As It Happens

Muslim-Canadian reporter says backlash against Syrian refugees is what ISIS wants

Globe and Mail reporter, Omar El Akkad, says that anti-refugee sentiments in reaction to the attacks in Paris could lead to radicalization, which is exactly what ISIS wants.
Syrian refugee Mahmoud Naoura, 30, centre, chants "Thanks God we are safe,"while standing on a dinghy arriving from the Turkish coast to the northeastern Greek island of Lesbos. (Muhammed Muheisen/AP)

Suddenly, a lot of people are unsettled about resettling. Since the ISIS attacks in Paris, Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall is calling for the suspension of Ottawa's Syrian refugee settlement plan, and a flood of governors across the United States say they want to close their state borders to refugees. But Omar El Akkad says that kind of anti-refugee backlash could play right into ISIS's hands.

El Akkad is a reporter for The Globe and Mail. He tells As It Happens host Carol Off why anti-refugee arguments are counter-intuitive to the fight against extremism and why he felt compelled to give a personal perspective on this issue.

Here is an excerpt from their conversation.

Omar El Akkad (The Globe and Mail)

Carol Off: Omar, you are a reporter for The Globe and Mail, in the western United States, and you are mostly reporting on the news. But this is unusual for you, this is a very strong opinion piece. What compelled you to write it?

Omar El Akkad: I don't often write in that tone. I certainly don't often mention myself in news stories about these types of subjects.I think what struck me about it is the sense that I was looking at two groups of people. I was looking at the Islamic State and the supporters of the kinds of acts that happened in Paris, and I was looking at the far right wing in the U.S. Both of these groups seemed to put forward a world view in which people like me don't exist. I mean I'm middle eastern by birth. I'm Muslim. I'm not particularly devout. I'm Canadian by citizenship. I'm Canadian in my cultural disposition. I myself, and almost everyone I know, represent the sort of people that these two groups wish wouldn't exist. So that's what compelled me to write it. I'm not a fan of this idea that the world has to be grouped into "us versus them."

CO: So what is it you want people to know about what's going on with Muslims in the United States as this association between the refugees who are trying to flee Syria and this attack on Paris seems to be yoked together?

OEA: I think Muslims in the United States and elsewhere in the West have gotten used to this idea that in the wake of these violent acts there is always going to be some kind of backlash. I think in the last 15 years that's become sort of ingrained in the thought process. I think what's worrying about this is that you see a lumping in of the victims of terrorists and the perpetrators of terrorists. So when we had two dozen U.S. state governors come out and say "because of the attacks in Paris we're no longer accepting Syrian refugees," not only was it wrong in a legal setting, they don't have the authority to do that, it was also wrong as a counter-terrorism measure because it gives the Islamic State exactly what they want, which is the sense that Muslims don't belong in this part of the world. If you're an Islamic State recruiter you could not have asked for a better gift than that.

CO: In what way? How is this helping ISIS: this reaction to the refugees?

OEA: Well when ISIS recruiters, when terrorists recruiters generally are looking for people, they're looking almost exclusively at disillusioned young men. The disillusioned part is really important. You want to be able to tell people, "look this part of the world you're living is, it doesn't accept you, it doesn't want you here, we want you you're one of us." That's a hard case to make if the person you're talking to feels at home where they live. So if you live in Michigan, or if you live in Alabama, or if you live in one of these 24 states where governors have said that all Syrian refugees are essentially indistinguishable from terrorists, the governors have done the recruiters legwork for them. They have given you a sense now that you don't really belong here, which is the first step towards extremism of this kind.

This excerpt was edited for length and clarity.

Please find Omar El Akkad's Globe and Mail article here.

To hear the full interview please click on the Listen audio link above.


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