Comment: ISIS must not break our humanitarian response to refugees

Those fleeing ISIS are amongst the most powerful voices against the jihadist propaganda


The horrific attacks on Paris by the so called ‘Islamic-State’ terrorists have brought to the forefront common rhetoric and debate. The most prominent features in this conversation are of course, Muslims, Islam, Islamism, integration and foreign policy.

However a new feature is beginning to arise, namely the ongoing refugee crisis that is facing Europe. Journalists and politicians alike are keen on shifting discourse about the influx of refugees from a humanitarian to a security orientated paradigm.

If we understand that eliminating the threat from jihadism and ISIS lies not in the military means of bombings and targeted assassinations, but in the ideological battle of reducing its appeal, then it is clear that how we react to the refugee crisis will be at the forefront of the ideological war.

The terrorists, in their campaign to divide our society, want us to forsake the pleas of the refugees to prop up their message of an ‘evil West’ that will damn any Muslim entering its borders. This includes threatening to use the refugee influx as a vessel to infiltrate western cities, both to push us into adopting a more securitised reaction, and to insidiously spread further terror.

A humanitarian response from Europe to the refugees will shatter the ‘imperialist’ image of the West that fuels Islamist conspiracies and ideology.

Demonstrating our solidarity with the refugee crisis is an opportunity to seriously hinder the grandiose picture painted of ISIS’ utopianism. By continuing to aid civilians fleeing from ISIS territory, a powerful counter-narrative to ISIS’ state-building propaganda is brought to life.

This ‘state-building’ narrative that ISIS are so keen to promote begins to tremble in the eyes of international sympathisers, who see the images of civilians – a vast majority of whom are Muslims – risking life and death to flee ISIS, and thus a seed of doubt about the morality of ISIS is sewn.

Those fleeing ISIS are amongst the most powerful voices against the ISIS propaganda – they have experienced the so-called ‘state’ and have desperately fled. The refugees are a collective people – Muslims, Christians, Yazidis – who have all suffered by the hands of dictatorial and theocratic tyrants, and highlight the need for the promotion of universal human rights and freedom.

Thus by reacting to the refugee crisis in a humanitarian way we are debunking both ISIS’ key messages that the West is ‘at war with Islam’ and that ISIS is an inclusive utopia for Muslims.

There will of course be security threats posed by the refugee crisis. However, the knee-jerk reactions to blaming the refugee crisis for the Paris attacks were not warranted, as it is now emerging that all the terrorists involved were from Europe. The security threat posed by the refugee crisis has (so far) proven to be minimal.

Militants involved in jihadist attacks on the West, including the attack in Paris, are usually Western born. This is therefore a ‘home-grown’ issue that places the battle of ideas at the forefront. A securitised approach will be detrimental in that battle due to the ideological weight it will give to anti-Muslim sentiments.

Moreover, the emphasis should be placed on narratives that attract these home-grown jihadists, and what can be done to debunk them. If we, as a continent, begin to compromise our humanitarianism to refugees to buy ourselves a false sense of security, then we are paying the high price of catalysing ISIS’ ‘West at war with Islam’ narrative which draws in so many European citizens.

The war of ideas has become more important in the long run than the war of bullets. Our superficial response to the refugee crisis will be the greatest ideological ammunition for either side. I hope that we maintain and enhance our humanitarian response to people who have been devastated by a conflict that transcends our battle against ISIS.

History has shown that it is liberty that triumphs over tyranny, it is civil society that estranges racism, and it will be humanity that extinguishes the inhumane.

Haydar Zaki is programme officer at Quilliam. Follow him on Twitter

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