Irish should understand the need to guard against Syrian refugee backlash
Published 19/11/2015 | 02:30
'Clear off home, Paddy bomber," the manageress of a London jeweller's said to me, when I tried to return a pair of faulty earrings. That was the moment I came face to face with the backlash caused by an Irish accent. To this day, I can taste the shock I felt at being branded the enemy.
It was the 1990s and the IRA campaign was targeting the financial heart of the city. Bombs were exploding, people were dying or suffering dreadful injuries. Aggression against Irish people might have been unfair but the reason for it wasn't difficult to identify.
What I found most upsetting about the incident, however, was the silence from staff members behind the counter and a corresponding silence from other customers nearby. Everyone shrugged, or dropped their eyes and looked away. Did they all think I was capable of killing indiscriminately because of my Irish accent?
It seemed as though this little microcosm of the community had judged me and found me guilty. Looking back, I suppose some of those bystanders were too embarrassed to intervene, or maybe they were as nonplussed as me. But I felt isolated and slunk out without insisting on a refund for my damaged goods.
Later, I considered whether to complain about the woman to the owner of the shop. But I let it go.
Maybe she'd lost someone to the Troubles. Even if she hadn't, some knee-jerk xenophobia seemed inevitable, given the broader context. I preferred to concentrate on the open-mindedness of the host community in Britain: by and large, it didn't believe in collective punishment or blame the many for the actions of the few. Such tolerance was fortunate for the large numbers of Irish people living and working in Britain.
That episode in the jeweller's returned to me after reports that one of the Paris bombers was carrying a Syrian passport and entered France with asylum seekers through the Greek island of Lesbos. Since then, the discourse surrounding Syrian refugees has shifted. The welcome is diluted. "Clear off home, Syrian bombers" is hovering in the air.
France continues to promise it will accept refugees, with President Francois Hollande yesterday confirming that 30,000 would be taken in over the next two years.
He acknowledged that recent events had sown doubts in some minds but said the country would meet its responsibilities. The French used to call their president 'Flanby' after a wobbly caramel flan. But there is nothing soft-centred about his current stance, with raids on suspects and armed personnel on the streets. Even so, he is not closing France's borders.
By comparison, some elements in the US are seizing on last week's attacks on the French capital as an excuse to ban war-torn Syrians from the Land of the Free. The Boston bombers were refugees, it's being said. Other radicals could be among the Syrians acting as infiltrators, fifth columnists, Trojan horses. A leader, an opinion-former, is on thin ice when they zone in on the actions of a minuscule minority, and use them to hoist a question mark over an entire group. But that's never deterred people with an agenda. The tactic works because it capitalises on fear.
Naturally, people are afraid when the killing is random, happening as people go about their daily business or while they socialise. Hate is closely linked to fear. And where it is directed against the Syrian refugees, it serves the twisted purposes of Isil, which wants to nurture distrust against asylum seekers. Bear in mind that the militant group believes it is a sin to live among infidels, ie non-Muslims. It hoped those brutalised by the Assad regime would join its ranks - not make a dash for the West.
However, Syrians are leaving their homes because of Isil - not in support of the group. They are victims of a perverted and primitive ideology which encourages jihad, just as the Parisians killed last week were victims. Some 178 people were killed last Sunday in Syria, 26 of them civilians, while 129 were killed the previous day, 20 civilians among their numbers. A few days such as those soon add up to the Paris death toll. And then easily surpass it. No wonder people are streaming out of Syria.
Republicans in Congress are trying to suspend a US refugee programme for Syrians, while 15 state governors (one of them a Democrat) are threatening to try to block their entry. The Obama administration has revealed details of its screening system to offer reassurance to those anxious about terrorist sleepers. But the rhetoric against it is inflammatory.
President Barack Obama says some such language only serves to strengthen Isil. "We are not well served when, in response to a terrorist attack, we descend into fear and panic. We don't make good decisions if it's based on hysteria or an exaggeration of risks. When individuals say we should have a religious test and that only Christians, proven Christians should be admitted, that's offensive," he said.
Meanwhile, the version of Islam with which the West is becoming familiar is, regrettably, an extreme one where teenage jihadists and suicide bombers are woven through the narrative. I have no doubt the majority of Muslims are horrified at what's being done in the Prophet's name, just as Irish people were appalled at the IRA's actions in the name of Ireland. But moderate Muslims will also have to face up to radicalisation within their faith, and address the reasons for it.
The Syrian conflict has displaced millions of people in fewer than five years. Would we prefer them to stay at home and take sides - would it suit us better for them to become radicalised, too? Those who leave want none of it.
During the Troubles, at least Irish people had somewhere else to go - we weren't forced to stay on this island, nor were we treated like human flotsam when we did take ship. Sometimes, the welcome was muted, but we didn't have to listen to talk about putting us in refugee camps or keeping us in one place pending repatriation.
The Irish, with our history of learning to fit in after emigration - often in places where we were regarded as an economic or political threat - must speak up for the Syrian refugees now.
When I hear silence, I'm reminded of that day in the London jeweller's, when silence felt like condemnation.