As we stand together around the world, shocked and mourning with the thousands who lost their fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, relatives, and friends in France, Lebanon, and Iraq, one thing bothers me most about the narrative around the terrorist attacks in Paris.
From the moment first reports started streaming in from France, even when the details surrounding the tragedy were very scarce, mainstream media pundits were far too eager to bring Syrian refugees into the story of the Paris massacre. They planted the seeds of doubt into the minds of millions that somehow Syrian refugees shared responsibility for the massacre.
Two months ago I worked on the last several miles of the refugee trail from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan to the Croatian border. I helped drive nearly 100 refugees to the border, and distributed food, water, clothes, and shoes to at least 2,000 more.
I still remember the stories of some who did not hesitate to tell my team why they left Syria or Iraq. Some were afraid for their lives, or the lives of their families and children. Some men left because they did not want to join any of a number of killing machines operating between Syria and Iraq.
They left their countries because staying would mean almost certain death for them or their loved ones.
I remember young people walking through the cornfields at the Croatian-Serbian border, some helping themselves with crutches or in wheelchairs, with smiles on their faces, shouting “Thank You! Thank You! Freedom! Freedom!” and pointing with their hands forward.
I remember hugs and handshakes, bodily gestures of appreciation for the moments of kindness they experienced meeting the volunteers.
I find it hard to believe that the demonic characters who killed so many in cold blood in Paris were the ones who walked, just a few weeks earlier, through the hills, forests, bushes, cornfields, rivers, and camps of Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia.
And if it is true that one or two of the terrorists hijacked the refugee trail, this could never mean that it is proper to blame the hundreds of thousands innocent refugees and immigrants for the massacre in Paris.
That would be like calling thousands of football spectators terrorists because one of them wanted to mingle with the crowd in order to bring serious harm. Or labeling all shoppers in a mall as thieves because one or two criminals robbed one store in the mall.
Any notion of turning the Syrian and other refugees into the scapegoats of the massacre would be simply outrageous.
Yet even before we were told that two terrorists might have entered France in October by taking advantage of the refugee trail, the media rant was picked up by some leaders of European countries, who immediately started calling for more border fences and stricter refugee laws. U.S. presidential candidates sharpened their rhetoric by promising to not allow any refugees or immigrants into the country. And up to 26 state governors have now vowed to try to close their borders to refugees.
It seems that the rare voice of reason at this time is that of President Barack Obama, who declared that the U.S. should take 10,000 Syrian refugees anyway.
On Facebook and Twitter, thousands of social media pundits are launching the worst kind of insulting messages to Muslims — refugees included. Under the threads addressing the refugee concerns on my own Facebook page, some commentators are all too eager to help open my eyes to the “truth” that “refugees and terrorists are not that different.”
Unfortunately, some among these friends are Christians.
Freedom of expression — in this case, fear, doubt, distrust, and grief — can be tolerated on social media. But it is utterly irresponsible, dangerous, and immoral when mainstream media sows seeds of suspicion about hundreds of thousands of refugees — these families with children, many of whom are running far away from the very kind of people who terrorized Paris, Baghdad, and Beirut last week.
Is it possible that creating a picture that some among the terrorists were people who arrived to France as refugees was not also a part of the attack’s aim? What a success this would be for the masterminds of the massacre, if they succeed in convincing Europe, the U.S., and the world that refugees are to blame. How happy they would be if they could succeed in making us hate all Muslims more, and retaliate more! Or if they could make us fence more countries against each other and build even higher walls between the U.S. and Mexico. Or if they could confuse us more, make us panic more, make distrust each other more.
The ancient Romans knew — the one who is able to divide others rules.
But the followers of Jesus should know better.
To join those who are calling for the criminalization of refugees and immigrants — or those who believe it is right to meet refugees with guns, or those who are eagerly looking for the opportunity to burn down refugee camps, or those who are generously sticking all kinds of dehumanizing labels on refugees, or those who cheer in tune with the wall and fence-builders, or those who partake in the increasingly prevailing hate speech against Muslims — would only mean that we have already been defeated. In joining those voices, we are denying the One who called us to love our neighbors, irrespective of who they are.
It would also mean that we have remained clueless as to the central truth of Christianity: Just as Jesus Christ embraced us by giving himself to us, so are we called to embrace others, refugees included. As far as the gospel is concerned, this is the only legitimate way by which we can gain the minds and hearts of those who are different from us.
As we do so, we will become more mature about coming to a fair judgment in asserting who are terrorists who need to be stopped, and who are genuine victims who need our empathy and help.