On my visit to the local post office last week, I noticed a young woman at the counter wearing a hijab. When my turn came, she addressed me in a perfect American accent, “May I help you?” I said, “Yes.” Seeing that my letter was addressed to the Bangladesh Consulate in New York, she said softly in perfect Bangla, “Onek shomoy lagbe.” She seemed to know that Bangladesh would take a long time to process my request.
Bangladeshis at home will never understand how rejuvenating it feels when a stranger addresses a Bangladeshi in Bangla in America. Because of my six-foot frame, all my life I have been hearing, “You don't look like a Bangali,” especially from Pakistanis, who seem to think that there is a height limit for Bangladeshis! Even Bangladeshis sometimes express surprise: “Apni Bangladeshi?” (You are Bangladeshi?) What pleased me about this young lady was that she was absolutely certain that I was Bangladeshi. There was a lot more to be happy about what this young lady represented.
Here was a US government worker, representing the United States Postal Service, wearing a hijab, something that would not be allowed in France. This encapsulates the difference between assimilation in France (and Western Europe) and America. This is one reason why homegrown terrorism that manifested itself in the form of the Paris attacks on November 13 has escaped America. (All 9/11 terrorists were foreign nationals.)
Terrorist attacks in Paris have highlighted the high degree of alienation and non-assimilation among Western Europe's immigrant population. The terrorists sprang from France and Belgium's disaffected immigrant communities. The root cause of the estrangement can be traced back to the colonial history of the Western European nations.
France's restive immigrant population is predominantly from its former North African colonies – the so-called Maghreb nations of Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco. For hundreds of years France was the colonial ruler of these North African Arabs. Some festering vestiges of the unequal relationship, and consequent resentment, still linger among the descendents of the former masters and their subjects.
America has thus far been in an enviable position to avoid the scourge of homegrown terrorism. Immigrants have found it far relatively easier to integrate into the American melting pot than to assimilate in Europe. America has always been a haven for the world's persecuted. That noble tradition is now under attack.
Republicans in Congress and those running for president are against accepting any more of the 4.1 million refugees fleeing the civil war and ISIS-triggered carnage in Syria. Thirty Republican governors oppose resettling Syrian refugees in their states. Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, children of Cuban refugees themselves, want to shut the door on Syrian refugees.
The current vetting regime for Syrian refugees – which involves biometrics, the FBI, the State Department, Homeland and other security agencies, and takes 18 to 24 months to complete – is so thorough that only about 1800 Syrian refugees have been granted asylum in the last five years.
Germany reported in October that 103,708 Syrians filed for asylum in 2015, of which 57,000 have been already accepted, and the most of the others will be, soon. The success rate for Syrian asylum-seekers in Germany is 93.2 percent. Germany will spend around $6.6 billion caring for the 800,000 refugees and migrants expected to enter the country by the end of 2015.
Despite the Paris massacre, President Hollande has reiterated France's pledge to accept 25,000 Syrian refugees in the next two years. Yet, President Obama's commitment to admit 10,000 Syrian refugees next year has been met with a firestorm of opposition from the Republicans. While the Republicans reflexively oppose immigration, this time their real targets are the Muslims.
According to a poll, 76 percent of Republicans, and 42 percent of Democrats believe that American and Islamic values are at odds. Former Governor Jeb Bush and Senator Ted Cruz want to allow Christian, and bar Muslim Syrian refugees from entering the US. Donald Trump would mandate all Muslim Americans to register in a database, track their movements, and require them to carry faith-identifying cards. If Trump had his way, he would probably ship all Muslims to internment camps at the first opportunity, just as President Franklin Roosevelt had interned Japanese Americans during WWII.
After every Muslim terrorist attack in the post-9/11 West, the demagogues immediately demonize Islam – a religion of 1.6 billion people – as the perpetrator. The subsequent clampdown feeds the terrorists' narrative that there is no room for Muslims in the secular West that has purportedly declared war on Islam. ISIS's explicit aim is to eliminate the so-called “grayzone” – the western acceptance of Muslims.
There is no penalty for egregious anti-Muslim rhetoric. Estimated to be between 2.5 to 8 million, America's Muslim citizens are too weak to retaliate. Trump has stood by his blatant lie that “thousands and thousands” of Arab Americans in Jersey City, New Jersey, across the river from Manhattan, celebrated as the twin towers came down on 9/11!
Muslim Americans have thrown in their lot with America. Their fate is intertwined with America's. It is not only hurtful, but also counterproductive to label them as fifth columnists, which they are not. They are as patriotic as any other group of Americans, and serve America as teachers, physicians, engineers, lawyers, businesspeople, government workers and in the armed forces. They would do anything to thwart attack by ISIS or its clones on America.
America must also consider the possibility that notwithstanding its altruistic intentions, invasion, occupation and bombing of Muslim nations may result in blowback. Muslim terrorism was unknown in America before the US-led Gulf War I in 1991. Perhaps, if America doesn't fight them abroad, they won't have to fight them at home!
Republicans demand strong leadership from President Obama against ISIS while opposing his “stay-the-course,” “reduce-ISIS-controlled-territory,” “no-American-boots-on-the ground” military strategy, and hamstringing his Syrian refugee policy. It is imperative that the world's military leader also be its moral leader. If America refuses to admit more Syrian refugees simply because they are predominantly Muslim, it will cede the global moral leadership to Germany.
The writer is a Rhodes Scholar.