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Syrian refugees victimized at home, demonized in America

Hisham Melhem

Published: Updated:

There is an element of pornographic debasement of an entire people and their religion in the crass competition among Republican candidates and congressional leaders about who would be the most creative in dehumanizing the Syrian refugees. These refugees are fleeing the killing machine of the Assad regime and the murderous hordes of the ‘Islamic State’ (ISIS). In the span of one week the political discourse in the United States, following the Paris massacre perpetrated by ISIS, reached an unprecedented nadir. The immediate excuse stemmed from reports that a Syrian passport was discovered near the body of one of the terrorists involved in last Friday’s attacks that may have crossed through Greece as a pretend refugee. French authorities disclosed later that the passport was fake.

Compassionate and benevolent America was nowhere to be found in that cold and unwelcoming universe most elected Republicans and an increasing number of Democrats inhabit. There was very little in the posturing, grandstanding and fear mongering expressed by the leaders of the Grand (or Gallant) Old Party, that was grand or gallant, rational or thoughtful. Americans heard a cacophony of urban legends, deceptions, exaggerations and downright lies about the potential threat of Syrian refugees; and at times the whiff of prejudice against people who are an ocean away was suffocating. There was a distressing willful ignorance of American history and constitution. The Syrians that the Republicans have never met, were described as ‘rabid dogs’, and ‘rattlesnakes’ who may deserve, in case they stormed our shores to be interned in camps, like the Japanese-Americans in the Second World War, after the Christians among them were exempted. After all, in the past the U.S. adopted immigration laws that excluded certain races and ethnicities, and we even turned back Jews fleeing Nazi Germany. A Bitter irony was lost on the candidate who is mulling the idea of establishing a database of Muslims in the United States, after they are issued special identification cards; which is the digital equivalence of the infamous ‘ badge of shame’ Jews were forced to wear for centuries in some European and Muslim lands as a form of identification.

Compassionate and benevolent America was nowhere to be found in that cold and unwelcoming universe most elected Republicans and an increasing number of Democrats inhabit.

Hisham Melhem

The shrill

The anti-Syrian refugee fever moved quickly from the Republican candidates, then to the Republican governors and finally to the members of congress. And at each stage it gained strength by playing up many American fears and uncertainties; fear of illegal immigration, the long hands of ISIS, and uncertainty about America’s leadership in a changing world.

In such an environment, it is not surprising to see candidates like Donald Trump, Marco Rubio, Ben Carson and Chris Christie whipping up Americans’ fear of real and imagined international and domestic daemons, and posing as the would be savior of the Republic and the destroyer of the barbarians at the gates. In the mind of Trump, the barbarians in their current incarnation as Muslims are already inside the city, hence the need to ‘watch and study’ the Mosques and mull the idea of closing some suspicious ones. In Trump’s scheme, Muslims should not enjoy the freedoms – including freedom of religion guaranteed by the Bill of Rights. Trump’s attempts at being coy and cunning are woefully transparent. ‘Well, I would hate to do it, but it’s something that you are going to have to strongly consider because some of the ideas and some of the hatred – the absolute hatred – is coming from these areas’. Trump speaks as if there is a river of Syrian refugees about to flood and submerge the American plains, and he has no problem inventing his own statistics about the refugees. ‘To take in 250,000 people –some of whom are going to have problems, big problems- is just insane’. According to the State Department Refugee Processing Center statistics, only 2164 Syrian refugees were admitted into the U.S. since the Syrian uprising erupted in March 2011. President Obama announced a plan to allow 10 thousand Syrian refugees in 2016. The U.S. has one of the strictest vetting processes in the world, ranging from 18 months to two years.

