Accepting refugees protects the U.S. from ISIS

Op-ed: Accepting Syrian refugees makes the U.S. safer by undermining ISIS' recruitment narrative.

Over the past several months there has been a public discussion about what to do with the mass migration of Syrian refugees traveling to the West, fleeing from violence. The recent attacks in Paris have raised concerns about ISIS operatives posing as innocents fleeing from violence.

Some leaders in Europe and the United States have seized upon this heinous incident to reverse the decision to welcome Syrian refugees. While these positions are understandable, they are also misguided. In fact, welcoming Syrian refugees into America helps our nation in the long fight against ISIS by undermining the terrorist group's recruitment message.

To understand this argument, we first need to assess the immediate impact migrants may have upon our national security.

Welcoming Syrian refugees and protecting our national security does not have to be a zero-sum game. Compared to Europe, the United States' geographic distance from the Syrian crisis provides our policymakers with additional time and space to implement any lessons learned from the EU's attempts to balance migration and security. American policymakers can learn from their European counterparts' shortcomings to ensure a U.S. process can still be welcoming to refugees while keeping our nation safe.

As the proposed process currently stands, Syrian candidates for permanent entry into America will go through a rigorous, multi-step screening process that involves the United Nations High Commission for Refugees and the U.S. Departments of State, Homeland Security and Defense. This is on top of additional European screening measures that are likely to be enacted in the wake of the Paris attacks.

Next, we need to understand ISIS' recruiting narratives and why Syrian refugees matter in the fight against terrorism.

An important part of ISIS' siren song to recruit impressionable individuals is its call for "hijrah" — or emigration to its territories. The use of the word hijrah is deliberate as it seeks to misappropriate a crucial moment in early Muslim history when the Prophet Muhammad and the fledgling Muslim community fled persecution in Mecca, arriving in Medina. At Medina, Muhammad and his followers set up a new community, using Islamic values as the organizing principle of society. Through its statements, slick media production and online echo chamber of supporters, ISIS has been aggressively pushing a narrative that claims it is the modern re-creation of this "ideal society."

However, the facts clearly dictate otherwise, as so many Syrians know. If the well-known atrocities of ISIS fighters are not enough to drive people away, then their corruption and mismanagement of basic state services causing food shortages will send Syrians literally running in the other direction.

Many ISIS supporters know this and are lashing out. One of the articles in the latest issue of the ISIS magazine Dabiq condemned this migration, claiming it is tantamount to leaving Islam. (Under ISIS' interpretation of Islam, apostasy is punishable by death). Within the past month ISIS has posted at least 12 online videos condemning migration to Europe using a variety of religious and political claims.

Yet these condemnations are clearly not working. ISIS' recruitment efforts have, at most, recruited 4,000 Westerners to travel and fight in its ranks. By contrast, the terror movement's violence, mismanagement and corruption have been prime motivators for 709,000 Syrians and counting.

In other words, leaders representing the overwhelming majority of Muslims around the world — including Syrians, who are overwhelmingly Muslim — reject ISIS' calls for hijrah. Instead, Syrian Muslims are making hijrah to the West in search of safety and opportunity.

It is little wonder then why European police now believe the attackers may have intentionally planted the Syrian passport, which turned out to be a fake. Creating the false impression that a Syrian refugee was involved in the terrorist operation seems to be a deliberate attempt to turn Europe against the refugees to bolster a core ISIS recruitment narrative.

Muslims have been developing a variety of creative responses to the ISIS propaganda. Recently a group of British Muslims launched an online magazine called Haqiqah, or "Reality," which is similar in packaging to Dabiq, but radically different in its content. Recognizing the realities created by Syrians' "hijrah" to the West, these Muslims — in a very religiously authentic and media savvy way — are highlighting the bankrupt nature of ISIS' narrative.

To amplify this message, American policymakers need not engage in any overtly religious counter-messaging. In fact, avoiding that altogether is a good idea for legal and strategic reasons.

However if there is one mantra that would represent our nation's alternative narrative to ISIS, it's the one written on the Statue of Liberty: "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free." Being the welcoming society that we say we are doesn't add to ISIS' arsenal — it adds to ours.

Alejandro J. Beutel is a researcher for countering violent extremism at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland. His email is ajbeutel@start.umd.edu.

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