What is behind American reactions to the Syrian refugees? Unfortunately, it’s very simple: America has an Islamophobia problem. And in a nation with centuries of experience in the hatred and oppression of people for who they are and what they look like, racism and fearmongering always trump freedom and equality.
In a shameful display, Congress voted for a bill that would suspend the program allowing Syrian and Iraqi refugees into the U.S. The measure passed with a 289 to 137 vote. Joining 242 Republicans were 47 spineless Democrats —including Jewish, black and Latino lawmakers, whose people have a history of being targeted for being different, and who should know better. Senate Democrats vow to block the bill, so there is no assurance the legislation will ever reach the White House.
The president still plans to accept 10,000 of the 4 million Syrian refugees who have fled civil war and ISIS terrorism. Obama vowed that “as long as I’m president,” the U.S. will be a welcoming place for people escaping violence around the world. Surely, this is the least the world’s richest nation can do, particularly one whose past policies helped pave the way for ISIS.
However, if the Republican governors have their way, though they have no authority to demand it, there will be no Syrian refugees in the U.S. On Friday, a group of 27 Republican governors — including presidential candidates John Kasich of Ohjo and Chris Christie of New Jersey — wrote a letter to the president. In the letter, they said this “country has long served as a welcoming beacon to individuals and families who seek safety and refugee status” in the U.S., but they are “deeply concerned” that ISIS “may have exploited the generosity of the refugee system to carry out Friday’s terrorist attack in Paris.” Couched in a concern over security issues, the governors stress they are “charged with ensuring the safety and wellbeing of our citizens.”
However, while the Paris and Mali attacks reveal an intense rivalry between ISIS and Al Qaeda, there is no evidence linking Syrian refugees to the attacks in Paris or Mali. The Paris attackers have been identified as citizens of the European Union, and the Mali hotel attackers are loyal to an Algeria-based Al Qaeda operative.
France is still accepting 30,000 Syrian refugees into their country over the next two years, with French President Francois Hollande saying it is his nation’s “humanitarian duty.” France, however, does have an issue it must deal with regarding the social, racial and economic marginalization of Muslims in its own country, which could provide fertile ground for radicalization.
As for the U.S., which has a stringent refugee vetting process, 81 percent of ISIS terror suspects charged in the U.S. are American citizens, and none are from Syria. Just to take that a step further, America’s terrorism threat is not primarily an Islamic one, but rather a white, Christian, male and homegrown thing. A study released in June found that white supremacists are the real danger to the U.S. since 9/11, a reality of which Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) recently reminded us.
And for black folks in America, state-sponsored, white domestic terrorism has been a problem for centuries. Between 1916 and 1970, over 6 million African Americans participated in the Great Migration from the rural South, refugees fleeing political persecution and economic sharecropper oppression, Ku Klux Klan violence and lynching. And in light of the police violence, racist prosecution and mass incarceration facing black people, some are suggesting that black folks in the U.S. could qualify as refugees even today.
Meanwhile, GOP politicians are pandering to the fearmongering and xenophobia that appeals to their base. Older conservative white voters are afraid of losing their white country, so they must create enemies to blame for manufactured crises that exist only in their minds, whether the “Sharia law” takeover (Muslim Americans), the “illegal alien” invasion (Latino Americans) or #BlackLivesMatter protesters as cop killers (African Americans).
Republican presidential candidates have seized on racism for political gain, shifting from Barack Obama to the Syrian refugees as the face of their Muslim enemy. Ben Carson, who said a Muslim American should not become president, compared Syrian refugees to rabid dogs. “For instance, you know, if there is a rabid dog running around your neighborhood, you’re probably not going to assume something good about that dog, and you’re probably gonna put your children out of the way,” Carson said. “Doesn’t mean that you hate all dogs by any stretch of the imagination.”
Donald Trump has crossed the Nazi line by suggesting that the U.S. should force Muslims to wear special ID badges and shut down mosques. His statement is reminiscent of Hitler’s Germany, when Jews were made, by law, to wear a yellow star of David — part of a psychological tactic to isolate and dehumanize them and pave the way for the extermination of 6 million Jews. Americans turned away Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany, just as they are rejecting Syrian refugees today. While Trump wants to shut down mosques, Marco Rubio would shut down any places where Muslims gather “to be inspired.” Even Jeb Bush suggested the U.S. only allow refugees who can prove they are Christian.
Years from now, America will look back at this embarrassing chapter in its history and wonder what people were thinking. In America, fearmongering sells, but there is time to shift course and act based on morality.
Follow David A. Love on Twitter at @davidalove.