't much different. For example, Biden not only voted for the 2001 Patriot Act, but he often took credit for writing it. This infamous bill served to expand government surveillance post-9/11 and led to the increased surveillance of Muslim communities nationwide.

With Biden's checkered record in mind, Mic spoke with five Muslims about their feelings regarding the new administration. Overwhelmingly, each cautioned that the devastation wrought on Muslim communities in the U.S. and abroad by Biden's past actions cannot be forgotten in pursuit of a symbolic presidency.

Rimsha, Texas

I’m a freelance journalist, creative, community organizer, and the daughter of two Pakistani-Muslim immigrants. My writing explores themes of gender, surveillance, colonization, anti-Muslim violence, and the apartheid in Palestine.

Frankly, my reactions to Joe Biden winning the presidential election stemmed more from being glad the previous White House fascist was gone for good, and not so much my faith in another white imperialist making empty promises. Merely a day after his inauguration, the Biden administration announced that they will not reverse former President Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, once again confirming Biden's position as a Zionist. I personally find it very difficult to applaud marginal changes while knowing that countries that have been destroyed, and will continue to be exploited, have nothing to celebrate.

I welcome Biden's commitment to overturn the Muslim ban, but I, like many Muslims globally who’ve been torn apart by it, question if that's enough to address the harm it's caused over the last four years. What is the course of action for immigrants who have been rejected for visas and green cards under the travel ban? Will Biden pass the NO BAN Act into law, ensuring that no future presidents have the power to ban people based on xenophobic or racist reasons? There's no denying that this is a step in the right direction, but let's not ignore the fact that this administration will continue to create refugees, just as former President Barack Obama did with Biden by his side.

Most American politicians, on whatever side of the political spectrum, seek to uphold systems of power that ultimately harm the working class as well as Black, Indigenous, and people of color globally. We need look no further than just a few examples of Biden whole-heartedly endorsing policies and executive orders that have harmed millions — like the invasion of Iraq — to realize how little he cares for the lives of Muslims. Biden played a key role in what some call the crime of the century, here’s a long list of Biden's war crimes if anyone needs a reminder.

It's not lost on me that Biden has the power to dismantle the lives of people who look like me, my community, and my family abroad in Pakistan. It was only three days after the White House welcomed the Obama-Biden administration that an illegal American drone attack killed nine civilians having dinner in Pakistan. Ultimately, I will continue to remain very skeptical of what this new presidency means for us in reality. This country’s history of genocide, Islamophobia, and systemic racism will not disappear until the abolition of prisons, police, ICE, and the military-industrial complex.

For now, we want an end to the bombs overseas. We want to see an end to the wars that have ruined many Muslim-majority countries and created millions of refugees. We want an end to qualified immunity for police officers and we want justice. We want an end to mass incarceration and the complete reimagination of the justice system.

We want an end to cages at the border and an immediate halt to separating families. We want an end to our tax dollars funding weapons of mass destruction in Israel. We want an end to the bromance with fascist rulers like Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. We want an end to the persecution and further damage being done to Indigenous communities. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, no one is free until we are all free.

Olu, New Jersey

I wasn't so thrilled to see Biden winning because of the pandering for his vice president. I really can't believe his administration will do anything for anyone — especially Black people — given their only tactics were based in superficial representation and corny ad campaigns. Biden and Harris have nothing on their agenda that'll actually make anyone's lives better. They plan to continue the hold America has over its people and the globe.

I am not convinced any work will be done to protect Muslims. In addition, the lack of awareness of the money that goes into blatant Islamophobic policies and organizations is striking. A freshman at college can do the research, yet experts completely deny the fact the U.S invests in the persecution of Black Muslims. At the end, it doesn't matter what I want because I won't get it. I keep that hopelessness and demand what I want because that's the only way to get things done.

Furthermore, Islamophobia is racialized. Denying the racialized nature of this sociological issue is downright harmful and perpetuates the idealization of whiteness. Islamophobia is a downright Black issue. Black Muslims serve as a huge threat to the American Dream because of how organized we are, how passionate we are about our beliefs and culture and the waves of change we as a group made in America. Right in East Orange, New Jersey, you can see the prominence and respect Black Muslims get from their communities because they have set the foundation of safety and security for the community. You can go to the South in Georgia and you'll find us strapped with guns at events and functions for safety. Not everyone holds that militant strategy — but the fact we do frightens the daylights out of imperialists.

Malak Shalabi, Washington

I am a law student at the University of Washington School of Law and work at the education and advocacy organization American Muslims for Palestine. My research background is on torture, occupation, and U.S. imperialism in the Middle East.

When Biden won the presidential election, I was underwhelmed. I was not celebrating that a white, Zionist man who fought to establish segregation after the Civil Rights Movement, mass surveillance post-9/11, hyper-incarceration during the War on Drugs, and the fascist endeavors that killed millions in the Middle East was America's new neoliberal figurehead.

The incremental shifts in policy stances the Democratic Party is presenting is due to the educators, the organizers, the activists, and the mass movements in pushing politicians toward humane policies on the above-mentioned human rights issues. Biden spent his political career building the oppressive systems that so many are caged, suffer, and die from to this day. Those with a record in establishing oppression should not be commended when they undo their harm to a marginal degree — rather, those who work day-in and day-out to set the stage for these shifts should be carried on our shoulders for their community service.

Biden's promise to end Trump's Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention program is meaningless without recognition and deconstruction of the greater U.S. surveillance apparatus that is wired into and works across every government institution. Biden himself bragged that he practically drafted the Patriot Act, which expanded government surveillance powers to target Muslims post 9/11 — and which Congress reauthorized in 2020. He supported Bob Dole's Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act in 1966. He later oversaw Obama's elimination of habeas corpus as vice president — overriding a timeless legal principle and codifying into the law the indefinite detention of terrorism suspects without trial.

