The grotesque coordinated sex attacks on women in Cologne on New Years has rightfully sparked a discussion in the Western World on the issues that the refugee crisis has brought with it across Europe. The response seems to range from a willful refusal to engage with the issue through fear of being labelled a bigot, to the dogmatic idea that all refugees should be blocked from fleeing to safety. When the liberal left fails to create a narrative, the far-right pounces. I thought I’d offer my perspective, but before I do, I think it prudent to note that I genuinely have no idea how to solve such a complex issue, and that in itself aids a bizarre far-right narrative:
– I say I don’t know how to solve the issue, he hears an apologist for sex abuse. His response implies just two choices; either European women, or sex attacking Syrians… who do you choose? A simplistic and weak straw man. But this highlights an important issue; if liberals have no basis by which to start the conversation, we lose the base to the far-right, and that has always been exceptionally dangerous.
There is a risk when appealing to our philosophical and political values, that we treat the people we are essentially discussing the future of (as if we have that inherent right anyway) as an abstraction, a variable, an object in our philosophising. It is dehumanising to an extent and makes it easier to offer illiberal solutions, as those human beings stand with Assad’s gun at their backs, and Europe’s far-right fist to their face. I will endeavor to express why liberalism must focus on those people as individual human beings first and foremost, and not a collective, nor an abstraction.
It is important to know that refugees are fleeing persecution. That is to say, they have had their rights as human beings with property over their own person – liberty we are all naturally born with, regardless of the political framework we are born on to – completely and unjustly stripped from them by abusers. It is a sense of terror that we cannot imagine, given our entire existence has been within a framework that grants us those rights without question. The liberal World, the World that understands and protects those natural liberties must therefore predicate its response on restoring those natural liberties and rights, to people fleeing. It must not abuse them further. This is done in several ways.
Firstly, there must be a global effort to end the conflict that causes so many to flee their homes and take an extremely dangerous trip to the safety of Europe. If you are willing to put your child on a small boat and make a terrifying journey across seas and land with no guarantee of safety, you are desperate for help, and no country that basis its framework on the protection of civil rights should refuse you entry simply for where you came from. That isn’t to say you shouldn’t be refused entry for other reasons. But our obligation toward those fleeing persecution is not to be compromised based on ethnicity or country of origin. For too long the rest of the World has simply sat by as human rights were so cruelly abused in Syria, despite having the power to prevent it. The only way to stop people fleeing persecution in the long run, is an end to the refusal to recognise and protect the rights of those refugees, which is to say, an end to civil war.
Secondly, hand-in-hand with ending persecution in Syria, is a frank and honest discussion on illiberal policies, cultural norms, and religious oppression and supremacy. This includes highlighting illiberal notions in our own society. For example, you might be under the impression if you listen to certain anti-refugee sections of society, that refugees disproportionately commit crimes. This is wrong, and works to fuel a dehumanising narrative of suspicion. Indeed, ‘Die Welt’ using police reports, notes that refugees are no more likely to commit crimes than German citizens.
That isn’t to say that cultural attitudes outside of our own are not an issue also. We must not be afraid of critiquing culture. Culture is not off-limits, it is not to be protected from criticism. If a specific culture has obscenely illiberal misogynistic norms, we musn’t be scared to say so and to empower and defend voices of dissent in those cultures. We must champion the rule of law, secular humanist values, gender and sexuality equality, liberal civil rights, democracy, and speak up for those seeking democratic reform in cultures with deeply entrenched oppressive structures. The freedom to inquiry and express, and the same rights and dignity applied to all regardless of gender, sexuality, ethnicity and belief is what separates the civilised from the barbaric, and we must champion the civilised, holding to account those who defend and excuse the barbaric. We must not be afraid to highlight the fact that religious doctrine and dogma, influences behaviour, and that doctrine of moral ideals from a single time and place centuries ago, might be problematic in the 21st century. This discussion is too often cut short by fear of being labelled bigoted, or racist. I do think we can have a debate on cultural regressive attitudes and dangerous religious dogma that limit so many chances across the World, without resorting to racist stereotypes and dehumanising rhetoric.
We must not meet regressive and violent attitudes, with a victim-blaming mentality. Maajid Nawaz writing for The Daily Beast highlights the obscene letter from Martin Thalhammer, the headmaster at Wilhelm-Diess-Gymnasium, in which he advises parents to make sure their children dress ‘modestly’ simply because refugees are accommodated close by. The letter says:
“The Syrian citizens are mainly Muslims and speak Arabic. The refugees are marked by their own culture. Because our school is directly next to where they are staying, modest clothing should be adhered to, in order to avoid discrepancies. Revealing tops or blouses, short shorts or miniskirts could lead to misunderstandings.”
– This is obscene for two reasons. Firstly, it implies that ‘misunderstanding’ are the responsibility of the people at the gym to prevent, to change their behaviour, rather than the fault laying with the attitudes of individuals who might be offended or use it as an excuse to attack. It is classic victim blaming. Secondly, it implies that the refugees – as a collective (we shall come onto this shortly) – are somehow unable to help themselves. It is bigoted as well as victim-blaming. Regressive attitudes must not be met with victim-blaming. It must be met with progressive attitudes. As Nawaz says:
“The only person to blame for rape is the rapist. Employment and education among migrant males will be a more conducive and far more consistent approach than asking European women to change how they dress or when they go out.”
Thirdly, if liberalism is to mean anything it is to place and empower the individual above the group. We pride ourselves on advancing the freedom of individuals to be themselves, to express themselves, to love whom they choose to love, to vote how they choose to vote, to pursue their own happiness, to dress how they choose to dress without coercion from the ‘group’, where it does not harm the same liberty for others. If we believe this true for ourselves, we must defend it for others, and we must be consistent with how we apply it. I support helping refugees in this country, because I see no other way of protecting those rights and freedoms they were born with immediately.
We believe in the fewest restrictions on the individual by others as is necessary to protect each other from each other, so that the individual is empowered with their own life to achieve and enjoy such a short time on the planet as they see fit. And so the response from some, that no refugees should be granted safety in Europe, thus arguing for the complete withholding of the core concept of liberty that we hold so dear, for people who have committed no crime, simply for the country they were unlucky enough to be born into, is to me unfathomable at best, and an admission that our values are not universal and so are completely worthless at worst.
We do not equate the individual with the collective, we do not hold responsible an individual within a loosely defined collective – ‘refugees’ – as responsible for the actions of other individuals within that collective. We do not ban men from teaching in schools because they might be a sexual predator. Indeed, we do not ban American military personnel from Europe, despite Donald Trump’s statistic that implies – if we are to be consistent – that they might be dangerous:
The rights of person A to security and liberty must not be determined by the actions of person B. Individuals are responsible for individual actions. Their belonging to a group – and a group not of their choosing, but of necessity – must not infringe upon their right to life. The Syrian families who live in the city that I am from, whose children are now safe, and who are not harming anyone are the lucky few who escaped and are protected. Others like them must not be cast out into the ocean by a liberal, democratic nation, for the crimes of those who attacked so many women in Cologne.
To summarise; liberals must pressure governments to work together to end the conflict. Liberals must feel free to critique illiberal and oppressive power structures across all cultures without fear of being stigmatised, whilst supporting our democratic, secular, liberal friends within those cultures working hard for reform. And lastly, liberals must not equate the individual with the group, nor decide who is deserving of rights based simply on nation of origin. Whilst I do not have the answers to how we solve the refugee crisis, I do not believe that compromising liberal principles is at all a basis upon which to start the conversation. Much the opposite; we must be stronger in our values in the face of inhumanity, than we are at any other time.