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We Can't Let America Give in to Islamophobia

Paris is deeply associated with love, but after the horrific attacks of last week, which left 129 people dead, too many are trying to use the city to fill us with hate.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons user Gage Skidmore

I love Paris. I love the small, winding backstreets where you can find great little cafes with coq au vin that's unforgettable. I love renting a bike from Bike 'N Roller, that store around the corner from Shakespeare and Company, the famous English bookstore that Ernest Hemingway wrote about that's a stone's throw from Notre Dame. I love biking around Paris all day, going around the Left Bank and over all the small bridges and up the Champs-Elysees. I love the melodic sound of French and the way its speakers put so much emphasis on joie de vivre. Paris is so deeply connected to romance that I, like so many people, got engaged there. I couldn't think of a better place. So I proposed on a restaurant balcony, down on one knee as the Eiffel Tower loomed behind me in the distance. In the American mind, Paris is always associated with love, but after the horrific attacks of last week, which left 129 people dead, too many people are trying to use Paris to fill us with hate.


When hate works its way into a political process, it usually metastasizes right away. In politics, hate for a specific group can be used to build support for actions that would not otherwise find support, and too often those actions have little to do with solving the actual problem. The Paris attacks have allowed a fresh batch of hatred to be injected into the body politic and that has quickly led to new waves of Islamophobia and anti-immigrant anger. That's hate metastasizing beyond the boundaries of smart policy responses to this incident. We have already seen a return to the old arguments around who are we really at war with.

Hilary Clinton, at a Democratic debate the day after the attacks, said she agreed with President George W. Bush when he said," we are not at war with Islam or Muslims." This caused a Republican eruption and even Bush's brother had to disagree with the former president. Jeb tweeted: "Yes, we are at war with radical Islamic terrorism." This may seem semantical, but words matter. They can focus the mind or leave the aperture too wide. And this debate is ultimately about how wide should our anger flow and who we should exact revenge on and who can we rely on as allies. Is our problem the specific people in ISIS and Al Qaeda and similar jihadist organizations? Or is our problem with all those Muslims who profess to hate the West? Or is it, perhaps, with all Muslims?


An Islamophobic response that blames all Muslims is problematic. America has over 1.7 million Muslims and the overwhelming majority of them are peaceful and not sympathetic to the jihadists. Many in that community have helped foil potential attacks by fellow Muslims. To blame American Muslims is not pragmatic as they have been helpful in the fight against terrorism and it's immoral because they have done nothing wrong.

Every Muslim need not to apologize for the actions of any Muslim any more than every white American need not apologize for the actions of Dylann Roof. But even the global Muslim community does not stand with the homicidal jihadists. A 2013 PewForum study based on 38,000 face to face interviews done in 89 languages with Muslims in 39 countries found "Muslims around the world strongly reject violence in the name of Islam. Asked specifically about suicide bombing, clear majorities in most countries say such acts are rarely or never justified as a means of defending Islam from its enemies," the report says.

But if you want to rev up support for the War on Terror, then you want to feed negative stereotypes about Muslims and stoke fear of them because, as George Washington University political science professor John Sides wrote after the Boston bombing, "people with negative stereotypes of Muslims… were more likely to support various aspects of the War on Terror." So an attempt to increase our hatred and distrust of Islam in total is valuable in building support for war against Muslim-majority nations. For Republicans, seeming tough is a critical part of their brand, so talk of prosecuting the War on Terror helps them motivate voters and donors. But does it help keep us safe? I'm not sure.


The other policy area that has been affected by this new surge of metastasizing hate is immigration. The overwhelmingly white Republican Party is increasingly segregating itself into all-white neighborhoods and in this campaign season the GOP has inspired rabid support by demonizing immigrants and threatening to build a literal wall to protect us from them.

Now, after Paris, the Republican anti-immigration sentiment is growing louder still. Senator Rubio has said we should stop taking Syrian refugees altogether. And despite immigration being a realm exclusively for the federal government under the Constitution, several state governors have vowed to prohibit refugees from entering their states. Republicans in Congress want legislation blocking the president's plan to admit 10,000 Syrian refugees next year. Rubio said, "You can have 1,000 people come in and 999 of them are just poor people fleeing oppression and violence, but one of them is an ISIS fighter." Well that's why we have the police. Today, Senator Rand Paul tweeted: "The time has come to stop terrorists from walking in the front door. My bill will press pause on new refugee entrants from high risk countries until stringent new screening processes are in place."

Photo by Wikimedia Commons user Gage Skidmore

The proposals that treat refugees as guilty of being terrorists until (somehow) proven innocent are misguided and counterproductive and, as the president said, "Slamming the door in their faces would be a betrayal of our values." But Republicans know that their listeners are already making the connection between refugees and terrorists. And they know that fearmongering will motivate voters. Few emotions are better for firing up voters than fear. But this fear of immigrants puts islamophobia ahead of our global responsibility to help the most beleaguered among us. Nations have a moral responsibility to help when people flee a country because of civil war or oppression or famine or other displacing catastrophes. For years nations like Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon have absorbed hundreds of thousands of refugees, which has had a significant impact on the economies of those nations. Meanwhile, last year America took in just 1,682 Syrian refugees, a sliver of those who make up the largest refugee crisis since World War II.

We need to show that even in the depths of our mourning and our fear of further violence, even in that difficult place, we still have hearts that remain warm and filled with love.

This is not who we are. We are supposed to be a nation on a hill, a moral beacon for the rest of the world. We can't abdicate that and pull up our drawbridges and shut the world out whenever something horrific happens. We can't pat ourselves on the back about gains in civil rights and gay rights and think that gives us the global moral high ground when we are turning our backs on refugees running from a conflict that we are part of.

If Paris leads to us scapegoating refugees and Muslims in order to scare up votes and support for the War on Terror, then we will have failed the people of Paris. We need to reaffirm the principles of love. We need a politics infused with love that leads us to embrace those who need our help. A politics that does not use Muslims who have not attacked us as political footballs. We need to show that even in the depths of our mourning and our fear of further violence, even in that difficult place, we still have hearts that remain warm and filled with love.

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