Crisis of Conscience: ISIS and the Syrian Refugee Crisis

November 23, 2015

I’m an infrequent blogger, something I hope to correct in the coming year. But when something weighs heavily on me, I tend to write it out. Thus, this entry.

I have struggled of late with the proper response to the Syrian tragedy and the threat of ISIS and the plight of the refugees. Make no mistake, I see ISIS as a threat to all peace-loving people everywhere. Their penchant for bloodshed and carnage leaves no doubt they cannot co-exist with anyone except like-minded Muslim fundamentalists. They are not only fond of waging war in their quest to form a caliphate (they believe they and all other Muslims are living in sin if the caliphate isn’t formed), but they are also fond of beheading those with whom they disagree, including children.

There has been a lot of talk about how the Bush administration’s questionable entry into Iraq precipitated the growth of this group. And there has been a lot of talk about how the Obama administration has failed to intercede and deal decisively with the growing threat. Both, I think, are valid points.

But we are here, and this is now.

I will state this simply. I am a Christian. I have known no other faith, though my articulation of that faith has taken me down some interesting roads at times. I have not only been baptized as a Christian, but I am also a minister, ordained as a Baptist minister, complete with the requisite seminary education. I take that very seriously indeed.

My own faith journey has led me to the Episcopal Church, where I am quite happy, indeed. I have had many conversations with other Christians, many of whom speak glowingly of the treasures of heaven. At the risk of theological unorthodoxy, I’ll say this. I’m not that interested in the heavenly aspect right now. If we go to heaven, fantastic! I look forward to it. But living my life as a ticket to the pearly gates is, to me, to miss the fundamental truth of living as a Christian. I have work to do now. And I don’t do it because I hope for a reward. I do it because I am a changed person, a new creation, in Christ.

I want my life to be focused on following Jesus’ commands, to love my neighbor as myself, to show compassion and mercy, to live justly, to give to those in need. I look at it like this. If salvation were the only aspect of our faith, Jesus could have been handed over to Herod as an infant and killed then, and then the whole salvation question solved right then and there. But that isn’t what happened.

Instead, he lived thirty-three years, the last three spent teaching, preaching and turning the Jewish world upside down with his common-sense approach to God. In a nutshell, instead of pointing to specific scriptures to support this position or that position, he forced his fellow man and woman to think, and ask the question, what does your heart tell you? What is the right thing to do?

It is those teachings and approaches to problems that convince me that Jesus’ way was—and is—the true way of life for believers. Indeed, one doesn’t even need to be a believer to adopt the Christian precepts of charity and good will, though it helps to have a thorough understanding of who Jesus was, and from a spiritual perspective, following Christ is certainly a whole lot more than just good works. But those works are very much part and parcel of the Christian—the true Christian—experience.

Which brings us back to our current problem. I read on Facebook many folks arguing we can’t allow the Syrian refugees in the US. And I read also many others clamoring for us to accept them. Those who want to refuse them point to the fact that ISIS has said they intend to sneak their fighters in with the refugees. That is a valid point.

The other point is that these people are for the most part trying to escape ISIS. Many of them are actually Christians. And regular, everyday Muslims who want nothing to do with ISIS. They simply want to escape the war and bloodshed and build a new life elsewhere.

Is it possible there is a middle ground here?

I’m not sure. But I want to raise a few points. As Salman Rushdie has pointed out, Islam has changed. It used to be, we were free to go visit places like Iran and Iraq, and they were welcoming people. Even William Peter Blatty’s brilliant novel, The Exorcist, opens with Father Lankester Merrin overseeing an archaeological dig in Northern Iraq. Photos from the sixties and early seventies show a population wearing both traditional garb and more western/European clothing. The hijab was either worn or not. But in 1979, the Shah of Iran was deposed and the chilling Ayatollah Khomeini took over. Instantly, the super-fundamentalist Muslims were in charge and thus began a transformation that continues to this day, in the form of severely curtailed rights for women, a mindset that views anything western, especially British, American, French and German, as evil, and the need for jihad against all perceived enemies.

Mind you, not all Muslims follow these tenets. Many have not changed over the years. Their views remain more or less the same. But the fundamentalist, hard-line Islam we have seen again and again on the news is something to be concerned about. This type of Islam truly is incompatible with our western views and ways.

The average, ordinary Muslim, on the other hand, does not possess such radical views.
Take a look at this humorous and true video of normal, everyday Muslims, the ones you are likely to encounter in the US:

https://www.facebook.com/BuzzFeedVideo/videos/1828085753998965/
There are no easy answers to the Syrian crisis. But this I do know. To turn a blind eye to these people is not the Christian response. My mind is permanently seared with the image of a headless child, just a little girl, who was unfortunate enough to belong to Christian parents and who had the ill fate to run into ISIS members, who beheaded her. The picture, gruesome and horrifying, shows her father holding the girl’s body up while weeping, a tragic, horrifying image.

Turning aside from these people and saying, you’re not welcome here, isn’t a Christian response. It isn’t a humanitarian response. It’s a selfish response. We aren’t letting good people draw water from our well.

But, scream others, didn’t ISIS say they were planning to send jihadists posed as refugees into our midst? How can we possibly trust them, when 9/11 is still way too fresh in our memories and we might be attacked again? How can you justify allowing people to come here?

*                                  *                                      *

I don’t know if I have an answer. But I am recalling a quote from Teddy Roosevelt. Though it is oft attributed to his time in office in 1907, it’s actually from a letter written in 1919. He said,

“We should insist that if the immigrant who comes here does in good faith become an American and assimilates himself to us he shall be treated on an exact equality with every one else, for it is an outrage to discriminate against any such man because of creed or birth-place or origin.

