I’ve traveled to Beirut several times as I’ve completed research on how various communities navigate pluralism and social change. But when I returned to Beirut this summer, I was struck by the magnitude of what these communities are being asked to adapt to.  On the short walk from my hotel, three different children and a woman approached me to ask for spare change, milk and diapers. The road that runs alongside the Mediterranean – which two years ago was dotted with canoodling couples – was full of Syrian refugees.  It is estimated that one out of every four people who live in Lebanon is actually a Syrian refugee; Turkey and Jordan are similarly beyond capacity for effectively absorbing and integrating displaced persons. Meanwhile, Syrians are still leaving their country in large numbers, looking for somewhere to land. 

But anti-Muslim rhetoric  - already a daily scourge for a Muslim community that has called America home for generations – may prevent Syrian refugees from finding safe harbor here in the U.S. Rather than being met with welcoming arms, the Syrian refugees seeking asylum here are preceded by the fear-mongering and suspicion and anti-Muslim bigotry. According to the U.N. High Commission on Refugees, there are 3,984,393 registered Syrian refugees: the worst refugee crisis since World War II. This dire situation requires a global response, with all hands on deck. And yet, elected officials and political pundits here in the United States continue to paint Syrian refugees not as human beings in need of global compassion, but as security threats.


In a recent House Counterterrorism and Intelligence Subcommittee Hearing, speakers painted these refugees as homeland security threats who would use the refugee system as a “Trojan Horse” to sneak in operatives, despite the insistence from counter-terrorism experts that this is nonsense. Rhetoric like this coming from our elected officials, along with fear-mongering in the media, must be called out as a betrayal of American values. These voices are a far greater threat to American democracy, not to mention the safety of people in desperate need, than Syrian refugees. After all, being resettled as a refugee is one of the most difficult ways to enter the United States, with an array of required medical exams, biometric tests, interagency background and security checks, and an in-person interview with a Department of Homeland Security office. 

Syrian refugees are the latest target of the anti-Muslim bigotry currently plaguing American democracy.  Too often, pundits and leaders have made it clear that they do not consider American Muslims equal partners in our society, showcased through hateful events, anti-Muslim legislation and the targeting of Muslim houses of worship. Thankfully, many Americans continue to stand up to this tide, both through participating in counter demonstrations and through social media. Thirty-one national religious denominations and organizations came together to take just such collective action when they founded the Shoulder to Shoulder campaign against anti-Muslim bigotry.  All those who have worked toward religious tolerance and pluralism in America must realize that those goals are bound up in the rights of refugees, we cannot have religious freedom in America if our refugee policy is motivated by religious bigotry.

Lest we forget, it is Syrians who are the primary targets and victims of ISIS’ campaign of terror. Syrian refugees have been through hardships that most cannot fathom, only to be met with suspicion and hate based on national and religious identity upon arrival in a country purportedly committed to liberty and equality.  The fear-mongering rhetoric from high-profile platforms works directly against the many Americans working hard to make their communities welcoming spaces for newcomers. 

Syrians fleeing the violence of their beloved home seek democracy, peace, human rights and security, and the societies they enter must do their best to uphold these values. As Americans, we must not simply talk about these them, but instead show our commitment to them through our responses to those newly entering American society. Certainly, there are many Americans who stand with open arms to welcome Syrians into their communities, but the anti-Muslim voices have far too much of a platform for a pluralistic, inclusive society such as ours.  It is incumbent on all of us to stand against hateful anti-Muslim rhetoric that is posing yet another challenge to Syrians seeking safety and hope. 

The eyes of the world are on us as we respond to the Syrian refugee crisis. America has taken pride, since our founding, in itself as a place for all to practice their own faith without fear of discrimination or prejudice. Certainly, this is an America we are still creating- something we must all do together.   

Orsborn is the campaign director of Shoulder to Shoulder, a national campaign of religious and interfaith organizations dedicated to ending anti-Muslim bigotry.