The UK-based international charity Oxfam reported this week that the world’s richest 62 people now own as much wealth as half the world’s population. Super-rich individuals saw an increase of 44 percent since 2010, taking their cumulative wealth to $1.76 trillion – equivalent to the total owned by 3.5 billion of the world’s poorest people. The report also stated that tax havens were helping corporations and individuals to stash away about $7.6 trillion, depriving governments of $190bn in tax revenue every year.
Any regular reader of my Blog will not be surprised by these findings. While conventional economics has long ignored inequality and been obsessed with economic growth as an end in itself, there has been a growing counter-stream of eminent voices (e.g. Anthony Atkinson, Thomas Picketty, Joseph Stiglitz, Paul Krugman) who have argued that not only is economic inequality on such a scale morally obscene, but also bad economics.
I have also (following Susan George) called for more studies by economists and anthropologists on the rich than on the poor. How do the super-rich make their fortunes? Who bears the costs? How do they change politics? Why do they need so much money- money that they could never spend in several lifetimes? What does it do to their characters and relationships? Etc.
The most common way that the super-rich in low and middle-income countries have made their fortunes is fairly straightforward: viz. the open plunder of public resources. Think of the Russian oligarchs who bought state enterprises in the 1990s for a song; Chinese business tycoons hand-in-glove with the communist party leaders; ruling political families in Nigeria, Philippines or Sri Lanka who have siphoned off public funds into their undisclosed private accounts in Switzerland, Dubai, Singapore or the Cayman Islands (funds that are almost impossible to recover because of the secrecy enveloping the global banking system).
But is it any different in the U.S and other rich nations?
As I wrote on 18 December 2010 (“Crony Capitalism”), the Clinton and Bush administrations were well-stocked with former senior bankers from Goldman Sachs. Hank Paulson, the Treasury Secretary who engineered the 2008 bank bailout was himself a former chairman of the bank; so, unsurprisingly, Goldman Sachs was one of the first banks to benefit from the scaremongering that the US Treasury initiated to get the deal passed by both houses of Congress, while its rival Lehman Brothers was allowed to sink.
The world’s single largest funder of research into emerging technologies is the Pentagon- through its Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency). DARPA does not engage in research and development directly, but gives large grants to the top American private universities and private technology companies to do so. Without DARPA funding, the computer revolution would not have happened. DARPA (then called ARPA) funded the research that invented the Internet (initially called ARPANET), as well as the researchers who developed the Graphical User Interface, a version of which you probably see every time you use a computer or smart phone. Siri (the virtual assistant incorporated into Apple’s iPhones) was also a product of DARPA-funded research.
So, U.S. taxpayers fund the research that leads to the high-tech products that are patented and sold around the world by private corporations. The technology billionaires that are spawned write their own pay-checks and salt away their fortunes in offshore tax havens out of reach of the IRS. Sweat-shops on the Mexican side of the U.S-Mexico border, or in Southeast Asia, make the components for the computers and smart phones for some of the world’s most powerful corporations.
Isaac Newton, notes Joseph Stiglitz, was at least modest enough to admit that he stood on the shoulders of giants. But these titans of industry, from Microsoft to Amazon, have no compunction about being free riders. “To say that Apple or Google simply took advantage of the current system is to let them off the hook too easily: the system didn’t just come into being on its own. It was shaped from the start by lobbyists from large multinationals. Companies like General Electric lobbied for, and got, provisions that enabled them to avoid even more taxes. If Apple and Google stand for the opportunities afforded by globalization, their attitudes towards tax avoidance have made them emblematic of what can, and is, going wrong with that system.”
The only candidate in the current U.S. presidential race who has the courage to address these moral issues is Bernie Sanders, the veteran Democrat senator. Unsurprisingly, Sanders’ reported net wealth is $700,000, compared with Hilary Clinton’s net wealth- reportedly between $30-45 million- which positions her closer to Donald Trump. (In the Senate, Sanders voted against the Iraq war, bailing out Wall Street, and the 2001 Patriot Act; Clinton voted for all of them).
