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A Pro-Refugee Policy Can Be a Counter-Terrorism Strategy

The question of what US policy on refugees should be is portrayed as a partisan issue, with conservatives being anti-refugee, and liberals pro-refugee. The truth, according to Pew, is that 73% of Democrats view refugees as a threat to the United States, along with 89% of Republicans.

Michael Moore has a page on his website titled My Home is Open, where he asks others to join him in pledging to open their homes to refugees in need of resettlement, writing, "Will you join me in defying this act of bigotry?" This is fairly representative of the progressive sentiment I’ve seen expressed on this issue – anti-refugee policy and thought is driven by xenophobia and bigotry, not national security. But where do those 73% of Democrats fit into this framework? And how would someone who supports admitting refugees change their minds?

I'm not convinced that framing opposition to refugees as an expression of bigotry will be an effective way to increase support for the issue. Now, I could be wrong - the percentage of 'Dem/Lean Dems' who view refugees as a "major threat" has decreased by 8% over the past seven months, with an 11% decrease among 'Rep/Lean Reps' according to the same Pew data. But let's assume I'm not entirely wrong. Let's assume that, among those attached to their anti-refugee position, the actual bigots won't change their minds because they were called a bigot, and the non-bigots will be annoyed at being labelled as such and dig their heels in. Political success generally depends on finding allies wherever you can, and advocates for a pro-refugee policy - myself included - can't afford to make those 73% of Democrats dig in their heels if we hope to get anywhere. Incidentally, I think many Republicans can be convinced on this issue as well - it's interesting to note that a higher percentage of Republicans than Democrats have softened their views on the issue over the past seven months, though received wisdom would say that the opposite should be true.

The first thing to consider is that anti-refugee or anti-immigrant sentiment is nothing new, and has existed irrespective of the race or religion of the prospective migrants. At times this has been born out of prejudice, at times out of fear. Clearly today the driving force is fear, specifically of terrorism, and any attempts to alleviate that fear have not been helped by the current situation in Europe.

The challenge for those who support bringing refugees into the country and are serious about actually changing minds is to craft an argument for how a pro-refugee policy can have a positive impact on the national security of the US. Facts about how citizens of the countries listed in President Trump's executive order haven't produced any terrorist attacks are simply not good enough - opposition to refugees for many people is based on emotions, not factual analysis, and a good counter-argument has to speak to those emotions. The best way, I think, is to make an argument for why admitting refugees into America can actually reduce, not increase, the risk of terrorism at home.

National security policy in this arena has to address internal as well as external threats, specifically the danger of Americans being radicalized online. A radicalized citizen can do damage in two ways; first, they might carry out an act of terror themselves, or second, they could provide logistical support to external actors. The more radicalization at home, the greater the potential danger that exists from the hypothetical ISIS refugee/infiltrator that many people are concerned about.

Purely from a numbers standpoint, we should be far more concerned about radicalization at home than radicalized refugees. America has a Muslim population of 3.5 million, which dwarfs the number of refugees we've admitted in recent years. In 2016 under President Obama the US brought in 84,995 refugees, many of whom were not from Muslim majority countries - the Congo, for example, was the country that accounted for the largest number of refugees in 2016, the year in which the largest number of refugees were admitted during President Obama's tenure (Source: Pew). Muslims in the US, of course, are not the only group vulnerable to radicalization by ISIS, as converts like Adam Gadahn have shown, so the potential pool of recruits at home is even larger.

Dealing with radicalization at home is one area in which a pro-refugee policy can make a positive impact, for two reasons. First, a cautiously open door will help combat the perception that America is 'at war with Islam.' This is a perception we desperately need to fight against, as it hands groups like ISIS an effective propaganda tool.

Second, a pro-refugee policy (assuming proper vetting, which I believe is already in place, and proper assimilation, which this country has managed for centuries) can help combat radicalization at home directly. The integration of liberal-minded refugees with a positive view of America into our communities can serve as the first line of defense against radicalization. It's easy to forget that until recently Syria was not a breeding ground for extremists, and many of the people fleeing the war there are not religiously conservative. Stories out of Germany have described Syrians dissatisfaction with the conservatism of the mosques they've encountered, for example a frustration at being told off for wearing shorts, or not growing beards. If you don't support admitting refugees on the basis of not wanting to bring in extremists, and you recognize the need to combat extremist at home, an obvious solution would be to allow liberal Muslims into the country so that they can influence our existing communities.

Refugees can also, with time, become powerful allies in the wider ideological struggle against extremism. Treat these people as our friends, and they will convince others that America is not their enemy.

If this sounds like pie in the sky, it's not. It is, in fact, already happening, for example in the case of Faisal Saeed Al-Mutar, who was born in Iraq in 1991 and granted asylum by America in 2013. Faisal is a very impressive guy - he's a writer, a human rights activist, and the founder of the Global Secular Humanist Movement.

Faisal also works with Movements.org helping liberals and dissidents living under oppressive regimes, specifically Islamic theocratic regimes, escape to the West. If the struggle against ISIS and related groups is, as I believe, more of an ideological struggle than a military one, can you imagine a better ally?

This is a key benefit of a pro-refugee policy. More Faisal Al-Mutars, and more of the many others like him that I could name. More people who can help build bridges with reformers and liberals in the Islamic world, and help insulate people nearer to home from radicalization through propaganda. Like it or not, shutting our borders and turning everyone away will not solve the problem of terrorism. Finding the right partners and improving the global image of the United States, on the other hand, just might.