Contrary to prevalent discourse among many Muslims, the Biden administration does not deserve a gold star for repealing the Muslim ban. Amid a national round of applause by those whose political interest does not extend beyond American borders, I withhold my praise. This week, the Biden administration made clear through its Cabinet selection that it would maintain the long-standing American policy of disregard for human rights in the Middle East and self-interested support for Muslim rights in the U.S.
While repealing the Muslim Ban was undoubtedly a welcome move, it does little for the millions of Muslims with no hope (or no desire for) immigrating to America, living in a Middle East on the brink of American-led collapse. Take Biden’s cabinet picks Lloyd J. Austin for Secretary of Defense and Avril Haines for Director of National Intelligence (DNI) for example. Austin was a leading force in the U.S. invasion and continued occupation of Iraq from 2003 to 2011, which destroyed the country, worsened sectarian divides, and killed hundreds of thousands of civilians. In 2016, Austin joined Raytheon’s Board of Directors, a role for which he’ll receive a $1.7 million payout upon assumption of his Secretary position. Avril Haines, Biden’s pick to lead National Intelligence, designed the Obama-era drone program which killed 300+ civilians in Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia. Austin and Haines will be chiefly responsible for American foreign policy in the Muslim-majority countries like Iraq, Yemen, and Iran, and their track record suggests anything but a new leaf.
Human rights were included in American foreign policy during Jimmy Carter’s presidency, but even since they have never been the sole priority. Rather, Republican and Democrat administrations alike have made clear that humanistic interest will be valued so long as its politically salient. Halperin and Michel write, “the line separating the USG humanitarian stake from our other key foreign policy goals has been erased: these issues have become deeply embedded in one another.”
But human rights are inalienable regardless of foreign policy interests or individual markers like immigration status, profession (or lack thereof), religion, gender, class, etcetera. Rights do not have an on-off switch upon arrival at the border, even though the American government might have pretended was the case historically. For instance, the United States’ Central Intelligence Agency continues to indefinitely detain and torture dozens of men in Guantánamo Bay (as well as other “black sites” in direct violation of the Third Geneva Convention. Similarly, the U.S. government hiring of private military contractors like Blackwater to carry out torture campaigns in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq show that human rights protections are ignored off of American soil, particularly in conflict settings.
On the international front, the United States routinely abets human rights abuses committed by its regional allies like Saudi Arabia and Israel, via arms deals and Security Council vetoes. This is, in no small part, due to economic benefits from strong trade relations. On the domestic front, Muslims’ rights are protected when Muslims are deemed productive via American business interests. The U.S. works to extract the best Muslim talent through immigration. For instance, immigration policies favor highly educated immigrants; 38% of foreign-born Muslims hold a college degree, compared to 31% of the general American public. Biden’s immigration platform asserts this policy will be amplified under his administration, stating “we are not taking advantage of America’s ability to attract the best and brightest workers in the world.
A modern immigration system must allow our economy to grow, while protecting the rights, wages, and working conditions of all workers.” The Biden campaign cited a Congressional Budget Office report predicting liberal immigration reform would boost the economy by 5%. In this case, protecting rights is a means of increasing economic productivity, rather than a policy based on values of human dignity. What happens to those immigrants when they arrive, then? For Muslim immigrants, 29% report underemployment as compared to just 12% of American-born workers.
As domestic support for costly military interventions wanes, there may remain hope of a new chapter of U.S. foreign policy in the Muslim world. In order to flip the page, the government will need to take a long, sobering look at itself in the mirror. The U.S. might take responsibility for destabilizing an entire region through military engagement based on faulty assumptions that led to the erosion of the human rights of millions.
In doing so, America would need to work to implement non-military-based interventions that promote peace and democracy. This would necessitate a refusal to erode the integrity of our own democracy by allying with and abetting authoritarian rule. It would require a shift from military intervention to diplomatic mediation. And finally, the United States would have to reimagine its conceptualization of human value to one in which American citizenship is not prerequisite to human worth.
Mariam Hassoun is the founder of Baraka English School in Baghdad, Iraq and director of the Global Resilience Stories Project. She studied political science and interdisciplinary studies at Emory University and is currently a Master’s student in Comparative and International Education at Oxford University, studying IDP education in Iraq.