The scenes of refugees drowning by the hundreds in the seas between Turkey and Greece as they attempt to reach Europe are harrowing. They come from all corners of the Middle East, not only from Syria, but also Lebanon and Iraq. Lebanon recently received the corpses of a family of eight who died when they illegally took a ship from Turkey heading to Europe. All this while the photo of the Syrian toddler, Aylan Kurdi, remains fresh in the minds of the world.
In growing desperation, some refugees, predominantly Muslims, are converting to Christianity in the hopes that they will be welcomed into new societies. Reports indicate that Iraqi soldiers, wishing to take advantage of the opportunities for new lives in Europe, have also begun deserting their units.
A recent article by Professor Walter Russell Mead in the Wall Street Journal, on September 12, throws light onto perhaps one of the most serious refugee crises Europe has faced since World War II. According to Mead, not only have insecurities and civil wars sent refugees flooding into Europe, but some structural causes, specifically “civilizational” failures both in the greater Middle East and Europe, have fueled the crisis. Ironically, almost 20 years have passed since Samuel Huntington’s thesis on the “clash of civilizations” transfixed the world. Now, Mead focuses on “clashes within civilizations,” specifically between Arabs and Muslims on one hand, and Europeans and Westerners on the other.
Mead cites the general failure of the Arab world to accommodate modernity as one of the most important civilizational factors contributing to the refugee crisis. He writes, “There is no point in rehearsing the multiple failures since Britain’s defeat of the Ottoman Empire liberated the Arabs from hundreds of years of Turkish rule. But it is worth noting that the Arab world has tried a succession of ideologies and forms of government, and that none of them has worked.” In fact, Liberal intellectuals in the Arab world have long lamented the failing of various historical movements, whether they be secular, nationalist, or Islamist.
Mead rightly points to the crisis of civilizational identity in Europe and how it contributes to the troubled response greeting the waves of refugees on the continent's shores. As Mead asserts, the contemporary liberalism of Europe wants to “do what is right.” However, the compulsion towards what is right confronts real logistical, economic, and political concerns – in short, what is actually possible. A tension exists between pragmatism and the idealism that should be present in the values of Western “Enlightenment.” Though it may sound cynical, at the very least, Mead appears a “realist,” correctly indicating that while 10,000 refugees on your border may allow you to do what is right and be the Europe of open-armed modern liberalism, but that luxury fades quickly when the number of refugees enters the millions.
While Mead makes a succession of valid arguments, in the end, they seem to point to a more robust willingness to engage in military intervention. He believes that part of the failure of European – and ultimately Western – policy involves an uncertain and half-hearted approach to intervention in Syria and Libya. As he elucidates: “The humanitarian question of refugees and asylum seekers cannot be separated from the bankruptcy of Western security policy in Syria and Libya, and the bankruptcy of Western policy cannot be separated from the long-standing difficulties that many European states have in taking a responsible attitude toward questions of military security.”
According to Mead, a decisive military policy might have quelled the tide of strife sooner, thus reducing long term insecurity, a factor which he identifies as equally significant to poverty in driving mass migration from the Middle East. Some in Europe, including French President Francois Hollande, have argued for a more aggressive European military involvement in the region. Yet Mead fails to articulate what this means in practical terms. It's easy to label a policy as “feckless,” but much harder to say what that security policy ought to entail. Moreover, it begs the question: shouldn’t the almost 100 years of foreign military intervention in the region be considered one of the major factors in the civilizational failures that have resulted in the refugee crisis we see today?
This essay will appear in Al Jadid, Vol. 19, No. 69, 2015.
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