Image courtesy of Tasja at Pictography.co

The Campaign of Misinformation Against Refugees — And What You Can Do To Counter It

If you’ve been paying any attention to what’s been happening in Missoula, Montana lately, you’ll have noticed there’s been a bit of hysteria about resettling refugees there — at least, from some of the surrounding counties. At a February town hall meeting in Ravalli county, just south of Missoula, a scene of anger and distress unfolded. “The United States may not be at war with Islam, but Islam is at war with the United States,” said one man. “What are they going to say to the first victim’s family?” says another man bitterly. “What are they going to say when these people start attacking your children, your daughters, your mothers, your sisters?” He stares out at the bleachers full of people. “Damn right,” shouts someone from the audience. A grey-haired man in a camo shirt and black vest takes the mic. “This is about setting the stage so that there will be battle in Ravalli county,” he intones emphatically. “So that ISIS will come after our women.”

While obviously not all refugees coming to the US are Muslim, and at this point a very small percentage are Syrian, much of the hysteria seems to center around both Islam and fears about Syrian refugees. I don’t want to downplay the very real feelings and fears of rural town-dwellers about changes to their communities — something that, as this election made clear, America’s urban coasts would do well to take seriously, rather than ridicule or brush off — fears that seem to stem in part from demographic changes, but also from major economic hardship many of these localities face. However, a great deal of misinformation is being spread to these communities which is heightening their struggles with demographic change — and this misinformation is not casual, unsystematic hearsay. Several organizations have set up talks in towns across the US, with speakers who are “experts” on Islam, and are in effect whipping up hysteria about refugees — Syrian refugees in particular. Despite the now-oft-repeated fact that Syrian (and other) refugees are subject to intensive screening before being allowed into the U.S., these organizations are propagating ideas that are truly damaging to American values of inclusion, diversity, and progress. A young Republican from Minnesota describes the story A.J. Kern, an anti-refugee politician, told to a crowd of older people in St. Cloud:

[She said,] “Imagine your granddaughter comes home now one day from school, and she says, ‘Grandma, I’m in love with my new boyfriend. . . He’s little Muhammad. . . . [W]ell, what happens if they fall in love and they get married? Are they going to have a Christian wedding or are they going to have a Muslim wedding?” And the people there were like, “Oh my god, what kind of wedding would they have?” And then she just took it up a notch and said, “What happens when little Muhammad and your granddaughter have children of their own? And they’re Muslim now, and . . . genital mutilation is part of their culture. And so what are you going to do when little Muhammad wants to do that to your great-grandchildren?” And . . . some of the group were like, oh my gosh, I don’t know what I’ll do. Thank you for bringing this to my attention.

If you’re a white grandmother who grew up in a small town and doesn’t know much about other cultures or religions, this is a genuinely scary prospect. What is needed to counter such misinformation is not derision, but education.

Many of the speakers spreading these fabrications about refugees and Islam are locals, speaking on a regional or statewide circuit; an article in the Twin Cities’ Star Tribune names speakers and politicians including Ron Branstner, Jeffrey Baumann, and A.J. Kern as being influential in Minnesota, for example, where tensions over refugees have flared in the past year. But several national organizations have gained steam, and their speakers can be found on the roster from Knoxville, TN, to Hamilton, MT, and from Twin Falls, ID to St. Augustine, FL. These organizations include ACT! For America (founded by Brigitte Gabriel, a “national security expert,” regular speaker on Fox News, and author of Because They Hate and They Must Be Stopped, both New York Times bestsellers), which has local chapters all over the US; Refugee Resettlement Watch, (founded by Ann Corcoran, an “environmental lobbyist [turned] anti-refugee blogger”); and the DC think-tank Center for Security Policy (founded by Frank Gaffney, who in a 2011 column stated that “So pervasive now is the [Muslim Brotherhood’s] ‘civilization jihad’ within the U.S. government and civil institutions that . . . we need to establish a new and improved counterpart to the Cold War-era’s HUAC [House Un-American Activities Committee] and charge it with examining and rooting out anti-American . . . activities” — in other words, a return to the McCarthy era).

The Center for Security Policy was cited by Trump as “very highly respected people, who I know, actually,” and is the (discredited) source of his frequently stated poll statistics about Muslims in the US. The Southern Poverty Law Center has called all three of these groups hate groups, saying that:

Anti-Muslim extremist groups count on the media to cover their efforts and messaging as fact-based and backed by the majority of Americans. Too often, television networks, newspapers and other media organizations turn to these groups’ spokespeople as credible sources on national security, immigration and religious liberty, and valid counterpoints to real issue experts. Typically missing from the coverage of and interviews with these extremists is critical contextual information about their defamatory and false rhetoric and their hate group associations.

While — for example — the website of ACT! For America is well-designed and appears credible at first glance, all you have to do is click through to their “Affiliate Site,” Unmasking the Muslim Brotherhood in America, to start seeing the cracks show through.

One of the most influential (and inaccurate) ideas being propagated by these speakers and organizations is that in certain parts of the US, sharia law is becoming, or has already become, the law of the land. A recent episode of This American Life explored this in conversation with South Dakota state representative Al Novstrup. The conversation is illustrative.

