Standing on the steps of an archway leading to a sun-splashed courtyard at the Islamic Center of Long Island on Friday, about a dozen leaders from various faiths delivered an impassioned condemnation of last week’s terror attacks in Paris, and voiced a striking repudiation of the so-called Islamic State and the vile atrocities the group commits in the name of Islam.
Armed only with Biblical verses, Koranic teachings, heavy hearts, and signs that proclaimed “ISIS Does Not Represent Islam,” Christians, Jews, and Muslims gathered outside the Westbury mosque to denounce extremism and call on America—a country of immigrants—to welcome war-ravaged Syrians fleeing the 4-year-old civil war back home.
“Let us show these disciples of death, these murdering ISIS thugs, how a truly great nation and her people behave in the face of terror. Islam is not our enemy,” said Rev. Mark Lukens, chair of The Interfaith Alliance of Long Island. “Fear is our enemy. Hatred is our enemy. And we defeat that enemy with faith, with courage, with unity and with love.”
Their remarks came exactly one week after terrorists killed 129 people in Paris and injured more than 300 in coordinated strikes on cafes, restaurants, and a packed music hall.
The attacks have prompted an outpouring of support for Parisians, but has also fueled what many consider anti-Islamic statements from US presidential candidates out of fear that members of the self-declared Islamic State could use the historic flow of refugees from Syria as cover to enter the United States. Donald Trump, vying for the Republican nomination, has said he’d consider shutting down mosques and implementing a database of Muslims in America, before suggesting the latter wasn’t his idea.
I didn't suggest a database-a reporter did. We must defeat Islamic terrorism & have surveillance, including a watch list, to protect America
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 20, 2015
Ben Carson, who is also seeking the GOP nomination, compared some Syrian refugees to “rabid dogs” before later softening his tone. Rep. Ted Cruz (R-Tx.) and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush suggested the United States should focus on protecting Christians over Muslims, and more than two-dozen governors have opposed President Obama’s plan to bring in 10,000 Syrian refugees who have been fleeing unconscionable slaughters, rapes, barbaric beheadings, and poverty, as their home country continues to be soaked in blood.
Denouncing extremism and xenophobia on Friday was Dr. Isma Chaudhry, president of the Islamic Center of Long Island, who said all faiths should stand together as a united front.
“This is not a social or a political calling,” she said, “for us Muslims this is a religious calling, to stand together in solidarity with all faiths against injustice, against terrorism, against bloodshed.”
Chaudhry argued that the fissure of fear being created only empowers terror groups like ISIS.
“I urge you to think and reflect,” she implored. “This is a small group of self-proclaimed people, a small group of criminals, who in the name of Islam have done barbaric acts of violence.”
“We as Muslims strongly condemn these un-Islamic actions,” Chaudry continued. “This is not Islam. ISIS is not Islam. Muslims are not violent, barbaric people. This is a small group of criminals and we, by dividing ourselves, are making them big.”
Imam Ibrahim Negm, a visiting scholar and preacher, said Muslims worldwide denounce the slayings in Paris.
“Islam is a faith that promotes peace, that brings about stability to societies,” he told about two dozen onlookers, “not the distorted image of Islam that are propagated by these radical few which is creating terror and havoc throughout the world.”
Dr. Faroque Khan, an ICLI co-founder and board member, said ISIS’s self-declared caliphate was illegitimate.
“There is nothing Islamic about them, and it’s an illegal state,” he said.
Speakers also took exception with recent comments and actions by elected officials who question the logic of permitting refugees entrance into the United States, despite claims from resettlement agencies that anyone seeking refugee status goes through multi-layered security as part of a rigorous process that takes 18 to 24 months to complete. On Thursday, the House of Representatives voted on a bill to further strengthen refugee security protocols, a measure the White House has threatened to veto.
Rev. Lukens said denying destitute refugees is not only un-American but it goes against God’s teachings.
“All people of faith and goodwill have mourned these past weeks, the terrible atrocities that were committed in Paris, Beirut, Nigeria and in Baghdad, atrocities that were committed by people whose creed is terror and hatred and whose aim is to sow fear,” Lukens said. “And in the face of that, people of faith and goodwill of every faith have a decision to make about how we will move on—whether we will grant these terrorists victory by letting our own fear diminish us as people, diminish our faith, turn us against one another, cause us to turn our back on the innocent in their hour of need.
