The Syrian Refugee Vote – A Warning

The French President declared that France was at war immediately after the November 13 terrorist attack on Paris. Across the Ocean, the American President offered wholehearted support but insisted that “we are not at war with Islam”, echoing a statement by his predecessor George W Bush 14 years ago in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attack. But the political environment in the US grew more sour with despicable demagoguery. Dr Ben Carson riffed on “rabid dogs”. Donald Trump urged all measures including “registration” of Muslims . Other Republican politicians castigated them, but in uncertain tones. It is ironic that the attack in far away Paris aroused more backlash than another, 14 years ago on American soil, that claimed 20 times more lives.

Of greater concern was the US House of Representatives vote by the nearly veto-proof margin of 289-137 on a measure to tighten the vetting of Syrian refugees. President Obama opposed the measure, but more members from his party deserted him on this vote than on the Iran deal, where they were lobbied heavily and expensively. It would be a mistake to blame this vote on prejudice and Nativism gone wild. This is a warning that we should take seriously. Many Americans, including those of a liberal bent, are unsure about the wisdom and risks of admitting a large number of refugees, even while cherishing the American ideal of welcoming all immigrants and refugees. After all, it took no more than a few young men to place Paris and Brussels under siege. This is not the first time where the tortured Middle East presents the US with a difficult choice between its ideals and its interests. This is a moment that calls for far-sighted leadership, still missing at the moment. Many politicians, of both parties, but predominantly Republicans, found it an occasion to appeal to fear. The President has taken the moral high ground, but failed to advance arguments that convince and comfort.

There is also a religious angle to this refugee issue, which adds an unfortunate dimension to the controversy. Jeb Bush urged that we should “focus on Christians who are in the greatest danger”, while the clumsy Cruz simply urged admission of only Christians. President Obama rightly called out both men on their comments insisting that the US does not apply religious tests. But while doing so he also failed to address the larger issue. Many Americans favor giving preferential treatment to Christians because they feel they are in bigger danger and less likely to face assimilation problems. Few bothered to ask Jeb Bush about the policies of his brother, whose venture in Iraq contributed to the decline of the Christian community there, but who gave little thought of increasing immigration quota for them. In framing the Syrian refugee problem in a religious rather than a national construct US leaders played into the very same ills that caused the dissolution of both Iraq and Syria. Again, this should have been a moment for leadership from Syrian-Americans and Muslim-Americans, asserting the primacy of national over religious identity. But that leadership seemed dormant.

An interview on MSNBC with Dalia Mogahed highlights the problem of leadership and identity. The producers of the show chose Ms. Mogahed, who is Egyptian born, to speak about Syrian refugees, presumably because she identifies herself as “Muslim-American”, but almost never as “Egyptian-American”, a reflection of what tears up the Middle East. A well-known pollster, one-time assistant to President Obama, and author of a book on “Who Speaks for Islam”, Ms. Mogahed missed a golden opportunity to connect with her fellow Americans and show that she understands their fears and can address them from a unique perspective. Ms. Mogahed blamed the rise in Anti-Muslim feelings on electioneering, and on events such as the Iraq war, hiding behind statistical correlations to avoid the painful but relevant issues. She alleged that the majority of Muslims are silenced by extremists and the mainstream media. She expressed umbrage that Muslims need to apologize for the heinous acts of other Muslims, when it is obvious that they disagree with such acts. That last argument was intellectually defensible and politically tone deaf. She could have advanced the agenda for tolerance by being less hedging and hurt. It is the lot of minorities, unfairly, to have to try harder. This is why Civil Rights leaders wore their Sunday best to the marches. It is why Eastern Christians often silence their Church bells and move their liturgies to Fridays. To maintain harmony in a diverse society everyone has to do more than the minimum necessary, especially in stressful times. These are stressful times indeed. Rather than present a vision of a future Middle East in harmony with American ideals, she left a vague sense of unease about problems from “over there” becoming entrenched “over here”.

But beyond the lack of leadership that addresses problems clearly and honestly, another reason for this spike of Anti-Muslim feelings may simply be “Middle East fatigue”. The US first engaged with the region in the 1850s, when it was still called the “Holy Land”. Even the term “Middle East” is an invention of an American Admiral. For over a century and a half the US influenced the region deeply, often with missionary zeal, and in ambiguous ways, with both sincerely held high ideals, and embarrassingly base actions. Still, the US can claim no more than a small part of the current chaos. The peoples of the region are the true architects of their bed of nails. Today’s events and those of September 11 2001 are separated by nearly four Presidential terms and two Presidents of very different temperaments and policies. Yet neither man has been able to come to grips with the chaos and the resulting terrorism. Americans must be excused for thinking that the Middle East is unreformable and that their energies are best directed elsewhere. Syrian refugees must seem like a reminder of failure, and of its threatening consequences. It is unfair to those currently on the road, and the many more likely to follow once the US policy of removing the brutal Assad succeeds.

— Maged Atiya


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