I’m not sure whether this mirrors the sentiment of those currently caught up in Middle Eastern mass exodus. I don’t profess to speak on the behalf of so many. I do think that if mainstream media truly wanted to frame this crisis in a way that shows the people fleeing war and persecution as actual people, they wouldn’t just stop calling them swarms, they wouldn’t just encourage us to donate time and money to help them, they would give them their own voice in the media, their own platform to say how they feel, show the world that they are just like us: refugees are simply after happiness and contentment- peace.
The following is an edited excerpt, an atypical detournément if you will, of the beginning of Hannah Arendt’s 1943 essay “We Refugees”.
In the first place, we don’t like to be called “refugees”. We ourselves call each other “newcomers” or “immigrants”. Our newspapers are papers for “Europeans of Arabic language”; and, as far as I know, there is not and never was any club founded by ISIS-persecuted people whose name indicated that its members were refugees.
A refugee used to be a person driven to seek refuge because of some act committed or some political opinion held. Well, it is true that we have had to seek refuge; but we committed no acts and most of us never dreamt of having any radical opinion. With us the meaning of the term “refugee” has changed. Now “refugees” are those of us who have been so unfortunate as to arrive in a new country without means and have to be helped by Refugee Committees.
Before this war broke out we were even more sensitive about being called refugees. We did our best to prove to other people that we were just ordinary immigrants. We declared that we had departed of our own free will to countries of our choice, and we denied that our situation had anything to do with “so-called Muslim problems”.
We lost our home, which means the familiarity of daily life. We lost our occupations, which means the confidence that we are of some use in this world. We lost our language, which means the naturalness of reactions, the simplicity of gestures, the unaffected expression of feelings. We left our relatives in the Syrian rubble and our best friends have been killed in ISIS’ spreading territory, and that means the rupture of our private lives.
Another thing to take from this essay, particularly when Arendt discusses the increasing frequency of suicide by the Jewish people, is how being deprived of one’s legal, social and political status, the Jewish people of Hitler’s Germany, perhaps like the Muslim refugees in contemporary Europe, are increasingly treated and considered as the lowest form of life- bare life. This concept is developed most profoundly by Italian social theorist Giorgio Agamben, whose “Homo Sacer” series of books explores the paradox of modern sovereignty, and how modern Western government doesn’t just guarantee rights, but chooses who can be considered a person to which rights can apply- picking them out as part of the state of exception. For example, in the US Guantanamo Bay is a place in which all the usual rights we have come to reason ought to be universal, are exceptionally suspended such that prisoners there are reduced to only having the rights to “bare life”.
Additionally, when Arendt discusses how the Jewish people, in their state of exception tried to forge a new identity, they were never properly able to do so. This makes me wonder whether we should be asking these Muslim refugees to change their culture in order to fit in with our Western way of life? Not just because of some outlook of cultural relativism, but because of the psychological distress it is likely to cause these people. I expect many will respond that the problems of terrorism, arguably in parts, enable extremist radicalisation, but when we consider the fact that many of these people are radicalised due to their experiences of Western military intervention, we should be willing to accept that the West has probably fuelled so called “Islamic” terrorism at least as much as any fundamental Wahhabist preacher- as discussed in the recent article by guest writer from the US Dylan Yoki.
Of course, this is a very complex situation and solutions are unclear but my main point is: we need to remember that these people are human beings as capable of thought, emotion and suffering as any of us. We should not allow them to be treated as exceptions as the Jews were in Hitler’s Germany. I like to think we’re still far from anything like that, but the direction we’re going in when we turn a blind eye and ignore the lessons of history, it is sure to repeat itself- only this time, technology is significantly more advanced. Hitler was able to murder in such unfathomable numbers because of his expert utilisation of the modern state, and today’s trains are much faster.