Last September Sanders visited Liberty University, a private college founded by the fundamentalist preacher Jerry Falwell. Surprisingly a large number of students received his message positively. “Calling on us to help the neediest, that resonates with me as a Christian,” said Quincy Thompson, the student body president, who had a chance to briefly meet Mr. Sanders after the event. “But as a Christian, I think the responsibility to help them falls to the church, not the government.” [http://www.nytimes.com/politics/first-draft/2015/09/14/bernie-sanders-makes-rare-appeal-to-evangelicals-at-liberty-university/]
This, in a nutshell, is the obstacle to support for Sanders from the so-called “Bible-believing” wing of the American church. Ironically, it is ignorance of the Bible. The Church helps the poor, while governments help the rich. I can only hope that a Jew like Bernie Sanders will help these Christians go back and read the Hebrew Bible.
The Malaysian Church, in recent decades, was engaged in a prolonged legal battle with their Islamist-influenced government which prohibited non-Muslims from using the word Allah to refer to the supreme God and creator. Church leaders received directives stating that several words of Arabic origin, including Allah, Nabi (prophet) and Al Kitab (Bible) were not to be used by non-Muslims as Arabic was the language of Muslims. Usage by Christians would sow the seeds of “confusion”. The import of Malay Bibles printed in Indonesia (which used Allah) was effectively banned.
Christians countered by pointing out that Allah was the common term used to refer to the supreme God long before Islam came into existence in North Africa. Arab Christians continue to worship God as Allah and Malay-speaking Christians have also been using Allah for centuries. Far from sowing “confusion”, it has facilitated communication and promoted mutual understanding between Christians and Muslims.
Clearly this was more than a matter of official historical ignorance. Islamists fearful of the conversion of Muslims sought to deter the latter from reading the Bible by claiming that Christians and Muslims worship different Gods. They have been successful. Christians lost the legal battle, with dire consequences for the future of social justice and religious harmony in Malaysia.
How ironic, then, to find these Islamist arguments flourishing among ultra-conservative Christians in the USA.
Earlier this month, the authorities at Wheaton College, a prominent “evangelical” liberal arts college aligned themselves with the Islamists. They suspended a tenured professor for referring to Jews and Muslims as “people of the book” (a common Qur’anic expression, distinguishing Jews and Christians from polytheistic pagans), and stating that “Christians and Muslims worship the same God”. In the statement of suspension, the professor was accused of not “upholding theological clarity”. The obsession with “clarity” and fear of “confusion”- at the expense of other intellectual virtues such as desiring truth and tolerance of different theological opinions- have long been hallmarks of religious fundamentalisms.
The eminent logician Gottlob Frege (1848-1925) famously drew an important distinction between the referent of a word/phrase and its sense or meaning. He took the example of the planet Venus which is, paradoxically, described as both the “Evening Star” and the “Morning Star”. The two expressions have different senses or meanings, but they have the same referent, namely the planet Venus.
The earliest Christians, most of them Jews, found themselves worshiping Jesus as Lord and ascribing to him all the titles and functions that applied to Yahweh, the God of the Hebrew Bible. They were not bi-theists. Nor were they rejecting Yahweh. As they reflected more deeply on their experience, they eventually came to articulate a deeper and fuller understanding of who Yahweh is. They became Trinitarian monotheists.
Arab Christians share many beliefs in common with their Muslim neighbours. Not only do they both worship Allah as the unique creator and sustainer of the universe, but Christians accept most of the 99 Beautiful Names for Allah in the Qur’an. The differences, of course, are crucial and decisive. Belief in God as Trinity, as Incarnate as the person Jesus of Nazareth, as crucified for the salvation of the world… these are foundational to all Christian believing and living. It grieves Christians that these are misunderstood and rejected by Muslims (and Jews). Therein lies the great challenge to communication. Christians ascribe a different narrative identity to Allah and Yahweh. But if there were no overlapping areas of agreement, no dialogue between Christians and Muslims (and Jews) would be possible. (Indeed, even argument would be impossible because argument presupposes that we are arguing about the same subject matter). And Christians, Muslims and Jews have engaged in mutually fruitful dialogue for centuries in Europe, Africa and Asia (along with monotheist Hindus and Sikhs).
All the distinctive Christian truths are paradoxical. Christians, therefore, should be at home with paradoxical thinking and not shun it.
So, do Christians and Muslims worship the same God? Yes and No. To use Frege’s terminology, the same referent but different senses.
But why is this question not raised in conservative American circles in relation to Jews and Judaism? (This is what makes many suspect that underlying this debate is fear or even animosity towards Muslims. If so, it would be deeply disturbing.)
