Out of humanitarian compassion, both Europe and the United States have opened their doors – ever so slightly – to the flood of war refugees from Syria. They have reason to be cautious. A full-scale welcome mat might encourage even more Syrians to take the risky journey. Yet leaders are also reacting to concerns raised in their own countries that Islamic State terrorists might be hiding among the hordes of migrants.
Experts on IS and the Syrian migration say this fear is unfounded. IS has plenty of easier ways to send people to the West or to find potential recruits already living there. In addition, most Syrian refugees have lived for years in the neighboring countries of Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan without people in those countries having much concern about militant radicals in their midst.
If this fear persists in the West, however, it might create the very effect it seeks to prevent. One of the most powerful recruiting tools for jihadi groups is to point to the West’s generalized fear of Muslims as a way to win over young Muslims, especially those living in the West who feel alienated by the social disdain they experience.
Of all the European countries most welcoming of the Syrian refugees, Germany may understand best the need to welcome these fleeing Muslims. It realizes that it made a mistake decades ago in not integrating Turkish immigrant workers into German society. In a similar way, terrorist experts know that the best way to deradicalize a jihadi is to first establish a relationship, embracing them rather fearing them. One study of young Somali refugees in Yemen showed that those offered a well-rounded Western-style education were far less likely to want to join radical groups like Al Shabab or Al Qaeda.
Since 9/11, the West has done many things in the name of fighting terror that might have created more terrorists: torture and detention without charges, not to mention the mistaken bombing of civilians and abuses committed against Iraqis in the Abu Ghraib prison.
Inflated fears of terrorists must be constantly examined. Leaders in the West need to manage the risks of terror but also the fears of it, not pander to such fears or propagate them. Often the best antidote to fear of terror is showing some compassion to Muslims in need.