For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me. — Matthew 25:35-36
Less than a month ago, 42 per cent of Canadians were strongly in favour of bringing Syrian refugees to Canada. Then, on November 13th, ISIS militants stormed Paris, launching a series of brutal attacks that killed 130 people. Suddenly, jihadist terrorism became not a far-off problem, but a reality that anyone in the Western world could be forced to confront at any time. Soon after these attacks, a new poll from the same polling company found that only 32 per cent of Canadians strongly supported the Syrian refugee resettlement program, while the number strongly opposed had risen from 5 to 15 per cent. While the survey made no mention of the Paris attacks, clearly these events were on the minds of respondents.
Whether we recognize the direct link or not, the motivation behind the opposition to refugee resettlement has a lot to do with protecting ourselves, our families, and our country. But what if following through with these sentiments could actually have the opposite effect?
The Danger Posed by Syrian Refugees
Many have pointed to the potential danger posed by letting more Syrian refugees into Canada. What if some of these people turn out to be terrorists? Wasn’t one of the Paris attackers carrying a Syrian passport?
However, those responsible for dealing with security concerns are in agreement that the risk posed by Syrian refugees is minimal. The only problem with the government’s current plan to bring in 25,000 Syrian refugees by the end of the year is that the timeline may be too slim. As for the Syrian passport found on the body of one of the Paris attackers, author and terrorism expert Loretta Napoleoni reminds us that Syrian refugees, because of their refugee status, don’t carry passports. In Syria, “you can not have access to a passport in the same way that you have access to a passport in a democracy,” Napoleoni says in a CBC radio interview. Instead, Syrians are typically issued internal identity cards similar to the ID used in the former Soviet Union.
The Real Danger: Refusing to Accept Refugees
Former Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) operative Mubin Shaikh, who was instrumental in stopping the Toronto 18 terror plot, goes even further than Napoleoni, saying that he thinks this passport could have been planted by ISIS operatives themselves. “The [passport] was to sabotage the Syrian refugee situation because the refugees fled ISIS, repudiated ISIS, and the last thing that ISIS wanted to see was non-Muslims welcoming them with open arms, so it achieved that effect.” Why would ISIS want Westerners to think that a Syrian refugee committed this attack? Because it turns out the refugee situation is actually helping them.
Napoleoni noted that the attacks in Paris came at a time when Europe was weakened by the refugee crisis. With so many refugees coming over the border every day, and European states arguing amongst themselves over what to do about it, we can easily see how France’s security and political resources could become depleted. By refusing to accept refugees in Canada, we would only further exacerbate the European situation, leaving our European neighbours vulnerable to further attacks.
Us and Them
Canada is privileged in the sense that we have both a large amount of physical space in which to house newcomers, and a long history of welcoming refugees, asylum-seekers, and immigrants. There were the 50,000 Vietnamese “boat people” who came to Canada in the 1970s and 80s, the 37,000 Hungarian refugees admitted in the 1950s, all the way back to the first Canadian settlers of European minorities — Jews, Mennonites, Quakers, and Doukhobors fleeing religious persecution. Our nation of immigrants is based on the idea that all are welcome, regardless of where they come from.
Europe, on the other hand, can be a difficult and even dangerous place for refugees. They often face systemic and personal discrimination upon their arrival in Europe. This is on top of the basic physical limitations that come with moving into already densely populated countries. France, for example, is home to the biggest Muslim minority in Europe, but also has the most laws targeted against Muslims. They are also home to the largest number of “radicalized” Muslims in Europe. As one Muslim Parisian commented, “In France, it is very, very difficult to be Muslim because there are so many people that have bad information about Islam.” This is exactly the type of situation that groups like ISIS seek to exploit. “They [ISIS] want people to make this a war on Islam or divide the communities, and it’s working,” says Shaikh.
While Canada has a reputation as a tolerant and accepting nation, we need to be careful that we don’t create a situation that gives rise to extremist xenophobic politicians like Marine Le Pen in France or even Donald Trump in the US. In the week after the Paris attacks, some Canadians began to look like terrorists themselves, setting fire to mosques, attacking a Muslim woman outside of a school, and even threatening to kill Muslims. This is the best reaction that ISIS could have hoped for. Every time we commit acts of violence or hatred against Muslims, we help ISIS in their mission. Every time we make Muslims feel like they don’t belong, we help ISIS in their mission. So in order to hurt their mission, we must do everything we can to stop the “us vs. them” narrative that ISIS thrives on. It’s not enough to simply open our borders. The best defence we have against bringing terrorists to our country is making every one of the refugees who settle here feel welcome and supported. That’s something Canada has a proud history of doing.
Fighting Radical Fear with Radical Love
In this challenge of welcoming refugees and fighting terrorists, love is the clear answer. Love, not in an abstract sense, but in a very real, tangible sense. When Jesus tells us to invite the stranger among us (Matthew 25:35), He gives us not only a moral imperative, but also a real tool we can use to fight evil. When John says “perfect love drives out fear,” (1 John 4:18) he gives us a method for battling fear not just in our own hearts, but out in the world as well. Welcoming refugees will not be the final solution to stopping ISIS. But by following the way of Jesus, we can hinder the terrorist group’s growth, and extinguish their message of radical fear with one of radical love.
Photo by (flickr CC) Oxfam International