Refugees and the Politics of Fear in America

11. 18. 2015

The fog of fear is in the air. Unlike any time following 9/11 people are rattled and afraid that something awful could happen in their community at any moment. People want answers about what is happening and how to become safe and secure. Yet throughout American history political demagogues have played one group of people against another as a way to excite and nurture this fear. The current rhetoric about Muslims and refugees is not only counterproductive in terms of our interests, but it is also a poor representation of who we are as a people.

We are a nation of immigrants, which has for generations cast a skeptical and discriminatory eye on the group that comes after. The Irish were perceived as illiterate and immoral when they started to come in the 1830s. The Chinese were paid pennies compared to their European contemporaries and often denied basic rights. During both World Wars the Germans and Italians were persecuted and their property destroyed for supposed traitorous intentions. It was the interment of the Japanese in World War II where fear and bad policy reached a high point. Thousands of Japanese American citizens were taken from their homes and put in camps for looking like the bad guys who bombed us.

Muslims, and specifically Syrians, first came to America in the 1870s fleeing the dysfunction of the Ottoman Empire. They created large communities in the Mid-West and Northeast, starting business with deep ties to their community and country. Only about 1% of the US population is Muslim. But they are our doctors, teachers, and business owners. They are far less likely to commit violent acts than any other segment of the country. The Muslim community in America is an important part of who we are and deserves to be treated with respect.

Since Republican presidential nominee, Donald Trump, proposed blocking all Muslims from entering the country, the outrage has been bipartisan. Predictably liberal commentators are comparing The Donald to Hitler and labeling him as a fascist. The response from the Republican establishment has largely been to deem the comments as un-American. Republicans also condemned the focus on religion as a slippery slope when a supposed liberal president of the future closes Christian churches. Despite the outrage, The Donald continues to rise in the polls and is the front runner for the nomination.

At the same time the Republican candidates for president and Republican governors have called for the stopping of all refugees from Syria. Jeb Bush even went as far as saying he would allow only Christian refugees to enter. Bush, a two-term governor and a member of a family with two presidents, surely knows that the policy he is proposing is intangible even if it is a political winner with the Republican primary voters in New Hampshire.

Donald Trump’s policy is surely different. It EXPLICITLY says no Muslims, while the position of the rest of the party is IMPLICIT in differentiating between the religion and exclusion of refugees from a collapsing Muslim majority country.

The refugees in question are fleeing the same bad guys that we accuse them of being. The brutal slaughter and indiscriminate killing carried out by the Islamic State is carnage that is unfathomably awful. Men are being decapitated for no reason. Children are being killed in schools. Women are being raped in such horrific regularity.

When the discussion of the refugees stays on stats of 100,000s displaced and abstract descriptions of suffering, it is easy to lose sight of the humanity of the situation. As Ta-Nehisi Coates's writes about in Between the World and Me, the focus must stay in the realm of the personal. We are talking about a family of five that lived generations in the same city. A father with a stable business and children with dreams of school and marriage. Families have fled to start over, free of violence, in a country that loves and respects freedom and people with dreams.

The often cited example, to justify the fear, is the Paris attackers. Except, in Europe they are traveling on foot and pass through border checkpoints and can go back and forth. Not to mention in Europe the net inflow has been close to 900,000. We are committed to bring in only 10,000 over the next year. The 10-step process used in vetting refugees should be thorough in determining who is a threat before they are flown to North America. After San Bernardino this sense of fear has only escalated. While neither of the attackers were refugees, the entrance of one of them on a visa shows that there is more work to be done.

The Islamic State wants the war to be framed as one of the West versus Muslims. Their recruiting is in the language of the crusades and appeals to Muslims sense of injustice. Proposing policies that reject Muslims (EXPLICTLY or IMPLICTLY) reinforces this narrative. The battle against ISIS has always been two pronged--firstly to destroy their physical bases and operations and secondly to defeat the ideology.

American exceptionalism can’t just apply when we are bombing the “shit” out of the bad guys. It should be invoked when we protect families fleeing death. The fear of attack in America is real, but our leaders need to speak in a way that gives a clear picture of how US policy is addressing this fear without appealing to fear mongering. We as a people must be extra vigilant of possible threats and hope that the fear in the air is translated into a renewed sense of civic responsibility. We must not retreat into Fortress America and miss an opportunity to show the world what makes us special.

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