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The West Is Giving ISIS Exactly What It Wants

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 17/11/2015 Daniel Marans

Lawmakers on both sides of the Atlantic have responded to Friday’s terror attacks in Paris by calling to close their countries’ doors to Syrian refugees and framing the fight against the Islamic State group, which claimed responsibility for the attacks, as a “clash of civilizations.”

But shutting out refugees and creating a hostile environment for Western Muslims won't help Europe and the U.S. defeat the extremists who wrought terror in Paris. In fact, such a strategy is likely to make the U.S. and its allies more vulnerable, not safer. Here are three approaches policymakers have embraced since Friday's attacks that would actually play into the hands of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS.

1. Contribute to radicalization by keeping refugees out

The 26 U.S. governors who are calling on the federal government to reject Syrian refugees have cited concerns about a refugee committing a terror attack. 

Authorities found the passport of a man who crossed into Europe as a refugee from Syria near the body of one of the Paris suicide bombers, though it is not at all clear that the bomber was, in fact, a refugee. But even if one Syrian refugee did participate in the attacks, shutting out additional Syrians makes it more likely that extremism will take hold among them.

Josh Hampson argues in The Hill that keeping Syrian refugees in the Middle Eastern countries where they are currently concentrated increases the probability that they will grow susceptible to radicalization. He cites a 2013 study on the links between refugee resettlement and extremism, which found that the two greatest indicators of whether resettled refugees will commit acts of terror are poor living conditions and a lack of hospitable treatment in their host countries.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees found that “loss of hope and appalling living conditions” are motivating Syrian refugees to leave Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and Egypt for Europe. It's easy to see, then, why shutting refugees out of the West could breed more extremism. Hampson says it is urgent that the West enable Syrian refugees to re-settle in places where they will be less vulnerable to radicalization.

2. Play into the Islamic State's narrative by alienating Western Muslims

Characterizing the fight with the Islamic State as a “clash of civilizations” strengthens the group in another key way: That's exactly the framing the group depends on. One of the goals of attacks like the one in Paris is to provoke an overreaction that will make some Muslims in the West feel that Islam is inherently irreconcilable with the culture of the countries they live in. 

“This kind of nativism is used to show that the West does not uphold its own standards -- that it favors its own type,” said Christopher Swift, a national security expert at Georgetown and author of the forthcoming book, The Fighting Vanguard: Local Insurgencies in the Global Jihad. “It reinforces the ‘clash of civilizations’ narrative that groups like ISIS use to make a political rapprochement between different religious groups impossible.”

At least six of the Paris attackers identified by the French government were European nationals.

“France has long had a problem with integrating its Muslim population, and France does have a disproportionately high contribution of foreign fighters to ISIS,” Brookings Institution scholar Shadi Hamid previously told HuffPost. “So there’s a deeper issue here and it hasn’t gotten better, it’s only gotten worse.”

Swift added that ISIS would portray a drastic Western reaction as "Exhibit A that the crusaders are turning against" Muslims living in the West. 

3. Give up a crucial natural advantage over the militants

The Islamic State has been very disappointed by the flow of refugees to Europe, because it undermines the narrative that the group provides a safe haven for global Muslims.

In this way, the efforts by some European nations to accommodate Syrian refugees have helped to bridge some of the perceived divide between the West and the Muslim world that Swift describes.

“The reality is, The Islamic State (IS) loathes that individuals are fleeing Syria for Europe,” wrote Aaron Zelin, an expert on jihadist groups. “It undermines IS’ message that its self-styled Caliphate is a refuge, because if it was, individuals would actually go there in droves since it’s so close instead of ... risking their lives through arduous journeys that could lead to death en route to Europe.” 

Zelin goes on to cite a dozen statements from Islamic State leaders warning refugees against heading to Europe or other “infidel” lands. 

Conversely, if Europe and the United States were to shut out Syrian refugees, they would be foregoing an advantage they have over the Islamic State group.

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