Daffy Donald proposes to ban Muslims from entering the U.S., while journalist Glen Greenwald recently reported on the frightening upsurge in attacks on Muslims. As I write these words, I am listening to John Williams’ score for the movie Schindler’s List. The music never fails to move me deeply. Whatever historical flaws or misrepresentations the film might have, the undeniable suffering of the Jewish people, along with millions of political dissidents and other “undesirable” human beings—the Untermenschen in Nazi parlance—is an escapable part of our history. And now the fascists and neo-Nazis among us aim to reawaken the very same mentality that led to the unimaginable cruelty and barbarity of their predecessors during World War II.
What is particularly distressing in this recent outbreak of blind prejudice among a growing number of my fellow Americans is their apparent ignorance of our country’s role in generating the humanitarian crises affecting Syria, Iraq and other Islamic countries in North Africa and the Middle East. Were it not for our almighty benevolence and exceptional commitment to bringing democracy to the oppressed and downtrodden, an untold number of innocent human beings would still be with us, here on Earth, living their lives, practicing their faith, loving and being loved. But our savage, power-driven, myopic leaders insist on carrying out their interventions, always according to God’s plan or some equally demented design formulated in think tanks and board rooms and the halls of Congress with the noble goals of regime change and absolute control of energy resources firmly in mind.
As it was in Iraq so it is now in Syria and other targets of the greatest empire that has ever disgraced the Earth and all we share in common, like the right to life, the right to liberty, the right to freedom from foreign hubris and its many forms—from outright aggression to the “responsibility to protect.” I’ll say it again: Were it not for the machinations and criminal conspiracies of our damnable leaders—from Bush the First to Obama the Sun King—there would be no flood of refugees seeking solace and safety on our shores or the shores of our European brethren. Perhaps it is worth reminding ourselves, from time to time, of the words inscribed on Lady Liberty’s immemorial bronze plaque:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.
Those words ring out as an abiding welcome, a sign and signal to all who seek shelter and safety, no matter their color, race or creed. It is decidedly not a “No trespassing, police take notice” sign. Nor does it say “Irish need not apply” or “No coloreds” or for that matter, “Muslims keep out!” But Trump and his followers would have us believe our safety and security are contingent upon reverting to discrimination and the building of actual walls and other, even more formidable barriers constructed of fear, ignorance and bias of the most negative sort. They would have us extinguish the torch blazing in Liberty’s upraised hand, close our borders and harden our hearts against the thousands of refugees streaming from the very lands we have, in recent years, either invaded outright or where proxy forces and mercenaries have done our dirty work.
And now, thanks in no small part to the violence we have inflicted or otherwise instigated upon targeted countries, the world is faced with the largest refugee crisis since World War II when an estimated 60 million Europeans became refugees over the course of the war. Today, according to the UNHCR’s annual Global Trends Report: World at War, “worldwide displacement [is] at the highest level ever recorded…the number of people forcibly displaced at the end of 2014 had risen to a staggering 59.5 million compared to 51.2 million a year earlier and 37.5 million a decade ago.”
The Report further concludes that the war in Syria is now the main driver of displacement: “Every day last year on average 42,500 [Syrians] became refugees, asylum seekers, or internally displaced, a four-fold increase in just four years.” Of course, the foreign policies and misadventures of the United States is not the only reason why we are facing a refugee crisis of such magnitude. Again, according to the UNHCR report:
“…in region after region, the number of refugees and internally displaced people is on the rise. In the past five years, at least 15 conflicts have erupted or reignited: eight in Africa…three in the Middle East (Syria, Iraq, and Yemen); one in Europe (Ukraine) and three in Asia (Kyrgyzstan, and in several areas of Myanmar and Pakistan). ‘Few of these crises have been resolved and most still generate new displacement,’ the report noted, adding that in 2014 only 126,800 refugees were able to return to their home countries—the lowest number in 31 years.”
The Global Trends report also includes one more sobering fact: over half of the refugees in the world today are children. Like Aylan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian child who, with his older brother Galip and their mother Rehan, died when the boat they shared with other Syrian refugees capsized while trying to reach Greece and eventually Canada. In September, a heart-wrenching photo of Aylan’s lifeless body on the shore of a Turkish beach made headlines around the world.
And yet, despite the outpouring of sympathy for Aylan and the saturated media coverage of his tragic death and the plight of thousands of other refugees risking their lives on dangerous ocean crossings, the root causes of the refugee crisis remain on the margins of corporate media. Instead, we must suffer daily accounts of atrocities committed by ISIS or some Al Qaeda franchise in Syria or Iraq, and listen to this or that pundit weighing in on the application of force to the job of ridding the world of Islamic fanatics. Is the U.S. blameworthy for waging a merely half-hearted air war instead of pulling out all the stops and bombing the hell out of the terrorists and their command infrastructure? Is Russia’s game-changing intercession in the form of strategic bombers and cruise missiles hitting Islamic State targets putting the final nail in the coffin of the so-called Caliphate? These and comparable questions seem to be taking up much of the news and commentary these days in regard to the wars in Syria and Iraq.
