The United States in the Wake of the Paris Attacks: The Rising Tide of Islamophobia

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In the aftermath of the attacks that tore through Paris in early November, political discourse in the developed Western countries of Europe and North America has shifted to center strongly around the questions of safety and security. In the United States this became immediately apparent as the Democratic presidential debate came a mere 24 hours after the initial attacks. Former Secretary of State Clinton flaunted her diplomatic credentials and hawkishly demanded decisive action against Daesh that had claimed responsibility for the violence in Paris. Clinton stated, “ISIS cannot just be contained– it must be defeated.”

Bernie Sanders, Clinton’s main opponent for the Democratic nomination, spoke out against Clinton’s interventionist plan and even laid some of the blame for ISIS’ existence at the feet of Clinton and her ilk, stating “I would argue that the disastrous invasion of Iraq, something I strongly opposed, has unraveled the region completely… and led to the rise of ISIS.” He failed, however, to provide any legitimate alternative solutions. The debate’s overwhelming focus on security and foreign policy exposed some of the holes in Sanders’ campaign’s myopic focus on domestic issues like inequality and corruption, as the Senator remained vague on what his plan of action with regard to ISIS would be were he to be elected.

Following the debate, the rhetoric surrounding the fallout from the Paris attacks shifted from military policy to the issue of Syrian refugees and the possible threat they pose. Unsurprisingly, leading the charge was Donald Trump. Even as early as September, Trump had spoken out against President Obama’s plan to resettle roughly ten thousand Syrians in the U.S., vowing that if he won he would send “the people coming here from Syria” back, presumably due to the risk of militants hiding amongst their ranks. In addition, Trump spoke out in criticism of France’s stringent gun laws, remarking how, “no one had guns but the bad guys” and seemingly implying that France would have been safer with legislation promoting concealed weaponry. While Trump’s original comments drew ire from the public as well as his opponents, they now seem to be setting the standard for Republican perspective on the topic, with fellow candidates joining the chorus of criticism for Obama’s current refugee plan.

The debate over the refugees was not limited to candidates, as incumbent politicians were quick to imagespeak out in opposition to the resettlement plan, with multiple state governors publicly stating their intention to bar Syrian refugees from taking up asylum in their respective states. The issue came to a head when the House of Representatives proposed a bill to limit the ingress of Syrian refugees into the United States. Support for the bill was bi-partisan and passed the House with a veto-proof majority, limiting President Obama’s option for recourse against it.

Outside of politics, the Paris attacks have been met with a rash of Islamophobia, with close to thirty reports of profiling, threats or physical attacks against Muslims or their places of worship since November 13th. Examples include two Palestinian-American men being barred from boarding a plane at O’Hare Airport in Chicago and a Muslim taxi driver in Pittsburgh being shot while fleeing a customer brandishing a rifle and ranting about Islam.

While the overall response to the Paris attacks in the U.S. has been characterized by an expression of solidarity with the French during their time of mourning, an uptick in Islamophobia amongst politicians coupled with the attacks against American Muslims recalls the period following 9/11 when anti-Muslim sentiments reached a crescendo. The true power of attacks like 9/11 or those in Paris lies not in the actual danger they pose, but in the psychological toll they take on nations like France and the U.S. who live under a persistent illusion of safety, seeing themselves as removed from the bloodshed and violence of other regions of the world. What is even more disheartening is the Islamophobia that has come as a result of the attacks plays directly into the goals of ISIS, helping them boost their recruitment of Muslims from countries like the U.S. and France. ISIS openly states they wish to eliminate the “gray zone of coexistence” between Muslims in the West and their non-Muslim neighbors. By launching attacks that stoke the flames of Islamophobia in Western countries, ISIS succeeds in further disenfranchising these Muslim populations living in the West, making them increasingly vulnerable to radicalization and recruitment into ISIS.

The unfortunate truth is that most politicians gain more from hawkish grandstanding than peace-loving platitudes, so in the short term ISIS has achieved its goal of ratcheting up fear and anti-Muslim sentiments in Western countries. But beneath the grandstanding and rhetoric, the truth remains that it’s more important than ever for the West to stand by the humanitarian values of inclusion and multiculturalism and to strongly show that all those who stand for the same set of beliefs are welcome to take part in Western society, irrespective of religion. A strong, vibrant and enfranchised Muslim population in Western countries provides more safety and security than border checks and witch hunts, hopefully our politicians will come to realize that soon.