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Clarence Page: Islamic State wants you to reject refugees

Omran Wawieh, 11, left, and Maram, 8, play in the courtyard of a Pomona motel where they are staying after arriving from Syria on Tuesday, Nov. 17.
Omran Wawieh, 11, left, and Maram, 8, play in the courtyard of a Pomona motel where they are staying after arriving from Syria on Tuesday, Nov. 17. Tribune News Service

Remember how news photos of a drowned 3-year-old Syrian boy in September put new pressure on the West to welcome more refugees? That was then.

Last week’s attacks in Paris have sparked the opposite response after a Syrian passport was found near the body of one of the Paris suicide bombers. A shamefully robust chorus of American politicians is falling over themselves to show how hostile they can be to refugees of a war that America played a major role in creating.

This is especially true of Republican presidential candidates, as the issue quickly took on a sharply partisan divide. The Democratic candidates want to accept at least the 10,000 Syrian refugees that President Barack Obama has announced plans to accept – which is far fewer than our European allies are taking in.

The Republicans? Not so much. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal signed an executive order on Monday to block the settlement of any Syrian refugees from the so-called Islamic State’s war in Iraq and Syria.

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio reversed his previous support of refugees, saying there’s no way they can be properly vetted. Sen. Rand Paul, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and retired surgeon Ben Carson voiced similar doubts.

Mike Huckabee, Arkansas’ former governor, said we should “wake up and smell the falafel” as he called on House Speaker Paul Ryan to resign if he won’t block refugees’ arrival. By CNN’s count, at least 27 governors – including Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a Republican presidential candidate – have indicated they will try to block Syrian refugees from their states.

Most disturbing, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz said this country should shift its focus to allow Christian refugees but not Muslims. Donald Trump, in his typical fashion, said he even would consider “closing mosques.” Yes, the presidential race has sunk that low.

“That’s shameful,” President Barack Obama responded to that news. “That’s not American. That’s not who we are. We don’t have religious tests to our compassion.” Well, some of us don’t anyway.

Is shutting our national door to refugees a good idea? Appearances can be deceiving.

Yes, I believe Americans should continue to welcome Syria refugees. Since my family and I live and work in the nation’s capital, which unconfirmed Islamic State videos name as the terror group’s next big target city, I don’t take that position lightly.

But I oppose closing the door to refugees because, among other reasons, that’s what the Islamic State wants.

The refugee flow is “anathema” to the Islamic State, writes Aaron Y. Zelin, who catalogs the group’s messages at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, because it is “undermining the group’s message that its self-styled caliphate is a refuge.”

If its conquered land really was a refuge, then hundreds of thousands of people would surely be settling in instead of risking their lives to get out, Zelin writes. But hostile reaction to refugees, he notes, “only bolsters (the Islamic State’s) contentions and risks spurring future, avoidable tensions.”

Counterterrorism analyst Harleen Gambhir speculates in a Washington Post op-ed that the Islamic State deliberately “set a trap” for Europe with the Paris attacks to put Muslims in the West into a dilemma: Either leave the faith or travel to the Islamic State to supposedly “escape persecution from the Crusader governments and citizens.”

That would fit the fanatical Islamic State’s apocalyptic prophesy of a great war with the West. Some knowledgeable souls even have suggested that the organization may have planted the passport near the Paris bomber to further inflame anti-refugee sentiments.

In fact, there’s nothing easy about this country’s refugee screening process. Those who arrive from Syria receive extra rigorous attention from multiple government agencies, including the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center. Although the agencies won’t reveal much detail for security reasons, the process can take years, which leaves many legitimate refugees in a legal limbo.

What’s the answer? We should indeed have a rigorous screening process. We can recognize fully the religious nature of the Islamic State’s terror war without demonizing the vast majority of Muslims who have not fallen for its propaganda.

Mainly we should avoid making enemies of people who should be our allies in our campaigns against the Islamic State. Otherwise, as we used to say after the Sept. 11 attacks, the terrorists win.

Clarence Page is a Tribune Content Agency columnist. Email: cpage@tribune.com.

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