We humans

The best way to prevent terrorist attacks? Let’s welcome refugees.

Nov 14, 2017 /

The security of Western democracies depends on our welcoming displaced people, not deporting or demonizing them, says refugee advocate David Miliband.

Crisis is an overused word, but the massive forced displacement we see today, the sheer number of people driven from their homes by war or oppression, deserves that description. This is a global crisis.

We are witnessing the largest flow of people fleeing for their lives since the Second World War. In total, they account for one in every 113 people on the planet. If they came together as a single country, it would be the world’s 21st largest, about the size of the United Kingdom. For the refugees and displaced people, their needs are pressing. They have lost everything. And for Western democracies, our character is on the line. Fail the refugees, and we fail ourselves. I believe that one of the compelling arguments for the West to lead a global response is not the moral or historic case to care about refugees, but instead the hardheaded strategic one.

First, the world is more interconnected than ever before. This means instability in one part of the world ripples through to cause instability around the world. And since an untended humanitarian crisis exacerbates instability, it makes strategic sense to address both the causes of refugee flows and their symptoms. For example, the displacement crisis in northeast Nigeria matters for strategic reasons because Boko Haram is affiliated with Daesh; because destabilization of Africa’s largest economy is damaging for the whole continent; because instability and ungoverned space in northeast Nigeria afflict the whole of the Lake Chad basin; and because that instability contributes to an unsustainable flow of people toward Europe.

The second element is more specific, more controversial and more complicated. It is about relations between the West and the Muslim world. The fact is that around 60 percent of the world’s refugees and asylum seekers are from Muslim-majority countries and are fleeing violence within the Muslim world. This is not an easy subject to talk about, and there is great room for missteps and mistakes. But the facts are real.

The layers of the Syria crisis expose deep divisions inside the Muslim world — over the exercise of power, theology, regional and international alliances, and engagement with the wider world. All are exacerbated by the growing mobility, flexibility and ruthlessness of non-state terrorist movements, which exploit the openness and integration of globalization to threaten those whom they deem enemies. Of course, Afghanistan is different from Syria. And both are very different from Myanmar and the Central African Republic, where Muslim minorities suffer persecution.

But the roiling turmoil within areas of the Islamic world, and the attacks on Muslims in other areas of the world, are a key part of the story of the refugee crisis and the reaction to it. “Islam is no settled entity,” writes Christopher de Bellaigue. “It has burst its banks and seethes with discontents and desires that are immediately recognizable as the consequence of a painful engagement with modernity.”

I spent a lot of time thinking about this question: What would be the best way to undermine the argument of jihadists, that they were the only people who could defend the honor of Muslim populations?

In July 2005, I was sitting in a Cabinet meeting in London. I was the minister for communities and local government. The mood was upbeat — the city had, the day before, won the right to stage the 2012 Olympics. But toward the end of the meeting, the transport secretary was called out to take a phone call. Then the meeting was quickly concluded, and the home secretary was asked to stay behind. We subsequently found that terrorists had struck the London transport network. Fifty-two people had been killed and more than seven hundred injured.

The attacks raised fundamental questions about intelligence production and sharing, and effective integration of Muslim minorities. Subsequent homegrown terrorism in Europe has only served to strengthen these points. Later, as foreign secretary, I was responsible for MI6, Britain’s global intelligence service, and GCHQ , the center of signals intelligence, so the interception and interruption of terrorist planning, and understanding the terrorist mindset, were a daily concern. I spent a lot of time thinking about how the fight against international terrorism could be conducted. What would be the best way to undermine the argument of jihadists, namely that they were the only people who could adequately defend the interests and honor of Muslim populations?

The horrific terrorist attacks of recent years, even though they have in the main been “homegrown,” have also led to soul-searching for Western societies. Is it possible to be both open and safe? When does pluralism become separation, separation lead to alienation, and alienation turn to violence? And what is the best way to respond to terrorist attacks and lower the chance of future ones?

