Experts: Yes, Anti-Refugee Rhetoric Helps ISIS

You know who agrees with the president’s assertion that bashing Muslims and refugees help ISIS? The people who study terrorism for a living, that’s who.

President Obama said Sunday that by rejecting and vilifying Syrian refugees, Republicans (and Democrats who are going along with them) are doing the terrorists’ work for them.

“Prejudice and discrimination helps ISIL and undermines our national security,” Obama said. This sounds like a political talking point, but if you speak with the independent academics who actually study the mentality and motivations behind terrorism, it turns out Obama is correct. Broad anti-Muslim suspicion and rhetoric is not only anti-American, it helps the terrorists!

I spoke with a number of our nation’s top academics who study the pathology and psychology of terrorism in general and ISIS in particular. Every single one agreed that the anti-Syrian refugee policies and rhetoric help ISIS.

“There is no place for bigotry in effective counterterrorism,” Professor James Forest, the director of the graduate program in security studies and interim director of the Center for Terrorism and Security Studies at UMass Lowell, told me. “Terrorist groups like al Qaeda and Islamic State thrive when they can exploit the vulnerable seams within a society, when they can exacerbate prejudices.”

Arie W. Kruglanski, professor of psychology at the University of Maryland, has written about how ISIS recruitment strategy is based on psychology, not theology. And within that context, Kruglanski told me: “The refugee debate could fuel the bitterness and sense of grievance of young Muslims anywhere and could be used by ISIS propaganda machine to enhance anti-US sentiment and boost recruitment.”

“Counterterrorism tries to do two things,” explained Professor Max Abrahms, a political scientist at Northeastern University who studies terrorism. “You try to neutralize existing terrorists and you try to not breed new ones. The surest way to breed new ones is if you’re indiscriminate—for instance, punishing non-violent, moderate Muslims.”

In fact, Abrahms noted he thinks an attack like the one in Paris, from so-called homegrown terrorists, is less likely “because the American Muslim population is much happier, better integrated and does better financially.”

A more moderate Muslim population yields a smaller share of extremists and better relations with law enforcement—which explains why Muslims helped law enforcement prevent one out of every two al-Qaeda related plots against the U.S. since 2009.

“We need to cherish the support and moderation of the American Muslim community,” says Abrahms.

That’s the opposite of what we’re doing when Republican presidential candidates say we should only let in Christian Syrians. Or when Congress places extra screening on Syrian refugees who are fleeing the violence of ISIS under extra scrutiny. Or when more than half of our states have said they won’t take Syrian refugees period. Or when Bill Maher says Muslims don’t share “our values.” Or when Ben Carson says a Muslim shouldn’t be president.

Examples of Islamophobia over the past 14 years are just too numerous and ugly to name. Many are done supposedly in the name of warning Americans about the threat of “Islamic terrorism.” But according to terrorism experts, they have the exact opposite effect, alienating regular Muslims and playing into ISIS’s rhetoric that they are the only ones representing and defending Islam against the West’s attacks. Incidentally, even calling ISIS “Islamic terrorism” plays into this dynamic.

“The kind of rhetoric that one hears today from some political candidates that lacks nuance and if inflammatory is likely to contribute to the sense that the U.S. is anti-Islam without contributing much to our security in the homeland,” says Kruglanski.

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“That’s part of ISIS’s stated strategy, to divide the world between ‘us’ and ‘them,’” says Pete Simi, professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Nebraska Omaha. “The idea that all Muslims are hated by the West, that all non-Muslims have rejected the entire Muslim religion—that’s now not just ISIS propaganda, but actual empirical evidence of Westerners acting in a hostile manner.”

This argument is often met by the response that if Muslims are readily susceptible to extremist propaganda, then our suspicions are justified—whether we play into that propaganda or not. But that’s psychological quicksand.

“Is there a chance that a Syrian refugee will face intolerance in the West, and will radicalize?” asks William Braniff, executive director of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) at the University of Maryland. “I suppose that is possible, but given that they have just risked their lives and livelihoods to run in the opposite direction from ISIL, this potentiality is very low on my list of concerns.”

In fact, Abrahms says, “anyone could turn to extremism in the face of injustice. If the government practices repressive tactics against innocent people, they’re much more likely to turn to extremism whether they’re Jewish or Muslim or Christian.”

That’s because, despite the horrific acts they carry out on a daily basis, the terrorists aren’t that psychologically different than you or me. “One of the things that has been pretty well discredited is this notion that there is something particularly abnormal or crazy” about terrorists, Dr. Tony Lemieux, of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Response to Terrorism at the University of Maryland, has said. “That is something the data has not borne out.”

Social alienation, meanwhile, does fuel terrorism.

“Studies have shown that individuals who have weak identify formation or have conflicts or confusion about their identities (i.e., – “Am I an American or an Egyptian or a Muslim – which of these identities am I?”) are more vulnerable to violent extremist ideologies,” David Schnazer, professor of public policy and director of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security at Duke, told me. “It is not a great leap from this concept, to the claim that widespread anti-Muslim discrimination and bigotry could—among a sliver of the population—increase questions about identity formation and therefore increase vulnerability to violent extremism.”

In other words, the argument that we shouldn’t be demonizing Syrian refugees and Muslims in general isn’t just moral or political—it’s tactical. One after the other, the experts who actually study the psychology of terrorism and ISIS agree that anti-Muslim and anti-Syrian refugee rhetoric and actions only alienate moderate Muslims and further the agenda of ISIS. They’re not saying this because of any party affiliation or ideology. They’re saying it because it’s a fact.

The people behind anti-refugee, anti-Muslim rhetoric don’t intend to reinforce ISIS’s agenda. I imagine they don’t know what they’re doing. That said, it’s time to wake up, folks, and stop helping the enemy.