“Nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyses needed efforts to convert retreat into advance” is our only real threat, said Franklin D Roosevelt in his 1933 inauguration speech.
It was one of US’s darker hours, when the Great Depression of the 1930s had reached its nadir. There were numerous demagogues playing on the fears of an insular and confused populace in those days too. But FDR succeeded in calming those fears and focusing Americans’ minds on the tasks of recovery.
Playing on the fears of common folk for political gain probably goes back at least to the time when humans began to live in organised, hierarchical societies. It is a way to control people, to persuade them to follow those who aspire to leadership, and to the gains (economic rents) such leadership brings. Demagoguery based on fear is a part of most countries’ past and present. In most cases, the fear the demagogues play on is the fear of “the other,” of foreigners, which seems to flourish in times of great stress and disorder.
The US has had its share of such “nativist” episodes. Perhaps that most illustrious of the foolishness being spewed by leading US politicians was the “Know Nothing” movement in the mid-1850s. It created a spate of secret societies pledging to purify America by stopping Irish and other Catholic immigration (they were called “know nothings” as their answer to whether they belonged to such secret societies was that they knew nothing).
For a few years, this hostility to Catholics went viral, as millions of Irish fleeing the great famine of the 1840s and Germans fleeing after the European revolutions of 1848 arrived in America. This “nativist” movement also reflected the flame-out of the second major political party, the Whigs, hopelessly divided over the basic cause of tension in the US at the time -– slavery. The Know Nothing movement died out as rapidly as it had arisen as slavery took its rightful place as the dominant issue of political discourse, and the Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln rose from the ashes of the Whig Party. It is the heirs of Abraham Lincoln, some of the politicians vying for the Republican nomination for the 2016 Presidential election, that are now outdoing each other with nativist rhetoric, with proposals on restricting immigration in general and Muslim immigration in particular.
After the ISIS attack in Paris, the rhetoric ramped up. The proposals became more radical when it was discovered that the shooting in San Bernadino, California had been perpetrated by two Muslims, both of Pakistani origin. This rhetoric seems to appeal to about 20% of those Republicans who will vote in the primary elections, which is a small proportion of Republicans who will vote in the general election 11 months from now, and a much smaller proportion of voters in the general election. The worrying part is not that there is a small part of the US general electorate who share this nativist sentiment, but that I have not seen any clear clarion call against it from political leaders who we know do not share such sentiments.
There is more than sufficient reason on humanitarian grounds to be forthcoming on the question of Syrian refugees. They flee Syria not only to avoid persecution (the normal criterion for refugee status) but to avoid death itself, given that the Syrian regime has conducted war against its own people and not just those who have taken up arms to oppose it.
Whether in Syria itself, or in the refugee camps around the region (in some cases now down to 50 cents per day of food), they are in fact stateless people. A year ago, I wrote about Hannah Arendt, a refugee herself from Nazi Germany and a political thinker much in vogue in my university days, who wrote in her masterful The Origins of Totalarianism -- that to be stateless is to have no political rights, and therefore no “right to have rights.”
The early European Union generosity toward Syrian refugees was based on humanitarian and possibly national demographic reasons (in Western Europe populations are aging and shrinking because of low fertility rates. But I don’t know if Western European political leaders think that far ahead). Europe’s initial generosity faded after support systems were overwhelmed by the flood of refugees, and has faded even more after the Paris attacks.
But even in contrast to these weakened sentiments, the US looks miserly. It has taken less than 2,000 Syrian refugees since 2012 and has agreed to take only 15,000 of the 65,000 suggested by the UNHCR. This reflects the very complicated politics of immigration in the US. At the rate the US vets and passes a Syrian family, it would take about 35 years to complete 15,000. Not very realistic. And those US politicians that stand up for a more forthcoming policy on Syrian refugees do so timidly, emphasising the necessity of a thorough vetting process.
These political leaders, in Europe as well as the US, who give such tepid responses to the refugee crisis, are of course playing domestic politics. They know that immigration and refugees are quickly becoming a third rail of politics in their countries. Those that advocate a more forthcoming policy are missing, or at least holding off, the opportunity to emphasise that the refugee crisis is also an important counter-terrorism strategy issue.
ISIS, as well as al-Qaeda and a few other smaller terrorist groups, want to carry out attacks in Western countries to provoke a large intervention in the Middle East by Western ground forces (as in an indirect sense, al-Qaeda did by triggering the impulse to invade Iraq). For them, that would be an opportunity to draw sizeable recruits from the Muslim world, and possibly from Muslims living in the West.
It would certainly deter many Muslims from migrating to the West. ISIS, in particular, wants to send the signal that it will strike back, as an anti-ISIS coalition chips away at its proto-state (and will hopefully up its game on that). And finally, ISIS and like-minded groups want to convince Muslims -- at least Sunni Muslims -- that the West is indifferent to their suffering and shuts them out, and that the so-called caliphate of ISIS offers the best possibility of life as a Muslim.
Another part of this argument for US leaders is that by not doing its part in the refugee crisis, the US is leaving its European allies in the lurch. The Western alliance is in danger of fragmenting, especially if US actions become one of the causes of the far right parties taking power in Europe. Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France, for example, promises detention and mass deportation for refugees if elected. Most of the other far-right parties in Europe are also gaining adherents and would follow suit. These parties live and breathe an agenda of fear, and the not-so-established democracies of Eastern Europe will be threatened.
If European leaders close their borders, millions of stateless people will discover, as Hannah Arendt did, that their “right to have rights” has been abridged. I doubt they will forget that. Moreover, if US recalcitrance on the refugee issue brings fragmentation to the Western alliance, permanent damage will be done to US national security. More immediately, our ability to ultimately prevail over our now-greatest threat -- extremism in the Middle East as manifested by ISIS and al-Qaeda and other such extremist groups -- will be severely compromised.
This article was first published in The Friday Times.