Defend, expand ‘gray zone’ by combating Islamophobia


We’ve been here before.

For many of us, 9/11 may be nothing more than a distant childhood memory, but there are many other times we’ve felt the collective fear and uncertainty engendered by random, senseless acts of violence: the Boston bombing, Charlie Hebdo, Sandy Hook.

For those of us living abroad, the reality of the Paris attacks was even more pronounced. My roommate was in Paris at the time, as were several other friends. Just the other week, I had stayed at a hostel a few blocks from where the first shootings occurred.

My friends and I stayed glued to our phones that night, as the facts came frantically rolling in: At least 18 killed in a shooting in Paris. Explosions heard, unclear if linked. Now it’s 31 killed, at two locations. Four attackers. No wait, six. Three locations. Over 100 held hostage in a nightclub. Body count hits 43. Eight attackers. More explosions. They killed the hostages. Jesus Christ, they killed the hostages.

It was a horrendous night. But, as with every terrorist attack, the tragedy in Paris will ultimately be defined by our response. We must take care to temper our emotional outrage with rationality and an appreciation of political realities. While grief, anger and shock are natural, we cannot allow them to undermine our compassion.

Unfortunately, if the past few days are any indication, we are doing just that.

Since last Friday, more than two dozen U.S. governors have vowed to keep Syrian refugees out of their respective states, claiming that ISIS operatives could potentially enter posing as refugees and carry out attacks on U.S. soil. This fear is based partially on the fact that a fake Syrian passport was found near the body of one of the attackers in Paris.

It’s worth noting that the number of refugees the government plans to admit over the next year is only 10,000—an absurdly small amount, relatively speaking. There are four million Syrian refugees worldwide; the number of asylum seekers in just Germany, which has a quarter of the U.S.’s population, is expected to exceed 800,000 by the end of the year.

Furthermore, people entering the U.S. under refugee status are subject to more scrutiny than any other type of incomer. Syrians specifically must undergo an additional layer of screening before they are admitted. Overall, the process generally takes 18 to 24 months. Terrorists wishing to strike America could certainly find a much quicker and easier way to do so.

The idea that we should turn away Syrian refugees for being “potential terrorists” is completely ludicrous, not to mention immoral. These are people who have been forced from their homes, travelled thousands of miles, witnessed some of the worst atrocities humans are capable of—only to find they are unwelcome and suspected of supporting the very people they’re trying to flee.

Besides, by turning away Syrian refugees, we aren’t doing ISIS any great disservice; on the contrary, we’re giving them exactly what they want. They’ve said as much themselves.

In a 10-page editorial published in the English-language ISIS magazine Dabiq, a spokesman for the group calls for the destruction of “the gray zone,” which they describe as the area occupied by moderate Muslims between the West and Islam. In other words, they want to drive a wedge between average, ordinary Muslims around the world and their respective societies, forcing them to flock to ISIS.

The reality is that fear, hatred and prejudice towards Islam is precisely what these terrorists want and expect from us. It is what breeds disaffected, marginalized individuals and communities that feel threatened and undervalued by their own society — exactly the kind of people ISIS recruits.

If we want to truly put an end to Islamic terrorism — not simply dismantle an organization, but attack the problem at its roots — then we must make a conscious effort to defend and expand “the gray zone” by putting a stop to Islamophobia.

Let’s start by embracing the principles enshrined on our Statue of Liberty and welcoming the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

In the days following the tragedy in Paris, an image circulated online containing a quote from beloved childhood icon Mister Rogers. It says: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”

For the sake of the refugees, I hope there are people out there willing to be the helpers. Because right now it’s sure as hell not us.