The actions of the Wheaton College authorities, like much of what is done in the U.S., reach a global audience. I can imagine how they will be seized upon by Islamists around the world as ammunition to deploy against Christians. And how betrayed Malaysian Christians must feel.
American Christians- especially those studying and working in colleges and universities- cannot remain complacent with theological, historical or political naiveté. Wilful ignorance is inexcusable. Americans have ready access to a wide range of scholarly literature and the latest information technologies that the rest of us envy. They don’t have to watch Fox News or listen to the latest chauvinist or demagogue. Some of the finest biblical scholars, theologians, philosophers and historians are found in the American Church (sadly, it is not their works that are exported to the rest of the world).
Moreover, every American city is multi-cultural and multi-religious. You can meet Christians from all over the world, as well as thoughtful Muslims from every Muslim sect, Jews, Sikhs, Jains or Buddhists. You can have your prejudices dispelled, your viewpoints and worldviews enlarged through such encounters and friendships.
If American Christians do not avail themselves of the resources and opportunities on their doorstep, they will remain culturally marginal, intellectually lightweight, politically reactionary, and a deep source of embarrassment to the rest of the global Church.
Among the inconvenient truths about terrorism that European and American publics avoid facing up to is this: aerial bombardments with drones, cruise missiles and fighter jets are merely expensive, knee-jerk reactions by governments designed to give the semblance of “doing something” to their electorates. They have no clearly defined military or political end in view. If no conventional war has ever been won by air campaigns, how much less likely the unconventional war against ISIL (or al-Qa’ida).
The UK and US governments have clearly not learned from the fiascos in Iraq and Libya. These military adventures left over a million Iraqis killed and the region awash in advanced weapons that have fallen into the hands of new militias of which ISIL is the most dangerous. Indeed, ISIL could be called George W. Bush’s baby. The latter’s post-9/11 “war on terror” was the perfect global recruiting program for Islamist terrorists.
Prior to 9/11 the international community was threatened by a few hundred terrorists in the Hindu Kush mountains. Today there are tens of thousands, and these numbers are bound to swell as every child killed by French, American Russian or British jets becomes a propaganda victory for ISIL. Their leaders must be rubbing their hands with glee as Hollande’s and Cameron’s response to the Paris attacks is just what they sought. It bolsters their apocalyptic scenario of a final war of Islam vs West- and, of course, the ignorant Donald Trumps of the West play right into their hands.
I doubt if the French people, by and large, have any idea of who and what is being bombed in Syria and Iraq. The French President has not told us how many ISIL fighters are occupying the Syrian city of Raqqa with a population of around 200,000; yet this city has been bombed mercilessly by French jets since the Paris attacks. The bombing of oilfields by British jets will only hurt the millions of people who live in ISIL-controlled territory who need diesel for heating, transport and electricity. As for “putting boots on the ground”, I doubt if ISIL fighters are going to engage U.S forces directly; they will do what the Taliban did- melt into the towns and countryside and come back to fight another day.
Instead of bombing oilfields, Western powers could coordinate their national military intelligence services to find answers to such questions as: Who are the middle-men who are buying oil from ISIL and to which states do they sell it? Who is funding ISIL (some, I suspect, are wealthy individuals in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states that are Western allies!)? How can we better equip and support the Kurds who are the fighters most likely to inflict major causalities on ISIL? How can we help Turkey secure its long border with ISIL-held territory to prevent fresh fighters entering the area? How can we counter ISIL’s populist propaganda in the West and build better community relations in cities where the radicalization of Muslim youth is greatest? I pointed out in a previous Blog post that the Danish city of Aarhus has an excellent program of rehabilitating (rather than incarcerating) young Muslim Danes who went to Syria with romantic ideals of jihad, and came back disillusioned. (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/09/11/denmark-rehab-isis-fighters_n_5798626.html)
Given that the UN Security Council is united (a rare event!) in denouncing ISIL as a terrorist threat, this is an opportune moment to bring regional and international pressure to bear on the Iraqi and Syrian regimes to accommodate Sunni demands for greater political participation. That would pull the rug from under ISIL which has claimed for itself the role of Sunni liberators. The political situation has changed dramatically now that Russia is also in the fray. Assad, like Saddam and Gaddafi before him, will have be constrained rather than toppled, however repugnant such a solution may be to all of us who care deeply about human rights.
