The right exploits fear for political gain

November 19, 2015

Nicole Colson reports on the response of the U.S. political elite after the Paris attacks.

AMID THE outpouring of grief following the November 13 attacks in Paris, U.S. politicians and the media are, true to form, asking the question they always ask: What can we get out of it? How do we turn a tragedy into an opportunity for narrow-minded political gain?

The answer, it turns out, is a hefty dose of xenophobia and racism about the supposed threat if refugees and asylum seekers are allowed to relocate to the U.S.

Never mind that the U.S. has pledged to take a pitifully small number of those risking their lives to escape violence. Some 800,000 refugees and migrants, largely from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, have fled to Europe this year, while according to the New York Times, as of September 2015, the U.S. had accepted just 1,854 Syrian refugees.

Never mind, too, that as this article was being written, all of the perpetrators identified in the Paris attacks were European nationals, including at least three French-born citizens, and none were actual refugees.

Those basic facts haven't stopped a wave of Republican politicians from posturing about the threat of terrorism from refugees, particularly from Syria. As of November 18, 29 governors had released statements to that effect. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott was typical. In a letter to Barack Obama, Abbott said his state would refuse to participate "in any program that will result in Syrian refugees--any one of whom could be connected to terrorism--being resettled in Texas."

Donald Trump
Donald Trump (Ninian Reid)

The fact that governors don't have the power to ban refugees from their states--under the United States Refugee Act of 1980, it's the president who is authorized to accept refugees--didn't stop the ludicrous posturing. "There is a close collaboration with governors and mayors and community leaders about the capacity of the area for refugees and where they can go, but once they have legal status, you cannot impede their transit between different states," Lucy Carrigan, a spokeswoman for the International Rescue Committee, told the Washington Post.

That didn't stop Louisiana Sen. David Vitter from complaining about an unnamed Syrian refugee who left Baton Rouge where he was resettled. "As of today, he's no longer there," Vitter warned ominously. "He's gone missing. Allegedly, he on his own, is relocating to Washington, D.C."

Kentucky's libertarian Sen. Rand Paul, also a Republican presidential contender, is banking on anti-refugee racism to help his campaign. He introduced legislation two days after the Paris attacks to put an "immediate moratorium on visas for refugees."

U.S. POLITICIANS have never let facts stop them when it comes to wallowing in racist reaction, of course.

Among Republican presidential contenders, frontrunner Donald Trump is claiming that Obama--who, let's remember, some Republicans still believe is a secret Muslim himself--was deliberately trying to send refugees to states run by GOP governors. "In California, you have a Democrat as a governor; in Florida you have Rick Scott so they send them to the Republicans," Trump said. "Taking these people is absolutely insanity."

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, another Republican presidential contender, proposed a religious litmus test for any refugees allowed into the U.S. Syrian Muslims, Cruz said, should be sent to "majority-Muslim countries"--but "Christians who are being targeted for genocide, for persecution, Christians who are being beheaded or crucified, we should be providing safe haven to them."

Cruz doubled down the following day, defending his proposal for discriminating among refugees on religious grounds because "there is no meaningful risk of Christians committing acts of terror."

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee supplied the other side of the equation when he insisted on MSNBC's Morning Joe that only Muslims carry out acts of terrorism: "I don't know of any other group of people uniquely that are targeting innocent civilians and committing these acts of mayhem." (Huckabee also declared that the Paris attacks mean "we need to wake up and smell the falafel"--which is no more racist and offensive than his recent "joke" about Korean chefs cooking dogs.)

As Amy Davidson pointed out for the New Yorker, the racist refrain that only Muslims commit terrorism "will come as a profound surprise to the people of Oklahoma City and Charleston, to all parties in Ireland, and to the families of the teenagers whom Anders Breivik killed in Norway, among many others." And that's not to mention the anti-abortion terrorists like Eric Rudolph, Paul Jennings Hill, Scott Roeder and John Salvi--all members of the fundamentalist Christian group known as the "Army of God."

As the New York Times summarized:

Since September 11, 2001, nearly twice as many people have been killed by white supremacists, anti-government fanatics and other non-Muslim extremists than by radical Muslims: 48 have been killed by extremists who are not Muslim, including the recent mass killing in Charleston, S.C., compared with 26 by self-proclaimed jihadists, according to a count by New America, a Washington research center.

