Additional reporting by Caitlin MacNeal
Donald Trump wants to create a national registry to track American Muslims. Sen. Marco Rubio is prepared to close “any place where radicals are being inspired,” including mosques. Ted Cruz has sponsored a bill in the Senate barring some Muslim refugees – a majority from Syria – and a Democratic mayor in Roanoke used the internment of Japanese Americans in the 1940s as justification to stop the flow of Syrian refugees to his community.
A terrorist attack 3,828 miles away from Washington has sparked a raw and visceral political reaction across the country to Islam and refugees that hasn’t been front and center since 9/11. In the years since, other major attacks have rocked Western countries — the Madrid commuter rail system (191 dead in 2004), the London Underground (56 dead in 2005), the Boston Marathon (6 dead in 2013) — but have not spawned the kind of reflexively anti-Muslim and anti-refugee outcry in America that the Paris attacks have.
Why this dramatic of a reaction and why now?
Psychologists and experts in terror point out that its not geographical distance from France that matters, but the cultural ties between French and American citizens that has sparked the flurry of cold rhetoric and constituent concerns.
“The attacks tapped into an underlying fear that Americans have about terrorism and because it occurred in a city full of people that we feel are like us, it may feel as if the threat is getting closer,” said Ginny Sprang, the chair of the Terrorism and Disaster Special Interest Group of the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies.
Members in Congress say constituents back home aren’t watching events in Paris unfold passively. They are weighing in and making it hard for Washington to ignore them.
“This week, the phones in our district and Washington, DC, offices have been ringing off the hook,” Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R-OK) told Talking Points Memo. “Americans are worried. They are worried about the possibility of terrorists taking advantage of our long tradition of welcoming refugees fleeing terrorism and religious persecution.”
Rep. Charlie Dent (R-PA), whose district has one of the largest Syrian refugee populations of any congressional district in the country, said that even many Syrian Christians back home have been calling in. Overall, he says the calls are running 2-to-1 “for stronger restrictions on refugees.”
“It is important that we as Americans show that we have compassion for people who have been displaced. There are refugees escaping a desperate situation. But, I also happen to believe that there are terrorists who are going to try and use that refugee process to try to strike us,” Dent said.
Adding fuel to the refugee debate is the fact that a little over a month ago President Obama–with a lot of pressure from aid groups and liberals in his own party–unilaterally expanded the number of Syrian refugees the U.S. plans to accept in fiscal year 2016 to 10,000.
Glen Bolger, a Republican pollster said that the high-octane debate in Washington, feeds into Republican voters’ underlying apprehensions about the President’s handling of national security in general. It reminds voters that the President has at times fumbled by dismissing ISIS as a “JV team.” As Congress backed away from a debate over an Authorization to Use Military Force against the Islamic State, Republican voters are now engaging actively in an area Congress does plan to tackle: refugees.
Unlike 2001 when a presidential election cycle was in the distant future and George W. Bush could clearly articulate the difference between extremist terrorists and Islam, the Republican Party today is trying to outflank Trump’s latest off-the-cuff statement. In a primary season, “there is very little political upside to being the sensible voice right now,” said Matt Duss, the president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace.
On a deeper level, Duss said, Americans’ underlying fear of Islam has never gone away. Instead it has been stoked by local and state actions. There was a high-profile attempt to keep a Muslim community center out of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, and several states have moved to ban Sharia Law based on unsubstantiated fears that Muslims in America were seeking to supplant the Constitution with religious law.
The attacks in Paris merely spun those apprehensions into overdrive and refugees were a convenient target.
A deep-seeded antipathy toward Islam was evident in the aftermath of Sept. 11 when the FBI reported 500 hate-driven crimes against Muslims. The Washington Post reported that the number was a major spike compared to the few dozen crimes recorded in the years prior to 9/11.
Polling over the last decade has continued to show a persistent anti-Islamic sentiment among Americans. A Huffington Post poll released in March 2015 found that more than half of Americans still have either a “somewhat” or “very unfavorable” opinion of Islam. An ABC/Washington Post poll in 2010 showed that just 37 percent of Americans had a positive opinion of Islam compared to that exact same survey taken that was taken 13 years prior–a matter of weeks after the towers collapsed in Manhattan. In 2001 47 percent of Americans had a positive view of Islam.
Mark Krikorian, the executive director for the Center for Immigration Studies, a group that wants to reduce immigration to the U.S., said he had already mobilized many of his own advocates to rally against expanding the refugee numbers months ago.
“More people understand more about it because of the debate we just had,” Krikorian says of the backlash.
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