Let us remember this: the Syrian refugees are fleeing the brutality of the very same ISIS that has now unleashed its savagery on Paris (and Beirut). In short, the millions of Syrian refugees are themselves the primary victims of ISIS. Let us not doubly punish these desperate people by associating them with the atrocity of their own tormentors. – Omid Safi, Director of Duke University’s Islamic Studies Center (from “Where Does it Hurt, O City of Light,” On Being, November 15, 2015).
When learning of the violence and bloodshed that beset Paris last week, I felt sickened by the distressing scenes of death and tragedy. Having once walked the streets of the City of Light, (La Ville Lumiere) I understood profoundly how close to home this act of terror had struck. I also was heartened in the days that followed by the worldwide response of sympathy and concern; by the prayer vigils attended by people of all faiths in support of the victims and their families; and by social media campaigns, including photos of concerned Muslims and women in hijabs holding signs that read: “Not in my name.” For a brief moment it seemed the world was united in opposition to hate. We had finally come together.
These feelings of sympathy were naturally augmented by anger and hatred for those responsible and for the mystifyingly horrendous group of violent thugs that debase Islam and wish to – What? Take over the world? Form a caliphate in Syria and Iraq? Kill everyone who refuses to accept their way of life, whatever that is? When France responded within 48 hours of the terrorist attacks by sending a stream of fighter jets into Syria to bomb an ISIS-stronghold in Raqqa, I confess to feeling immediate gratitude and satisfaction.
I felt the same sense of perverse satisfaction when, after 9/11, American bombers invaded southern Afghanistan and inflicted damage on the Taliban-controlled regions then concealing the movements of al-Qaeda and Osama bin-Laden. Of course, as individuals, there is little most of us can realistically do other than hope our government and the governments of our allies respond vigorously, in muscular ways that make us believe order is being restored and justice dispensed.
Appropriate responses to terrorism include robust efforts to identify and capture or kill those responsible and to defend the people and nations attacked. Bombing Raffaq was a valid reply to the tragedy in Paris, and I applaud how quickly and effectively the French dispatched its forces and coordinated successful police raids in Brussels within days of the attacks.
Unfortunately, not all of the responses and calls for action are helpful. Inappropriate responses include the voices of ignorance and intolerance, of xenophobia, Islamophobia, and fear of the Other, that predictably surfaced on social media and from the mouths of American politicians and Republican presidential candidates. Donald Trump called for the registration of American Muslims. Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush sought to apply a religious test to refugees seeking shelter in this country, suggesting that the United States admit only Christians. Chris Christie, Mike Huckabee, and Ben Carson demanded that we deny refuge to any and all Syrian refugees. Then the House of Representatives voted to effectively shut down the Syrian refugee program and more than half of the nation’s Governors exclaimed that they would refuse to accept Syrian refugees into their states.
This is not the America I know and love, the beacon of light, the shining City on a hill, the country that declares, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” These are instead the voices of fear and ignorance, the same voices historically that called for the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II and that opposed admittance of Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi-occupied Europe in the late 1930’s; the same voices that today wish to build walls and forcibly deport 11 million immigrants back to Mexico and Central America.
Everyone agrees that the threat of international terrorism is real and groups like ISIS must be defeated. But as with everything involving the Middle East, the solutions are complicated. Defeating ISIS will require thoughtful coordination of military, strategic, intelligence, religious and international resources among several nations with conflicting interests. And as the New York Times Editorial Board opined, “[N]o less a challenge for the civilized world is the danger of self-inflicted injury. In the reaction and overreaction to terrorism comes the risk that society will lose its way.” We cannot let this happen.
First, we must stop confusing refugees with terrorists. Building barriers to keep them out because we fear that Islam is inherently dangerous simply feeds into ISIS propaganda. As President Obama stated at the Group of 20 summit in Turkey, “Many of these refugees are the victims of terrorism themselves, that’s what they’re fleeing. Slamming the door in their faces would be a betrayal of our values. Our nations can welcome refugees who are desperately seeking safety and ensure our own security. We can and must do both.”
Second, the international community’s obligation to protect civilians fleeing persecution and war is enshrined in human rights laws, many stemming from the horrors of the Second World War. These principles of freedom and justice have historically been championed by the United States and the nations of Europe. Although acts of terrorism and the atrocities of the Syrian civil war sorely test those principles, it is imperative that world leaders – including American political leaders – not allow our darkest anxieties to render moot such principles. Statements from the likes of Chris Christie, that even “orphans under five” should be turned away, or by Ted Cruz, suggesting that “Barack Obama does not wish to defend this country,” serve no purpose other than to sow distrust for political gain. They are shameful and cowardly attempts at demagoguery.