Zoe Chace
[S]tate rep Al Novstrup [has] been in state government for 14 years, and he came to this meeting [in a hotel ballroom in Aberdeen, South Dakota] to get more information on Sharia law potentially taking over his city, like it has other places he says.
Zoe Chace
Like where?
Al Novstrup
Dearborn, Michigan.
Zoe Chace
Have you seen that happen there?
Al Novstrup
I haven’t been to Dearborn, Michigan.
Zoe Chace
From my perspective, as a national reporter, there’s still the Constitution. There’s no Sharia anywhere.
Al Novstrup
You don’t think there’s Sharia anywhere, in the United States?
Zoe Chace
Correct.
Al Novstrup
I think you need to read more.
Zoe Chace
I do read.
Al Novstrup
You don’t think there’s Sharia any place in the United States? You don’t think — wow. OK. You don’t think there’s Sharia? I’m just blown away. We’re living on two different planets.

(For the record, Dearborne Michigan — whose population is about 40% Arab-American — is not governed by sharia law. Neither is any other place in the United States.)

In a speech in Avon, MN, Ron Branstner — another frequent speaker on the Minnesota circuit — stated that “the transition to an Islamic state is already underway, funded by American corporations hungry for cheap labor and condoned by the Obama administration, which . . . is staffed by the Muslim Brotherhood” and that “CIA Director John Brennan . . . is a devout Muslim.” And Clare Lopez, vice-president of the Center for Security Policy — and, notably, on former-presidential-hopeful Ted Cruz’s list for foreign policy advisors, along with Frank Gaffney, who SPLC has called “one of America’s most notorious Islamophobes” — said in April that there are parts of Minneapolis where the police don’t go, because they know sharia law is being practiced.

If you google the phrase “sharia law in America,” the top hit is a website called billionbibles.org. The web page contains a bullet-point list with such claims as “An increasing number of public American schools . . . are holding Islamic prayers towards Mecca,” and “In 2014, Rocky Mountain High School in Fort Collins, Colorado became the first high school to recite the Pledge of Allegiance in Arabic, replacing ‘One nation under God,’ with ‘One nation under Allah.’”

If you are a well-educated progressive living in a community with lots of other well-educated progressive people, your tendency might be to wave off these speakers and their half-truths and fabrications as fringe conspiracy theorists who have little impact on anything real. I disagree with such easy dismissal, and the recent conversation about “fake news” — particularly its viral spread on Facebook — bears me out. While there may a relatively small number of circuit speakers spreading this misinformation, the number of people they are reaching are not insignificant, nor is their impact on the very real lives of refugees in and around those communities — and in the entire country.

This sort of hysteria and misinformation about refugees is not new to the U.S. — indeed, historically we have shown very similar reactivity towards many previous waves of refugees and immigrants — but it has had tragic consequences in the past, and one need only look at the tiny numbers of Syrian refugees the US has actually accepted, to see that it is having tragic consequences now. One past example — and I am not the first to raise the comparison — is that of the German ocean liner the St. Louis, full of Jews fleeing Nazi Europe. The US, at that time full of hateful rhetoric about Jews, turned the ship away. Its passengers were returned to Europe, where a number of them went to their deaths at the hands of the Nazis. The US, meanwhile, continued to tighten its immigration restrictions — including rejecting a bill that would have offered a safe haven to 20,000 Jewish children..

The impact of these groups and misinformation campaigns on our national policy towards refugees is not to be ignored, and the ability of such organizations to mobilize significant letter-writing, phone-calling, and voter turnout cannot be overlooked. Obviously there’s a need to politically counter the projects of these organizations, as well as to call out their funders (a 2013 Salon expose on Frank Gaffney and the Center for Security Policy found that “six of the U.S.’ biggest aerospace and defense contractors are supporters of Gaffney’s organization”).

But on a more personal, individual level, here are three simple things you can do, closer to home:

1. Invite a speaker or panel of experts to your community, to speak at the library or the town hall or to high school students, as the Montana World Affairs Council and Missoula’s Sentinel High School did, as this young woman works to do in Minnesota, or as numerous legal organizations have done around the country. A few organizations that do such speaking are CAIR and the Cordoba Initiative, but look around — perhaps there’s a chapter of the Muslim Students Association at your local college or university (like this one at University of Michigan), for example.

2. Counter the negativity and misinformation with examples of real communities who took the resettlement of refugees as an exciting opportunity, rather than a threat. Learn the stories of towns and small cities where refugees have been resettled, are living in peace, and have even helped strengthen the local community — from Hamtramck, MI (“America’s first city with a Muslim-majority city council”), Ft Wayne, IN, and San Gabriel, CA, to Shelbyville and Nashville, TN. Take as a model these communities that have reached out to, rather than pushed away, refugee communities; and look at some of the resources aimed at sharing municipal tips for integration, such as this one, and international partnerships growing to help share strategies and successes. WelcomingRefugees.org offers two toolkits to help reframe the messaging around refugees in your community: “Reframing Refugees,” and “Stronger Together: Making the Case for Shared Prosperity Through Welcoming Immigrants in Our Communities.”

Find a non-profit near you that is helping resettle refugees in your state or your community. Many of these organizations, like this one in Connecticut, need volunteers to mentor recently-arrived refugees; to donate furniture, clothing, baby strollers, or other items; to co-sponsor events; even to help refugees connect with local employers. A few places to start include IRC, Lutheran Family Services, HIAS, and a few others (find resources in your state here). But don’t forget that there are often smaller community-based organizations, like these in Toledo, L.A., St. Cloud, and Chicago working directly to support refugees, as well. And if you’re interested in helping bring refugees to your community, check out this list of key qualities to help refugees succeed in their new home.