Muslims, refugees, and the struggle for the soul of America

December 1, 2015

By Charles C. Haynes
Inside the First Amendment

     The horrific terrorist attacks of recent weeks have brought out the worst — and the best — in the American character.

     First, the worst: Attacks on Muslims have spiked significantly across the country. A number of American Muslims have been assaulted, including a pregnant woman in San Diego. Others have been harassed and intimidated. At least seven mosques have been vandalized, shot at or threatened.

     In this growing climate of fear, Syrian refugees fleeing violence and oppression have become scapegoats in the frustrating, seemingly endless war on terror.

     A majority of governors have announced that the refugees would not be welcome in their states and at least one, Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana, has already turned away a Syrian family that had been thoroughly vetted for three years (fortunately, Connecticut stepped up to take them in).

     On the Republican primary campaign trail, Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz called for a Christians-only admission policy for Syrians and Ben Carson compared refugees to "rabid dogs." Not to be outdone, Donald Trump made incendiary comments suggesting that, if elected, he would close mosques and establish a registry of American Muslims.

     Meanwhile, David Bowers, democratic mayor of Roanoke, Virginia, suggested that the government "sequester" Syrian refugees in the same way it did Japanese Americans during World War II. Bowers later tried to walk back his comments by apologizing "to those offended by my remarks."

     Fear and prejudice appear to be a winning message. According to a recent poll, 54% of Americans oppose President Obama's plan to admit just 10,000 Syrian refugees — a tiny fraction of the more than 4 million people displaced by the violence in Syria.

     Even more disheartening — to me at least — another poll finds that 30% of Republican voters in Iowa want Islam to be illegal in the United States. So much for the First Amendment.

     No American can argue with the need to keep our country safe. But banning Syrian refugees is not the right strategy. Applying for refugee status is the least likely way would-be terrorists would choose to enter the United States, according to homeland security experts. The vetting process takes as long as two years before they can step on American soil and involves some 20 layers of intensive background checks and screenings.

     According to data from the Migration Policy Institute, some 784,000 refugees have been resettled in the U.S. since 9/11. Only three people within that population have been arrested for activities related to terrorism (two were caught trying to leave the country to join terrorist groups overseas). None of the three were Syrian.

     Instead of passing laws designed to make it nearly impossible for Syrian refugees to enter the country, Congress should focus on tightening the visa waiver program that allows people from 38 countries to enter the U.S. without a visa. Under the current rules, French and Belgian nationals — like those implicated in the Paris attacks — can enter the U.S. without a visa.

     A bipartisan bill to reform the visa process will be introduced next week by Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Arizona and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California.

     Fortunately, fear and fear mongering have not been the only American responses to Muslims and Syrian refugees since the spate of terrorist attacks in Paris, Beirut and elsewhere.

     Religious groups — including many faith-based organizations that work with the government to resettle refuges in America — are speaking out forcefully against efforts to bar Syrian refugees from entering the country.

     "Of course we want to keep terrorists out of our country," said Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, "but let's not punish the victims of ISIS for the sins of ISIS."

     Last week, major Jewish groups sent a joint letter to Congress strongly supporting Syrian refugee resettlement, reminding lawmakers of the shameful chapter in U.S. history when our government refused entry to the S.S. St. Louis, sending over 900 Jewish refugees back to Europe, where many died in concentration camps.

     As we debate proposals to bar Syrians, it is worth recalling that the United States could have saved thousands of Jews from the Nazis, but our government — supported by public opinion — rejected entreaties to accept Jews, including Jewish children. Anti-Semitic religious and political leaders swayed public opinion by railing against the "Jewish menace" and warning of "Jewish communists" seeking to infiltrate the country.

     Of course, no refugee resettlement program is completely risk-free, no matter how robust the vetting process. But the far greater risk is to turn our backs on desperate people, condemning them to refugee camps (or worse) — places that can become breeding grounds for extremism.

     Given the scope of the current crisis, the president's plan to admit 10,000 Syrian refugees seems painfully small. (By contrast, the French have agreed to accept 30,000 — even in the wake of the Paris attacks.) But in the name of our common humanity, we must at least do that much.

     Of course, we can't save everyone. But by opening our nation's arms as wide as possible, we may yet save the soul of America.

Charles C. Haynes is vice president of the Newseum Institute and executive director of the Religious Freedom Center. E-mail: chaynes@newseum.orgWeb: www.religiousfreedomcenter.org Twitter: @hayneschaynes.

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