The Politics of the “Other”

The Lord is for me—I won’t be afraid.
    What can anyone do to me?

-Psalm 118:6

In the aftermath of the Paris terrorist attacks, I’ve been watching with some disgust the number of governors who have said they won’t take in Syrian refugees.  The chances that one a refugee could actually be a terrorist is pretty low.  

I was ashamed to be (at least nominally) a Republican at this moment.  But as I was upset at how these governors are going against common human morality, I remembered something:

Dubai Ports World.

For those that don’t remember, about a decade ago, a company based in Dubai was going to end up running several ports in the United States.  Congress got wind of the deal and members of both parties raised concerns.  It caused enough rancor not only on Capitol Hill but among the American public that the deal died.

I remember writing about this event back in 2006 and I actually still have the blog post.  This is what I wrote back then:

I don’t care if the majority of Americans were deadset against this. I don’t care that most of Congress was against it. This whole fight was never about security- it was about politics. Both parties want to look tough on terrorism and this was a slam dunk of an issue. We could cash in on fear of another 9/11 and throw in some xenophobia and get the American public to fear people with funny sounding names.

Sometimes I think that our country is incredibly short-sighted and fearful anything that is “foreign.” September 11 didn’t open us up to the world, it made us even more suspicious of anyone that doesn’t seem “American,” whatever that means.

The fear back then was that somehow a foriegn (read: Arab) owned company would not ensure the security of the ports. But I argued back then that we don’t have to fear the outsider as much as those already here.

Not much has changed.

Alabama Governor Robert Bentley.

I share this because I think its important to remember that the politics of xenophobia are as bipartisan as apple pie.  Politicians do things like this because it works.  Looking on Facebook, I could see a number of people who were only barely hiding their fear of Muslims.  They were thanking the governors that had decided to not welcome the refugees.

Fear sells.

But the thing of course is that if there is ever an ISIS attack on American soil, it won’t come from some refugee, it will be conducted by people who already live here. People who live in our communities.

But fear of the other and politicians willing to play into those fears has been with us for a long time.  The grossly named Operation Wetback forcibly removed undocumented Mexicans during the Eisenhower years and we all know about the internment of 100,000 Japanese Americans during World War II.

Fear is all around and the temptation to give into the fear is great.  We all have trepidation on things that are not familiar to us.  In Paul’s letter to young Timothy, he says that God has not given us a spirit of fear, but one that is powerful, “loving and self-controlled.” (2 Timothy 1:7).

Politicians are responsive to our own fears, but as Christians we aren’t to give into fear. We trust in the God that is our “light and our salvation.”  We have to believe that we won’t be saved by turning our backs on refugees, but only through God.

Writer Michael Gerson notes that the refusal to help people fleeing from war is helping ISIS, the very people we don’t want to help:

All our efforts are undermined by declaring Islam itself to be the enemy, and by treating Muslims in the United States, or Muslims in Europe, or Muslims fleeing Islamic State oppression, as a class of suspicious potential jihadists. Instead of blaming refugees, we need to make sure our counterterrorism and intelligence policies give us a chance to screen and stop any threat (which means keeping the post-9/11 structures of surveillance in place). But if U.S. politicians define Islam as the problem and cast aspersions on Muslim populations in the West, they are feeding the Islamic State narrative. They are materially undermining the war against terrorism and complicating the United States’ (already complicated) task in the Middle East. Rejecting a blanket condemnation of Islam is not a matter of political correctness. It is the requirement of an effective war against terrorism, which means an effective war against the terrorist kingdom in Syria and western Iraq.

Ten years ago, I said Osama bin Laden was smiling of the Dubai Ports World fiasco. Now I think the people in the so-called Islamic State are smiling as well.

And Jesus wept.

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