American Muslim groups say the Biden administration’s efforts to combat rising Islamophobia in the United States must go hand in hand with the protection of civilians in Gaza from Israel’s retaliatory strikes against Hamas. The attacks have killed thousands of Palestinians.

“The first and most important step President [Joe] Biden must take to combat surging Islamophobia is the step that American Muslim leaders and organizations have repeatedly called on him to take: demand a cease-fire in Gaza,” the Council on American-Islamic Relations said Thursday in a statement in response to a White House announcement Wednesday that the Biden administration is developing the country’s first-ever national strategy to counter Islamophobia.

CAIR is the country’s largest Muslim advocacy organization.

Edward Ahmed Mitchell, CAIR deputy director, told VOA the violence in Gaza is fueling unrest and bigotry around the world, including the targeting of Muslim Palestinian Americans.

“Our government must call for an end to that violence and the dehumanization of Muslims and Palestinians that is being used to justify that violence. Only then can the broader strategy to combat Islamophobia be effective,” Mitchell said.

During the White House briefing Thursday, John Kirby, National Security Council spokesperson, reiterated support for temporary and limited humanitarian pauses in fighting but underscored that a cease-fire now would only benefit Hamas.

The White House said its Islamophobia initiative brings together community leaders, advocates and members of Congress to work on the joint effort led by the Domestic Policy Council and the National Security Council.

“For too long, Muslims in America, and those perceived to be Muslim, such as Arabs and Sikhs, have endured a disproportionate number of hate-fueled attacks and other discriminatory incidents,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said in a statement.

“We all mourn the recent barbaric killing of Wadea Al-Fayoume, a 6-year-old Palestinian American Muslim boy, and the brutal attack on his mother in their home outside Chicago,” she said.

Incidents of Islamophobia and antisemitism have been on the rise since the Oct. 7 attack in which Hamas killed at least 1,400 people in Israel and took more than 200 hostage. Since then, massive retaliatory strikes by Israel in Gaza have taken more than 8,800 Palestinian lives according to the Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza.

During Thursday’s briefing, Jean-Pierre said work on the initiative began in December 2022 with an interagency task force to address various forms of hate. In May, the task force released the administration’s national strategy to counter antisemitism.

‘Community’s anger’

The timing of the announcement has upset the Muslim community, said Basim Elkarra, chair of the National Muslim Democratic Council (NMDC). The advocacy group representing American Muslim voters has also pushed for a cease-fire.

“The community’s anger towards President Biden’s unconditional support for Israel is making this fall on deaf ears as they watch the daily atrocities in Gaza,” Elkarra told VOA.

Kirby acknowledged the outrage of American Muslims and Arabs and said the national strategy to combat Islamophobia is a “genuine effort” from the administration.

“We value their opinion. We value their perspective. And even especially if it’s a contrary perspective,” Kirby said in response to VOA’s question during Thursday’s briefing. “We’re absolutely going to reach out to folks all across the country from all different perspectives, particularly in the Muslim community, to get their views.”

NMDC, which includes party leaders from hotly contested states likely to decide the election, such as Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania, has threatened to mobilize millions of Muslim voters to withhold donations and votes toward Biden’s 2024 reelection campaign if the president does not use his influence on Israel to press for a cease-fire.

During a visit to Minneapolis on Wednesday, Biden was met with protests organized by the Minnesota chapter of CAIR, with signs demanding a cease-fire and threatening to “Abandon Biden” in 2024 — the latest sign that Muslim American voters, the majority of whom supported Biden in 2020, may turn against the president in next year’s presidential election.

The rallies are part of a pressure campaign launched by Muslim American and Arab American groups to force Biden to be less one-sided on the Israel-Hamas war. They have aligned themselves with Jewish groups, including the Jewish Voice for Peace, who have spoken against Israeli airstrikes and Israel’s occupation over Palestinian territories.

One of the group’s activists, Rabbi Jessica Rosenberg, heckled Biden during his campaign event in Minneapolis.

“I’m the guy that convinced Bibi [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] to call for that cease-fire to let the prisoners out. I’m the guy that spent all the time talking to [Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah] el-Sissi to let him open the door into Egypt,” Biden said in response to Rosenberg’s cease-fire demands.

Shift in perspective

The pressure campaign has been marginally successful in influencing the administration’s policy, said Salam Al-Marayati, president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council. He noted a “shift in perspective” following Biden’s unannounced meeting with five American Muslim leaders on October 26 at the White House.

“There was an acknowledgement of the suffering of Palestinians and empathy for the Palestinian people, and support for those of us in America who are working on the Palestinian issue, and to demand that officials and political organizations stop conflating our work with terrorism,” Al-Marayati told VOA.

Al-Marayati said the community believes that Biden’s Democratic Party has taken the Muslim vote for granted, but there are different approaches from the community in addressing that problem.

“I don’t see us allowing a Trump presidency, for example, to be the answer,” he said.

Trump, the front-runner in the Republican primary field, said last month that if elected president again, he would reinstate travel bans from “terror-plagued countries” and send officers to pro-Palestinian rallies to arrest and deport immigrants who publicly support Hamas.

As the war in Gaza intensifies, Islamophobia and antisemitism are on the rise in the U.S. CAIR said it received 774 complaints of incidents motivated by Islamophobia and bias against Palestinians and Arabs from Oct. 7-24. The group said this was the highest level since 2015.

The Anti-Defamation League, an organization that combats the defamation of the Jewish people, recorded a total of 312 antisemitic incidents between Oct. 7 and 23. By comparison, during the same period in 2022, ADL received reports of 64 incidents.

The White House did not provide a timeline for the strategy but said it aims to “counter the scourge of Islamophobia and hate in all its forms.”

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