Sunday, September 27, 2015

refugees welcome?

Protest against refugees
 My friend and I were headed to the Art Alive festival in the center of Prague. But as we left our neighborhood and rounded out the forever under renovation and forever closed National Museum – perhaps it stands as some sort of artistic metaphor for the Czech nation and is meant to never be complete – we came upon a loud and vibrant crowd. Indeed, rarely are Czechs excited about much, but here finally they were standing together and full of energy, the energy of unwavering patriotism as they stood proudly beneath their Czech flags, listening to speeches about the greatness of the Czech nation. And of course, good for them, it’s good to be proud, especially when they’ve got such a beautiful country to be proud about. Until we figured out the real message at bay. This country is not welcome to immigrants. Of course, the specific message was aimed at those migrants coming from refugee camps and war torn countries, who, without any legal way to apply for asylum thanks to the Dublin rule, decided to make the trek of hundreds of miles by foot, half-starved, dying of thirst, braving sea, desert and storm. Masses of strangers coming, bringing Lord-knows-what, but they would not dilute this proud nation. 

Of course, they meant those brown Islamic people, spreading out that Islamic fundamentalism. I’ve heard that before, usually from the mouths of someone standing in front of a Confederate flag, holding his gun locked and stocked, Bible on the table, ready to go off about how it’s his Christian duty to shoot them MexiCANS running across the border, to protect Christian America. And that was fine, idiots hating the poor and suffering, as they’re a fairly easy target. I don’t remember the last time an easy, outsider target was aimed at and taken advantage of. Wait, I do. Bosnian Muslims, European Jews, kulaks, Ukrainians, Slavs, gypsies, non-Alawites, Palestinians, and so on.

But again, they were against the brown, non-Western people, why should I be concerned? Because the more the chants of Czech Republic for Czechs grow, the more the thought that any outsider should be condemned, targeted and hated grows. No longer is it just the brown people, but all non-Czech people. And as my friend – an Irishman – and myself walked through the crowd, mostly men with their fists in the air, we got the overwhelming feeling that we were not welcome. Indeed, I’ve heard Czechs complain before in passing about German dominance, or about having to speak English at the work place, a secret hatred of globalization, not really realizing that it was globalization that propelled their economy forward. Once hatred of anyone takes root, then it doesn’t take a great effort for the snowball to turn into an avalanche. And out of the peoples of the world who should know better than to take refuge in nationalism, Czechs should know better, as Fascism didn’t work out so well for them before. But maybe this time, says the Czech nationalist, they’ll be on the right end of that big, brown stick.

Protest against the protest
It was with some relief that across Wilsonova, gathered around the saintly father of the country, St. Vaclav – here stood Vaclav, so across was Boleslav? - there was another protest. Here were the artists and intellectuals, priests and expats, gathered to condemn the nationalistic furor of those on the opposite streets, wanting to show that the Czech nation is not an insular, xenophobic one, but one that reaches out to help others, in the same way many Czechs themselves were helped by the US and the UK when they sought refuge from Communism. Other signs were here. “Next time could be us!” “Refugees welcome here”.

Fear is the great motivator of hatred. Fear comes from ignorance of others, ignorance of the motivations of others. Are these people legitimately fleeing from war, or are they harbingers of it, seeking to spread it across the globe in the name of jihad? Of course, there’s no way to know. I’m inclined to think that the vast majority of these people are tired of war, of refugee camps, of the dirt and filth and misery that the two entail. I’m inclined to think that the majority of them just want to have a better life, a decent one, where Habib can go back to interior designing, where Ahmed can return to being a doctor, or where barring the availability of those jobs, they can at least thrive at being an Uber driver or kebab guy standing in the hot summers in his white van. I’d also like to imagine myself in their shoes. Having my own life torn asunder by radical Islam, I might end up leaning towards atheism, or at least some generalized spirituality, with an idea that maybe following that book to its extreme might be a bit rubbish of an idea. I’d probably retain a modicum of Islam, as in the example it was my culture after all, but outside of that, but I think many of these Syrians would be no more a Muslim as a Czech is a Catholic. Then, looking at a Europe with its peaceful and hardworking ways being such a clear success, and looking at them with their open arms and well wishing, I’d be more than ambitious to do good by them. These saints and angels are giving me a second chance in life, one that the black flagged jihadists ripped away. And if things ever got better in my home country, maybe I would go home and try to spread a bit of Europe there, or maybe I’d stay in Europe, having already become fluent in Czech, German, Spanish and built a new life here. There is that ideal.

Some welcome the refugees
Then there is the other, worse option. I come to another land, seeking opportunity, then I’m spit on, beaten, threatened, told that I should go to other countries, where I would be even worse off. Then I might think, well, if I joined those Islamic State guys, maybe I would have a chance after all. That’s the problem with being unwelcoming towards those in need of refuge – hate is an incubator of hate.

Europe has over 500 million people. Spread fairly and evenly, the 1 million refugees would barely be noticeable culturally. Sure, there’d be a few more kebab stands, maybe a couple more women in hijab walking around, but so what? Eventually the Enlightenment would hit them, they would abandon extremism all together, hijabs would gradually disappear or turn into a mere fashion preference, a taste for beer would emerge (that would possibly be the first step, preceding the Enlightenment ideals), and then they’d be just as European as anyone else. Does color of the skin make the European, or does liberation ideology of 1848 make the European? We would have thought that 1945 brought us the answer, but it seems the answer is still yet to come.

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