The argument that we are doomed to a “clash of civilizations” is, in my view, wrong. Violent jihadism is symptomatic of a clash within Islam rather than between Islam and the West.

From both jobs I took this lesson: Those who direct terrorist attacks in the name of Islamic purity are strategic in the way they act. Therefore, the response must be, too. The starting point is to understand, as scholar Peter Neumann explains, that jihadism by Islamist groups, even when it has a name such as Al Qaeda or proclaims itself a “caliphate” as Daesh has done, is a movement and not just an organization. It is a way of thinking based on theology and ideology, not only a command structure for organizing terror. It is important to try to understand the way tactics link to strategy for the leaders.

The carnage they seek to wreak is an end in itself but also a means to a larger end. That end is to provoke or further a defining, multigenerational conflict between those committed to jihad and their enemies (both Western and Islamic). So the death of the leaders and the destruction of their organization does not mean that their appeal is vanquished. That’s why commentators talk about the danger of “Daesh 3.0” (and 4.0) — further iterations of thought and action, more extreme than before — even as Daesh is defeated in its citadels in Iraq and Syria.

These people find succor for their fanaticism in certain actions and statements in the West. For example, the former and now disgraced national security advisor Michael Flynn claimed, “Fear of Muslims is rational.” In the process, he confirmed the central claim of the jihadists: that religious division and conflict are inevitable. The argument that we are doomed to a “clash of civilizations” — the name of an important book by Samuel Huntington in 1996 — is, in my view, wrong. Part of the reason it is wrong is that violent jihadism in the name of Islam is symptomatic of a clash within Islam rather than between Islam and the West.

A crackdown on Muslim refugees is exactly the kind of thing that undermines the fight against terrorism.

It cannot be said often enough: the majority of the victims of the appalling attacks carried out in the name of Islam are, in fact, Muslim. President Trump recognized this in his speech in Saudi Arabia in May 2017. More Muslims than Christians or Jews have been killed by jihadist violence because there is a clash within the Muslim world about its identity, pitting purification against pluralism.

“This is above all a war within Islam: a conflict of Sunni against Shia, but also a war by Sunni extremists against more moderate Muslims,” as the Pakistani author Ahmed Rashid put it. Ed Husain, a British Muslim who has made the trek from fundamentalist to counter-extremist, explains the divide in stark terms: “ISIS, al Qaeda and other jihadist terrorists believe in an Islam of literalism, anger, activism and political control. Most Muslims now and throughout history observed an Islam of contemplation, piety and inner goodness.”

Western countries should be doing everything possible to enfranchise, empower and support the vast majority of Muslims arguing against the hate being spewed by the radicals in their midst. Helping Muslim refugees, both by offering aid to countries hosting them and by welcoming vulnerable and vetted refugees to our own shores, is not just right in itself; it also plays a part in the wider effort.

A strategic effort to contribute to the fight against violent jihadism does not confuse Muslim refugees with terrorists. In fact, it recognizes that a crackdown on Muslim refugees is exactly the kind of thing that undermines the fight against terrorism. For example, former CIA director Michael Hayden has written about how President Trump’s executive order on refugees will make it harder to recruit agents because “it doesn’t take paranoia to connect the action of the executive order with the hateful, anti-Islamic language of the campaign,” which in turn undermines the respect on which security cooperation depends.

So when I say that the refugee crisis is about us, not just them, I mean that it is about basic questions of individual character and foreign policy. The humanitarian enterprise is founded on a moral claim of the victims of war — and about the empathy and altruism they are owed by the rest of us. But we should not be scared of the strategic argument. This is about the interests of nations, too. An untended humanitarian crisis is fuel for political instability. We should be committing ourselves to its management and resolution with our heads as well as our hearts.

Excerpted from the new book Rescue: Refugees and the Political Crisis of Our Time by David Miliband. Reprinted with permission from TED Books/Simon & Schuster. © 2017 David Miliband.