David Cameron was right in telling the British Parliament that this was a battle against “intolerance and fascism”. But the same ideology is rampant across Europe and the U.S., and the EU is making shameful deals with Turkey to take all Syrian refugees (there are already over 2 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, living in abysmal conditions). Surrendering to collective fear, closing ranks against foreigners, and authorizing governments to sacrifice others for the sake of our “absolute security”- this is to show ourselves as morally bankrupt as ISIL and its supporters. Addressing “intolerance and fascism” at home is the best way the West can show that it retains some aspects of its Christian heritage. At the end of the day, this is a battle between fundamental narratives concerning how we conceive both divinity and humanity.
In a speech expressing his solidarity and sympathy with the French, US President Barack Obama described the brutal and cowardly attack last friday evening as “an attack on all of humanity and the universal values that we share.”
“Paris itself represents the timeless values of human progress,” Obama said. “Those who think they can terrorize the people of France or the values they stand for are wrong. … The American people draw strength from the French people’s commitment to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness. We are reminded in this time of tragedy that the bonds of liberté, égalité, fraternité are not only values that the French people care so deeply about, but are values that we share.”
And in a message of solidarity to the people of France, the British Prime Minister David Cameron he said: “Your values are our values, your pain is our pain, your fight is our fight.” He added: “Today the British and French peoples stand together as we have so often before in our history when confronted by evil.”
Further, “These were innocent victims enjoying a Friday night out with friends and family, no doubt at the end of a hard week. They were not seeking to harm anyone, they were simply going about their way of life – our way of life.”
The responses of President Obama and David Cameron to Friday night’s terrorist outrages in Paris reveal, once again, just how mired such Western political leaders are in self-righteous hypocrisy, historical naiveté and double standards.
How ironic that I should be reading at the present moment a marvellous book (The Guardians) by the Harvard historian Susan Pedersen on the Mandates Commission of the short-lived League of Nations which sought, with limited success, to curb the acquisitiveness of the French and British imperialists after the Great war of 1914-1918 and make them accountable to international opinion. The British and French were at each others’ throats when it came to the division of Africa and the Middle East, following the defeat of the Germans and Ottomans, finally settling for the French creation of new states in Syria and Lebanon while Britain had sole jurisdiction over Palestine and Mesopotamia (later Iraq). As for West Africa, it was the main foreign recruiting ground for the French army until well into the 1920s. A common history of rapacity and feelings of civilizational superiority – but I doubt if this is what Cameron meant when speaking of “our shared values” and ‘our way of life”.
How ironic, too, that Cameron is right now lavishly entertaining the Indian Prime Minister Modi who, when state minister of Gujarat, presided over the slaughter of tens of thousands of Muslims by right-wing “Hindu” mobs. How was the terror experienced by such Muslims in Gujarat (who were also “not seeking to harm anyone, they were simply going about their way of life”) different to that experienced by Parisians?
A few weeks ago, Cameron was again rolling out the red carpet, this time to the Chinese President- demonstrating once more that “British values” include kowtowing to despots and turning a blind eye to crimes against humanity so long as it benefits the British economy. The church pastors, human rights and pro-democracy activist, and journalists who have been killed or imprisoned in China carry little or no significance in the eyes of British and American governments or business leaders.
As for President Obama- of course, the carnage inflicted on the French is an attack on all of humanity, but so are aerial bombardments of Palestinian families, suicide-bombings of Shi’a mosques in Pakistan and the deployment of chemical weapons in Syria. Are these no less an attack “on all of humanity and the universal values that we share”? And what is it exactly that an American and a Frenchman share that the rest of us do not?
Perhaps we should re-phrase Obama’s speech thus: “We are reminded in this time of tragedy that the bonds of liberté, égalité, fraternité are not only values that the French people have (fitfully and unevenly) cared about- just like the rest of us- but that we should all repent of our complicity in historical injustices and renew our collective commitment to pursue justice and peace for all humanity.”
I wish there were American and European Christians who would openly raise these questions in their media (print and virtual), colleges and universities, and political assemblies! It would be a powerful demonstration of the distinctiveness of the Kingdom of God and how the Gospel liberates people from the self-righteous parochialism that surfaces even in times of national tragedy.
