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HOW TO LOSE THE WAR ON TERROR
By Robin Wright
January 25, 2017
Last July, anguished by the war in Syria and the plight of millions fleeing the grisly six-year conflict, Andrea Dettelbach e-mailed her rabbi at Temple Sinai, in Washington, D.C. She suggested that the synagogue sponsor a Syrian refugee family. He agreed. Temple Sinai has since raised “unbelievable amounts of money” for the family, she told me, found cell phones to give when they arrive, organized a life-skills team to help with everything from banking to education, and lined up doctors, including a female internist who speaks Arabic. Dettelbach’s basement is full of boxes, of donated furnishings, clothing, a television. “One member of the congregation decided, instead of giving gifts last year, to buy all new pots and pans in the names of her friends.” Temple Sinai partnered with Lutheran Social Services to launch the complex process.
The wait was almost over. “We were expecting a family within a week or two,” she said. “This is the history of the Jewish people and a commitment to helping those in need. As an American, it’s opening our doors to those who seek refuge. It’s who we are as a people. How can we turn our back on them?”
On Wednesday, a draft executive order circulated that would call for an end to all processing and admission of Syrian refugees in the United States. The arrival of Temple Sinai’s refugee family, who have been waiting for years and come so close to finding a safe haven, has now been put off indefinitely, Dettelbach told me. “They were vetted to an inch of their lives. It’s insane to hold them accountable for what is going on in their country—or in our country.”
The eight-page draft order is titled “Protecting the Nation from Terrorist Attacks by Foreign Nationals.” It would also halt all refugee admissions and resettlements from any country for the next four months, to allow for a review of vetting procedures. It would order an immediate thirty-day halt to the admission of all people—even for business or trade, family reasons, humanitarian emergencies, or tourism—from Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen, as well as Syria. Trump would also cut the number of visas for refugees worldwide by more than half, to fifty thousand, for 2017.
The draft produced an immediate backlash, for being discriminatory and harmful to the people most desperate for help. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright tweeted, “I was raised Catholic, became Episcopalian & found out later my family was Jewish. I stand ready to register as Muslim in #solidarity.”
Syrian refugees now account for a quarter of the world’s twenty million refugees. “It’s the most important refugee population in the world,” Michel Gabaudan, the president of Refugees International, told me. “We are extremely troubled. They have fled the very terrorists who we pledge to fight, and to deny them resettlement is to deny help to the most vulnerable. It gives another argument to isis and the radicals who say we’re against people of an entire religion. It’s the wrong message. It will backfire severely against the very aim of this action.”
The draft charges that “hundreds of foreign-born individuals have been convicted or implicated in terrorist-related crimes since September 11, 2001, including foreign nationals who entered the United States after claiming asylum; after receiving visitor, student, or employment visas; or through the U.S. refugee resettlement program.”
The numbers cited in a report by the Rand Corporation, from 2015, challenge this estimate of the threat from Muslim-majority countries. Rand found that the majority of the hundred and eighty-two terrorist plotters since 1990 who were inspired by jihadi ideology and attempted to carry out attacks in the United States or on U.S.-bound flights were already in the United States. “They did not need to travel to the United States, they needed no documentation—they were Americans,” the report, authored by Brian Jenkins, read. “In some respects, identifying terrorist operatives overseas and preventing them from coming here is the easy part. Identifying enemies among us is the big challenge.”
A recent report by the international-security program of New America, a Washington think tank, affirms Rand’s findings. “Far from being foreign infiltrators, the large majority of jihadist terrorists in the United States have been American citizens or legal residents,” it reads. Even more notable, “every jihadist who conducted a lethal attack inside the United States since 9/11 was a citizen or legal resident. In addition about a quarter of the extremists are converts, further confirming that the challenge cannot be reduced to one of immigration.”
Gabaudan added, “There is no evidence that any refugees since 2001 have committed terrorist acts in the United States. It’s completely false. It’s so gross and inaccurate.” Doris Meissner, the commissioner of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service from 1993 until 2000, and now a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, told me the same thing. Syrians face the toughest vetting of any nationality applying for admission to the United States, even though they represent the world’s largest collection of victims, she said.
The terrorism threat from Syrian refugees is low for three reasons, according to Dan Byman, a staff member of the 9/11 Commission, which in 2011 conducted the official inquiry into the Al Qaeda attacks. “First, very few among the refugees support the terrorists,” Byman, now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told me. “Second, the vetting for the refugees is extensive. Third, the American Muslim community has consistently shown itself to be hostile to terrorism and reports most of the few suspects in their ranks.”
The real danger is the rippling effect that the order would have on allies and enemies—and even at home. Trump’s decision, Byman said, would discourage other countries from taking in refugees. It could legitimize or fuel anti-immigration movements that have been gaining ground across Europe. It could indefinitely set adrift almost five million Syrians sitting in camps in Turkey (2.8 million), Lebanon (one million), Jordan (six hundred and fifty-five thousand), Iraq (two hundred and thirty thousand), and Egypt (a hundred and sixteen thousand), where employment opportunities are often nonexistent and education is limited. Young refugees have few outlets; they are susceptible to criminal and extremist groups. Inside Syria, another six and a half million people are displaced, or forced from their homes; many want to flee.
Jihadi movements—the Islamic State, Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas, and dozens of smaller groups—will almost certainly exploit the move as proof that the West is at war with world’s 1.7 billion Muslims. In a recruitment video last year, an Al Qaeda branch in Somalia showed footage of Trump, then on the campaign trail, proposing his ban of all Muslims from the United States.
A further danger, Byman added, is that Muslims in the United States will feel more alienated “and thus easier to recruit or inspire to be lone wolves. In addition, it may make communities feel they are suspect and decrease vital coöperation with law enforcement. The hostile rhetoric that goes with these bans makes all this more likely.”
The Council on American-Islamic Relations condemned the draft order. “These orders are a disturbing confirmation of Islamophobic and un-American policy proposals made during the presidential election campaign,” it said in a statement. “Never before in our country’s history have we purposely – as a matter of policy – imposed a ban on immigrants or refugees on the basis of religion, or imposed a religious litmus test on those coming to this nation.”
Lutheran Social Services, which has resettled thousands of displaced persons and refugees, also chastised the Trump Administration. “Today, we are saddened by the potentially tens of thousands of individuals who will lose the opportunity for the chance at starting over; people who will not be able to experience the freedom, safety, and prosperity that has defined generations of immigrants and new American citizens,” it said in a statement e-mailed to me.
Trump’s executive order would undermine a dynamic interfaith initiative—Jews and Christians joining forces to rescue Muslim victims of war. In Washington, Lutheran Social Services has worked with Temple Sinai and other synagogues to foster Syrian refugees. Temple Sinai has, in turn, also worked with a Catholic charity that helps minors coming across the Mexican border.
“It’s some of our greatest interfaith work,” Rabbi Jonathan Roos, of Temple Sinai, told me. The collaboration is also a stark contrast to the deadlock on Middle East peace, which has only deepened animosity between Jews and Muslims.
Temple Sinai’s refugee program is “particularly important for the American Jewish community,” Roos said. “We constantly tell the story of when our refugees were turned away and occasionally sent back to their deaths in Europe. When we say never again a genocide, we also mean we will never again send refugees away to their deaths.” That applies to Muslims, too.
Robin Wright is a contributing writer for newyorker.com, and has written for the magazine since 1988.