Iivi Anna Masso: The migration crisis and liberals' internal conflict (28)
Columnist Iivi Anna Masso asks why people with a liberal world view couldn't support freedom of movement for work, studies, marriage, and genuine political asylum while at the same time support more effective protection of European cultural values.
Like many topics that incite passions, Europe’s migration crisis has divided people into camps ever since it exploded a year ago. Borders open, borders closed. Left versus right, open and closed, multiculturalism or monolithic radical nationalism.
For Estonia, the migration crisis is still more of an abstract concept, but Estonians don’t remain completely unaffected. After all, many travel, study, and work elsewhere in Europe. The country’s neighbours Finland and Sweden led the EU last year in the number of asylum applications accepted.
Pressure on Europe from mass immigration remains high, although a fragile deal with Turkey has limited the numbers of people entering from the southeast. The European Union is still more open than most of the world, including other Western countries. International asylum treaties get a generous interpretation here. Some member states are building fences, but for a migrant, all it takes is to cross a border (or borders) and say the word “asylum” and they gain temporary legal status and receive subsistence support until their refugee status or lack thereof is determined.
This still encourages international human trafficking. If refugees were selected from UN camps, the selection would be made by experts in this field. Open borders mean that the selection is left to smugglers. As a result, resources earmarked for assisting migrants are not spent on the people who are most in need. Above all, the flow of migrants is bringing mostly healthy young men to Europe, not women and children, the elderly or casualties of war.
In recent months, authorities from several countries have acknowledged that the new arrivals include ISIS fighters and supporters. Europe has taken a foolhardy security risk by treating millions of humans as a homogenous group. “They’re running from ISIS” is no wiser an assessment of the situation than “They’re all terrorists”. Such a large amount of people cannot be treated as one big group, with shared, similar motivations we can easily define. What we know is that these men come from a conflict zone, part of which is the territory of an extremist movement that has declared itself the enemy of the West. Europe should have considered early on that the migration crisis might be a security risk. This is another argument against uncontrolled borders, yet the European leaders decided not to take it seriously.
Drawing black-and-white distinctions between supporters of openness and those in favour of sealing off borders will not help solve the situation. A truly xenophobic movement will continue to grow in Europe as long as uncontrolled migration continues. Substantive discussion is hampered by idealists’ attempts to brand as xenophobic anyone in favour of more restricted and controlled migration.
But why couldn’t people with a liberal worldview support people’s movement for work, studies, marriage and genuine political asylum while also supporting more effective protection of the European cultural space, for security reasons as well as cultural and political considerations? Since the current migrants are coming overwhelmingly from one cultural space, “multicultural” has begun to mean something different to the melting pot of languages, foods, looks, holidays and customs that we see in big cosmpolitan cities like New York. In today’s Europe, it now only means the growing influence of political Islam on liberal European values. Compromises that cast the shadow of gender segregation, anti-Semitism, homophobia, and archaic religious edicts over our cultural space.
That is the paradox of migration policy. The Middle East is not egalitarian, liberal, tolerant or multicultural, even though it is ethnically diverse. Religious minorities have been oppressed for centuries and now once again they are physically destroyed. The paradox is that liberals, in the name of those liberal values, defend a migration that makes Europe more and more similar to the Middle East.
The defenders of open borders don’t acknowledge that if the population changes, the cultural space changes as well, and with it also its values. They disregard the fact that the increase in the influence of Islam will change the nature of European societies. And yet the developments in the Middle East are inseparable from religion. Sectarian violence, terrorization of religious minorities, and the fight of hard-line Islamists against secular rulers and Muslims not seen as pious enough. What’s the guarantee that the same people won’t bring these conflicts along with them to Europe?
In that sense, the current migration is different from that of the World War II era, which it is often compared to. Estonians didn’t take Soviet ideology with them when they emigrated to the West, the Jewish refugees didn’t take Nazism with them. However, Islam, which is not just a religion but comes with a world view and a political system, spreads the seeds of its internal conflicts everywhere its adherents go.
It’s no wonder then that the harshest critics of Islam are from the Middle East. Moderate and secular Muslims know what they’re running away from. They’re afraid that the culture they came from will follow them to the free West.
