Five Duke professors held a panel Wednesday to discuss the Islamic State group in a way often rare in today's contentious political climate—constructively.
The panel discussion, hosted by the Duke University Middle East Studies Center, focused on the humanitarian and ethical challenges associated with the Islamic State group's presence in Syria and Iraq. The speakers included David Schanzer, associate professor of the practice for public policy and director of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security, Suzanne Shanahan, associate research professor in sociology, David Siegel, associate professor of political science, Omid Safi, director of the Duke Islamic Studies Center and moderator Abdeslam Magrhaoui, associate professor of the practice for political science.
Although the event was hosted by Duke faculty, most of the audience consisted of local Durham residents. The discussion covered a wide range of issues—from the financing and constitution of the Islamic State group to the ongoing refugee crisis, Islamophobia in the West and the threat the Islamic State group poses in the U.S.
"The perception that refugees are all terrorists in waiting is increasingly prevalent," Shanahan said. "Underlying this fear is a fundamental misunderstanding about refugee law and policy internationally."
During the discussion, the professors agreed that the United States has a moral and legal obligation to accept refugees, that the ideology of the Islamic State group is not consistent with the basic tenets of Islam and that group poses a powerful threat to the U.S.
Safi passionately advocated for the acceptance of refugees. He noted that five million Syrians have fled the country and that another half of the country's remaining population is internally displaced.
Schanzer added that a rejection of refugees plays into the hands of the Islamic State group.
"Our anti-refugee rhetoric and our anti-Muslim bigotry is really supporting the ISIS claim that Muslims will never be accepted in our society," Schanzer said.
Siegel said that the Islamic State group is already skilled in recruiting in ways unprecedented for a terrorist group and that they need no help from American politicians.
During a particularly passionate point during the question and answer session, attendee Stephen Young contended that the Islamic State group has always existed in one form or another.
Safi said in response that the notion that there has been a consistent political philosophy during 1,400 years of Islamic government is "laughable" and criticized Young's response that "they all have the same ideology" as a statement lacking historical evidence.
"I would encourage you to study history before making that kind of assertion," Safi said.
Safi said that while the Islamic State group claims to practice a pure form of Islam, the organization violates core tenets of the religion. He cited an Islamic State group video depicting one member beheading his own mother as a direct contradiction of the Islamic belief in honoring one's parents.
Whatever their ideology, Siegel noted it poses a threat to the U.S. because the Islamic State group inspires "loner attacks" that do not require large migrations.
It is important to put the threat into context, however, Schanzer said. Since the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, the Islamic State group and its predecessor, Al-Qaeda, have killed around 50 Americans total, he cited, whereas The Center for Disease Control reported over 16,000 homicides in the United States in 2013.
Attendees had mostly positive impressions of the panel discussion.
"What I thought was interesting was how well educated [the panelists] are about the issues, and how that contrasts with the political discussions we hear today," said Sulaiman Abdulazeez, a graduate student in engineering management. "Interesting and a little sad at the same time."
Young said that the discussion was one-sided, however, with not enough focus on actually combatting the Islamic State group, although he also noted he was thankful for the openness of the discussion.
Safi said in conversations as politically and emotionally charged as those over religion and terrorism, it can be easy to engage in harmful and inflammatory rhetoric.
"There is a better and higher way than fear and fear mongering," Safi said.