Vinoth Ramachandra

Archive for February 2017

In an interview in 1994, the eminent French philosopher Paul Ricoeur observed:

“The history of America is a strange history: émigrés came to territory which was already inhabited by people- the Indians- and exterminated many of them, pushed others onto reservations; but at the same time, these first immigrants brought along other émigrés by force who were their slaves. It is a singular history that has no equivalent in Europe. This is why I always return to the idea of incomparable histories, and consequently to the specificity of ethnic and political problematics.” (from Critique and Conviction: Conversations with Francois Azouvi and Marc de Launay)

Of course European nations have their own shameful histories of exterminations; but apart from the Holocaust, they were mostly committed outside Europe. With an irony that hasn’t gone unnoticed, US President Donald Trump signed his executive order on January 27, Holocaust Memorial Day.

What has also not gone unnoticed is the irrational, immoral and potentially dangerous insinuation that America’s terrorists come from 7 Muslim-majority states and are not home-grown. I call it irrational because, for a start, not a single refugee or immigrant from one of the named countries has ever committed an act of terrorism in the US (most of the 9/11 perpetrators came from Saudi Arabia, which remains a staunch US military ally and is not in the list of designated countries); and, moreover, the threat of terrorism is so exaggerated in the public mind – the probability of an American being killed in a terrorist attack by refugees has been calculated as less than that of one’ clothes spontaneously igniting!

I call it immoral because it scapegoats people who have either suffered from acts of terrorism themselves or risked their lives to combat terrorists (including many Iraqis who must feel utterly betrayed by the US government). In any case, existing laws and the 1951 refugee convention – to which the US is a signatory- ensure that anybody who could seriously be considered to have committed a war crime or even a serious non-political crime would not qualify for refugee status. (Notwithstanding this, the irony is that many of the most brutal criminals, including gang leaders in the various Mafias, Triads, Yardies, etc from all over the world are all legitimate US citizens and known to the police in every major American city).

I call it dangerous because it will only alienate friendly Muslims and nudge them towards the radical Islamists who hate the West. One extremism feeds off the other. It has also undermined the efforts of all those men and women who have been struggling to promote respect for human rights all over the world, not least in China, Myanmar, the Central African Republic and other states where Muslims are persecuted minorities.

A further irony is that, since the US has a long history of receiving refugees and asylum seekers and resettling them (and is always among the top receiving countries in the industrialised world), Trump’s executive order tramples upon the “American values” that were trumpeted (sic) by his campaign supporters.

The ignorance on which the executive order is founded is also displayed in the charge that all refugees must in future respect the laws and values of the USA. Surely Trump’s lawyers should have pointed him to Article 2 of the 1951 Convention: “Every refugee has duties to the country in which he finds himself, which require in particular that he conform to its laws and regulations as well as to measures taken for the maintenance of public order.”

Millions of immigrants from the Indian subcontinent live in the US, Canada, Europe and Australia. Once settled, many of them become bellicose opponents of further immigration. They are often more xenophobic than “whites”. Are there any South Asians in the US joining Black Lives Matter marches or Tamils from Sri Lanka who went as refugees to the UK or Australia publicly arguing today on behalf of refugees from Syria or Yemen?

During the Brexit campaign I heard Indian and Sri Lankan professionals in the UK contemptuously dismissing Poles and Rumanians as “economic migrants”. What were they, I wonder, twenty or thirty years ago? And why do we not use that term to describe the tens of thousands of Europeans who go to the US or Australia every year in search of more lucrative employment or a more comfortable retirement?

Selective memory loss afflicts us all. But it is particularly tragic when professing Christians are no different. Which is why the biblical command to “love the alien among you” is always prefixed by the reminder “because you were aliens in Egypt and I loved you.” Nothing damages the credibility of the Gospel more than the failure of Christians to practise it.


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