Defending Religious Freedom in Political Rhetoric on Syrian Refugees

Syria is in the middle of a civil war in which mass killings, biological weapons, torture and bombings are all tools wielded to inspire fear and suffering in civilians. Syrian citizens have left the country for months with very few places to turn. Many flee to surrounding countries. However, there is more political upheaval in the Middle East than there is stability: The neighboring countries of Turkey and Jordan are inundated with refugees but barely able to hold their own governments together.

Ever since the Syrian Civil War erupted, the United States has debated legislature to allow Syrian refugees to immigrate to the United States. The initial Syrian refugee bill permitted Syrian refugees to enter the United States after completing a screening process to guard against the immigration of potential threats to national security. However, after the Paris attacks, general support for the bill has diminished. On Nov. 19, the House passed another bill to halt the progress of and reconsider the initial Syrian refugee bill.

After the Paris terrorist attacks, the Syrian refugee disagreement has become a hot topic in the current presidential race. Candidates' initial reactions have ranged from welcoming messages—according to PBS, Bernie Sanders called for the U.S. to “not turn our backs” on the refugees—to attacks on the notion of opening our borders to refugees when we do not have adequate resources to help our own citizens. Each candidate has differing opinions: a goal that many democratic candidates such as Hillary Clinton and Martin O’Malley ascribe to is the admission of 65,000 refugees into the U.S. Moderate Republican candidates want a harsher vetting process. Some vouch for denying all refugees.

Different presidential candidates build their campaign platforms on different ideals. However, recent comments by members of the GOP have contrasted the very principles that the United States was founded upon. Some GOP candidates are vouching for religion-based admission for asylum in the United States.

During a Nov. 20 campaign stop in Birmingham, Ala., Trump voiced his support for “surveillance of certain mosques” as well as the creation of a Syrian refugee database. Not only would other Muslim Americans be affected by this institution—ones who have no connection to the refugee crisis—but this idea would also negate American citizens' freedom of religion, a freedom explicit in the Bill of Rights.

Donald Trump is not the only candidate using anti-Muslim sentiment to fearmonger for potential voter support. Jeb Bush argued for the Obama administration to institute religious tests in which potential refugees would have to “prove” that they are Christians. Ted Cruz called the potential admission of Syrian refugees “nothing less than lunacy” and recommended that the United States only accept Christian Syrians because, according to Cruz, “there is no meaningful risk of Christians committing acts of terror.” When speaking at the National Press Club, John Kasich conflated “the values of human rights, the values of democracy, freedom of speech, freedom of religion and freedom of association” with “Judeo-Christian” values. The implication of the superiority of Judeo-Christianity and the direct tie of religion to the US government not only idolizes Western ideals but is surely biased against Muslims.

On a practical level, these recommendations espouse religious discrimination and conflate fear of terrorism with fear of Islam. On an ideological level, the implication of religious discrimination and therefore hindrance of religious freedom within the United States corrodes the very notions on which our country was founded. If the United States is willing to sacrifice religious freedom for safety, then we can change our ideals and institute policy based on religious discrimination. If we value our religious freedom, however, we must trade our fear for reason and continue debate without discriminating against Syrian Muslims.

Emma Houston CM '19 is from Boston, Mass., and is interested in majoring in philosophy and physics.

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