From Damascus to Paris, from Istanbul to Brussels, and from Lesbos to Berlin, 2015 and early 2016 witnessed an international refugee crisis, escalated conflict in Syria and Iraq, and the proliferation of ISIS-orchestrated terror attacks across western Europe. These events, rather than engendering a more cooperative, inclusive international community, triggered unprecedented divisiveness and exclusion, the mainstreaming of populist-nationalist political parties, and widespread xenophobia. The United States, less directly affected by the refugee crisis and in many ways removed from the trend of European populist nationalism, has seen its own increase in xenophobia take shape from within the anti-immigration and generally offensive rhetoric driving Republican frontrunner Donald Trump’s campaign.
In the face of unrest in the Middle East, the mass migration of over a million refugees, and the rising influence of ISIS both regionally and abroad, many have attempted to define “the enemy” as “the other.” Taking up the mantle of offensive rhetoric, citizens and politicians alike have become comfortable collectively categorizing followers of ISIS and Syrian refugees fleeing rampant conflict based on a common religion. Common folk and political elites alike have blamed immigrants for declining economic security, using “otherness” as a means of defining the enemy on home soil. Yet perhaps more than anything, the past year has demonstrated the pitfalls of attempting to define a common enemy through tactics of exclusion and xenophobia. Our dangerously divisive international environment not only weakens national security, it skews foreign and domestic policy decisions around the world.
The Paris-Brussels Story
The March 22 ISIS-orchestrated attacks in Brussels are the latest in a trend of violence against western Europe, part of what appears to be a broader assault on Western civilization and liberal democracy. Just as in the aftermath of the November attacks in Paris, the bombings in Brussels have brought about heightened rhetoric surrounding how to define and defeat “the enemy.” Newspapers ran headlines, citizens flew banners: “Europe at War,” “Je Suis Sick of This.” But at war with whom? ISIS claimed responsibility for the attacks hours after bombs went off at Brussels Airport and a subway station adjacent to the European Union headquarters. The ISIS suicide bombers responsible for the attacks—Ibrahim and Khalid El Bakraoui, Belgian nationals of Morrocan descent—were linked to the same terrorist cell that perpetrated the Paris attacks.
Yet just as leaders across western Europe and its allies expressed solidarity with Belgium, and U.S. airstrikes success fully targeted a number of key ISIS commanders, “#StopIslam” began trending on social media. Individuals publicizing the hashtag suggested that Islam as a religion and cultural practice, and thus Muslims across the globe, ought to be considered “the enemy.” Meanwhile, anti-immigration, ultra-right parties across the European Union appear to have become the continent’s new flashpoints. In Germany, Pegida, or “patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the Occident,” has attempted to “mobilize popular resentment” in favor of banning refugees from entering Germany, shouting “no sharia in Europe!” The Golden Dawn Party—an aggressively anti-immigration, neo-fascist party in Greece—has generated support for its proposed policies to ban the immigration of Syrian refugees and to increase surveillance of Greek Muslims. The Golden Dawn boasts broad-based sup port from victims of record unemployment.
Yet “#StopIslam” and other slogans of Islamophobia only aid the forces of division and paint a portrait of a false enemy. Xenophobia in western Europe likely aids ISIS recruitment efforts. Harvard Kennedy School professor and former dean Joseph Nye described to the HPR how “excessive rhetoric that alienates Muslims and weakens their willingness to provide crucial intelligence endangers us all.” Exclusionary rhetoric plays into a climate of division and inequality where “people whose identity has been uprooted by globalization search for identity in the imagined community of a pure Islamic caliphate.” Nye further characterized ISIS’s appeal as “far from parochial in nature.” Policy and rhetoric in the broader Western world make Muslims and immigrants question whether they qualify as “European,” which in turn plays into ISIS’s recruitment model.
Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s ultra-right National Front Party, spoke in Montreal on March 22, condemning acts of “Islamic fundamentalism” and urging Belgium and France to take a hardline stance against admitting Syrian refugees and other migrants, for fear of a “threat from within.” A day later she arrived on the scene of the tragedy in Brussels, suggesting a form of European “ethnic nationalist solidarity” against encroaching and easily radicalized immigrant populations. Le Pen’s rhetoric is extreme and reactionary, perhaps, but it hints at a long-standing tradition of divisiveness between ethnic majorities and minorities in Europe. Ibrahim and Khalid El Bakraoui were members of ISIS, but also Belgian nationals, which makes defining the “enemy” particularly complicated.
