Deraa, Syria, 2011. Fifteen school children are arrested for graffitiing anti-government slogans. Locals take to the streets to protest. Military police open fire and kill four; the next day the same. Syrians all over explode into protest. The crackdown grows worse as armed resistance intensifies. Before long Syria devolves into a civil war where brutal atrocities rule the day and chance encounters can land you in prison and tortured. <1>
Four years later we are witnessing the largest mass migration in recent history as hundreds of thousands of Syrians, the peaceful and the practical, escape the hell of civil war in search of a better life for their families. Their goal? Wealthy Northern European countries with near-zero birthrates who urgently must replace an aging workforce. Germany alone agreed to accept a half-million immigrants per year quite literally in order to save its economy from ruin. <2>
Then Paris, the horror and the aftermath. The Islamic State, the new Al-Qaeda, arms and trains a group of French and Belgian ethnic Syrians to strike terror and inspire fear. And the world reacts accordingly. Syrians en masse are cast as terrorists. Suddenly they are no longer welcome anywhere.
By the logic of the terrorists Paris is a big win, and we should recognize it is. Their goal is to recruit the ethnic Muslims who lead lives of desperation in the dismal suburbs of Paris and Brussels. To expand jihad to the West, terrorists must convince the oppressed that jihad is the better alternative. Our reaction plays into this. For the more we vilify Muslims as terrorists the more permission we give ourselves to oppress. The more we oppress the greater their desperation. Desperation mixed with fatalism makes jihad appealing.
Consider Paris today in the context of the riots of 2005 <3>, when bitter, second-generation Muslim youth set fire to the outer suburbs. Over weeks nine thousand cars were burned, three dead. While the body count today is much higher, the biggest difference between now and then is simply an infusion of weapons, knowledge and a cohesive ideology.
Leadership Foundations urges leaders across the world to not play into the vilification. We urge leaders in media to refrain from stoking the flames of fear. And we urge our local leaders to open their communities to those who most need the support of community. Let us focus less on the act and more on relieving the social and spiritual malaise that drives desperation. How can we loosen the binds of oppression that are at the root of so much evil?
First we must overcome fear. Shun the voices that incite fear, and let our reason check emotion. See fear for what it is: an ever-effective way to divide, coerce and exclude. History repeatedly shows it is all too easy to succumb to fear, but let us find strength in our common humanity, our common home.
And let us examine ourselves. Do we regard immigrants as competitors carving out ever-smaller pieces of a fixed resource, or do we see them as colleagues with the talent and good will that will ever expand that resource? This crisis reveals a Rorschach test for our souls. Do we orient toward scarcity or abundance?
The Incarnation teaches that the will of God resides in flesh through Jesus. When we truly follow Jesus we take into our core being, our flesh, the will of God. It animates us and shapes who we are, how we live our lives, where we shop, how we interact with others. And it is a metaphor for humanity. We all hold in our being the will of God. When we acknowledge the divine in those who look different, have different customs, we truly may walk hand-in-hand. Let us move with grace toward each other.
In the end we are confident fear and vilification will subside and cooler heads will prevail. And as we set about incorporating the Syrian diaspora into our communities let us remind ourselves that how we regard our new neighbors, as neighbors, will set the tone for generations to come. Are they competitors or are they colleagues?
Joseph Campbell tells us that if we want to change the world, we must change the metaphor. Our communities, our common humanity, are not battlegrounds to maneuver but playgrounds to celebrate.