As has often been emphasized, the violence perpetrated in the name of Islam should not be blamed on all Muslims. While this is true, ISIS’s practice of quoting from Islamic scripture to justify their violence is something that clerics and theologians have to address within their own faith. Distancing oneself from violence is not enough. One also has to distance oneself from the texts that instigate violence, in a theologically convincing manner.
Many Muslims are Muslims in name only, like Christians who go to church only at Christmas. They were born in this culture and don’t repudiate it, but take a lukewarm interest in religion. Peaceful Muslims absolutely exist. But when talk turns to Islamic law, it’s hard to treat seriously the comments published in the Western press that sharia is just a philosophy of the “right way”, like Tao. None of the different schools of Islamic law treats women or religious minorities as equals or recognizes freedom of speech or religion. This means that religious law runs completely counter to democratic core values.
The aftermath of the Arab Spring has shown that Islamist pressure in societies with a Muslim majority to move towards a medieval theocracy is loath to disappear. Turkey was the great hope among Muslim-majority countries moving toward secular democracy. Now we see political Islam encroaching on that country as well.
Liberals who extol Islam’s peaceful nature and defend unlimited migration don’t realize that the increase in Islam’s political influence due to demographic changes brings along a decline in liberal values in Western societies – rights for women and sexual minorities, freedom of opinion and religion, multiculturalism and tolerance. Any given individual can be expected to adapt and come to appreciate Western freedom. But it is naïve to think that the effect of massive changes in the population will have no effect on the shared values of a society. You don’t have to be a right-wing conservative dreaming of ethnic purity to criticize mass migration. Anyone who wishes to preserve the free, open, secular, and egalitarian societies of Europe has reason to be concerned.
The topic can also be seen from a post-colonialist perspective. Supporters of unlimited migration, otherwise quick to spot and criticize colonialism, don’t take note of the fact that the EU, mainly made up of small countries with a population of just 0.5 to 10 million people, has become the destination for people from much larger countries and ethnic groups. Mostly Muslim speakers of Arabic number a total of 400 million. For some reason the 22 countries of the Arab League aren’t able to help their brothers and sisters from war-torn Arab nations. Middle Eastern migration to Europe isn’t seen as colonialism because the Western elites prefer to see people from these parts of the world as downtrodden and miserable. Yet wealthy Arab oil states invest billions to export fundamentalist Islam. Is the wish of small cultures to persist in the face of mass migration and cultural export really blind xenophobia?
So what could be a realistic liberal migration policy? The European Union should get just as serious about curtailing uncontrolled migration as other Western countries. We don’t consider Canada a closed, racist country, do we - even though Canada accepts immigrants, including refugees, in limited numbers and under controlled circumstances. It isn’t possible to re-settle all of the people from conflict-prone areas in Europe. But with better controls of Europe’s external borders, we could choose the people to help based on genuine need, instead of favouring smugglers’ clients. More effort should be given to helping the minorities who are persecuted in their homelands. And if we admit that migration has an effect on the host societies, the capacity and willngness of the new arrivals to adapt should be one of the criteria for selection.
To avoid a cultural conflict already in the making, we need to support critical voices from within the Islamic world a lot more – dissidents, apostates, and reformers. Critics of Islam need support from the West just like Soviet dissidents did back in the day. Then, too, some preferred to sing the praises of ideal communism instead of looking at the actually existing version. The key to co-existence in the end is that also the youngest of the monotheistic religions goes through a postmodernist deconstruction that puts old religious texts in the context of world history.
That means that criticism of religion, including criticism of Islam, has to be encouraged, not suppressed. Well-wishing liberals should not label critics phobics and haters. Western liberals have no reason to defend a medieval religious creed that opposes everything that liberals support. And as long as there is no end to violence or the spread of fundamentalism, migration policy should be used to prevent radical demographic changes.
Iivi Anna Masso is a freelance political analyst based in Helsinki. She holds a PhD in political science from the University of Helsinki, where she has researched and taught philosophy and political theory. Her current interests include political ideologies, digital society, and the future of democracy in Europe.
The original Estonian version of this opinion piece (link in Estonian) was first published on Aug. 29, 2016 in Postimees.