House to vote on legislation spearheaded by Reps. Omar, Schakowsky to combat Islamophobia abroad

Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., speaks about Islamophobic insults from Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., on Nov. 30, 2021, on Capitol Hill as Rep. André Carson, D-Ind., listens. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Melina Mara

The House is poised to vote Tuesday, Dec. 14, 2021, on legislation to monitor and combat Islamophobia globally, an issue that Democrats have argued demands immediate attention from the U.S. government.

Reps. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., and Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., introduced the legislation, known as the Combating International Islamophobia Act, in October.

The measure calls for the State Department to establish an office headed by a special envoy to be appointed by the president. The office would record instances of Islamophobia, including violence against and harassment of Muslims and vandalism of their mosques, schools and cemeteries worldwide, in reports created by the State Department.

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The reports also would highlight propaganda efforts by state and nonstate media “to promote racial hatred or incite acts of violence against Muslim people,” the bill says. And it would include the documentation of “any instances of forced labor, reeducation, or the presence of concentration camps, such as those targeting the Uyghurs” in China’s Xinjiang region.

While the legislation was introduced two months ago, Tuesday’s vote comes amid growing calls for the House Republican Conference to take action against Islamophobia within its ranks. In recent weeks, GOP Reps. Lauren Boebert of Colorado and Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia have increasingly targeted Omar, who is one of three Muslim lawmakers in Congress. Both Republican lawmakers have referred to the Minnesota Democrat as a member of the “Jihad Squad,” and Boebert has repeatedly told a story in which she likened Omar to a suicide bomber.

At a Capitol news conference last month, Omar played a threatening voice mail that she said she received the previous day, after Boebert, in a video posted on social media, accused her of “anti-American and antisemitic” rhetoric.

“I myself have reported hundreds of threats on my life, often triggered by Republican attacks on my faith,” Omar said at the time.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., has not publicly condemned Boebert’s recent Islamophobic remarks about Omar.

While there has been bipartisan condemnation of anti-Muslim violence abroad, including against the Uyghurs in China, Republican leaders on Tuesday urged GOP members to vote against the measure.

“Republicans firmly believe that no one should ever be attacked or denied their human rights or dignity because of their religious faith, but this rushed, partisan legislation does not represent a serious legislative effort and is instead a divisive messaging bill that is unlikely to become law,” GOP leaders said in a statement issued by Republican Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana.

The Biden administration said it strongly supports the bill.

“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,” the White House said in a statement Tuesday.

In a meeting of the House Rules Committee considering the parameters for the House vote, Rep. Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., voiced his support for the bill Tuesday and expressed his frustration that the legislation has not received more bipartisan support.

“I think we all know that anti-Muslim sentiment and violence is an issue whether we’re talking about here at home or overseas,” he said Tuesday. “And I think we all should agree that no one person should have to confront discrimination because of their religion anywhere on this planet.”

“And establishing an office at the State Department to help combat the scourge of Islamophobia is an important step to addressing the problem,” Meeks added.

Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, said he agreed with the spirit of the bill, noting that Islamophobia is a real problem that he and other Republicans believe should be addressed. But the lawmaker expressed his disappointment regarding how the bill was formed.

“The bill before us today . . . is a deliberately partisan bill,” he said. “The bill has no Republican co-sponsors, garnered no Republican support during the markup.”

He said the bill “also prioritizes the religious persecution of Muslims over the persecution of other religions.”

Many Republicans rallied around President Donald Trump’s plan early in his administration to limit the ability of people from several majority-Muslim countries to come to the United States. Critics and federal judges branded it a “Muslim ban.” In recent months, several Republicans have also been warning about letting too many Afghan refugees into the country after the end of the U.S.-led war in that country.

A Quinnipiac poll in September found 60% of Americans supportive of accepting Afghan refugees into the United States and 32% opposed.

Nearly two-thirds of Republicans – 62% – said they opposed accepting Afghan refugees into the United States, while 30% were in favor. That compared with 87% of Democrats and 62% of independents who supported accepting Afghan refugees.

Democrats added a provision to the bill stating that “no funds made available pursuant to this Act or an amendment made by this Act may be used to promote or endorse a Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement ideology or used to promote or endorse a Muslim ban, such as the one instituted by former President Trump.”

The BDS campaign aims to change Israel’s policy toward the Palestinians by encouraging boycotts, stock divestiture and sanctions against Israeli and international companies that operate on land that Palestinians consider theirs – areas that include the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Omar’s role in the legislation is also likely to draw the focus of GOP lawmakers during Tuesday’s debate. Republicans have long been critical of Omar for her criticism of Israel, and members of both parties have denounced some of her statements as antisemitic. In 2019, House Democratic leaders swiftly condemned Omar’s suggestion that Israel’s allies in American politics were motivated by money rather than principle; Omar apologized later that day.

But the attacks on Omar have intensified in recent years, going far beyond criticism of her policy positions and often suggesting that she is a threat because she is Muslim, while also distorting her words and baselessly claiming that she supports terrorists.

Omar has said she hopes the bill will draw bipartisan support because of its focus on cases of Islamophobia worldwide. She and Schakowsky have cited killings and other forms of violence against the Uyghurs in China, the Rohingya in Myanmar and Muslim populations in India and Sri Lanka as other urgent reasons for setting up the envoy position.

“We have an obligation as a country that believes it has a responsibility on the global stage to advocate for human rights, and as an example of what is possible internally,” Omar said in October.

Anti-Muslim hatred has reached “epidemic proportions,” she said, quoting the U.N. special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief. In a March report to the agency’s Human Rights Council, the independent expert, Ahmed Shaheed, said that in 2017, 30% of Americans viewed Muslims “in a negative light,” and that 4 in 10 people in surveys conducted in Europe in 2018 and 2019 “held unfavorable views of Muslims.”

Schakowsky, who said her Illinois district has the largest group of Rohingya in the United States, termed their killings in Myanmar a “genocide.”

“As a Jew, I am aware of the need to address all kinds of bias,” she said in October, listing instances of persecution of Jewish people as a reason to introduce this bill to protect others from similar violence and hatred.

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