How does an obscure Polish priest who is gay become the centrepiece of the leading headline in yesterday’s online BBC news worldwide?
Since long before Europe even existed, the Roman Catholic Church has required all priests to take a vow of chastity, along with vows of poverty and obedience, at their ordination. Those who are unable to fulfil these ordination vows leave the priesthood and some join other Christian denominations, most notably Anglican. But it seems that when it comes to a priest with a gay orientation, the requirement of chastity is seen as “homophobic” and the Church is expected to change its practice to suit his “sexual preferences”. The BBC with its cult of “political correctness” propagates such double standards.
It appears that the only time the BBC shows any interest in ecclesiastical matters is when the “gay” issue is on the agenda. The recently concluded Vatican synod had far more pressing issues to consider, but one would have gathered from the bias of BBC reporting that the entire synod was dominated by disagreements over homosexuality. That the latter is not the most important pastoral or moral issue for the vast majority of the Roman Catholic church- most of whom are found in the Two-Thirds world- does not register on the minds of BBC journalists. But by constantly highlighting cases of so-called homophobia while completing ignoring other news stories, including the systematic persecution of Christians and other religious minorities in many parts of the world, the BBC practices a form of cultural imperialism (“we will keep hounding you until you accept our values”) under the guise of liberal tolerance.
I have written before on this Blog (e.g. The Death of Argument, 16 July 2010) of the insidious effect of “political correctness” and “victim politics” on Western universities and law courts, the very institutions which should be protecting peoples’ civil liberties. Attaching the suffix “–phobic” to a person or institution is considered sufficient to dispense with all argument. Ironically, it is the same when any criticism of Muslim teaching or practice is denounced by Muslims as Islamophobic. The inability to discern between valid arguments and invalid caricatures or stereotyping is a sad reflection of both the state of higher education and the state of contemporary politics.
In the U.S., the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education reports that more than 55 per cent of colleges and universities maintain at least one policy that substantially restricts constitutionally protected speech. They issue “trigger warnings” to students when courses offer content that might upset them, instead of enabling students to understand contrary opinions, sift their content and refute what they may regard as erroneous.
Earlier this year, a proposed debate on abortion at Oxford University was cancelled by the organizers due to militant feminists who protested that both debaters were men and “those without uteruses” had no right to speak on the subject. These self-fertilized women obviously need to attend a class at the university on human embryology. As one astute observer noted, “YOU-cannot-say-that” has come to supplement “You-cannot-say-THAT”. Both incompatible with academic freedoms. Both echoes of the Orwellian thought-police.
From uteri to penises. The latest celebrity victim of “victim politics” is the feminist writer Germaine Greer. Her scheduled guest lecture at Cardiff University in Wales was cancelled following strident protests by LGBT students. Her crime? Her publicly expressed opinion that transgendered women were not really women; that they did not “think, speak and behave as women”. Instead of openly engaging Ms. Greer in vigorous debate, the students and weak-kneed university authorities preferred to silence her. One spokeswoman deemed Greer’s views as being “offensive” to “our transgender siblings.”
Speaking at a liberal university in the U.S. four years ago on the theme of “justice”, I could sense that students were embarrassed when, towards the end of my talk, I mentioned “protecting embryonic and fetal human beings” as one example of practising justice. This was taboo, long associated with those right-wing fundamentalists. But, then, when I gave as two further examples of practising justice “defending the rights of the poor” and “reducing anthropogenic global warming”, they were confused. These belonged to a different political agenda.
Jews like Bernie Sanders expose the absurdity of so-called “pro-life” churches and Christian colleges being indifferent to the plight of impoverished mothers, those who have no access to affordable health-care, and all whose lives are imperilled by climate change. His remarks may offend many American Christians, but for that very reason they are to be welcomed. Offending for the sake of offending is not the same as offending through arguments that some find unpalatable. The latter is what every great educator, not to mention Jesus himself, has done.
The mania over “-phobias” has led to many universities in the U.S. and Britain now ceasing to be places where ideas, however controversial, are voiced, explored and either embraced, modified or refuted. Instead, they have become the principal promoters of conformity by giving into the politics of resentment and victimhood. Are they becoming citadels of mindlessness? Sorry, no offence.
