Experts believe education can trump fear in Missoula’s debate over Syrian refugees

The Montana World Affairs Council believes education can trump fear and help lift the debate over taking in Syrian refugees. Last year, the council hosted Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf as a guest speaker. (Photo courtesy of Montana World Affairs Council)


Over the past month, hundreds of Montanans have gathered in so-called “security rallies” to state their case loud and clear: refugees fleeing war and other human tragedies aren’t welcome in Montana.

From Missoula to Hamilton to Helena, the protesters have ramped up their rhetoric by calling Muslim refugees rapists, terrorists and cowards for fleeing the war in their homeland. They’ve also pointed a sharp finger at other Montanans who don’t agree with their particular view of the world.

“I think we know who our potential enemy is,” Tom Wing shouted during a recent Missoula protest. “It’s the voters here in Missoula who elect these idiots who want to bring these refugees here.”

Wing’s so-called “potential enemy” will gather by the thousands across the state on Tuesday to voice a different point of view. Montana isn’t closed to the outside world but rather, they will loudly say, it’s open to people of all races and religions.

“In a time where it’s easy for fear to take hold, it’s important to hold to our values to be a free and welcoming place for people of all faiths,” said Rachel Carroll Rivas, co-director at the Montana Human Rights Network. “A true democratic community is one where everyone can participate.”

Dubbed “March Against Hate,” the rally includes the sponsorship of Montana Women Voters, the Montana Human Rights Network and Soft Landing Missoula – a group looking to reopen a small refugee resettlement office in the Garden City.

While the rally gains momentum on social media circles, others who harbor their own opinions on the issue are hesitant to take sides. The Montana World Affairs Council stands among them. The organization is looking to maintain a nonpartisan position – one it hopes will help elevate the discussion to something more than rhetoric.

Robert Seidenschwarz, chairman of the board for Montana World Affairs Council.

“This is an issue I expect is going to continue to roll through our papers and communities for the foreseeable future,” said Robert Seidenschwarz, chairman of the council’s board of directors. “We’re aiming for a higher level of discussion with less reaction.”

In a third-floor boardroom last week, Seidenschwarz and Alex Sobin, the council’s executive director, spoke about the Middle East and the complicated tangle of events that have resulted in one of the largest refugee crises of the 21st century.

U.S. policy dating back decades has played a hand in the situation – a fact that begs questions about the nation’s moral responsibility to take in refugees and help resolve what has ballooned into a massive humanitarian crisis. However it’s viewed, the situation is far more complex than stinging banners hoisted during rallies would have some believe.

“The thing we get a little presumptuous about is that our stance is the right stance, and if we say it the right way or talk about it long enough, everyone will agree with us,” said Sobin. “People make their political and social decisions based upon so many things that we have no control over. The best we can do is provide them with the resources they need to base those decisions on fact and reality, and not just gut instinct.”

While Sobin and Seidenschwarz admit that it’s not easy to stand back and listen to the statements stemming from the recent anti-refugee rallies, they believe education can trump ignorance and fear, even if it takes generations to achieve.

To accomplish that, the council has taken small steps to open minds, including last year’s talk by Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf. More recently, it hosted a foreign film discussion led by German-born professor Udo Fluck during the Academic WorldQuest competition held at the University of Montana.

The film, “#ChicagoGirl” features an American-Syrian teenager who’s using social media to help coordinate the Syrian revolution. “As the revolution rages on,” the movie’s trailer notes, “everyone in the network must decide what’s the most effective way to fight a dictator: social media or AK-47s.”

“Getting kids as young as 14 involved in the discussion gets them thinking about this issue, not only as something that’s happening thousands of miles away, but as something that’s directly impacting their community,” Sobin said. “By starting at that age and building a more educated populace, maybe they’ll have a more educated viewpoint when they’re protesting on the courthouse steps.”

Seidenschwarz and Sobin say the concerns of protesters shouldn’t be dismissed outright. They believe those who have gathered on the steps of the Missoula County Courthouse and the state Capitol lawn raise valid questions on national security, the nation’s vetting process, and acts of violence perpetrated by extremists. But they also believe that accepting people of other races and faiths can have positive impacts on communities.

Population diversity can bring new opportunity and energy to a region, they said. Diversity attracts new intellectual and human capital, and it creates additional need for goods and services.

“Just because you’re infusing the population with more refugees doesn’t mean they’re going to come and steal your jobs. They’re going to create more jobs by creating more need for goods and services,” said Sobin. “We have a tendency to be a little insular here in western Montana. That international dialogue they’d be bringing to the community could be incredibly valuable.”

Protesters hold up signs at a recent anti-refugee rally in Missoula. (Photo by Martin Kidston)

While the council takes the educational route, other groups in Montana are looking to combat the message spread by protesters with acceptance and knowledge. Some are also researching the ties that recent anti-refugee rallies and their organizers have to national hate groups – groups they say are intentionally escalating anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiments to induce fear.

According to the Montana Human Rights Network, the recent Missoula rally was hosted in part by the Montana Chapter of “ACT for America.” The group was founded by Brigitte Gabriel, a well-known anti-LGBT advocate who often describes Arabs as “barbarians” and believes Muslims should be prohibited from serving in public office.

The Helena rally also had ties to ACT for America and was spearheaded by Tim Ravendal of Townsend. The Human Rights Network said Ravendal has known ties to militia groups like the Oath Keepers. He was also ousted by a Tea Party group after he advocated for hanging gay people.

Carroll Rivas said the recent wave of anti-Muslim sentiment doesn’t represent the views of a majority of Montanans. The March Against Hate is set for several Montana cities at 5 p.m. on Tuesday.

“We’re calling on people to stand up to this hateful rhetoric, bigotry and fear,” said Carroll Rivas. “We think it’s time people in Montana rely on basic values of compassion and understanding. We’re trying to change the conversation here, choosing a more positive direction that represents the values of the majority of Montanans.”