A View from Berlin

In the wake of yet another terrorist attack on European soil, many Americans and Europeans have expressed concern about accepting refugees fleeing ISIS-controlled regions, most of whom are Muslim, for fear of compromising national security. Cornerstone asks: Can Western democracies enact reasonable security measures while still retaining robust protections for members of minority religions seeking refuge? If so, how? 

By: John M. Owen

The shock waves from the Paris terrorist attacks have disturbed Germans in particular. Their country has accepted an estimated 200,000 refugees from Syria’s civil war. Presumably most of these are fleeing persecution from either ISIS or some other horrendous rebel group, or from Syria’s Assad regime itself. Either way, in a real sense these are people fleeing religious persecution and seeking a place where their identity as a Christian, Yazidi, or the wrong kind of Muslim does not get them and their families killed. 

Germany is a constitutional democracy with religious liberty and it has basked in nearly universal acclaim during 2015 for accepting such a disproportionately high (by European standards) number of Syrian refugees. To be sure, even before Paris there was serious dissent from anti-immigration groups and worries that Germany’s internal security apparatus was overloaded. Part of the problem has been that, by the end of 2015, Germany will have taken in as many as a million refugees and migrants over the preceding twelve months, mostly from the Middle East and Southeastern Europe. Germany’s population is 80 million; in proportional terms, it would be as if the United States admitted nearly four million refugees and migrants in a single year. The government of Chancellor Angela Merkel, herself of the center-right Christian Democratic Party, was facing possible revolt from its right flank. Fears of a resurgent far right were beginning to surface.   

But the Paris attacks throw German generosity under a different light. Now it is not only the anti-immigrationists who are asking: Has Germany inadvertently let in ISIS agents, plotting to blow up soccer stadiums, concert halls, and restaurants in its cities?   

The worry is not groundless. Experts say that terrorists are far more likely to be native-born Europeans who travel to Syria (or some other place with robust terrorist groups) to train and then return home to Europe. But it appears that at least one of the Paris murderers entered France posing as a Syrian refugee, not a French national. And of course it does not take many terrorists or much money to unleash a devastating attack on a subway car or a restaurant. Indeed, ISIS and Al-Qaeda have inspired individuals to attack defenseless civilians in many countries, including the United States. When you admit 200,000 Syrians, even one-tenth of one percent is 200 people. And when a country of 80 million admits a million asylum seekers in a single year, its internal security services and police are bound to have trouble finding who those 200 are.   

The problem is exacerbated by Germany’s membership in the European Union’s 26-member Schengen Group: Anyone can enter or leave Germany from the other 25 countries without any security checks. The Paris terrorists entered freely from Belgium. Germans now ask whether terrorists have moved, unchecked, into their country.    

My hunch is that Germany is going to admit far fewer refugees and migrants in 2016, and that many of those it admitted in 2015 will be sent home. Indeed, even before the Paris attacks, the Merkel government announced that all new Syrian refugees will be able to stay for only one year, without the full rights of typical refugees. I also suspect that, painful as it will be for the European dream, the Schengen Group is going to suspend its open-borders rule for an indefinite period. Germany will need to take some such measures simply to remain, in the long run, the open and remarkably successful liberal democracy that it has been since 1949.   

What are the lessons for the United States, as Americans contend over whether to keep a commitment by President Obama to admit 10,000 new Syrian refugees? America rightly sees itself as an exemplar of religious liberty, and in recent years has sought to be a champion of the right of religious belief and practice. Does Germany’s likely change of policy mean that the United States should suspend its Syrian refugee policy? Or, should America only admit non-Muslims?   

My answer to both questions is “no.” But first, let me start with one lesson from Germany: It is wrong and harmful to reduce all resistance to high rates of immigration, particularly in a time of transnational terrorism, to racism and a nascent fascism. Progressives are adept at discrediting their foes by labeling them “fearful” and “anxious,” but the left has fears and anxieties of its own that lead it to stigmatize dissent from its own orthodoxy. If it becomes impermissible, politically incorrect, to raise questions in a time of threat, then those questions do not go away; they go underground, ready to be exploited by political actors and movements who will surround them with malignant narratives of blood and soil. In other words, if you want to forestall right-wing extremism, do not dismiss understandable concerns about terrorism or insult the concerned.   

Why not keep all Syrians out, then, or at least Syrian Muslims?    

Because America’s situation is not Germany’s. It has admitted far fewer Syrian refugees thus far—an estimate 1,800 since the civil war began—and is committed to another 10,000. The total would then be 11,800, just under six percent of the German total. Being a much larger country, the United States has a larger internal security apparatus to handle these far smaller numbers. If the INS, FBI, and large numbers of police and sheriffs’ associations were to protest that the burden is too heavy and the danger too great, then America’s situation would be like Germany’s. But that time is far away. Put another way, to reach Germany’s level of Syrian refugees, the United States would need to admit around 800,000 Syrians, almost 68 times more than America plans to admit. (America’s southern border is notoriously porous, but securing that border is not our topic here.)   

As for accepting only Christians and perhaps Yadizis: the best justification is that these groups are subject to especially heinous persecution by ISIS, even genocide. Who can forget the video of the Coptic martyrs being beheaded on a Libyan beach? But this is an argument for admitting Christians and Yazidis. It is not an argument against admitting any Muslims. ISIS is terrorizing Muslims who do not conform to their strict version of Sunni Islam. That is religious persecution. In refusing all Muslim refugees, America would be adding to the penalties that these people are suffering under.   

Angela Merkel is famous here for saying, with respect to high numbers of refugees, that “Germany can take it.” She spoke too soon. But the “it” that America has committed to taking is far less burdensome or dangerous. For now, America can indeed take it.       

John Owen, Taylor Professor of Politics at the University of Virginia, is spending this academic year as a Senior Guest Scholar at the Free University of Berlin and the Berlin Social Science Research Center (WZB). The opinions he expresses are his own. 

This piece was originally authored on November 23, 2015 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.

Permanent Link: https://www.religiousfreedominstitute.org/cornerstone/2016/7/19/a-view-from-berlin