Recently, Biden also announced a plan to expand domestic terrorism laws to target white supremacists, but it will surely affect Black and Muslim populations most intensively and in the long-term. In the past, Biden introduced the Omnibus Counter Terrorism Act of 1995 in response to the Oklahoma City bombing. The bill included a provision that gave the government the authority to use "secret evidence," or evidence that would not be disclosed to the defendant, in deportation proceedings for undocumented people suspected of terrorism involvement. To date, the overwhelming number of victims of secret evidence cases are Muslims and/or Arabs.

Just as Biden's introduction of the Omnibus Counter Terrorism Act was publicly in reaction to the Oklahoma City bombing but was used to suppress Muslim communities, the same can and will happen if Biden decides to expand domestic terrorism in publicly targeting white supremacy. As Muslims, we must engage with the system with honesty, self-respect, and strength. Biden's past record in drafting and lobbying for discriminatory and violent surveillance/national security policy doesn't just present concerns to me — it exposes that politicians who built their political career pursuing the dehumanization, exploitation, political imprisonment, and mass killing of Muslims domestically and abroad can reach the highest level in office in America.

The rescission of the Muslim ban came as a great relief to many Muslim and African communities. [It was a] result of the mass protests that shut down airports nationwide in 2017, the community initiatives in directing governors (like Jay Inslee in Washington) to stop deportations and protect sanctuary cities, and the Muslim and other civil rights organizations that routinely challenged the law in court. My family is part of the Syrian refugee community, and I work with refugee resettlement organizations. This revocation has removed one of the obstacles for those seeking refuge from oppression and violence abroad.

I believe in the power of grassroots advocacy. The legitimization and glamorization of politicians among American activists born during the Trump era is destructive to our movement. Maintaining strength and social power in our public demands for sociopolitical issues like racial justice, criminal justice reform, and immigration policy is pressuring and directing the Biden administration and other government systems to address the calls of the people.

Ambreen, Southwest U.S.

I immigrated to Canada in my teens from Pakistan, then immigrated to the U.S. from Canada in my twenties.

When Joe Biden won the election, I felt more of a relief of Trump being out than Joe Biden winning specifically. I wish we had a more progressive candidate and not someone who appeals to the idea of liberal America and doesn't actually focus on liberal policies. I was very nervous as the inauguration rolled around because of the white supremacists attacking the Capitol, and then getting emails from work as well as the Canadian consulate about safety risks. I was again excited for Trump to not be in office and did take the Inauguration Day to feel joy.

I feel like there is a back and forth between doing and un-doing harm. We are stuck in reversing policies, when we should be building policies that prevent harmful policies like these [from taking] effect in the first place. Maybe that is a naive way to think about these things, but it's a constant battle between what was done and how to reverse it — but not more to make it so it's not reversible in four years again if a Republican president is sworn in.

I also feel like there was a lot of emphasis on reversing the Muslim ban but not enough on tackling Islamophobia and imperialism — people comparing white supremacists storming the Capitol to terrorists (obviously Muslim), or comparing the state of the Capitol to an Arab/Muslim/African country as if the state of those countries isn't due to colonialism and the interference of U.S. politicians depleting them of essential resources. So all of this is to say, while I felt cautiously optimistic about the reversal of these policies, I am still holding my breath and waiting for more actions that are sustainable in the long term in challenging the structural aspects of Islamophobia and xenophobia.

While Biden is far better than Trump, I feel like he is a man of reassuring words but I don't yet trust him to be a man defined by his actions. While I hear how empathetic he is in his speeches and in his interactions, I want to see changes that are not performative but substantial. Something stood out to me, and it's likely a personal choice by Obama, but I couldn’t help but wonder about it — all the presidents during Biden’s inauguration had their full names including middle name said out loud, and Obama chose to be called "Barack H. Obama." While I don’t know if that stemmed from the debate around his middle name being in close proximity to Muslims or was simply a personal choice for other reasons, it most definitely was a deliberate choice.

Given that under Obama-Biden, Muslims and other immigrants faced surveillance masked as security efforts, I can't help but feel that a choice as simple as not saying "Hussein" out loud during Biden's inauguration hints at the internalized biases in politicians. Adding to that was the heavy emphasis of church and faith around the inauguration without inclusion of all faiths or religious institutions — it felt like a reaching out for Christian Americans but not even an effort to solidify the support of Americans who helped them win, including Black and Muslim Americans. To me, Biden may be an ally in what he says, but I do not fully trust him to be an ally in what he does.

Leon Carter, Texas

I immigrated to the United States, from the Caribbean, in my young childhood. My initial reaction to Joe Biden winning the presidential election was an overwhelming sense of relief, as if I had been unknowingly clenching my jaw in frustration. However, this relief was not founded in the sense that things would improve, but moreso attributed to a possible return to "normalcy" — the quieter evil I am accustomed to coping with versus the brash evils of the past administration.

Biden's promises to end Trump-era policies were, what I would consider, the decent pathway for any person who inherited the office of president. The policies enacted by President Trump were glaringly discriminatory and to repeal those policies is the bare minimum I would expect not only of the nation's leader, but any common person.

However, Biden's past in the Obama administration is the only context by which I know him as a politician. Knowing the history of the Obama administration’s surveillance programs, such as the Countering Violent Extremism Task Force, I am not optimistic about Biden's ability to deviate from similar measures. I expect him to uphold existing surveillance groups and policies and enact more during his tenure.

I would like to see the Biden administration put in place concrete, foundational, multi-generational efforts to combat discrimination in this country including steps toward an improved health care system, environmental policies, and reparation and restitution programs to create equitable justice for the Black American.