“The teaching(s) of the Gospel are clear and unequivocal,” he continued. “We are our brother and our sister’s keeper and we are taught as Christians that Christ himself is found among those who are called the least of these—the stranger, the outcast, the refugee—and that we will be judged by how we behaved toward these people at times precisely like these.”
The Very Rev’d Michael Sniffen, dean of the Cathedral of Incarnation in Garden City, said acts of terror should inspire people of all faiths to follow their hearts, rather than be consumed by fear and selfishness.
“In this time when our brothers and sisters across this world flee acts of terrorism and genocide,” Sniffen said, “we who stand in a privileged nation such as this cannot walk by on the road and call ourselves faithful. We must stop what we’re doing and look at our neighbor in need and pick them up and treat them as we would treat our own child.”
For groups like ISIS, Khan said, it’s their hope that nations like the US to deny refugees access.
“This xenophobia is not what American values are all about…it’s a violation of the spirit of our constitution, and most importantly plays into the strategy of ISIS,” he said, “which is trying to create a religious divide and anti-refugee backlash so the billion-plus Muslims will feel alienated and some will turn to extremism. If so, then our leaders are following a script and a trap put forth by ISIS and are becoming their best recruiters.”
Recent polls have found that the majority of Americans do not support Obama’s plan to bring in 10,000 refugees, just a tiny fraction of the overall 12 million displaced Syrians—and 4 million who have fled, half of whom are children.
The United States has a long history of accepting refugees, though the program has historically been unpopular, even going back to World War II. According to a recently uncovered poll conducted in 1938, nearly 70 percent of US respondents opposed German and Austrian refugees—the majority of whom were Jews displaced by the Holocaust—entering the US. The poll was conducted in the early years following the Great Depression, so many Americans may have been consumed by economic concerns.
US Jul ’38: What’s your attitude towards allowing German, Austrian & other political refugees to come into the US? pic.twitter.com/7hMfLbXWFE
— Historical Opinion (@HistOpinion) November 16, 2015
Even so, a poll conducted in 1939 found that 61 percent of those polled were not in favor of allowing 10,000 refugee children into the United States.
US Jan 20 ’39: Should the US government permit 10,000 mostly Jewish refugee children to come in from Germany? pic.twitter.com/5cFs5RabQn
— Historical Opinion (@HistOpinion) November 17, 2015
The US takes in nearly 70,000 refugees annually, according to the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement. And since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, the United States has resettled 784,000 refugees, according to the independent nonprofit Migration Policy Institute. Out of that number, only three “have been arrested for planning terrorist activities—and it is worth noting two were not planning an attack in the United States and the plans of the third were barely credible,” the organization said.
ISIS’ meteoric rise in the last few years has many concerned that radicalized individuals overseas could come to the United States and carry out attacks similar to the one that shocked Paris on Friday. Sixty-eight alleged ISIS sympathizers have been arrested within the United States—80 percent of whom were home-grown citizens, according to The Center on National Security at Fordham Law. The charges range from providing material support to conspiracy to kill to fraud, immigration violations, and drug crimes. Three of those arrested were categorized as refugees or asylum seekers.
Humanitarian aid groups believe seeking refugee status in the US is actually the most difficult way of entering the country.
“Refugees are the most security vetted population who come to the United States,” the New York-based International Rescue Committee said in a statement Tuesday. “Security screenings are rigorous and involve the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI and the Department of Defense.” Similar statements were made by a bevy of aid groups.
But the fear of further terror attacks has made Obama’s Syrian refugee program one of the most politically-charged initiatives of his presidency, with some expressing utter shock that the White House would even consider allowing Syrians in.
For others, opening up the United States’ gates to 10,000 refugees, they say, is the best way to respond to bloodthirsty criminals hoping western nations forsake their values out of fear.
“It is clear what we oppose, it is clear what we denounce, it is also clear what we promote,” Sniffen, of the Cathedral of Incarnation in Garden City, said Friday. “We promote communities of diversity, of love, and of faith commitments of every persuasion rooted in love of God and love of neighbor.”