Europe’s current trend of nativist nationalism may have its roots in a long-term inability to assimilate immigrant populations. Juliette Kayyem, Harvard Kennedy School professor and former assistant secretary for intergovernmental affairs at the Department of Homeland Security, discussed Europe’s long-term immigration problem with the HPR: “Europe has a generational problem that existed long before the rise of ISIS, which is an inability to have immigrant communities that feel whole with the majority.” Addressing the Syrian refugee crisis, Professor Kayyem added that “Europe tends to focus exclusively on migration. No one considers what will happen to these people and communities once they are actually European nationals. Learning the language, feeling invested in the country’s future—an assimilation model the United States is very good at supporting—just does not happen to a large extent in Europe.” Thus, second generations that do not feel culturally European can be particularly vulnerable to radicalization. A sense of cultural and political solidarity tends to form within and amongst minority groups, who feel more kinship and loyalty to each other than to their countries. This in-group solidarity makes native Europeans more likely to consider immigrant communities as “the enemy.”
National migrant laws and religious expression restrictions codify these divisions between ethnic majorities and immigrant populations. For instance, states across Europe, including France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain, and Italy, have each adopted legal statutes banning or partially banning wearing the Muslim veil. These bans stem from Europe’s troubled relationship with multiculturalism. In Belgium itself, far-right parties such as the Christian Democrats and Vlams Blok have played a fairly mainstream role in national politics since the early 2000s. Both support “increased autonomy” for the country’s Christian majority. Now, in light of the Brussels attacks, these policies constitute an immediate national security concern: divisive rhetoric alienates individuals like the El Bakraoui brothers, who in turn discover identity in terrorist groups such as ISIS, which flouts modern national boundaries.
The United States
Although the United States has witnessed its fair share of offensive and exclusionary rhetoric, immigration forms the backbone of the country’s citizenry. This, combined with our geographic isolation, has generally provided a bulwark against terror recruitment within the United States. Professor Kayyem described the vital and often overlooked relationship between immigration policies and national security: “Our history of being able to assimilate and integrate immigrants absolutely makes us safer. If there’s any part of our experiment that has been incredibly successful it’s been the capacity of our immigrant community not only to assimilate successfully but to feel invested in our own security.” The American immigrant culture is based in the notion that anyone and everyone—regardless of ethnicity, religion, or cultural background—can become an American citizen, participating in and fulfilling the American dream.
Yet a far less inclusive perception colors Donald Trump’s America: one overpopulated by illegal immigrants and in need of being made “great again.” Trump’s rhetoric, and that of his increasingly vocal supporters, is dangerous and offensive, and has triggered anti-immigrant hostility within the United States. Acting in an analogous manner to Europe’s ultra-right nationalists, Trump uses Mexico and the Muslim world—and thus Muslims and immigrants from Mexico within the country—as scapegoats for the plight of blue-collar, white America. His rallying cries and offensive statements are broadcast across the globe as a paradigm of American bigotry.
Trump’s statements are largely rhetorical and primarily reflect the beliefs of a disgruntled, largely uneducated and politically inactive electorate. His following could perhaps be seen as an incarnation of the European ultra-right within the United States. Yet, unlike in Europe, Trump does not have and is unlikely to gain a foothold within U.S. policymaking. In its fight against ISIS, for instance, the United States has largely avoided the divisive language that governs Trump’s campaign and much of the European political landscape. This, to a certain degree, stems from President Obama’s clear efforts to push back against an “us vs. them” mentality: he refuses to designate ISIS and its contemporaries “Islamic extremist groups,” preferring the terms “fundamentalist extremism” or “violent extremism.” This is not an instance of over-applied “political correctness,” nor is it necessarily a rejection of ISIS’s grounding in mythos, religion, and textual Islam. It is rather a strategic means of dissociating, in official political language, the extreme terror group from millions of American Muslims, asylum seekers, and peaceful followers of the Islamic faith across the world.
Trump’s narrative is a false one, and the enemies it projects are contrived. The past year has exposed the amount of anti-immigration sentiment that lies latent in both the United States and Europe. Spreading false narratives demonizing immigrants and engaging in petty conflict over superficial difference could hardly be more counterproductive. There is no enemy more dangerous and self-destructive than an enemy created within.