“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
Those are the words inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, a gift from France no less, whose copper flame has shined as a beacon of hope for oppressed freedom-loving people around the world. Now, rightwing politicians like Texas Governor Greg Abbott threaten to snuff out that promise by rejecting innocent people fleeing the horrors of war and terrorism.
Days after September 11, 2001, and years before he would taunt terrorists to “bring’em on” or claim “Mission Accomplished” in Iraq, President George W. Bush said, “the face of terror is not the true faith of Islam…and that Muslims “need to be treated with respect.” The call for civility came after the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) reported Muslims being targeted for harassment, car bombings, arson, road rage, death threats and job loss. CAIR said, “And this is what we’re concerned about is now, we’re going to have a future of discrimination that is more subtle.”
Now some experts are saying that rejecting Syrian refugees is playing into the hands of ISIS, while welcoming them “undercuts the Islamic State’s legitimacy.” The Washington Post reports, “What seems almost certain is that the Islamic State wants you to equate refugees with terrorists. In turn, it wants refugees to equate the West with prejudice against Muslims and foreigners.”
Islamic State outlined their reasoning in a video released the after the Charlie Hebdo attacks explaining that they, “compel the Crusaders to actively destroy the grayzone themselves. . . . Muslims in the West will quickly find themselves between one of two choices, they either apostatize . . . or they [emigrate]to the Islamic State and thereby escape persecution from the Crusader governments and citizens.” When Muslims flee ISIS territory for Western shelter, it is a direct affront to the terrorist network.
Syrian refugees aren’t just fleeing ISIS, but a civil war with brutal attacks perpetrated by their own government. It may help to note that Muslims make up the majority of victims of ISIS terror attacks, and most refugees want to return home and rebuild their lives.
President Obama has been resolute in his commitment to accept refugees, but he has also been taking the attack directly to ISIS. Some experts describe the major shift in ISIS tactics — to go after targets outside of Iraq and Syria — as “lashing out.” As they lose territory, the reasoning goes, this “might be a response — an effort to deter further intervention against it by showing foreign powers that they’ll pay a price.”
There has been disagreement over his strategy to not put ”boots on the ground,” but Obama said what he would not do, “is to take actions either because it is going to work politically or somehow make America look tough, or make me look tough.”
Looking tough has unfortunately been the play by the Texas Republicans whose use of fear has increased exponentially in its frequency and intensity. It’s the same reaction that leads one to call for more guns in public places after mass shootings. You may have heard the phrase “don’t bring a knife to a gunfight,” but thanks to Donald Trump and other right wingers it’s time for a rephrase — don’t bring a gun to a bomb fight. Erica Greider’s article in Texas Monthly points out the flaw in Governor Abbott’s nonsequitur connecting an attack in Garland, Texas to his decision to ban refugees:
“The attack Abbott mentions in his letter illustrates both points: the two shooters were apparently inspired by ISIS, but neither was from Syria; they lived in Phoenix.
And it’s worth noting that in Texas, the shooters were thwarted. Having arrived in Garland with ambitious plans for carnage they wounded one person before being shot and killed by police.”
When we cower in fear, we raise a white flag. When we grow suspicious of the diversity that makes our free nation strong, the terrorists win. The call to ban refugees has also not been entirely partisan as several Democratic governors have made similar pronouncements.
The recoil of compassion is not surprising or unpredictable. But this is another chance to decide which side of history we’re on.
“The best response to terrorism is to double down on our country’s values, including welcoming refugees from Syria — and show that the words on the Statue of Liberty still have meaning,” says Charles Chamberlain, Executive Director of Democracy for America. Instead, opportunistic politicians have moved to exploit distrust and ignorance.
Despite press releases and stump speeches to the contrary, governors don’t have the authority to refuse the settlement of refugees that have been vetted and cleared. But they can stand on the bully pulpit and conjure up potent images that tap into a deep-seeded fear of foreignness, and the primal urge of self-preservation. That’s why GOP Governor Nikki Haley deserves credit for rolling out the welcome matt in South Carolina, but with proper vetting of course.
Over the summer, Texans were led to believe that the US might be planning to invade Texas through a military exercise called Jade Helm 15. Our Governor, promising to keep us safe, sent members of the State Guard to keep an eye on American soldiers while they trained. Some found it offensive to our military, and some laughed off the absurdity, but ultimately, it ended without a federal takeover or a civil war. It did, however, accomplish its goal of fueling paranoia and support among his socially conservative base. And, remember when knee-jerk Republicans called for a travel ban to and from West Africa because of Ebola? Now, the Governor is drawing from that bottomless well of fear once again, but this time many innocent lives hang in the balance.
According to the Economist, “If a potential terrorist is determined to enter America to do harm, there are easier and faster ways to get there than by going through the complex refugee resettlement process. Of the almost 750,000 refugees who have been admitted to America since 9/11, only two Iraqis have arrested on terrorist charges; they had not planned an attack in America, but aided al-Qaeda at home.”
So far, several of the attackers in France have been identified as French nationals not Syrian refugees, which undermines the anti-refugee rhetoric. As with the attacks in Paris, America faces a larger threat from within. “Several studies have shown that since 9/11, roughly twice as many people have been killed in terrorist attacks in the United States by white supremacists and other non-Muslim extremists than by radical Muslims.” Still, the emotional reaction to otherness overshadows the cold logic of data.
Casting our immigrant population as criminal and refugees as potential terrorists is dangerous and misleading. It empowers ignorance and stokes intolerance that brings out the worst in our community, including hate crimes and racial profiling. The city of Houston has taken in the most Syrian refugees since 2011. Mayor Annise Parker said, “Not allowing refugees makes America look weak. It is the only humane thing to do.”
Muslims have already had a pretty tough year already in Texas, including in Houston, where earlier this year an arsonist set fire to a school building. The group that was targeted forgave the man and asked authorities to drop the charges. There have also been attacks on mosques, including yesterday in Pflugerville, Tx, where feces was poured over ripped-out pages of the Quran. The response to these events draw a stark contrast to the demands placed on the Muslim community to apologize each time someone defames their religion with deadly violence.
Now conservative politicians are making statements that defame their own Christian faith, by sidelining the underlying morality of universal humanity that Jesus preached. Andrea Grimes provides a good round-up of the “Christian, but…” mentality for the Texas Observer. It’s a hodge podge of selective compassion, and an anecdote of our own push towards government run by religious fundamentalists.
If we want to win the war against ISIS we must declare an armistice in the manufactured war on consumer Christianity of holiday greetings and Starbucks cups, and focus on the war being waged on the founding virtues that reflect the best of our country. As we begin to display the religious symbols of the holiday season, remember that these refugees come from the lands that birthed Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. And as we crusade to defeat our common enemy, the enemy of peace, let’s beware that the road to Damascus was paved with good intentions and righteousness.
“TX won’t help middle Eastern families desperate for shelter,” says Gov Abbott, on his way to Capitol lawn to set up annual nativity scene. — Harold Cook (@HCookAustin) November 16, 2015
— The Hill (@thehill) November 16, 2015