Q&A: UMass’ David Mednicoff on the Upsides of Taking in Syrian Refugees

The Middle East expert explains why taking in Syrian refugees could be key to extinguishing extremism.

Charlie Baker

Photo via AP

Governor Charlie Baker and dozens of other state leaders on Monday rejected the idea of taking in Syrian refugees following the attacks in Paris. Citing security concerns and a lack of clarity around the federal government’s vetting process, Baker said he would need to know “a lot more than I know now” before welcoming families fleeing horrific violence perpetrated by ISIS, Bashar al-Assad, and other warring factions.

David Mednicoff, director of Middle Eastern studies and assistant professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, argues that such reactionary policies are “exactly the intent of a group like ISIS.”

Back in September, Mednicoff penned a piece in which he argued that taking in Syrian refugees is good for national security and could help stem the tide of extremism, here and abroad. We chatted briefly with Mednicoff to get his thoughts in the wake of Baker’s announcement.

So what’s your initial reaction to Governor Baker’s announcement?

Blaming the victim is always very tragic, and make no mistake about it, Syrian refugees are victims. And this is exactly the intent of a group like ISIS, to muddy the waters so we lose our sense of compassion and we look very much like a society that doesn’t like Muslims.

If we’re really trying to overcome the ideas of groups like ISIS, it’s obviously tempting to say “OK, we have to think about security and military responses all the time.” But the reality is what we’ve got to do is think about how we can show what our society is supposed to be—our society is built on ideals around welcoming people and integrating people.

I understand why [Baker] feels that he has to make this type of statement; he’s responsible for the people of the Commonwealth. But I nonetheless believe it doesn’t serve the long-term interest of keeping us safe against a group of people that thrives on magnifying the difference between what they stand for and what we stand for. I think it’s a mistake and I hope it’s more rhetoric than substance.

And you assert that taking in Syrian refugees may actually serve the long-term interests of national security?

Absolutely. It’s not an either-or situation. It’s not either you fight ISIS or you try to really care about the problems that breed ISIS. You do both.

People who are running away out of fear for their lives from either really authoritarian political leaders or fanatics in ISIS are not violent. They’re looking for someone to show them an open door and compassion.

What we’re talking about are people who understand firsthand exactly how bad the government of Syria and ISIS are. These are exactly the people who understand best what’s wrong, and who understand their region. They are exactly the people who can play an important role in transforming this type of issue. You see how harrowing these people’s ordeals can be, and once they’re settled, they’re really in a position to say “OK, this country that took me and made me feel welcome is really where I am going to channel all my positive energy.”

So how could taking in refuges help stem recruitment efforts of a group like ISIS or dampen extremism?

If we go back to what we know at this time about the French attack, these are largely homegrown people. We understand how easy it is to feel like you want to fight for something that’s a larger-than-life cause, and obviously young people do this in all sorts of different ways.

To have somebody go into a mosque and say, “Look, I’ve survived ISIS; you might think the idea of a new Islamic caliphate that’s not beholden to the old Western colonial rules seems very romantic. But I’ll tell you what it’s like in practice.” There’s nothing like having people here who can go out and say that the tools ISIS recruiters are using to lure in vulnerable people are an illusion. People who come and are fleeing such violence—they want to talk about their experiences, they want to be useful. They don’t want ISIS to thrive.

*Questions and answers edited for brevity and clarity.