Rarely do we hear good news coming out of the United Kingdom. So it was a pleasant surprise to receive two bits of good news in the month of September. The first was the decisive rejection by the House of Commons of the Assisted Suicide Bill which, if passed, would have turned British physicians into professionals who kill their patients rather than caring for them. The second piece of welcome news was the election of the veteran politician Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party (and, therefore, of Her Majesty’s Opposition) against all the smug predictions of political soothsayers.
Arguments for assisted suicide stem from shallow views of individual autonomy and compassion. Compassion is an ambiguous concept, and it has been used in history (e.g. by Nazi doctors) to justify horrendous crimes against people not thought fully human. It is thus not morally admirable when divorced from other moral considerations.
The problems with invoking compassion to justify assisted suicide and euthanasia are, at least, threefold: (a) It can justify the killing not only of terminally ill patients, but of anybody suffering what they regard as “unbearable pain”, psychological as well as physical; (b) It ignores the advances in and availability of palliative care and undermines the quest for more public funding for such care (the Hospice movement was pioneered by Christian healthcare professionals who demonstrated practically how it was not necessary to kill the patient in order to kill the pain!); and (c) Why not, out of compassion, end the lives of all severely disabled babies and adults, who will never function to their full potential, even if they do not suffer pain- because they drain public resources from those who are thwarted in their personal ambitions by a lack of the latter?
For these reasons, compassion is always subservient to patient autonomy in the more sophisticated arguments for assisted suicide. Indeed, the patient’s autonomy now seems to be the only moral value that is taught in courses on medical ethics. It rests on an unreal conception of the human person, as if we were isolated monads choosing to enter into relationships rather than being constituted as persons through relationships which, for the most part, are not chosen but given. It ignores not only our human inter-dependencies, but also the way our so-called free choices and desires are themselves shaped, indeed manipulated, by social, cultural, political and economic forces of which we are only dimly aware. (Why else would business corporations spend billions of dollars on TV advertisements?).
Thus, by focusing on the individual’s expressed desire, to the exclusion of all other considerations – not least the impact on the medical profession itself- arguments in favour of assisted suicide perpetuate views of the human person that will be destructive of other areas of society in which respect for human life has hitherto been taken for granted.
Assisted suicide is being pushed in the media by a highly vocal, secular liberal elite. As John Wyatt, a paediatrician and medical ethicist, counters in his book The Right to Die? (to be published in the UK in November): “It is surely reasonable that the autonomous desire of a small number of resolute, vocal and determined individuals to have a legal and medically supervised means of killing themselves may have to be curtailed if it exposes large numbers of vulnerable people to the risk of lethal harm. The individual autonomy of a few cannot and must not trump all other considerations.”
Curiously, compassion for the helpless victims of government economic policy is absent in the political discourse of the same social elites. This is why Jeremy Corbyn’s surprise election should be greeted by all who care deeply about the absence of compassion – and indeed justice – in British public life. He is an old-style socialist, committed to returning Labour to its roots (interestingly, among the founders of the Labour Party were several devout Methodist laymen). He has promised a more inclusive way of doing politics, giving a greater voice to those who didn’t vote in the last General Elections, particularly young people and working-class Labour supporters who felt alienated by the identical agendas that all political parties were offering.
One does not have to agree with all his stated political or economic beliefs (I certainly don’t) in order to welcome his intention to tackle the obscene levels of income and wealth inequality in Britain. Such inequalities, long ignored by most mainstream economists, not only widen the gulf in educational and job opportunities but also undermine the solidarity of citizens in a democracy.
Corbyn has thus opened up a space for the return of political ideas and serious political debate in Britain. The news media have joined parliament in turning their backs on the poor, and failed to expose the hypocrisy and double standards surrounding human rights that has been practised by successive British governments (the latest instance of which is the way corrupt Chinese tycoons are being wooed by the Chancellor of the Exchequer while refugees are shut out, and jailed Chinese dissidents and the people of Hong Kong and Tibet are ignored). Let’s see if Corbyn delivers. And if the media will rise to the challenge of addressing the moral issues at the heart of politics.
My last post on World Refugee Day seems quite timely ten weeks later. (Caring for my wife during her cancer surgery and treatment has naturally pushed my Blogging to the background in recent months).
