My take on the Syrian refugee question

Should the US admit tens or even hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees who are being forced to flee their homeland? A lot has been said, from both liberal and conservative viewpoints. I find myself at odds with both. My take is as follows.

America has been a beacon of hope to those who have sought better lives.

At the of core the refugee question is America’s commitment to helping the helpless. It is not a question to which we can lightly offer a knee jerk “No.”. At the same time, we live in a world that is struggling more than ever to reconcile between principles of freedom and religion. A knee jerk “Yes” is not a pragmatic one either.

We must stand for freedom in a manner that ensures that we will continue to be in a position to stand for freedom.

How do we do that?

We have to stop mixing unconnected issues.

The question of admitting refugees is not connected to the question of how we make America a safer place. Terrorists have shown that they are capable of infiltrating target countries regardless of whether they were legally admitted or not. The challenge with combating terrorism lies in the advantage of asymmetry that terrorists enjoy. They spend $1M to wreak $1B worth of damage, to prevent which $1T has to be spent. In contrast to conventional warfare, where engagement escalates costs proportionately for all warring parties, the war on terror has escalated costs only for those have engaged in it, and not the terrorists. The solution to making America a safer place lies in evolving methods to deal with a new kind of warfare, and not in blanket denials to helpless refugees.

We must stop painting extreme pictures.

All Muslims are not terrorists. At the same time, ISIS and Al Qaeda, the two most feared terrorist organizations today, are undeniably driven by a subset of Islamic principles that appear to sanction violence. Statements such as “All Muslims are terrorists” and “Terror has no religion” are equally dishonest and self-defeating, and seek to define the challenge in a way that avoids facing facts.

Every time, a conservative “they are all terrorists” statement is put forth, it reduces America’s credibility in the eyes of the world, and inflicts great damage on the chances of a solution being found. Every time a liberal “Islam is a religion of peace” is put forth, it hurts the cause of those moderate Muslims, atheists and humanists who wage daily battles against Islam’s gross imperfections, and damages the chances of a solution being found.

We must not let religion off the hook.

There is no such thing as a religion of peace or terror. History tells us that most religions have been the source of strife, at some point in history or the other. The role of religion is to be a parent – to offer advice when we seek it, to lend a shoulder when we seek solace, to lift us up when we stumble, and to guide us in a way that we can break free of it and go our own ways when we are ready. Most religions, especially the Abrahamic traditions, have struggled to grasp their roles in the modern scientific era. While we may seek to understand the struggles, we must not justify their methods. The West spent the last 200 years in taming Christianity into submission to democratic principles. It seems that the same will have to be done with Islam.

Support of Sharia laws by moderate Muslims is troubling.

There is no question that large parts of Sharia law, which in many ways defines Islam, are principles that are medieval and largely incompatible with principles of democracy and freedom. The only country with a vibrant, uninterrupted democracy and a large population of Muslims, is India, where Muslims are not a majority in the population. Islam is a rigid framework, built around inflexible rules, that provides little or no degrees of freedom for interpretation, debate, or change. It imposes unacceptable penalties on those who seek to question or examine it. This aspect of Islam is more troubling than even the extreme violence that it begets every so often.

The fact that over 70% of Muslims in Muslim majority countries support (from a Pew Study) the implementation of Sharia principles in both civil and criminal laws of their countries is a damning piece of statistic that should disabuse us of the notion that Islam and Muslims (moderate or extreme) seek secular co-existence with those who don’t adhere to Sharia principles. It stands to reason that Syrians (refugees or not) are likely supportive of Sharia laws as well.

If a large number of refugees (or even legal immigrants, for that matter) who come into the country carry with them an inflexible and reflexive defense of archaic principles, it is bound to have consequences. Anecdotal data supports this hypothesis. More British Muslims fight for the ISIS than the British army. Sharia laws have been enforced in Western Thrace in Greece, where Muslims once emigrated and are now a majority. A large number of civil (mostly divorce) cases in Britain and France are adjudicated by Sharia councils which operate outside the jurisdiction of the laws of the land. Even in India, the world’s largest democracy, a Muslim personal code (based on Sharia) continues to persist in civil law, outside the purview of Indian courts, on the back of strong support from Muslims. It is not unreasonable to expect that such trends will repeat in America.

We need more flexibility and openness for freedom to prosper, not less.

As much as I respect the right to religious freedom, I draw the line at religion (re)writing the laws of the country. There is a low likelihood that there are terrorists among Syrian refugees or that some of them will transform into terrorists once they have found homes in America. But, there is a significant likelihood that their religious baggage will lead them inevitably into a conflict with the principles of freedom that America cherishes and seeks to protect.

Hypothetical question: If millions of self avowed, devout communists were to seek refuge in America, what would we do? Even as we find a way to accommodate them in their misery, wouldn’t we want some assurance that they have left their dangerous ideas behind? We certainly wouldn’t engage in blank check compassion.

I took an oath to protect and defend the constitution of the United States, when I became a naturalized citizen over a decade ago. Implicit in the oath was a commitment that I would accord second place to my personal beliefs (religious and other) if they ever came in conflict with the constitution and the principle of freedom for all. Implicit in the oath was a spirit of compromise, a spirit to live and let live, to serve and be served, and to not subvert the freedom the nation may provide me into bullying others into submitting to my way of life. Today, there is a climate of religious zeal masquerading as a fight for religious freedom in America. Religious principles have been perverted into racial, ethnic and social bigotry. Freedom of the individual has been perverted into uncompromising fundamentalism and has led to confrontations with generally accepted laws of the land.

As we examine the refugee question, we must consider the future of freedom itself even as we exercise it. We have an obligation today to help those who are not free. We have an equally important responsibility to safeguard freedom for those who come after us.

The questions in the Syrian refugee crisis that I find crucial:

Do we, the citizens of the United States, understand and are willing to accord first place to the secular, democratic principles of the US constitution and second place to our religions?

Do the Syrian refugees (our future fellow citizens) understand and are willing to accord first place to the secular, democratic principles of the US constitution and second place to a religion that insists on being placed above everything else?

How can we help them accomplish that?

One Reply to “My take on the Syrian refugee question”

  1. Dear Srini,
    Super thoughts and i second your thoughts. A Study of Islam shows that in minority situation they are taught by Islam to act as though they are in line with the local laws and multiply so that they can wait if needed for centuries ( as they have now waited from the fall of the Ottomon empire to bring back the caliphate) to acquire critical mass (population) to demand slowly for space genuinely seeming moderate till it becomes impossible. Case in point is the hundreds of Sharia courts in Britain giving justice to the muslims not in line with the british jurisprudence but in line with the Quran. The religion gained base by conquest and still believes in it. The reformation has to come from within Islam itself and will be complete when the state and the religion are separate in totality. Finally people are discussing the issues in some countries openly . South east asian countries to large extent with the exception of Pakistan (the first country to make the state a part of the religion) 1947 with the two nation theory has been the breeding ground for terrorism. Unless the muslim countries separate the religion from the state , we cannot hope to find peace.


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