By KEVIN KOWALEWSKI
Following the unimaginable tragedy in Paris, the world has responded with shock, horror and sympathy. Monuments across the globe have been basked in the tricolors of the French flag, and world leaders have reaffirmed their solidarity with President Hollande and the people of France.
It is clear that we must be fully dedicated to defeating the scourge that is ISIS. The international community cannot tolerate the continued existence of this oppressive and destructive quasi-state. There is certainly room to debate the best strategy in Syria and Iraq — it is an incredibly complicated situation and any successful policy must be built on these nuances. However, in the immediate aftermath of Paris, the political conversation has been distracted from the essential task at hand. Instead of focusing our priorities on destroying ISIS, these attacks have brought renewed xenophobic sentiments.
Nationalist political parties have rushed to connect Paris to the on-going Syrian refugee crisis. Marine Le Pen, head of France’s far-right National Front, has pounced on the attacks as a validation of her party’s ideology. It is not only happening in France. All across Europe, we have seen rhetoric that often suggests that accepting refugees is akin to welcoming ISIS fighters.
All of this comes notwithstanding the fact that ISIS is exactly what these refugees are trying to escape from. There is little — none, really — evidence to support ISIS infiltration among Syrian refugees. But the difficulty with refuting these arguments is that they are not fully based in logic. Rather, they are appealing to a knee-jerk emotional response. In the wake of the Paris attacks, anti-immigrant sentiment and Islamophobia are being cloaked in the guise of opposing terrorism.
Perhaps we should not be surprised. Europe has had longstanding difficulties with the integration of its Muslim minority. This latest surge of Islamophobia is not just about Paris, or the refugees, but the latest chapter in a long-term struggle between the forces of nativism and an increasingly diverse population.
But this does not end at the Atlantic. Indeed, here in the United States, politicians have been equally willing to engage in political opportunism. Look at our own response to the refugee crisis. In the past several days, 31 US Governors have declared that Syrian refugees are no longer welcome in their states. They have used the same language that we’ve heard in Europe — that these refugees may pose a threat to the public.
To be clear, I do not mean to dismiss these concerns. We must make sure that the refugee process contains substantial background checks for security. And it does. The process is so comprehensive that the United States has fallen short of our already small refugee quotas. Further, we may also consider the fact that a governor has no constitutional power to prevent the settlement of refugees within his or her state.
Why are these governors are so concerned about this tiny group of thoroughly investigated refugees? The most apparent answer is an uncomfortable one: Islamophobia.
Indeed, portions of the American right have been quite honest about the basis of their opposition to accepting refugees. They do not just view ISIS as the threat, but Islam overall. The Syrian refugees are viewed as inherently dangerous not for any actual reason, but because certain conservatives have characterized the entire Islamic faith by its most extreme elements. Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) has even introduced a bill to allow Christian Syrian refugees in, but not Muslims. Ignore the question of how someone might “prove” that they are a Christian. Just ponder the idea that conservatives frequently call for moderate Muslims to denounce extremism, only to refuse refuge to those who face death for that exact reason.
President Obama has condemned Senator Cruz’s bill as an affront to American values. It is. We cannot become a country that imposes this type of religious test. And we should not allow political demagogues to use fear and uncertainty as the determinants of national policy.
Nonetheless, while the ramifications of the right’s rising xenophobia are most acute in the realm of refugee policy, it would be a mistake to believe that this is the only issue at hand, or that this is arising solely as a consequence of Paris. Indeed, it is arguable that this response to the refugee crisis is only possible because Islamophobia has already become an accepted part of the political conversation.
Think back to the opposition to the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque,” where elected officials actually suggested the government should step in to prevent the free exercise of religion. Take a look at the fact that 16 states have passed or introduced legislation to prohibit the use of Sharia law. Considering that the First Amendment — perhaps they should read it — establishes a separation of church and state, these laws exist only to stoke fears and target a minority community.
Remember that the Republican Party’s current leading presidential candidates are Donald Trump and Ben Carson. Trump has defended a supporter who suggested all Muslims should be deported, and Carson has stated that he believes Muslims are inherently disqualified from the United States presidency. The Paris attacks might have fanned the flames of Islamophobia, but they were already burning.
Still, it is precisely at these moments that we must remain the most vigilant against the tide of bigotry. We must vehemently reject the idea that Islam is incompatible with Western values. After all, this is in close accord with the ideology of ISIS. When they attack us, they want us to turn against our own fundamental beliefs of human rights and freedom of religion. Let us not play their game.
There are over a billion Muslim people on this planet. They come from all continents, all races and all backgrounds. They are mothers and fathers who simply want their children to grow up without the specter of war and death. They are Americans. They are our friends and our neighbors. They are us. We must remember this even at difficult times, and we must never forget the dangerous consequences of hate.