If 3-year old Aylan Kurdi had been black, would images of his body washed ashore on a beach have elicited the same outcry among Europeans? (I think I have written enough about racism in India and elsewhere to be absolved of the charge of being Europhobic!). Such images can awaken the world to the plight of refugees and asylum seekers from conflict-ridden societies. But emotional reactions cannot substitute for level-headed appraisal of the causes of conflict and what needs to be done to contain or resolve such conflicts.
History and context matter in thinking about politics and economics. The Donald Trumps, Sarah Palins and their followers refuse to acknowledge how much the American economy (and especially the farming, hotel and restaurant industries) is dependent on exploited “illegal migrants”, and the connection between the latter and the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement which has seen highly-subsidized US agribusinesses virtually destroying Mexican agriculture.
Similarly European, no less than American, politicians refuse to admit how much the unfolding tragedies in the Middle East have been precipitated either by their own adventures in the region or by their favourite local allies – not least the continuing plight of Palestinians and Iraqis. Leave aside plain human compassion. We have a special moral responsibility towards peoples whose suffering is partly or wholly due to policies of our governments, or the actions of our forefathers.
There are some tough questions that European governments and their citizens need to address if they are to prevent the present refugee trickle into Europe turning into a massive flood. To those who bravely proclaim “refugees are welcome” (and I admire such folk), I want to ask, “Are you prepared to welcome the poor, the elderly and the disabled who are often those most affected by war, or is your compassion limited to the young, the fit and the wealthy who can make the dangerous journeys by sea and road and contribute to your economies?”
Everybody agrees that human smuggling syndicates must be broken up and the ringleaders brought to justice. But, given the lack of the rule of law in so many states, are European and American navies prepared to evacuate refugees from war zones themselves?
As I pointed out in my last post, the largest refugee populations are hosted by some of the poorest countries of the world, often those bordering on war-torn nations. The number of those who make their way to Europe and North America are miniscule in proportion. The vast majority of Syria’s 4 million refugees, for example, are to be found in the Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). What assistance do these people and their host nations receive from those in Europe, Asia and elsewhere who want to keep them out of their own territories?
Perhaps the two most straightforward questions in relation to the Middle East/North Africa that the Western media appear to be downplaying are:
(1) Why are European governments not pressurizing the Gulf states to do more for Arab refugees? There are many European professionals living in these wealthy states and Western governments have strong commercial links with them. The West may depend on them for oil, but they too depend on the West (not least for arms and banking). They are desperate for the (hollow) global esteem that comes from building the world’s tallest buildings, super-luxury shopping malls and quixotic Disneylands, or hosting the soccer World Cup- all at the expense of cheap labour from South and Southeast Asia. Europe and the U.S pander shamelessly to such repressive feudal states.
These states can easily absorb and employ more Arabs from the region and, by doing so, would combat the widespread perception that Muslim refugees have to depend on non-Muslim peoples for shelter because their own leaders are too selfish, incompetent, or both. Indeed, failure of Muslim governments to care for their fellow Muslims is being exploited by radical Islamist propaganda. It is the way Islamists try to justify their legitimacy to Muslim populations from Morocco to Bangladesh.
Imperial British and U.S governments contributed to many of the region’s conflicts, from the post-League of Nation’s “carve-ups” (including the creation of Iraq and several of the Gulf states) to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. But the present Arab regimes benefited from such historic agreements and recent Western military interventions. So they cannot avoid responsibility for the consequences nor blame Israel and the West for all the problems piling up on their doorstep.
(2) Is the West serious about defeating the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)? Hitherto the military response has been half-hearted. The American media’s obsession with Iran has blinded Americans to the role played by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and other Arab states in fuelling regional instability. Indeed, it seems to be the case that much of the weaponry being supplied to ISIL has been funded by Gulf sheiks who want to rid the region of Iranian Shi’a influence.
Obama’s famous “red line in the ground” regarding the use of chemical weapons has been repeatedly transgressed by both Syria’s Assad and by ISIL (see http://www.wsj.com/articles/mission-to-purge-syria-of-chemical-weapons-comes-up-short-1437687744). But neither the UN nor the Western powers have made any concerted military response, save the occasional drone attack on ISIL militias. Unless the international military coalition hits harder at ISIL units possessing chemical weapons, and at the same time creates “no-fly” zones over Syria and “safe-zones” to which civilians can go to receive medical and other assistance, Syria’s hapless population will continue to haemorrhage.