Looking In: On hating Syrians

A lot of people in the United States hate refugees, thinking they are dangerous terrorists. Similar unfounded fears, disconnected from reality, have also become commonplace in Europe. Most refugees in question — objects of hatred and suspicion — are Syrians escaping from their brutal civil war and the destruction brought by ISIS.

Many news organizations, liberal and conservative, have discussed this hatred within the framework of Islamophobia, bringing on Reza Aslan and Ann Coulter to talk about whether Islam is an enemy of the United States. The perpetuated idea here is that Americans, and many Europeans, have a problem with Islam and hate the entire religion while knowing nothing about it.

This understanding is true, but it is simply too narrow. It does not tell the whole story of the hatred that motivates the angry looks people with brown skin, long beards and veils get at the airport. It does not tell the whole story because hating Syrian refugees is not a phenomenon exclusive to Christian-majority countries. A crushing majority of people in Turkey harbor a similar unconscionable hatred of Syrians, and Turkey is over 99 percent Muslim. It is not just opposition to Islam or a lack of understanding of it that motivates this fear.

In fact, I would even venture to say that hatred toward Syrian refugees is more intense, less abstract and more widespread in Turkey. This winter break in Istanbul, I saw with my own eyes a Turkish man knock a Syrian beggar down to the ground and spit on him. As I froze in my place out of disbelief, no one said a thing.

The Syrian refugee population in Turkey is close to 3 million, way more than any Christian-majority country. Most of these people came across the border with nothing and are now building new lives from scratch, many without legal status. The government gave these people food, some shelter, sometimes healthcare, and many citizens of Turkey were furious. The government was feeding Syrians when there were plenty of poor Turks, they said. In the past couple years, there have been multiple incidents of arson in Syrian neighborhoods in Istanbul. Ever since the government began its military operations Syria last year, there has been a disgusting call to spare Turkish soldiers and instead make the Syrian men in Turkey fight on behalf of Turkey and to force those who fled war back into war. Syrians who started small businesses are targeted for “stealing jobs” from Turks.

The difference between Turkey and the United States is that in Turkey, hating Syrian refugees is not a partisan issue; it’s a unifier. People of every party have hate. At least in the United States, many liberals stand up for refugees, as I saw in Copley Square two weeks ago. In Turkey, the liberals perpetuate the hatred. The liberal opposition even attacked the government for helping refugees.

The hatred of Syrian refugees is not simply about religion. It is hatred of the “other,” not simply of Islam. Muslims in Turkey, right-wingers in the United States and others elsewhere hate “the other” for what they are, because they’re different, be they Syrians, Mexicans, Armenians, Jews or another “other” pouring over their borders.