Americans’ Attitudes to Mideast War Migrants Are Largely Noble

A survey administered during a moment of high emotions about refugees, immigrants, and terrorism, indicates some polarization on the issue of accepting war-related refugees from the Arab region, along with a generous American spirit of assisting and welcoming the needy.

Thank goodness for calm, collected scholars who can be counted on to provide some verifiable facts during moments like today, when anger, fear and other gut feelings distort our rational thinking about our increasingly violent world. We feel today the heat of emotional highs and lows and other battles of the soul that Americans and many others around the world are experiencing after the killing of forty-nine people in Orlando, Florida by an erratic young American of Afghan heritage. All kinds of wild accusations and harsh remedies are being thrown around, as people frantically seek any route to reducing the regular recurrence of such mass killings.

Thanks heavily to the aggressive negative rhetoric of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, much attention is focused on immigrants and Muslims in the United States as possible agents of violence and terror. So it is refreshing and politically calming to get the findings this week of a new poll on American public attitudes to immigrants from Syria, Iraq, and Libya. The study was conducted in late May by University of Maryland political science professor and Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Shibley Telhami, who has tracked and studied public opinion in the United States and the Middle East for decades.

The findings might surprise those who do not follow these issues very closely, because in general a majority of Americans are welcoming to immigrants and would like their country and society to play a strong role in settling war refugees. For example, 59 percent of respondents favored the United States taking in refugees from Middle East conflict zones, after screening them for possible terrorists; 41 percent opposed this. The different attitudes of political party members were striking, with 77 percent of Democrats and 38 percent of Republicans supporting accepting refugees from the Middle East.

A striking but perhaps not surprising finding of the study, given the heightened global incidence of terrorism, was that 46 percent of respondents who opposed accepting Syrian immigrants were most concerned about terrorism, even though incidents of terrorism by immigrants have been negligible. Only three immigrants have been arrested in the U.S. on terrorism charges since 2011, yet the fear of terrorism dominates concerns about migrants by many Americans.

The second major reason for opposing migrants (41 percent of respondents) was the economic burden of absorbing them, and just 9 percent were concerned about having more Muslims in the country even if they were peaceful.

One fascinating finding of the poll was that 56 percent of Americans thought the 2003 war in Iraq (which the United States launched and led) played a significant role in the events leading up to the Syrian refugees situation today, while 31 percent said it played a small role. This seems like a positive sign that more and more Americans are appreciating the negative impact of the war in Iraq that their government unleashed, and whose consequences continue to devastate the Middle East while also challenging foreign countries in the form of refugee waves and other issues.

The traditional American humanitarian spirit of assisting people in need was evident in responses to how people thought their country should come to the aid of refugees in the United States or abroad. A majority prefer the United States to offer assistance to refugees abroad; 79 percent of respondents wanted the United States to send humanitarian professionals to assist abroad, and 60 percent said the United States should provide financial assistance to charities that assist refugees abroad. An equal 60 percent said that individuals and community groups should sponsor refugees in the United States. Nearly half (47 percent) said the U.S. government should allow more war refugees into the country.

The results of this survey, which was administered during a moment of high emotions about refugees, immigrants, and terrorism, indicate both some strong polarization on the issue of accepting war-related refugees from the Arab region, along with a generous American spirit of assisting and welcoming the needy. The subject continues to be plagued by misconceptions in some areas (such as some immigrants’ assumed links to terror), and perhaps a growing number of Americans are starting to link the impact of their 2003 war policies in Iraq with the deteriorating conditions in the region today.

Above all, the value of such research is that it provides us with verifiable insights into the actual, mostly noble, sentiments of Americans, during this moment of heightened emotional stress and fear that are exploited by politicians for their own electoral purposes. Maybe the most important lesson from all this is that we should watch less television news coverage to understand the facts of our world, and instead read more of the work of responsible scholars and analysts whose findings deserve to be more routinely disseminated by the news media.

Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly in the Daily Star. He was founding director and now senior policy fellow of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. On Twitter: @ramikhouri.

Copyright ©2016 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global