But this is predicated upon the man’s becoming in very fact an American and nothing but an American. If he tries to keep segregated with men of his own origin and separated from the rest of America, then he isn’t doing his part as an American. There can be no divided allegiance here. . . We have room for but one language here, and that is the English language, for we intend to see that the crucible turns our people out as Americans, of American nationality, and not as dwellers in a polyglot boarding-house; and we have room for but one soul loyalty, and that is loyalty to the American people.”
These are telling words, though I know some who would dismiss them outright as nationalistic poppycock. To those I would say, read it again, and read it carefully. Roosevelt wasn’t saying one need to drop one’s culture. One need not change one’s religion. But he is saying, unequivocally, that being here entails becoming an American, and one’s devotion must be to this land and it’s people. The immigrant must assimilate, and become part of the fabric of America.

I think this is where we have failed, grievously, in generations past. We must, in some way, form or fashion, rethink how we do immigration. As it stands now, we have many, many people from Central America coming over our border and living illegally, and this is not a good situation. It should be assumed that terrorists will try to slip in this way, and probably already have. But more to the point, many of the ones coming across have no intention of learning the language and being a part of the American culture.

I understand Jeb Bush’s plight; he separated himself from the rest of the GOP early on in advocating a plan to seal the border, and work on a path for citizenship for those already here. Everyone else was screaming, “No, deport them!!” But what he said seemed to me the best all-around solution. I know, they are here illegally. They are breaking the law. But to tear apart families via deportations is going to create a logistical nightmare. And again, it’s not the humanitarian thing to do. A long road to citizenship, being fully vetted in the process, makes the most overall sense to me.

And that is where I see the Syrian problem leading. If we bring in a large number, no, we should not grant automatic citizenship to them en masse. George Bush had an earlier proposal, also shot down, for a gradual, ten-year process for illegals to prove themselves and work toward citizenship. Again, it seemed to make sense. The conservatives would get the southern border wall built, and those already here would have a long road to citizenship with thorough vetting in the meantime. I never thought it was a bad idea. Similarly, I think we should establish a criteria that would allow the Syrian refugees to work towards citizenship, including learning the language, finding work, and so on. And yes, thorough vetting of the refugees. If they have ties to extremist groups, no, they can’t stay.

We should have, from the outset, created an immigration bureaucracy that works to foster developing citizenship in the best sense of the word. Learning about the US, its customs and traditions, its laws, and its language. At best, immigrants are required to pass a citizenship/civics class today. That is not nearly enough. The dangers we face from terrorism demand a more thorough approach and careful evaluation of prospective citizens.

I have met immigrants who immediately set out to become productive citizens of this country, and are doing so today. One was my partner in EMS, who came from Bulgaria. And I have met others who stay in hiding, afraid of a visit by ICE and being deported, never really tasting the freedom of this country.

There is no easy answer, but any pathway to citizenship must be exactly that, not merely a stamped piece of paper but a thorough grounding on what it means to be a citizen, and what it doesn’t. It is a long path, and it must be taken step by step.

I mentioned I was a Baptist early on. I also would have been described as a fundamentalist at one point. It is interesting, the rise of Christian fundamentalism also coincided with the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. I found the Christian fundamentalism to be fraught with anti-intellectualism and frequent disdain for truth in its zeal for emotional spiritualism. It came to power in the Baptist churches in 1979, when the Southern Baptist Convention elected a fundamentalist as president. That was the same year the Ayatollah Khomeini took power in Iran, as I recall. I understand one thing, emotional religion has mass appeal. That kind of emotional excess is what turned me off in the end, and I sought my faith expression in a tradition that wasn’t grounded in emotion, but in service to others.

I say that to bring up this final point. Not everyone can be welcomed here. If there are people who have ridden the jihadist roller coaster and screamed “Death to the USA” and have been involved in terrorism at any level, no, we should not grant them safe harbor here. We have freedom of religion. But that also means freedom from religion—you may not deny me any rights because of your religious beliefs, as I may not deny you yours. Again, that key word, assimilation. To some that sounds ominous, like saying you must be a WASP clone before we accept you.

No, that isn’t what it is. It does mean that I’m not going to have much patience if you start demanding my favorite restaurants no longer have bacon to satisfy your religious beliefs. That is crossing a line and I’m not going to have it. To assimilate means you must let go of certain expectations and focus your efforts on becoming a citizen of this country, in the best sense of the word. If you don’t want bacon, fine. But in America, that means you don’t eat it. But I retain my right to.

*                               *                                   *

Being a Christian and doing the right thing by the refugees does not mean at all simply saying, “Welcome all, come on in.” Nope. If anything, I learned as a pastor that there are many who will try to get money from the church, not because they are hungry but because they want to buy drugs or get drunk. Charity doesn’t mean “fool.” It does mean we do what we are called to do, regardless of our feelings. But we do so with a watchful eye, careful to keep a look out for things that seem amiss.

We can be ready to act if we sense something wrong. We can defend ourselves if our worst fears are realized and some turn out to be terrorists. (But chances are, if they are ISIS terrorists, they are already here.) Even a major metropolitan police chief (was it Washington, DC?) stated the obvious, if citizens see a terrorist event unfolding before their eyes, they are the best option for stopping it, if the police aren’t already there. Unlike many Christians, I am not a pacifist. I believe in the right to defend myself and my neighbor. I just want to be sure that’s my last option before doing so. That said, I wouldn’t hesitate to defend myself or another if I was certain we were about to be victims of terrorism.

So no, we should not be turning a blind eye to the refugees. It isn’t humanitarian or the right thing to do. I might not like it, but I’m not called to like it. I’m called to do right by my fellow man. And yes, I reserve the right to be cautious and defensive as I learn more about them. Some may settle here, or not. But you can bet, I’ll be as cordial and polite as I know how. And as cautious.

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