From what I’ve observed, many of my Facebook friends interpret the Syrian refugee debate as one about national safety or as an unfortunate political siding. I, however, see it as an age-old debate about racism, xenophobia and Islamophobia in a rapidly-expanding multicultural context—a debate that extremist groups like ISIS make more confusing to discuss.
The intense fear of ISIS and Syrian refugees following the Paris attacks was remarkably similar to the fear following 9/11. Within moments of the latter, terrorism had a new face that would deeply embed itself in the American mind. The enemy, the terrorist, was Al-Qaida and that Middle-Eastern man, Osama Bin Laden. The pictures of brown men with scary headdresses, associated with brown women wearing hijabs, both claiming ties to Allah, quickly became the stereotype of the entire religion of Islam, Muslims and anyone who could be
categorized as “Middle-Eastern.”
Terrorism wasn’t about those who committed acts of terror anymore; it was about entire people groups who produced fear in the hearts of everyone who fed into media content.
The backlash against innocent Muslims and all remotely “Muslim looking” people soon became clear by the radical spike in hate crimes and discrimination reported against Muslims and South Asians in the U.S. Just six days after 9/11, a white man murdered a Sikh Indian man and attempted to murder a Lebanese man because
he mistook them as Middle-Eastern terrorists and wanted to “shoot some towel-heads.”
Examples of racism and discrimination since then range from the Sikh temple massacre in Wisconsin, to the murder of three Chapel Hill Muslim students, to the arrest of clock-making student Ahmed Mohamed, to the reactions of Nina Davuluri being crowned the first Indian-American Miss America (“Congratulations Al-Qaeda. Our Miss America is one of you.”), to South-Asian men getting “randomly” selected for further inspection at airports, to immigration policies that make it easy for professional South Asians to enter the U.S. but permanent residency status increasingly difficult to obtain, to the argument against taking in Syrian refugees for fear of terrorist infiltration. The racial profiling of those who seem dangerous has alienated
both Muslims and people with my skin color and ethnicity in general, placed a burden that shouldn’t exist on us and amplified fear in the wrong direction.
My grief and horror of the Paris attacks were compounded by this knowledge of what “terrorist attacks” mean to a large population of people. I knew that the heightened suspicion would be directly cast on innocent Muslims, and by association, people who look like me. The safety debate over Syrian refugees and ISIS fear-inducing propaganda, combined with the almost immediate backlash of reported hate crimes against Muslim Americans, confirmed the reality that I have observed and lived. My reality is that terrorism continues to be pictured as a face—whether my face, the Muslim face, the Latino face, the African American face, the Native American face, or the “other” face—and that many in the majority race will never have to encounter this reality.
When I read posts arguing that Syrian refugees (who are refugees because of terrorist regimes) shouldn’t be allowed in the U.S. in order to keep terrorism out, I see the repercussions of our ingrained mental association
of terrorism with the black and brown and other. My hope is that those in the majority who are learning about these repercussions will continually choose to see them, elevate the voices trampled out by fear and fight against the oppression that is suffocating their fellow humans.
Adolph is a senior majoring in family and human services. She can be reached at AdolphS@jbu.edu.