The world has become a pretty frightening place this past month, but nothing scares me more than the extreme anti-refugee and anti-Muslim rhetoric we’ve been hearing from our politicians the last few weeks. I am afraid of an ISIS attack, but I have little hope that we can protect ourselves from terrorism if we can’t even preserve our own values and ideals in the face of our fear.
Within hours of the attacks in Paris on Nov. 13th, multiple candidates for the U.S. presidency were calling for a halt to the refugee program. Ted Cruz described as “lunacy” any effort to give refuge in the United States to Muslim people. It is a cruel irony that our feelings of shock and outrage about terrorism were manipulated in this way to justify a backlash against refugees who are themselves the victims of terror and arbitrary violence.
Many politicians stoked fears that ISIS would “infiltrate” the refugee program. In reality, if ISIS really wanted to smuggle people into the U.S., the refugee program would be the least likely way to do it. To become a refugee in the United States, a person must first pass an interview process with the UN refugee agency, which only refers the person to the US if it finds a “credible fear” that she or he will face persecution if returned home. After this, the US spends up to two years screening applicants for security risks. It is an extremely grueling procedure that leaves refugees suspended for years in limbo. ISIS could far more easily send people into the US on student or tourist visas (keep in mind, after all, that most of the Paris attackers were EU citizens).
The anti-refugee backlash we’ve witnessed is not really about terrorism—it is about scapegoating and religious intolerance. It is telling, in this regard, that some politicians have suggested that only Christians should be allowed through the refugee program. Such proposals are founded in a deep ignorance of the fact that so many of the people fleeing ISIS’s genocidal persecutions are Muslim. ISIS has savagely attacked Shi’a Muslim minorities in its lands, particularly the Shabak and Turkmen ethnic groups, in addition to Yezidis and Christians. Meanwhile, Sunni Muslims have been victimized by state-tolerated death squads in Iraq that persecute them on the basis of their sect. Politicians should be demanding that we make room for all sects and religions who face violence in the Middle East; instead, they are calling for flagrant discrimination.
None of this is even to mention Donald Trump’s recent comment that, if elected president, he would force Muslim Americans to register in a special database and submit to warrantless surveillance. We’ve lived through some ugly elections, but I can’t remember any other time that a popular candidate for the presidency openly declared that he would not respect the elementary civil rights of an entire group of U.S. citizens, solely because of their ethnicity and religion.
Such comments represent an extremely dangerous erosion of our public standards of decency. We have to be better than this, or else we’ll never have the moral strength and courage to offer an alternative to hateful ideologies like that of ISIS.