After Dylann Roof's massacre of nine African Americans at a church in Charleston, however, no U.S. politician dared to suggest that white male Christians pose a threat because of their "incompatible" values, or that they should be surveilled or have their movements restricted.

But New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie may have hit the lowest of the low points when he made a point of singling out refugee children as unwelcome.. "The fact is that we need appropriate vetting," he told radio host Hugh Hewitt, "and I don't think orphans under five are being, you know, should be admitted into the United States at this point. But you know, they have no family here. How are we going to care for these folks?"

That's a far cry from Christie's comment in September, when the body of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish beach after his family attempted to make the voyage to Europe. Then, in the midst of an outpouring of global sympathy and solidarity, Christie said that "America is a compassionate country," and that refugees needed to be helped.

THERE ARE some frightening historical parallels to the hardening of attitudes against Syrian refugees--yet a few on the right actually embrace these comparisons.

Roanoke, Virginia, Mayor David Bowers--a Democrat, incidentally--issued a statement claiming that it would be "imprudent" to assist in resettling Syrian refugees to "our part of Virginia"--and approvingly cited the internment of people of Japanese descent during the Second World War as a precedent: "I'm reminded that President Franklin D. Roosevelt felt compelled to sequester Japanese foreign nationals after the bombing of Peal Harbor, and it appears that the threat of harm to America from Isis [sic] now is just as real and serious as that from our enemies then."

Since historians now conclude there was no "real" or "serious" domestic threat to justify internment, that actually sounds about right.

In the Washington Post, Ishaan Tharoor drew a parallel between the current treatment of Middle Eastern refugees and that of Jewish refugees prior to the Second World War. Tharoor pointed out that In January 1939, two-thirds of Americans polled by Gallup's American Institute of Public Opinion said the U.S. shouldn't take in 10,000 German Jewish refugee children. According to Tharoor:

[M]ost Western countries regarded the plight of Jewish refugees with skepticism or unveiled bigotry (and sympathy followed only wider knowledge of the monstrous slaughters of the Holocaust)...Ever since Friday's terror attacks in Paris, the Republicans, led by their presidential candidates, have sounded the alarm over the threat of jihadist infiltration from Syria--even though it now appears that every single identified assailant in the Paris siege was a European national.

The "clash of civilizations" rhetoric that has been adopted almost wholesale by many mainstream political leaders leads directly to a racist backlash against not only refugees, but all Arabs and Muslims. If there was any doubt, a Bloomberg Politics poll found that 53 percent of U.S. adults say the U.S. should not move forward with plans to resettle Syrian refugees. Only 28 percent would keep the program with the screening process as it now exists.

In the days since the Paris attacks, there has been a spate of threats and vandalism directed at mosques in the U.S. and elsewhere, including a message left for the Islamic Society of Pinellas County in St. Petersburg, Florida, that threatened to "firebomb you, shoot whoever's there on sight in the head," and a Koran, torn and covered in feces, left at a mosque in Pflugerville, Texas.

Such incidents--and violence directed at Muslims or those perceived to be Muslims--became commonplace after the September 11, 2001, attacks. Today, we have to take up the defense of our Muslim brothers and sisters to make sure history doesn't repeat itself.

IN REALITY, Muslims are far more likely to be the victim of violence in the U.S., Europe and around the world, including at the hands of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which claimed responsibility for the Paris attacks. As Adam Taylor pointed out in the Independent:

The very same refugees entering Europe are often the very same civilians who face the indiscriminate violence and cruel injustice in lands controlled by ISIS in Iraq and Syria (though, it should be noted, many in Syria are also threatened by the brutal actions of the Syrian government). Globally, studies have shown that Muslims tend to make up the largest proportion of terror victims, with countries such as Syria and Iraq registering the highest toll...

What seems almost certain is that ISIS wants you to equate refugees with terrorists. In turn, it wants refugees to equate the West with prejudice against Muslims and foreigners.

It's not only racist, but plainly idiotic to suggest that Syrian refugees are to blame for the terror they are risking their lives to flee from. The refugees from Syria are fleeing not only the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad, but the violence of ISIS. Yet now, the path to escape--already treacherous--is being further constrained.

Our response must be to reject and challenge racism and scapegoating. We stand in defense of Muslims against Islamophobia--and say unequivocally that the refugees are welcome here.

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