Earlier this week, Donald Trump Jr. unleashed upon the world his view that the refugee crisis could be best illustrated with a bowl full of poisonous Skittles. What ensued was a cultural debate surrounding the use of analogy, how correct or incorrect Trump’s understanding of the situation was and what America’s role in the Syrian refugee crisis is anyway.
To answer some of those questions, we reached out to Jeremy Courtney, the founder of the Preemptive Love Coalition. Preemptive Love works in conflict zones around the world, providing aid and relief to the people stuck in them. He talked to our senior editor Tyler Huckabee about refugees, America’s place in the refugee crisis and, of course, Skittles.
TYLER: From the time when you started Preemptive Love up to this point, what do you think was the biggest disconnect between what you expected things would be like and what the reality has turned out to be?
JEREMY: The story that I was reared on in my young adulthood was that we started a war with Iraq because they possessed weapons of mass destruction, and Saddam Hussein was the Butcher of Baghdad who was chemically attacking all of his people and needed to be stopped because he posed a grave threat to the world. And as I’ve lived my life here in Iraq now for about a decade, I’ve come to understand that this story’s just far more complex than that.
The people that I thought were the bad guys, the black hats in the story…It’s not that simple. They’ve got their own story. They’ve got their own suffering. And the people that I thought were the white hats, the pure victims, the ones that needed our undying devotion and alliance — they’ve got blood on their hands, and they’re complicated, and they’ve got their own pain and their own suffering and their own narrative about how and why things are the way they are.
Then you look at a place like Syria that’s in the thick of it today, and it’s really easy to understand the complications that face a president like President Obama or the future president. How do you make decisions in the midst of such a complex environment, where no one is singularly good and no one is singularly bad, and everyone has blood on their hands, and everyone’s a victim?
TYLER: What would you say is the biggest, most frequent misconception you hear about what the situation is actually like in the Middle East versus how Americans tend to view it?
JEREMY: I think Americans by and large are fairly ignorant of history, so we don’t often understand how anyone in the world could see Americans as anything other than the good guy — the savior, the one who comes in to help. The one who rescues and provides outsized amounts of humanitarian assistance and all these kinds of things. None of those things are untrue, but there’s another story that comes alongside that in many cases and in many countries where the U.S. has been involved covertly or overtly in overthrowing governments and posing as one thing and doing another. Aligning through backdoor alliances to enact regime change and economic terrorism or economic sanctions or economic destruction of a country.
I believe that Americans do some amazing things around the world, but to live in the world where I live and to see what I’ve seen has forced me to come to grips with the reality that we’ve also been complicit in a lot of suffering. And some of our policies have caused intended and unintended consequences that have radically altered the lives of, not only neighborhoods or communities or cities but also entire continents — sometimes for the good and sometimes for the ill, based on what we do.
TYLER: From over in Iraq where you are, what’s a narrative you hear that is somewhat common in Iraq that runs contrary to the American idea of us as being the superheroes of the Middle East? What’s a story that’s told over there that might surprise some Americans to hear?
JEREMY: That the United States created ISIS. Or, maybe one rung down from that, the United States is actively, strategically, purposefully supporting ISIS. Frankly, as outlandish and as much as a ridiculous conspiracy theory as that can sound, perhaps I’ve been here too long, but I can understand it. I can understand how people come to those outlandish conclusions or buy those stories.
You know when you trace ISIS back through, it’s birthed out of the Islamist Jihadist Group, Al Qaeda. And you trace Al Qaeda back to Osama Bin Laden, you trace Bin Laden back to the Bin Laden family and some of America’s engagement in and around Afghanistan and all that kind of stuff. There is a narrative that can be extrapolated from that which, when reduced to its most simple, pithy headline, in this part of the world can read: “America Created ISIS.”
When you look at the current events of today where the U.S. airstrikes hit Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian regime’s military positions, that can be interpreted as just one more piece of evidence. “See? They are actively trying to be on the side of the rebels who are trying to take down the government, and that’s why they’re bombing the Syrian government because they’re actively supporting ISIS.” I’m not sure that that makes a lot of play in America except maybe in some very far-flung corners of our political conversation, and I generally think that’s where it belongs, but-
TYLER: But they’re not that far flung anymore because Donald Trump very recently said that he considers Obama to be the founder of ISIS right?
JEREMY: It’s true. Yep.
TYLER: Which does bring us to the conversation around Trump, which is why I reached out to you in the first place. There was the now very infamous Skittles meme that Donald Trump Jr. posted just a couple of days ago here in the states, which obviously brought up another slew of misconceptions, which is another one that I wanted to ask you about.
JEREMY: Well, I certainly want to be careful. I am an American, but I don’t live in America anymore. I enjoy the chance to come back to America a couple times a year, but it’s not my home. I try to stay apprised of political discourse, but I don’t know what most Americans think. But the way that a certain corner of the internet and a certain corner of our political conversation seems to have seized upon this meme would lead me to believe that there are a lot of people out there that think ISIS is very actively and successfully trying to make its way to American shores in the guise of Syrian refugees or Iraqi refugees. Of course, it’s not completely out of the realm of possibility, but the level of mental gymnastics and the degree to which you have to look past our very robust security systems and vetting systems to allow admittance of a terror-minded refugee into our country is extreme.