Another shrill voice in the anti-Syrian refugee chorus was that of Senator Marco Rubio, who saw the Paris attacks as part of a ‘clash of civilizations’ matrix, thus reducing the Muslim Civilization to ISIS vs Western Civilization. Not to be outdone in the push to blur one of the most important tenants in the Constitution, the separation of Church and State, Ohio Governor John Kasich had the temerity to propose the establishment of a new (missionary?) federal agency to spread ‘Judeo-Christian Western values’ in the Middle East. Kasich’s proposal reflects his ignorance of both the American constitution and the Middle East. In a week full of ironies, many critics, including President Obama pointed out the fact that both Senators Cruz and Rubio are descendants from parents who fled the communist regime in Cuba.

…The wicked

For Senator Ted Cruz, bringing ‘to this country tens of thousands of Syrian Muslim refugees, particularly in light of what happened in Paris, that’s nothing short of lunacy’, because the U.S. intelligence agencies ‘cannot determine if they are terrorists here to kill us or not’. But Cruz would like to have a waiver for one stratum of refugees. ‘Now on the other hand, Christians who are being targeted, for genocide, for persecution, Christians who are being beheaded or crucified, we should be providing safe haven to them’. Former Florida governor Jeb Bush while not calling explicitly for the exclusion of Muslim refugees, he wants to give priority to the Christians. ‘I do think we have a responsibility to help with refugees after proper screening, and I think our focus ought to be on the Christians, who have no place in Syria anymore’. Bush claimed Syrian Christians are being ‘beheaded, they are being executed by both sides.’ The exaggerations and hyperbole aside, both Cruz and Bush were essentially calling for a religious test for refugees. The Syrian regime terrorizes its opponents regardless of their religious background, but it is not persecuting Christians because of their religion. During one debate, Bush claimed cavalierly that Christians in Lebanon were being beheaded, a shocking claim that went unchallenged. It seems that Jeb Bush is oblivious to one of the many sad ironies of the American invasion of Iraq, ordered by his older brother George W. Bush – a breathtaking imperial enterprise to create democracy in an arid political culture- which set in motion the unraveling of the ancient Christian presence in Mesopotamia. In the presence of tens of thousands of American troops, Radical Islamist groups assassinated Christian clergymen, torched churches, and terrorized Christian towns, causing the uprooting of half of the Christian population of Iraq, estimated in 2003 to be a million strong, many of them the direct descendants of the early Christian communities in the region.

More than 25 Republican governors pledged to resist housing Syrian refugees in their states. Some of them wrote letters to President Obama warning him against such plans. It was ironic that Governor Rick Snyder of Michigan (home of the Largest Arab-American community in the U.S. was the first to announce that he would block the resettlement of Syrian refugees. He was followed by the Republican Governors of some of the largest states in the Union including Texas, Ohio, Louisiana, Alabama, and Indiana among others. The former Governor of Indiana, from 2005 to 2013 was Mitchell Elias Daniels, whose paternal grandfather emigrated from Syria. On Thursday the House of Representatives by a majority of 289 to 137 voted to impose stronger controls on refugees from Syria and Iraq, in what Republican lawmakers claimed was a strong response to the terrorist attacks in Paris. The majority included 47 Democrats, which makes the resolution veto proof. It is expected that the Senate will vote on the resolution within two weeks.

…And the ugly

It was left to the blunt talking Governor of the state of New Jersey Chris Christie to deliver an offense to the numerous orphans of Syria. In a radio interview Christie said that he does not trust the Obama administration to effectively vet the Syrian refugees, ‘so I would not permit them in’. When he was asked ‘what if they were orphans under the age of five?’ his answer came thundering: ‘I don’t think orphans under five, should be admitted into the United States at this point’.

