(December 15, 2021 / JNS) The U.S. House of Representatives narrowly passed a bill to create an envoy to monitor and combat Islamophobia on Tuesday in a partisan vote, following a long and vitriolic debate on the House floor.
The bill, H.R. 5665, Combating International Islamophobia Act, which was introduced by Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), passed the house by a vote of 219-212, with all Democrats voting for the bill and all Republicans opposing it.
If passed by the Senate and signed by the president, the bill would create an office to monitor and combat Islamophobia in the State Department—similar to the one that exists for anti-Semitism. It would be in place to monitor and combat acts of Islamophobia and Islamophobic incitement in foreign countries, and require information about Islamophobia to be included in existing annual reports to Congress about human rights and religious freedom in foreign countries, coordinated through the new office.
House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) began the debate by reading a statement from the Biden administration.
“The administration supports passage of H.R. 5665, the Combating International Islamophobia Act, and that our country’s commitment to defending freedom of religion and belief goes back centuries, and the administration strongly believes that people of all faiths and backgrounds should be treated with equal dignity and respect around the world,” he read from the statement.
“Unfortunately, here in the United States of America, in recent years, anti-Muslim bigotry has been on the rise, with mosques being vandalized and Muslims beaten, attacked and elected officials on the receiving end of death threats and other hateful rhetoric, all due to their Muslim faith,” said Meeks. “Bigotry is unacceptable. And it is incumbent on all of us to condemn it wherever and whenever it occurs.”
Meeks said that not only does the United State have to prevent Islamophobia within its borders but is also obligated to confront it worldwide, citing the massacre of Muslim worshippers in Christchurch, New Zealand in March 2019, as well as the treatment of Uyghur Muslims by the Chinese government and the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar.
He stressed that “freedom of religion is a fundamental human right. And no one should be the target of discrimination because of their faith.”
“If left unchecked,” he said, it “can lead to terrible atrocities, to crimes against humanity and even to genocide. So this legislation will help shine a light on this problem and help address the global rise of Islamophobia at a time in which Islamophobia remains rampant.”
‘None of these things are happening in isolation’
Omar, who introduced the bill on Oct. 21, said that the world is in the midst of a staggering increase of Islamophobia. She, too, mentioned the Uyghurs being put in concentration camps in China; the genocide against the Rohingya Muslims; the attacks on mosques in New Zealand and Canada; anti-Muslim laws in India and Sri Lanka; as well as politicians stoking fear against Muslins in Poland, Hungary and Belarus.
“And, of course, we in the United States are not immune to this hatred. It is no secret that the previous president of the United States explicitly vowed, and I quote, ‘a complete and total shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.’ [Former President Donald] Trump was simply taking advantage of a deeper culture of Islamophobia that has existed for the past two decades—from the Patriot Act, to the CVE program to Abu Ghraib,” she said. “None of these things are happening in isolation.”
Schakowsky said that she was proud as a Jew to co-sponsor the bill, saying she saw many parallels between this position and the envoy for monitoring and combating anti-Semitism.
“In the United States alone, nearly 70 percent of American Muslims have reported personally experiencing anti-Muslim hate, bigotry and even violence,” she said, adding that not only did she see it in her community but also directed towards her Muslim staff and towards Omar.
“She has been subjected to relentless attacks and horrifying threats, not just from her fellow Americans but even within the halls of Congress. And enough is enough,” said Schakowsky. “This should not be a controversial bill.”
‘This legislation is dangerously vague and unnecessarily duplicative’
Republicans opposed the bill, primarily stating that besides the redundancy it could bring to the State Department, which already has offices to handle issues of religious liberty, Islamophobia is a loosely defined term they fear can be used label legitimate criticism of the actions of Muslims throughout the world.
House Foreign Affairs Committee Ranking Member Michael McCaul (R-Texas) said he agreed with the spirit of the bill—that no one should be attacked or have their human rights denied because of their beliefs—but called it a “rushed, partisan bill.”
McCaul said that Democrats in the Foreign Affairs Committee made no effort to work in a bipartisan manner before the markup, which is why the legislation has no Republican co-sponsors.
“This legislation is dangerously vague and unnecessarily duplicative. It doesn’t frame things in terms of anti-Muslim persecution. … Instead, it uses the undefined non-legal term of Islamophobia. This word appears nowhere in the federal statutes. It is so vague and subjective that it could be used against legitimate speech for partisan purposes. Even the term phobia connotates irrational fear, not discrimination,” explained McCaul. “The bill also completely ignores the State Department’s extensive efforts already underway to protect the rights of Muslims. Regular monitoring and reporting are already carried out by human rights officers at our embassies worldwide, as well as the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, the Office of International Religious Freedom and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.”
McCaul also pointed out that the Biden nominee to serve as envoy for international religious freedom, Rashad Hussain, is a prominent Muslim American, and that other religions that are oppressed around the world don’t have a special envoy position.
He also said that while the administration policy statement supported the bill, it requested that the bill be rewritten.
“Why aren’t we consulting with the State Department to get this bill right before we throw it on the House floor and pass it with such haste?” he asked. “Combating religious persecution against all people of faith, including Muslims, is a serious issue, and it deserves the kind of serious attention that draws bipartisan support. I also believe that a definition for clarity as to what Islamophobia is and how it would apply should be done through the legislative intent of the Congress and not let left up to the bureaucracy in the State Department.”
Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio) said “this bill doesn’t make it clear whether the term Islamophobia includes for example, criticizing radical Islamic terrorist groups or calling out the persecution of Christians. Is it Islamophobic to oppose unacceptably intolerant blasphemy laws or criticize those who call for the destruction of Israel? What about criticizing the Taliban’s brutal repression of women or condemning those who deny the Holocaust as Iran’s Supreme Leader has repeatedly done?” said Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio). “While clearly none of these criticisms should be considered Islamophobic, it’s deeply concerning that this bill’s supporters have refused to protect such legitimate free speech. Thus, this legislation could be used to label almost any criticism of Islam, including criticism of Sharia law as Islamophobic. It’s almost as if its goal is to shut down all debate and protect Islam from any criticism in polite society.”
‘Bill intentionally plays into calculating game’
During a similarly partisan and hostile discussion of the legislation and markup of the bill during a meeting of the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Dec. 9, amendments proposed by Republicans to limit the office’s scope were not adopted, including an amendment proposed by Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.) to prevent the office from “assessing any actions, including counterterrorism measures,” taken by the Israeli government.
An amendment by Rep. Brian Mast (R-Fla.) requiring intra-communal violence to be described as Islamophobia or an amendment by Chabot to provide a definition limiting what could be described as Islamophobia were also shot down.
An amendment that did make it into the bill was proposed by Rep. August Pfluger (R-Texas), which prohibits funds to be used to promote and endorse the BDS movement. This amendment was modified by a proposal from Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.) to prohibit funds to be used to promote or endorse a Muslim ban as well.
Chabot said that Islamophobia is not unique, as other religions face religious oppression, including Christians in many Muslim countries, such as the Yazidis under ISIS rule. And it cannot be compared to anti-Semitism, which he said was a uniquely global problem.
“In the aftermath of the Holocaust, the world realized just how pernicious anti-Semitism was and has been for centuries, and rightly sought to eliminate it,” he said. “Putting Islamophobia in the same category as anti-Semitism dramatically understates [and] even trivializes the historic and pervasive nature that makes anti-Semitism such a difficult problem to overcome. Such a dangerous false equivalence might be used by extremists to justify further anti-Semitic activity.”
Another problem for Republicans was its proposal by Omar, who has a history of anti-Semitic comments, including saying that Jews are not partners in social justice, comparing the United States and Israel to Hamas and the Taliban, as well as saying that American political support for Israel is because of money (“It’s all about the Benjamins”) early in her tenure, to name a few examples.
“The way the bill is worded intentionally plays into Omar’s calculating game that any criticism about any topic relating to her, even if it has absolutely nothing at all to do with her religion, could be defined as ‘Islamophobia.’ That is absurd,” said Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.) in a statement.
Zeldin did not speak during the floor debate, nor did any other Jewish member besides Schakowsky and Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich.).
‘Deflecting from the real issue’
Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.) proposed an amendment on Tuesday that was similar to the one Perry proposed during the bill’s committee hearing to prevent the office from disparaging Israel. His bill also would have prohibited the office from working with U.N. High Commissioner for Human rights, who he considers biased. But the House Rules Committee prevented amendments from being added to the bill prior to the full floor vote. Gottheimer still voted to approve the bill.
Perry, who said he was called Islamophobic during the committee hearing, said he represents the largest population of Ahmadiyya Muslims in the United States—the Muslim group most persecuted by other Muslims in the world—and the bill has nothing to protect them. The definition of Islamophobia under the bill, he said, was going to be made up.
“Let’s face it, aside from the attempts to placate an anti-Semitic member of this chamber, all that’s really happening here is that House Democrats are deflecting from the real issue confronting the House of Representatives, and that is that the maker of this bill has no business sitting on House committees, has no business in this chamber. Myriad anti-Semitic comments, and those of support of violence and terrorism against the United States, are wholly unacceptable. But we’re not going to deal with that because we’re going to deal with this,” said Perry. “Let’s not forget the moment the author of this bill breathtakingly referred to the murder of nearly 3,000 Americans on 9-11 by Islamist terrorists as ‘some people who did something.’ ”
He said the accusations against him of Islamophobia came from his attempt to make sure that American tax dollars are not spent to support organizations affiliated with terrorism—organizations such as the one Omar said supported and promoted her bill, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR)—that he said Omar is affiliated with and was an unindicted co-conspirator in the largest terrorism financing plot in America’s history.
“Not because I say so, because the judge says so,” clarified Perry. “So by intentionally leaving the definition of Islamophobia blank in this bill, the gentlelady and my friends on the other side of the aisle are creating an office in our State Department that will likely spew anti-Semitic hatred and attack Western ideas throughout the world, under the farce of protecting Islam.”
Perry’s comments were interrupted by Democrats, who appealed to the chair of the House to get Perry’s comments taken down.
“He called her a terrorist,” was heard from an unidentified Democratic member on the floor.
After a lengthy adjudication process between the chair and the parliamentarians, the chair ruled that Perry’s words contained an allegation that Omar is affiliated with a terrorist organization. These remarks, the chair read, “impugns the patriotism or loyalty of a member of the House.” Another remark, alleging that Omar was anti-Semitic, was considered by the chair an allegation of discrimination. Both statements were ruled out of order based on House rules.
After the lengthy deliberation, the speeches continued to fill up the rest of the one-hour debate slot scheduled for the bill. McCaul called for a roll call vote, which was postponed until the House concluded all bill debates that night and began a series of votes. The bill passed at 11:28 p.m.
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