Syrian Refugees Are Not The Enemy

During 2007 and 2008, I lived in Syria for about eight months.

I mostly stayed in Damascus, the capital, and Lattakia, on the coast, but I also explored the country a fair amount, visiting cities like Aleppo and Homs, small seaside towns, as well as tourist attractions like the great crusader castle, Crac du Chevalier.

I visited mosques, passed by roadside Roman ruins, attended Christian celebrations, stayed in an ancient desert monastery, and had the chance to speak with a large number of students at the University of Damascus.

I’m no expert on Syria, Islam, or the Middle East. I never learned to speak Arabic beyond a novice level; there are more informed voices to listen to than mine, and I’m not even sure who I’m addressing this blog post to.

But what I can say, because I was there, is that Syria was not like the crude stereotypes of Muslims and the Middle East that have become wide-spread in the US during the current Presidential race.

The country was by no means an ideal place to live in or visit, and the ruling regime was oppressive and brutal, but that’s not the point. That’s why people leave their homes to try to find better lives in the West.

In the Syria I visited, back in 2007, many religions lived peacefully, side by side: during the fast of Ramadan, Christians advised me to be respectful of their Muslim neighbours, and not eat outdoors during the day. Muslims visited Christian monasteries as tourists.

More than one Sunni Syrian expressed to me his dislike of the stricter Muslim dress codes, seeing them as a foreign thing, brought over from the Gulf States. At least in the cities, a large proportion of the female population didn’t cover their hair (ten percent of the country was Alawite, five percent were Christian, and some more “secular” Sunni women chose not to wear a headscarf). And for what it’s worth, the Syrian constitution affirmed the equality of men and women.

Many Syrians blamed the US and UK governments for the disaster unfolding in Iraq, but while I made no effort to pretend I wasn’t British, everyone I can remember welcomed me to their country. Strangers offered me tea and fed me.

One man said, “Everyone hates America. Everyone wants a green card.”  By ‘America,’ by and large, I think he meant the US government and its military; by ‘green card,’ I think he meant living in a small city in Michigan, getting a job and living relatively free of government control.

Enjoying, in other words, the exact same things about the US that I enjoy.

In other words, rather than hating or fearing “American Values,” these people longed for the chance to live by such values.

Much of the Syria I saw in 2007 has since been utterly devastated.

I remember standing in front of an advanced English class in the University of Damascus, a group who had discussed Victorian and Modernist poetry together, and several of them said how terrified they were that the chaos across the border in Iraq would come to Syria. Like a complacent idiot, I acknowledged the possibility, but thought it unlikely. Then I left the country, blithly assuming it would continue largely unchanged.

I am friends with some Syrians who have left their country, and who have done their best to start a new life in the US and Europe. It’s been frightening, and infuriating, to see politicians who are leading in the Republican polls paint these refugees as a uniquely terrible threat to the United States and the West.

Now, I imagine that maybe someone in the U.S. is reading this post, someone who is nervous about Muslims, and who is now thinking, “Sure, Daniel, sure. We’re glad that you had a nice time in Syria. That’s great. But no one is worried about your cultured, thoughtful Middle Easterners. No one worries about Damascus dermatologists or hip young women who read W.B Yeats. We’re afraid of those other Muslims, the ones who aren’t so like us.”

But the truth is, Muslims living in the US are not and have never been particularly dangerous.

This excellent report by CNN lays out the facts and figures: Muslims have been living in the US since the earliest days of the first colonies, they are now a “miniscule” proportion of the population, and they tend to be highly educated.

… the fear of Muslims taking over and imposing Sharia law is unfounded. By some estimates, Muslims make up less than 1% of the U.S. adult population. By 2050, their numbers will grow — to 2.1%.

Additionally, as an Apple fan, I’m grateful that one particular Syrian was allowed into the US:


Steve Jobs’s biological father was Syrian.

Yes, some American Muslims have plotted terrorist attacks. CNN counts fifty deaths caused by terrorist American Muslims in the thirteen years following 9/11. And — just to be clear — ISIS and Al Qaeda are terrifying, horrible organisations that need to be opposed and defeated. September 11th was a terrible day I still remember vividly (at the time, I was working in a bank in London), and the attacks since on London and Paris are horrendous.

But compared to other threats to American lives, those fifty total deaths would barely be visible on a graph. Non-muslim mass shooters kill many more Americans every single year. The US is such a big country that one must look at its statistics in the context of enormous scale: I imagine that over the last thirteen years, more than 50 people have died in shopping-related accidents at Walmart.

I mourn those people, too, but I don’t believe their deaths mean that the America people are at war with Walmart, nor that a war on Walmart would make anyone particularly safer.

And according to studies cited by CNN, Muslims in the US have been instrumental at foiling terrorist attacks.

After every terrorist attack at home and abroad, the refrain rises, “Where is the Muslim condemnation?” American Muslims have spoken out — and done much more. A Duke University study found more terrorism suspects and perpetrators were brought to the attention of law enforcement by members of the Muslim-American community than were discovered through U.S. government investigations. And a Pew survey found that roughly half of U.S. Muslims say their religious leaders aren’t speaking out enough against Islamic extremism.

Before politicians advise people to be scared of a particular threat, they should, if they are intellectually honest, rate the severity of that threat against other dangers. By increasing paranoia against a particular group, real lives are affected, damaged, ended: not just the lives of refugees fleeing monstrous regimes and unimaginably terrible wars, and not just those of Muslims and Middle Easterners who have lived in the US for generations — but everyone else’s, too. What happens if Muslims in the US stop reporting people they are suspicious of?

Muslims have been living peacefully and productively in the West for centuries. There are other things that our politicians should be worrying about.


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