By Aijaz Zaka Syed
18 March 2016
FEAR stalks fortress Europe. Perhaps seldom in the long history of the continent has it been afflicted by such overwhelming insecurity and paranoia. The scare of “Muslims are coming” dominates conversations everywhere. Images of refugees from Syria and other hot spots pouring into Europe abound. The breathless coverage of the “refugee crisis” by European media and scaremongering by politicians like Marie Le Pen doesn’t help.
It is not just the extreme right that is raising the spectre of Islamic invasion of the white, Christian continent. Mainstream parties like David Cameron’s Tories have been resorting to the same alarmist rhetoric against migrants both old and new. A new UK law threatens to deport thousands of immigrants who earn less than 35,000 pounds a year. It is this politics of paranoia and hate that has brought an unhinged bigot like Trump to the centre-stage of US presidential elections.
Terror attacks like those in Paris and the fear of home-grown extremists only add fuel to the raging debate and play into the hands of the Right, which has been steadily rising everywhere.
The recent cover of Poland’s popular weekly WSieci, warning of the “Islamic Rape of Europe” perhaps best illustrates the paranoia. It is a graphic and racist depiction of a screaming blonde woman, with eyes closed, draped in the EU flag with three sets of brown and black hands clawing at the flag and her hair.
This is but just one example of the extreme fear and loathing being whipped up across Europe. The WSieci cover story also attacks German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has demonstrated rare humanity and moral courage by welcoming more than a million refugees last year, for “undermining European culture and civilization.”
But is Europe really in danger of being swamped by the predominantly Muslim migrants?
Jordan with a population of 8 million has provided refuge to 1.7 million Syrians. Turkey has been sheltering more than 3 million Syrian refugees.
So if the EU with a population of more than 500 million people and a GDP of more than $27,000 faces the possibility of receiving a million or two war victims, it’s not the end of the world. By the way, as author Kenan Malik points out, a million refugees constitute less than 0.2 percent of the EU’s population.
Besides, these are the people who have fled their countries in extremely trying circumstances. Thousands have perished in the Aegean and Mediterranean seas or overland in trying to reach to safety in what they hope is a better life for their loved ones. This is what people have done for thousands of years — migrate — when faced with danger and certain, perilous future. This is why the UN Charter mandates member states to provide refuge to all such people.
More important, Europe has a moral and ethical responsibility to do its bit for these migrants considering this is a crisis largely created by the West.
While the Arab Spring quickly toppled the regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, Syria has proved a tough nut to crack.
If Assad has survived this long, at catastrophic cost to his people and country, the credit goes to Iran, their ally Hezbollah and Russia of course. This conflict has claimed at least 300,000 lives with nearly half of the country’s population now living in refugee camps in neighbouring countries.
Can you blame the Syrians if they are fleeing this veritable hell?
What will it take for Europe and other world powers to recognize this and show some mercy and humanity to these desperate men, women and children who are fleeing persecution and in most cases certain death? After all, no one willingly abandons his/her home and land of ancestors.
And it’s about time Europe accepted Islam and Muslims as essential part of the continent. They are here to stay. Europe has been home to at least 50 million Muslims, who have enriched the European society in numerous ways. Indeed, Islam has been part of Europe for the past 1,200 years.
Muslims arrived in the continent as early as 711 AD when they conquered Spain and created a society that remains a model of religious harmony. The Muslims ruled Spain for centuries in a period known as the Golden Age of Andalusia where Muslims, Christians and Jews co-existed in peace and created a great civilization that produced great art, architecture and scholarship.
The expansion of Turkey’s Ottoman Empire marked the second phase of Islamic engagement with the continent, which saw millions of indigenous Europeans embrace Islam. The third phase of engagement came with the arrival of thousands of South Asian, Turkish and North African immigrants who provided cheap labour to countries like UK, Germany, France and Belgium.
So it’s not as if this is the first time Europe is opening its doors to Muslims. Islam and the West have co-existed for more than a millennium and there is no need for conflict now. This is possible only when both sides tried to understand, engage and accept each other. Integration is a two-way street.
If instead of viewing Muslims through the lens of security, Europe sincerely try to accommodate them, as Germany, Canada and Greece have done, it would be in the interest of both.
The majority of European Muslims are law-abiding citizens who pay taxes and share the same concerns, needs and experiences as non-Muslims, according to the Open Society Institute. And across Europe, immigrants are revitalizing impoverished urban neighbourhoods, creating jobs and prompting innovation, reports the European Economic and Social Committee. As Shada Islam of Friends of Europe says, “Europe’s focus is on Muslims as terrorists, refugees, foreign fighters, criminals and misfits, but these represent a minuscule minority of European Muslims. Europe must conduct a sensible conversation on migrants and Islam. People must move from talking about “us” and “them” to a more inclusive language of living in a shared space, with shared concerns and interests.” As the experience of nations like America, Canada and Australia demonstrates, migrants are never a burden and only bring value, dynamism and diversity of experience to host societies.
That said, Muslims cannot be found wanting in their efforts to become acceptable and valuable to host societies. They must do everything to integrate and adapt themselves to the values, concerns and sensitivities of their adopted countries. They mustn’t do anything that puts their faith in the dock. There is an opportunity in this crisis for both Muslims and Europe.
Aijaz Zaka Syed is a Gulf-based writer