Just a few months ago, Syrians in America celebrated what appeared to be progress in the political discourse surrounding refugees. As the coverage of migrants in Europe penetrated the American media with wrenching images and reports of desperation, the Syrian plight took on a new currency. As photos like that of Alan al-Kurdi’s limp body went viral, Americans responded by calling on the Obama administration to accept more Syrian refugees. Sarab al-Jijakli, a leading figure in the Syrian-American activist community, explained, “Americans [were] finally seeing us as human beings, human beings who were victims of terrible suffering and violence.”
Obama responded to the outcry — and the pressure from European counterparts — by promising in September to accept “at least” 10,000 refugees in the coming fiscal year. Many politicians seized the opportunity to voice their support for this increase. At the time, the United States had accepted fewer than 2,000 refugees over the course of the entire four-years war (out of 4 million displaced).
In the midst of an escalating proxy war and continued human rights abuses in Syria, activists like al-Jijakli saw this as a faint reason to hope. As al-Jijakli reminded the 200 supporters at a New York rally in September, “the United States’ legacy of interference in the Middle East is part of the reason for the ongoing violence in the region today. The least America can do is be a part of the solution.”
With news of the Paris strikes in November, however, the Arab and Muslim communities in America braced themselves for the familiar pattern of backlash. Yet few were prepared for the ferocity of the anti-immigrant and Islamophobic rhetoric that would grip the American discourse.
Within days, a majority of American governors had declared their (unprecedented and unconstitutional) intent to refuse Syrian refugees. Presidential candidates turned 180 degrees, calling for a “pause” on refugee resettlement or advocating for a “Christian-refugee-only” policy. And, most painfully of all for activists like Hamid Imam, many in the American public seemed to swing right with them.
Imam, a native of ar-Raqqah, is a devoted community organizer and has been an outspoken advocate for refugee resettlement — until now. “I’m not even sure I want to fight for refugees to come here anymore,” says Imam, his voice edged with frustrated exhaustion. “We care about the physical safety of our people, but we care about their dignity too. Why would I want to bring victims here just to have them humiliated?”
Comments like Imam’s reveal success for one of ISIS’s main objectives: polarizing the “West” and “Islam,” so as to stem the tide of refugees who are fleeing to Europe and America instead of taking refuge in the Islamic State. ISIS has publicized its intent to eliminate “grey” areas of coexistence between Muslims and non-Muslims; yet the fact that so many Muslims still aspire to relocate to the West represents a resounding failure for the Islamic State.
Donald Trump’s call this week for a “ban on Muslims” is appalling–and a victory for the Islamic State, perfectly complementing ISIS’s anti-coexistence agenda. Should the vitriol succeed in silencing voices like Imam, al-Jijakli, and those in solidarity with them, the vacuum created would offer fertile ground for the extremism Americans are so eager to prevent. While every American should be concerned about the domestic repercussions of fascism like Trump’s, they should also consider what recourse is left for those who find the doors to the West slammed so violently shut.