The mounting hostility to Muslims was not limited to the Republican presidential candidates, or governors. The elected (Republican) agricultural commissioner of Texas likened the Syrian refugees to the venomous rattlesnakes that are found in abundance in his state. There were few elected Democrats who joined the Republican anti-Syrian refugee chorus. New Hampshire Governor Maggie Hassan (not of Arab descent) became the first Democratic governor to call for a ‘pause’ on Syrian refugees entering the U.S. to make sure that the vetting process is effective. But the Democratic mayor of Roanoke, Virginia, a city of 100,000 did spark national outrage when he invoked the internment of Japanese Americans in camps during World War II, whose loyalty was suspect because of their race, claiming ‘that the threat of harm to America from Isis now is just as real and serious as that from our enemies then.’

But by far, the honor of the most offensive voice in the anti-Syrian refugee chorus goes to the leading Republican Presidential candidate Ben Carson who likened Syrian refugees to rabid dogs. During a campaign stop in Mobile, Alabama, Carson was asked about Syrian refugees. ‘ If there’s a rabid dog running around in your neighborhood, you’re probably not going to assume something good about that dog, and you’re probably going to put your children out of the way’. The retired neurosurgeon who sprinkles his speeches with quotes from Christian scripture added ‘It doesn’t mean that you hate all dogs by any stretch of the imagination, but you’re putting your intellect into motion.’

A shameful week

The bloodiest terrorist attacks in Paris in recent memory, did not alter French President François Holland’s commitment to resettle 30,000 Syrian refugees in France in the next two years. But it seems that this message of courage and hope was lost on Republican leaders in the U.S. None of the Republican officials would admit that their offensive anti Muslim and anti-Syrian rhetoric would re-enforce the narrative of ISIS, which claims that the Muslim communities living in the heart of the ‘Crusaders’ nations can never be integrated as full citizens. The studied and opportunistic fearmongering of Republican leaders in an election season cannot obscure certain facts that make their claims bogus. Most terrorist acts in Europe and the United States since the 9/11 attacks were perpetrated by citizens, many of them were born in those societies, not refugees given asylum or immigrants. The shameful prejudice towards the Syrian refugees, reflect the ignorance of most of these politicians about the tremendous contributions of the Syrian-American community (both Christians and Muslims) in the fields of science, art, literature, business, and politics, or the fact that Syrians and Lebanese emigrated to America in waves beginning in the 1860’s fleeing violence and seeking freedom and a better economic future. One of the most iconic photos of Syrian immigrants in the late 19th century was that of the family of Professor Yusif Arbili, taken in 1878 and sent to relatives in Damascus. The Arabic caption says it all: ‘here I am with the children exulting in freedom’.

The shameful week, was also a reminder that America’s greatness was marred by shameful deeds against immigrants, minorities and refugees seeking shelter, safety, dignity and freedom. Republican leaders can claim correctly that their opposition to Syrian refugees reflects the views of the American people. Unfortunately, recent opinion polls show that a (simple) majority of Americans oppose the resettlement of Syrian refugees.

The voyage of the damned

In the last few days, the rejections of the Syrian refugees, who are an ocean away languishing in refugee camps in neighboring countries or wandering the highways and byways of Europe, many of us remembered the story of another group of wanderers who were tragically rejected by America. In 1939, on the eve of WWII, more than 900 Jews left Nazi Germany on the cruise liner S.S. St. Louis seeking refuge in the United States by way of Cuba. The heartbreaking journey across the Atlantic would become known as ‘the voyage of the damned’. When the Cuban authorities refused to allow the passengers to enter the country, the ship sailed towards Florida in the hope that the U.S. will accept the refugees. The ship was not allowed to dock and sailed around the Florida coast for 72 hours while Jewish leaders in Washington tried frantically to convince the Roosevelt administration to accept the refugees. The ship of the damned was turned back. The passengers disembarked in four European countries. More than 250 of them were killed by the Nazis when they stormed Western Europe. Like the internment of Japanese-Americans, the tragedy of the passengers of S.S. St. Louis will live in infamy.

Last week I found myself repeatedly saying: this is not the America I wanted to be part of.

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Hisham Melhem is a columnist and analyst for Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted "Across the Ocean," a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter : @hisham_melhem

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