Even the Quaker Meeting I attend is not immune to the seductive lure of an ever more violent response to the violence of ISIS and its affiliates. The Sunday after the massacre in Paris, various members, some of them seasoned Quakers, rose to address the Meeting. Each in her own way was struggling to understand how the shooters, presumably aligned with ISIS, could have murdered so many innocent people in cold blood. Granted, most of the speakers prefaced their remarks by reminding us that, as Quakers, we are committed to nonviolence in the pursuit of peace. But others, equally appalled by the horror of what happened in Paris and the growing malignancy of extremism, confessed that in their darkest moments, they felt a military response was more than justified. The threat posed by ISIS, they said, is so great that only a powerful alliance, similar to the one that defeated Germany in World War II, could rescue humanity from extremist violence in all its manifestations.
Despite sincere expressions of grief for the latest victims, no one at the Meeting seemed willing to acknowledge our own government’s role in turning the Middle East into a charnel house. The U.S., with its “coalition of the willing,” is arguably the main driver of this bloodshed. And no matter which side in these bewildering conflicts has caused the greater amount of suffering, the result is the tragic displacement of millions of desperate, frightened people.
The Gospels tell the story of Mary and Joseph’s journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem to register for a census. According to the traditional narrative, the couple found the Judean equivalent of “no vacancy” at whatever lodging they came to. (Some Biblical scholars question this account; they argue that, given the social mores of first century Palestine, it’s highly unlikely that a woman on the verge of giving birth would be turned away. A more credible interpretation is that a guest room in a private home was unavailable, and therefore, Mary and Joseph were taken to the “manger,” a small area built into the floor of Middle Eastern homes where a peasant family’s farm animals would spend the night.)
The late poet, author, mystic and Trappist monk Thomas Merton composed in 1965 “The Time of the End Is the Time of No Room,”* a Christmas meditation whose musings are, I believe, as relevant today as they were those many years ago. I imagine Merton writing these words while enthralled, perhaps, by the mystery and beauty of this holiest of seasons and, more to the point, moved by the suffering and injustice he had witnessed:
Into this world, this demented inn, in which there is absolutely no room for Him at all, Christ has come uninvited. But because He cannot be at home in it, because He is out of place in it, His place is with those others for whom there is no room. His place is with those who do not belong, who are rejected by power because they are regarded as weak, those who are discredited, who are denied the status of persons, who are tortured, bombed, and exterminated. With those for whom there is no room, Christ is present in the world. He is mysteriously present in those for whom there seems to be nothing but the world at its worst … With these He conceals Himself, In these He hides Himself, for whom there is no room.
— Raids on the Unspeakable
A recent (and to my mind, representative) example of a belligerent and wholly inhospitable response to the plight of refugees is an illustration by a Japanese “manga” artist. She apparently used the actual photo of a 6-year-old Syrian girl in a Lebanese camp as the basis of her drawing, which appeared on Facebook. The Japanese text that appears in the background of the drawing is intended to reveal the child’s inner musings:
“I want to live a safe and clean life, have a gourmet meal, go out freely, wear pretty things and luxuriate. I want to live my life the way I want without a care in the world — all at the expense of someone else…. I have an idea. Why don’t I become a refugee?”
In my own life, I have been fortunate, or rather blessed, to have encountered quite a few “refugees.” In 2009, I spent time in Amman meeting with Iraqi families and listening to the stories they told me about the circumstances that compelled them to leave Iraq or risk being killed by gunmen from one militia or another. Since then, my wife Nancy and I have developed deep and we hope, lasting relationships with families from the Middle East who have been resettled in neighboring towns. Most of the families are Muslim. Over the years, we have become part of each other’s lives. There are no separation barriers, no walls between us. And there is always plenty of room in our homes and our hearts.
When one family’s 12-year-old son was recently diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (on the same day that a photo of his school’s winning soccer team appeared in the local paper), my wife and I were there to offer our support and to serve as advocates for the family, especially when it came to navigating the healthcare system and surmounting language barriers. We have become so close that last spring, before this latest crisis erupted, the boy’s mother invited my wife to return with her to the city of her birth to visit her ailing mother. For three weeks, Nancy was treated to traditional Middle Eastern hospitality in Muslim homes. Despite language differences, she and all the families she met were able to access a fundamental, universal language — the language of understanding, compassion and love. This, I believe, is the language we must all learn to speak if this world of ours is to have any hope of surviving and reaching its greatest, most humane potential.