Third, much of what is being said about the refugees is based on misinformation about the vetting process currently in place for refugees who enter the United States. Claims by Republican Governors and members of the House of Representatives that there does not currently exist adequate vetting of Syrian refugees are politically motivated untruths.
We first need to understand that the asylum seekers flooding into Europe are distinct from the refugees waiting to be admitted into the United States and many other countries. As explained by Amnesty International, of the four million Syrians registered as refugees and living in five neighboring countries, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has established a goal of resettling 400,000 Syrians into countries willing to accept them. The majority of refugees in the neighboring camps are hoping to return to Syria once the civil war is resolved. And none of the people fleeing to Europe on boats and rafts, on foot, or with the aid of smugglers, are among the 400,000 refugees assigned by the UNHCR for resettlement.
The UN resettlement process gives priority to the most vulnerable refugees, children and teenagers who have been orphaned, women and children at risk, torture survivors, and people with serious medical conditions. Indeed, more than half of Syrian refugees designated for resettlement are children. Their stories are heartbreaking and involve tales of incredible courage and bravery. These are people that will benefit and improve the nations who accept them. The small numbers of Syrian refugees who will eventually be resettled to the United States will thus have been thoroughly screened by the UN even before they begin the vetting process administered by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
To be vetted by DHS and accepted by the United States for resettlement is a rigorous and drawn-out process. As Senator Bob Casey (D-PA), the former Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee overseeing the Middle East, has explained, the vetting process:
…includes several in-person interviews by U.S. officials, security checks by multiple agencies, significant documentation, and a health screening. This process, which is the most rigorous vetting in the world, takes over a year. The process requires refugees to be vetted by the National Counterterrorism Center, the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center, the Department of Homeland Security and the Departments of State and Defense. The review process includes biometric and biographic checks, interviews by specially trained officers who scrutinize the applicant’s explanation of individual circumstances to ensure the applicant is a genuine refugee and is not known to present security concerns to the United States. The process also includes an additional layer of enhanced classified screening measures for those refugees from Syria.
Only a subset of the vetted refugees is ultimately accepted by the United States for resettlement. These refugees are then placed into carefully selected communities with the help of nine domestic resettlement agencies, including Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, Church World Service, Episcopal Migration Ministries, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and the International Rescue Committee. These agencies provide valuable and expert assistance in helping refugees find housing, medical care, schools, and employment. They also help the refugees learn and master English and assimilate into American life.
In short, the refugees are not the problem. Any security risks that need to be addressed should instead be focused on the U.S. visa waiver program, in which foreign nationals can apply for temporary admittance through one of 68 participating countries (including France and other European countries). All 19 hijackers in the 9/11 attacks, for example, entered the United States through the guest visa program. None were refugees.
“History will always be kinder to those who are resolute and brave,” writes the New York Times. The world is in a state of chaos. Fear is in the air. Terrorist attacks against innocent people seated at an outdoor café and attending a music concert are as terrifying and incomprehensible as the very concept that encompasses the brutality and evilness that is ISIS. It is natural for nations to desire a sense of order and to impose laws and restrictions that help restore safety. But expressing hostility for the victims of the violence we abhor and shutting our doors to the most vulnerable persons fleeing the bloodshed, will serve only to make the crisis worse. And then history will not look kindly toward us.
In January 1939, two months after the events of Kristallnacht, after learning that Jewish homes and stores were vandalized and burned to the ground, and that thousands of Jews were beaten and murdered in a terrifying display of hatred, bigotry and mob rule, two-thirds of Americans polled said they opposed taking in as refugees 10,000 Jewish children. I suspect most Americans today would find this fact counter to their more optimistic view of American history – after all, Americans are the land of the free and home of the brave; we accept people fleeing persecution and oppression, and that’s what makes us great.
There has always been a strain of xenophobia and prejudice in the American psyche. But as a nation we have found ways of overcoming our irrational anxieties. Only by drawing on our highest ideals may we remain true to the values on which our nation was founded. We must reject the politics of fear, the scapegoating and deception, the bigotry and intolerance that so frequently takes on a life of its own in times of crisis. To defeat and destroy ISIS and radical extremism will require targeted military power and strategic intelligence, but it will also require collective understanding, compassion, and an ability to know the difference between a terrorist and the victims of terror.
I cannot explain the existence of ISIS or the suicidal ideology of radical jihadists. I do not have all the answers for how we defeat ISIS. But what I do know is this: If we succumb to intolerance and despair, bigotry and hatred; if we do not permit the forces of compassion and unity to set our agenda, we will have lost the battle. If the forces of good are to triumph over evil, we must retain our humanity. “The City of Light needs no more darkness,” writes Omid Safi. “Let us welcome light into our hearts, and be agents of healing.”