The other dynamic going on there is this whole idea of three Skittles in the bowl that could kill you. It drastically distorts the proportions of our conversation. It implies that really three out of a hundred or a couple hundred is a reasonable analogy, and it’s decidedly not. We’re probably talking something more like three Skittles out of a swimming pool filled with Skittles, and so I do think it’s important to get the proportion right.
I think that the far more moving question is: If I could eat out of that swimming pool full of Skittles and three of those might kill somebody else, but I could intervene and have the chance to take the pain into myself if it would have the chance of saving someone else, would I do that? Would I take that risk unto myself if it means that I can help save another life? I think that’s what a lot of Americans are trying to raise their hand right now more and more and say yes. That’s what a lot of Europeans have raised their hands and said yes. We welcome refugees because we are willing to take that risk unto ourselves. And those who are running toward the front lines are saying we are willing to take that risk onto our self if it means that we can save more of these little kids who are getting bombed and blown up by tyrants and terrorists.
TYLER: Between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, one of whom will be the president come November, how different are their immigration programs, and to what extent do you think those will affect the things that are happening in the Middle East and the Middle East’s view of the United States?
JEREMY: Well the biggest difference between their immigration programs is that one fundamentally sees refugees and immigrants as people, and one would prefer to primarily compare immigrants and refugees to any number of other things. Dogs, Skittles, monsters, I mean any kind of dehumanizing label, Appalachian narrative that can be attached pretty much sums up the other side’s immigration policy.
TYLER: In your mind, that sort of rhetoric would play itself out in policy?
JEREMY: Well, it can’t help but play itself out in policy. The way we talk has massive bearing on the way we live and that’s not necessarily so the other way around. Words matter phenomenally. We can’t just put things out into the world and then expect society to live differently than the words that we are creating. The words will create the very future that we want for ourselves, so when the words that are continually put out into the world are devaluing the humanity of other people, then we will see policies that follow that path.
TYLER: Something that you hear over here is, well, why America? Why does America need to be the one to accept refugees? Aren’t there other countries that would be just as suited or even better suited to bring in an influx of refugees?
JEREMY: America doesn’t need to welcome more refugees. This is a choice that we can make, and reasonable people of good character will disagree on whether we should do it, how we should do it and to what degree we should do it. All of that is perfectly debatable, but that’s not what is at issue here. I think what is most at issue is how can we continue to beat the war drums and the propaganda machines continue to print out this story that we are the land of the free and the home of the brave and the greatest country in the world, but we are so driven from a place of fear and neurosis and anxiety about others who are not us. This xenophobic position and the dehumanizing of others is anything but brave, and we are not free when we live this way.
TYLER: There’s a lot of debate in the States about the terminology that we use for this. President Obama very famously does not like to call these attacks radical Islamic terrorism. He’s received a lot of criticism for that from certain political groups because they think he’s avoiding the reality of the situation. From your perspective, how closely related is Islam and something like ISIS?
JEREMY: I don’t fault the president of the United States who is trying to in some ways turn a corner from the myth of a Christian nation to be the leader of all Americans whether Christian or Muslim or atheist or whatever, trying to stand in a world stage position and try to cobble together a coalition of Muslim leaders to lead the fight against ISIS. He’s been very calculated and very careful with his words, and I get the reasons. I think there’s a lot of wisdom in it. I think the value of saying Islamic terrorism from his position is marginal, and I think the value of building a coalition and not alienating Muslims from his position is profound. I think he’s chosen the right path.
In my opinion, Islam is battling for its own future. Islam is trying to define the way forward, and this is something that has to take place inside Islam. You have far, far, far more leaders, more Muslim leaders decrying ISIS, decrying this way of thinking, decrying this way of living than you have leaders defending it. But bad news leads, and we’re all very interested and scared and the tactics that ISIS has chosen to drive this thing forward and clearly, they’re not entirely isolated. Clearly, there’s a historic thread that they are drawing upon to make these claims, but these are not the conclusions that the majority of the world’s Muslims come to when they read these same scriptures, or they read these same histories.
There are ways that brilliant Muslim scholars have figured out how to deal with these, what we might see as non-Muslims as troubling scriptures. They have ways of dealing with this, and to deny that the world’s 1.69 billion Muslims haven’t figured out a reasonable way to deal with their problem texts is really unfair. They have figured out a way to deal with it. That’s why they’re not, there’s not more of this stuff going on. That’s why most Muslims around the world vehemently abhor what ISIS is doing and reject it as being completely un-Islamic. When a Muslim says this is not Islam, they are not of us. We reject them entirely; I think that’s a sincere rejection. That’s not being cynical. That’s not playing coy, hoping that we won’t call them out on the scripture that we think so perfectly exemplifies ISIS’s behavior. This is a genuine Muslim sentiment that I experience around the world that cannot imagine where ISIS gets these ideas, and I think that’s indicative of the Islam that these other Muslims have grown up in. They cannot even countenance such behavior as being Islamic. I think that’s genuine, and I think it needs to be appreciated and regarded more in this conversation.