Over the past week, the media has drawn a great deal of attention to the influx of refugees from Syria desperately traveling to European and other Middle Eastern nations in order to escape the horrors of a brutal, seemingly endless civil war and murderous terrorist groups such as Da’ish (better known in Hellenic civilization as ISIL or ISIS.) According to the United Nations, this exodus of people is the worst since the Rwandan Genocide of 1994.
Despite the perils the refugees face, Middle Eastern and European countries are for various reasons unwilling and/or unable to take in enough refugees to fully address the problem. This has led to an even greater concern as to where else they can go. While doing so would be a highly unpopular move, the United States could easily be the solution the many Syrians unable to be fully processed elsewhere are looking for.
Perhaps the most obvious of these reasons is crucial structural differences in the political cultures of Europe compared to that of the United States. Virtually every European nation’s identity rests on its dominant ethnic group or groups, while the United States is a multi-ethnic society whose national identity focuses more on a common set of values. Although they have much more secular societies than the United States, the countries of Europe have much less of an official separation of church and state. For these reasons among others, it is much harder for the ethnically homogeneous, officially Christian European countries to integrate foreigners, particularly non-Christian ones, than it is for the United States to do so.
Despite the difficulties Syrian refugees to the United States would inevitably face as newcomers, they would have opportunities to find culturally familiar institutions. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, there are approximately 154,450 Syrian Americans. The only larger Arab-American demographics can trace their heritage to Lebanon and Egypt. Considering the significant size of the Syrian population in the United States, and the fact that Lebanese, the largest Arab American demographic, are similar to Syrians in terms of culture and dialect, it should be relatively easy for Syrian refugees in the United States to find people with whom they share a common cultural heritage.
While there is no question that many Americans would have reservations about or be completely opposed to taking in mass numbers of Syrian refugees due to concerns about security, there are more safeguards in American society than in European or Middle Eastern ones to help keep any extremists in check. As I have previously written, the greater diversity of American mosques over those in the Muslim world, as well as the constitutional guarantee of a free exchange of ideas has allowed Muslim Americans to establish interpretations of their faith that are compatible with American values. In fact, a 2013 Pew poll indicates that they are more liberal and tolerant than most of their coreligionists worldwide. Similarly, a 2011 Gallup survey shows they are also more tolerant and pacifistic than Americans of virtually all other religious backgrounds. The liberalism of Muslim Americans therefore makes it harder for extremists of the same faith to engage in acts of terrorism with the support of their coreligionists.
Although it appears unlikely that the United States will not take on the Syrian refugee crisis in the way that I advocate, its multi-ethnic character and official separation of church and state, a significant Syrian presence already existing within the Arab American community, and Muslim Americans’ general preference for a liberal interpretation of their faith all make it perhaps the best place of refuge for the millions of Syrians seeking a better life outside of their homeland.