Jay Bookman

Opinion columnist and blogger with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, specializing in foreign relations, environmental and technology-related issues

'Give me your tired, your poor ... but not your Muslim refugees'

Another 31 refugees, most of them believed to be Syrian, drowned yesterday attempting to find sanctuary in the Greek islands. Fifteen of the dead were babies or children, part of a refugee death toll that is now approaching 3,000. All in all, some four million Syrians -- half the nation's population -- have been turned into internal or external refugees by its horrific civil war, and some 250,000 civilians have been killed in the violence there, with no end in sight.

But as Baptist minister and GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee put it in a speech to a conservative group over the weekend, arguing against taking in some of the refugees:

"Are they really escaping tyranny, are they escaping poverty, or are they really just coming because we've got cable TV? I don't meant to be trite. I'm just saying: We don't know."

Oh, we know. Huckabee loves to describe the United States as a Christian nation, but apparently we are NOT our brother's keeper after all. We are not to take in the hungry and give him food, or the thirsty to give him drink. Nor are we to give refuge to the sojourner, particularly when he or she is a Muslim. Because ... well, you know.

Michael Gerson, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, warned in a Washington Post op-ed last week of an increasingly virulent anti-Muslim attitude in conservative circles.  In the wake of Sept. 11, he points out, President Bush stressed the fact that terrorism and violence are perversions of Islam. However, Gerson notes, "Bush’s formulation of this argument might well be disqualifying in the current GOP presidential nomination process. This change in language and attitude toward Islam represents the largest shift in Republican views of the war on terrorism since 2001."

Gerson goes on to warn that by treating Islam and Muslims as our enemy, rather than focusing on the very small minority of extremists, we give the terrorists exactly what they treasure the most.  They have long sold this conflict as an all-out war of the West against all of Islam, and there is nothing we could do that would be more harmful to our own cause and safety than validating that extremist claim.  It would make an already difficult fight profoundly more complex and dangerous.

In response to the immediate refugee crisis, President Obama has pledged to take in some 10,000 Syrian refugees over the next year, a very small share of the hundreds of thousands being taken in by our European allies. In the four years of the Syrian civil war up to now, we've taken in a paltry 1,500. As USA Today reports, the small Lebanese village of Ketermaya has by itself taken in more Syrian refugees than has the entire United States.

But Republicans in Congress and on the presidential campaign are warning against allowing additional refugees. They warn that terrorists could be "salted away" among the refugees, suggesting that we should let Europe take all the risks in resettling them. Here in Georgia, Gov. Nathan Deal has asked federal authorities not to resettle additional refugees here, claiming that local jurisdictions such as Clarkston can't handle the additional burden. Yet the mayor of Clarkston, Ted Terry, strongly disagrees:

“Clarkston is ready to step up and do our part to welcome more Syrians, more Iraqis, more Afghanis to our city,” says Terry. “Our Christian and Muslim brothers and sisters from the Levant need our help. And I respectfully call on our state and federal leaders to answer the call.”

It's easy to think of ourselves as the "exceptional nation," the "most charitable" nation, the nation where a person's race or religion doesn't matter. It is so much harder to actually act that way, particularly at times of crisis or when it involves taking a risk of some sort.   But the truth is, that's the only time it really matters.

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About the Author

Jay Bookman writes about government and politics, with an occasional foray into other aspects of life as time, space and opportunity allow.