Well-orchestrated campaign to tie refugees to terrorism reaches fever pitch as officials react to dubious reports.
Hardly had the smoke settled from the horrifying terrorist attacks on Paris last Friday than anti-Muslim organizations in the United States and Europe began using the tragedy to stoke Islamophobic sentiments in the media, much as they did last January in the wake of the terrorist attacks on the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris.
This time around, however, there is a twist. This time, the Islamophobes have a specific target on whom the populace and politicians can take their anger out – the flood of refugees from war-torn Syria.
The campaign to connect the refugees to fears of Islamic terrorism has been under way in the United States for some time, manifesting itself in rural areas such as Twin Falls, Idaho, and Duncan, S.C. In addition to the involvement of anti-Muslim groups such as Frank Gaffney’s Center for Security Policy and a number of notable “women against Islam,” the attempt to tie the refugees to terrorism also aroused the involvement of antigovernment extremists such as the “III Percent” movement in Idaho.
These trends reflect a tide of anti-Muslim hatred that has been rising in the United States in recent weeks, fueled in part by Islamophobic rhetoric used by several GOP presidential candidates. That culminated in candidate Donald Trump announcing that if he were elected, he would tell the Syrian refugees: “They’re going back!”
Those sentiments, however, gained real traction in the media and in the political world when it emerged that one of the killers involved in Friday’s Paris massacres was believed to have carried a Syrian refugee passport, suggesting that he had wormed his way into France among the tide of refugees hitting much of Europe in the wake of attacks by Islamic State (ISIS) forces in Syria. (It later emerged that the passport was only found near the attacker, and European authorities so far insist that all the attackers were European nationals.)
Nonetheless, the initial reports set off alarm bells in states where the anti-refugee campaign was already gaining momentum – notably such states as Alabama, Michigan, Florida and Idaho – and eventually induced 26 Republican governors (as well as the Democratic governor of New Hampshire) to announce on Monday that they were halting the further influx of refugees within their respective states.
“After full consideration of this weekend’s attacks of terror on innocent citizens in Paris, I will oppose any attempt to relocate Syrian refugees to Alabama through the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program. As your Governor, I will not stand complicit to a policy that places the citizens of Alabama in harm’s way,” Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley announced.
"Following the terrorist attacks by ISIS in Paris that killed over 120 people and wounded more than 350, and the news that at least one of the terror attack suspects gained access to France by posing a Syrian refugee, our state agency will not support the requests we have received,” Florida Gov. Rick Scott announced in a statement.
“Given the horrifying events in Paris last week, I am calling for an immediate halt in the placement of any new refugees in Arizona,” announced Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey. “These acts serve as a reminder that the world remains at war with radical Islamic terrorists. Our national leaders must react with the urgency and leadership that every American expects to protect our citizens.”
However, as Think Progress’ Ian Milhiser explains, the governors lack the authority – which, under the Constitution, is clearly relegated to the president – to refuse the refugees. Moreover, as he notes, “President Obama has explicit statutory authorization to accept foreign refugees into the United States. Under the Refugee Act of 1980, the president may admit refugees who face ‘persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion’ into the United States, and the president’s power to do so is particularly robust if they determine that an ‘unforeseen emergency refugee situation’ such as the Syrian refugee crisis exists.”
And indeed, the Obama administration has held the line. Ben Rhodes, the White House deputy national security adviser, affirmed on Sunday that the country is still poised to take in migrants from the war-torn country.
"We're still planning to take in Syrian refugees," Rhodes said on Fox News Sunday. "We have very robust vetting procedures for those refugees. It involves our intelligence community, our National Counterterrorism Center, extensive interviews, vetting them against all information."
Anti-Islam efforts have occurred on the local level, too, where Frank Gaffney and his think tank Center for Security Police have been busy, even before the attacks in Paris, developing standardized language for anti-Syrian refugee measures, hoping that counties could easily introduce laws to restrict Syrian refugee settlement. Anti-Syrian refugee legislation has already passed in Berkeley and Pickins County in South Carolina. But most efforts have focused on the state and federal level, where suggestions have even been made to restrict resettlement to Christians only.
On Monday, the president, speaking to reporters in Turkey, called such suggestions that only Christian refugees be admitted "shameful" and a "dark impulse."
"When I hear folks say, 'Well, maybe we should just admit the Christians and not the Muslims,' when I hear political leaders suggesting there should be a religious test for which person who's fleeing from a war torn country — that's shameful," Obama said. "That's not American. That's not who we are. We don't have religious tests to our compassion."
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas and a presidential candidate, announced that he intended to introduce federal legislation to shut down the Syrian refugee program. In the meantime, Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Fla., called on President Obama to impose a moratorium on accepting Syrian refugees.
At the websites of the anti-Muslim organizations that first linked the Syrian refugees to Islamist terrorism, such as Refugee Resettlement Watch – run by anti-Muslim zealot Ann Corcoran – the mood was both celebratory (noting the “major breakthrough in garnering attention for this here-to-fore secretive refugee program”) and eager to exploit the situation: It posted a petition demanding Congress cut all funding for the Syrian refugee program.
Federal authorities indeed have identified gaps in the ability to complete background checks on Syrian refugees, but despite coverage from right-wing media suggesting that they pose a security risk, the reality is that these refugees will receive an extraordinary amount of screening before entering the U.S. relocation program. One study found that while the concerns about terrorism might be legitimate, the reasons for fear are wildly exaggerated, and in fact only fuel the potential for real terrorism further down the road.
"We are deeply concerned about the entire entire xenophobic, Islamophobic response to Syrian resettlement, and are certainly troubled about the growing role hate groups and extremists are playing in perpetuating anti-Syrian/anti-Muslim sentiment and their calls to action," Naomi Steinberg, director of Refugee Council USA, told Hatewatch. "I know that I personally fear that the events in Paris will be seen by some as an excuse to heighten their hateful rhetoric, which we know could lead, worst case scenario, to acts of violence targeting refugees and refugee champions. At the very least, this uptick in political rhetoric is helping to spread fear and making communities less secure and safe for all of us."