The White House is working on a strategy to combat Islamophobia. Many Muslim Americans are skeptical

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden’s administration is developing a national strategy to combat Islamophobia as the White House faces skepticism from many Muslim Americans for its staunch support of Israel’s military assault on Hamas in Gaza.

Plans for the initiative, which the White House billed as the first of its kind, were announced Wednesday. It is meant to bring together lawmakers, advocacy groups and other community leaders with the administration in order to “counter the scourge of Islamophobia and hate in all its forms,” the White House said.

“Moving forward, the President, Vice President, and our entire Administration will continue working to ensure every American has the freedom to live their lives in safety and without fear for how they pray, what they believe, and who they are,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said in a statement announcing the strategy.

The White House originally was expected to announce its plans to develop the strategy last week when Biden met with Muslim leaders, but that was delayed, according to three people familiar with the matter. Two said the delay was due partly to concerns from Muslim Americans that the administration lacked credibility on the issue given its robust backing of Israel’s military, whose strikes against Hamas militants have killed thousands of civilians in Gaza. The people spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the White House plans.

The launch of the anti-Islamophobia effort has been anticipated for months after the administration in May released a national strategy to combat antisemitism that made passing reference to countering hatred against Muslims.

The new initiative is expected to take months to formalize, following a similar process to the plan to counter antisemitism that involved various government agencies. White House spokeswoman Emilie Simons said Wednesday that the interagency group’s “next step is to release a strategy on Islamophobia.” She did not offer details on a timeline for the effort.

Incidences of anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim hate have skyrocketed in the United States and abroad since the surprise Oct. 7 attack by Hamas against Israel that killed more than 1,400 people and saw hundreds taken hostage, and Israel’s response in Gaza, where it has pledged to use force to “destroy” Hamas. One of the most prominent attacks in the U.S. was the killing of 6-year-old Wadea Al-Fayoume and the wounding of his mother in an attack in Illinois that prosecutors allege was driven by Islamophobia.

“This horrific act of hate has no place in America and stands against our fundamental values: freedom from fear for how we pray, what we believe, and who we are,” Biden said afterward.

There had been widespread agreement among Muslim Americans on the need for a national strategy to counter Islamophobia, according to a fourth person familiar with the matter, who added that the Israel-Hamas war has made the timing of the White House announcement more complicated. The person, who was also not authorized to speak publicly about the internal deliberations, said the administration wants to keep the two issues separate, while some prominent Muslim American groups see them as interrelated.

Administration officials, during the meeting with a small group of faith leaders last week, indicated things were “in the works” for an anti-Islamophobia strategy, said Rami Nashashibi, the founder of the Inner City Muslim Action Network in Chicago and a participant in that session.

Nashashibi said he believed such an effort would be “dead on arrival” with the Muslim community until the president and administration officials forcefully condemn members of the far-right government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who have openly called for the eradication of Palestinians from Gaza and until the administration more aggressively calls out hate crimes targeting Muslims and Arab Americans.

He and other leaders also want Biden to apologize, or at least publicly clarify, his recent comments in which he said he had “no confidence” in the Palestinian death count from Israel’s retaliatory strikes, because the data comes from the Hamas-run Health Ministry.

The United Nations and other international institutions and experts, as well as Palestinian authorities in the West Bank — rivals of Hamas — say the Gaza ministry has long made a good-faith effort to account for the dead under the most difficult conditions. In previous wars, the ministry’s counts have held up to U.N. scrutiny, independent investigations and even Israel’s tallies.

White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Tuesday that the administration is “not taking the Ministry of Health at face value” but he acknowledged there have been “many thousands of civilian deaths in Gaza” in the conflict.

Nashashibi also said the White House strategy could land flat at a moment when many Muslim Americans feel that advocacy stands for Palestinian self-determination is being unfairly lumped in with those espousing antisemitism and backing of extremists.

“That conflating is in great part contributing to an atmosphere where we could see even more deadly results and more targeting,” he said. Nashashibi added, “The White House does not have the credibility to roll out an Islamophobia strategy at this moment without publicly addressing the points we explicitly raised with the president during our meeting.”

Asked if the White House had a credibility issue, Simons, the spokeswoman, said the administration would continue its outreach efforts.

“We know that communities are feeling the pain of what’s going on overseas and in a deeply personal way,” Simons said. “And so we’re going to continue to speak to these different communities underscore the work we’re doing to get aid into Gaza and the conditions we’re trying to set up to support a humanitarian pause.”

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Associated Press writer Chris Megerian from aboard Air Force One contributed to this report.