Kate West Moran is a writer and commentator on Middle East affairs.
Baghdad, March 2003, Operation Iraqi Freedom. U.S. troops have entered the country to “to disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction, to end Saddam Hussein’s support for terrorism, and to free the Iraqi people.” More than a decade later the rumors of WMDs have been long debunked and Saddam Hussein is dead, but terrorism thrives in Iraq, and the Iraqi people are by no means free.
With the deposing of Saddam Hussein and the dismantling of the national army in the beginning of the 21st century, the existing governmental structures in Iraq were fractured and weak. The resultant manifestation of security and governance vacuums, combined with the country’s fragile social fabric largely due to a long-simmering conflict between Sunni and Shia Muslims, took on an even greater fragility. Groups began vying for power and a civil war erupted. Ultimately it was within the resulting power vacuum that al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) came to prominence, and reached its operational peak in 2007. The group then expanded in 2011 to become the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). As a result, there has been a mass exodus of citizens fleeing the Middle East due to violence and persecution over the last five years.
Why is it that despite a robust military campaign in Iraq and billions of dollars in aid money allocated to grassroots NGOs, that our efforts to root out terrorism have failed? How is it that Iraq became the head of the snake that ultimately morphed into the Islamic State? And why is it that despite hindsight being 20/20, we cannot seem to understand that we helped create the group that is now the region’s most dangerous and powerful non-state actor? Ultimately, how is this history tied to the question of refugees, and the extent to which they represent a threat to U.S. national security?
Whether or not we want to acknowledge it, the facts are definitive. We were party to the creation of the power vacuum that enabled militant groups in the Middle East to come to power, and that have displaced millions in the years since the start of the Syrian civil war. Thus, it is our responsibility to seek a just and sustainable resolution to the refugee crisis.
In the wake of the Paris attacks, many American politicians have denounced the Obama administration’s policy of pursuing ISIS directly in Syria rather than focusing on terrorist threats closer to home and subsequently sought to curb the flow of Iraqis and Syrians into the United States. Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives voted, by a margin of 289-137, in favor of the “SAFE Act,” a bill that will tighten restrictions on resettlement of refugees from the Middle East. The fear is that the Islamic State could seek to use refugees in a Trojan horse scenario; infiltrating the refugee community and using them as a front to enter the country. They could then proceed to carry out mass attacks in major population centers like D.C. and New York.
There are several issues with this theory. First, none of the Paris attackers were refugees, nor were any of them Syrian. The passport belonging to a refugee and found near the body of the one of the attackers who was killed by Paris police, was proven to be a forged document; another individual was apprehended in the Balkans for carrying the same passport. Secondly, it would be far easier (and more expedient) for Islamic State militants to radicalize an American-born citizen, or to send a European national on a plane to carry out attacks in the U.S., than it would be for them to take the time and effort to navigate the red tape involved in refugee resettlement.
The current vetting process for refugees and asylum-seekers is upwards of 18 months; in many cases, it can take as long as two years. In those two years, the risk of radicalization in a refugee camp is fairly substantial; by drawing out the process unnecessarily, we are increasing the opportunity for Daesh to increase its capacity by recruiting new fighters for its ranks, and alienating them from the West. The vetting and resettlement process for refugees is far more stringent than for any other individual seeking to come to the United States. The increased attention on this community vis-à-vis preventing a “9/11 2.0” is illogical at best and damaging at worst.
The rejection of Middle Eastern refugees—who are fleeing the region due to violence and terror carried out by these militant groups—is American hypocrisy at its finest. Accepting these vulnerable individuals is not just the “right” thing to do; it is also the smart thing. While no vetting process is 100% guaranteed there is substantial evidence to suggest that our continued marginalization of refugees and discrimination against Muslims in general will fuel radicalization and strengthen Daesh’s appeal. Fearmongering campaigns, Islamophobia, ignorance and ultimately rejecting refugees inadvertently positions ISIS as a potential alternative for individuals who feel isolated from their communities. We are essentially forcing them to seek an identity elsewhere by denying refugees, and Muslims in general, the title of legitimate Americans. They will seek to find an identity and belonging elsewhere, and in some cases, this identity lies with the Islamic State’s ideology. When we reject Muslims, they too will reject us. When we shun refugees, they too will shun us.
We cannot exact collective punishment on an entire community, simply because of the actions of a few. We cannot fall into accepting Islamophobia as the norm, nor of treating refugees and Muslim Americans like a scourge on our nation. We must welcome them, not just because America is a country founded by immigrants, but because how we choose to act in the coming months and years will determine our legacy—not just in the Middle East, but on an international scale.
We can choose to lead with moral courage and compassion, and conduct our national security in an informed manner, or we can choose to close our borders, shut out refugees, and send them running into the arms of our shared enemy. Our reaction to refugees will help determine if Daesh can prosper, or will be defeated by our defiance of their expectations. By welcoming refugees, embracing Muslims as valued citizens, and promoting a truly multicultural society, we transcend their narratives of hate and enmity. That is the America we must be, if we are to see Daesh defeated and forge for ourselves the legacy we so desperately seek.
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Project for Study of the 21st Century is a non-national, nongovernmental, nonpartisan organization. All views expressed are the author’s own.