A terrorist attack like the Brussels bombing and a humanitarian crisis like the Syrian refugee exodus might seem like separate things, but they share some surprising similarities.
They are both immediate problems, with victims needing shelter and medical care. Both grow out of long-term disputes such as religious conflicts or governmental collapse. And in both cases, it's essential to know who you're talking about.
On that last point, University of California, Los Angeles Center for Near Eastern Studies professor Dominic Thomas said many people make some serious mistakes. In the case of the Brussels bombing, it wasn't foreign terrorists sneaking bombs into Belgium – long-term residents appear to be the suspects. And while many mix the words "immigrant" and "refugee" together, one has some freedom of choice while the other is fleeing chaos. Governments may block immigrants, but they're legally bound to help refugees.
Thomas made that argument while speaking at the 14th annual Central and Southwest Asia Conference this week at the University of Montana. Born in Germany, raised in France, educated in Great Britain and working in the United States, Thomas was one of the keynote presenters on the immigration crisis in Europe and its evolving attitudes toward race and ethnicity.
Ironically, terrorists and refugees often share another trait, Thomas said. They're both forsaking their homes as hopeless and reaching out for something they hope is better. A family in Aleppo facing bombs from the Syrian military and Islamic State militia sees no future in staying put. A second-generation immigrant in France with no job prospects and constant political persecution can feel the same way.
"They see these ISIS recruitment videos that say you're facing racial profiling, they're banning your street prayers and head scarves and demanding more pork in the schools, and we can give you back your identity," Thomas said. "Terrorists see they have no future. That's the tragedy on both sides."
Lumping that all together, as has often occurred in the U.S. presidential primary season, results in calls for bans on all Muslims entering the country or surveillance on those already here. Thomas said the same arguments are being made by far-right or populist politicians in Europe. He argued that stance makes two mistakes.
The first is how such a strategy of banning certain very large groups of people would work, and to what end.
"Are we going to change the box on the immigration form from 'Are you carrying vegetables' to 'Are you Muslim?' " Thomas asked. "And then what? Put stars on them? Tattoos? There are more than 1 billion Muslim practitioners worldwide."
The second problem is the morality of blaming a large group for the actions of a few.
"Do people who blow up abortion clinics or priests who sexually abuse children represent the entire Roman Catholic Church?" Thomas asked again. "Absolutely not. But the American presidential race has picked up the same far-right political rhetoric of Europe, where the refugee migration path is a way for terrorists to enter. We're creating this 'Fortress Europe' where everything's on lockdown. It's an argument that's emotional, fear-mongering and incredibly effective."
That strategy does nothing to either help refugees or stop people from turning their grievances to terrorism, Thomas said. It also makes a mockery of the very values the world associates with the U.S.
"America is historically the country that welcomes not immigrants, but new Americans," Thomas said. "As educators, we're in the business of trying to open minds. People are different, and what happens over there matters over here. Exposing yourself to those differences helps you define yourself. It makes you ask how you can improve things. And it makes you understand that difference doesn't equal inferiority."