Right-wing lawmakers on both sides of the Atlantic have responded to Friday’s terror attacks in Paris by calling to close off their countries to Syrian refugees and embracing the old, divisive “clash of civilizations” argument to frame the actual war against ISIS terrorists — who quickly claimed responsibility for the attacks — as a cultural war against Islam.
But shutting out refugees and creating a hostile environment for Muslims in the Western world won’t help Europe and the U.S. defeat the terrorists who planned the attacks in Paris. In fact, such a strategy is likely to make the U.S. and its allies more vulnerable, not safer. The approaches many conservative policymakers have embraced since Friday’s attacks would actually play right into the hands of ISIS — here’s how:
1. Contributing to radicalization by keeping refugees out
More than half of America’s governors have called on the U.S. to stop admitting Syrian refugees, including 24 Republican governors who issued statements on Monday saying they would “not take in” any refugees in their states and would deny any aid to resettle them. Citing concerns about a refugee committing a terror attack in the U.S., many GOP lawmakers have pledged to do everything in their power to prevent Syrian refugees from entering their states, and some — like Tennessee state House GOP Caucus Chairman Glen Casada — have even suggested activating the National Guard to round up and kick out all recent refugees from the war-torn country.
All of this comes despite the fact that, at the moment, “the only individuals verified to have been involved in the Paris terrorist attack were Europeans,” points out Robert Creamer, Senior Strategist at Americans United for Change. While French authorities found the passport of a man who crossed into Europe as a refugee from Syria near the body of one of the Paris suicide bombers, most experts are highly skeptical of its legitimacy, particularly since it turns out that a duplicate passport was found elsewhere. Moreover, ISIS doesn’t believe in political borders, leading many analysts to suspect that the attackers wanted the passport to be found — after all, “Why [else] would a jihadist who expressly rejects all notions of modern citizenship take his passport on a suicide mission?” wrote Charlie Winter, Senior Research Associate at at Georgia State University’s Transcultural Conflict & Violence Initiative.
But even if one Syrian did participate in the attacks, shutting out the entire population of Syrian refugees makes it more likely that extremism will take hold among them. In fact, Creamer writes, “a backlash against Syrian refugees plays directly into the hands of ISIS.”
In a piece for The Hill, Josh Hampson explains that keeping Syrian refugees in the Middle Eastern countries where they are currently concentrated increases the probability that they will grow susceptible to radicalization. He cites a 2013 study on the links between refugee resettlement and extremism, which found that the two greatest indicators of whether resettled refugees will commit acts of terror are poor living conditions and a lack of hospitable treatment in their host countries.
Additionally, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees found that “loss of hope and appalling living conditions” are motivating Syrian refugees to leave Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and Egypt for Europe. It’s easy to see, then, why shutting refugees out of the West could breed more extremism. Hampson says it is urgent that the West enable Syrian refugees to re-settle in places where they will be less vulnerable to radicalization.
2. Playing into the Islamic State’s narrative by alienating Western Muslims
Characterizing the fight with the Islamic State as a “clash of civilizations” — as GOP presidential candidates like Marco Rubio, Jen Bush, Ted Cruz, and Mike Huckabee have done in the days since the attack — strengthens the group in another key way: It plays directly into their propaganda that frames its fight as an apocalyptic war against Western crusaders. One of the group’s goals, as they have written in their magazine and online, is to polarize the whole world into a Manichean struggle between two absolute and irreconcilable camps, which they plan to achieve through “the extinction of the gray zone” in our world:
“The presence of the Khilafa [Islamic Caliphate] magnifies the political, social, economic, and emotional impact of any operation carried out by the mujahadin [freedom fighters] against the enraged crusaders,” the group declared in a February 2015 article in Dabiq, the official magazine of ISIS. “This magnified impact compels the crusaders to actively destroy the grayzone themselves, the zone in which many of the hypocrites and deviant innovators living in the West are hiding….”
For ISIS, the “grayzone” is the middle ground between extremist, terrorist theocrats (i.e., themselves, whom they exclusively regard as the “camp of Islam”, despite their fundamental incompatibility with 99.9% of the world’s Muslims) on one side and an imperialist, war-waging, Western “crusader camp” on the other. In other words, the grayzone is the realm of coexistence, communication, cooperation, and commerce among people of different creeds. The grayzone is where civilization resides.
One of the goals of attacks like the one in Paris is to provoke an overreaction that will make some Muslims in the West feel that Islam is inherently irreconcilable with the culture of the countries they live in. Promoting xenophobia and anti-Muslim sentiment is essentially a recruitment technique for ISIS — one that right-wing politicians are directly contributing to.
As the Dabiq authors wrote, once repression and Islamophobia in Western societies reach sufficiently unbearable levels, “The Muslims in the West will quickly find themselves between one of two choices, they either apostatize and adopt the kufri [infidel] religion propagated by Bush, Obama, Blair, Cameron, Sarkozy, and Hollande in the name of Islam so as to live amongst the kuffar [infidels] without hardship, or they perform hijrah [emigrate] to the Islamic State and thereby escape persecution from the crusader governments and citizens.”
That’s why ISIS wants the Western world to take the bait — now, all they have to do is sit back and watch as right-wing politicians spread this divisive propaganda on their behalf, knowing that the more this rhetoric catches on, the faster the grayzone fades to black.
3. Giving up a crucial natural advantage over the militants
The Islamic State has been both dismayed and outraged by the flow of refugees to Europe, because it undermines the narrative that the group provides a desirable safe haven for Muslims around the world. The extremist group has said on at least 12 occasions that Muslims should be seeking refuge in their self-declared Caliphate as opposed to “the lands of the infidel.” ISIS depicts its territory as a paradise, and fleeing refugees expose that as a lie.
“The reality is, The Islamic State (IS) loathes that individuals are fleeing Syria for Europe,” writes Aaron Zelin, an expert on jihadist groups. “It undermines IS’ message that its self-styled Caliphate is a refuge, because if it was, individuals would actually go there in droves since it’s so close instead of … risking their lives through arduous journeys that could lead to death en route to Europe.”
ISIS has also released statements saying it wants the West to turn on refugees, which they could then use as “proof” of its assertions that Western nations are at war with Islam. In this way, the efforts by some European nations to accommodate Syrian refugees could move us much closer to bridging some of the perceived divide between the West and the Muslim world, which in turn would undermine the polarization that ISIS so desperately wants.
Conversely, if Europe and the United States were to shut out Syrian refugees, they would be foregoing an inherent advantage they have over the Islamic State group — once again, letting ISIS sit back while their work is done for them.