ISLAMOPHOBIA AND THE SYRIAN REFUGEE CRISIS
The vilification of refugees from Syria and the backlash against Islam following the atrocities in Paris, compel me to respond. The Republican Islamophobes currently competing for the US presidency and their followers are trying to capitalize on fear, just as George Bush did to arouse support for the Iraq War.
They are ignorant of history and lack essential knowledge. They should know that the Prophet Muhammad, while countering tribal warfare and polytheism among Arabs, revered the monotheistic Jewish and Christian religions. He described their followers as “People of the Book”; he never denied them freedom of worship and he rejected forced conversions. In contrast Charlemagne, who was crowned by the pope as the first emperor of the Holy Roman Empire in 800 CE, slaughtered countless Saxons who refused to convert to Christianity during his invasion of Saxony. At about the same time, the Muslim dynasty founded by Abd-al-Rahman in Cordoba, Spain, encouraged the collaboration of Christians, Jews and Muslims in translations of classical texts, which would otherwise have been lost. The society of El-Andalus, as this Muslim kingdom was known, offered a shining light of erudition and open mindedness in Europe.
This harmony came to an end during the long-drawn-out Reconquista, the recovery of Spain by Christians. In 1492 the Spanish Inquisition under Ferdinand II and Isabella expelled all Muslims who refused to convert to Christianity and drove out 200,000 Jews. Meanwhile in Constantinople, the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II, who conquered the city in 1453, allowed Christians and Jews to retain many of their churches and synagogues for worship. His successor Beyazit II invited the Sephardic Jews — refugees fleeing Spain — to settle in his empire.
The Crusades, long believed to represent Christian virtue and heroism, actually reveal the dark side of Christianity. In 1099, when the armies of the first Crusade entered Jerusalem after a long siege they massacred the entire population of Muslims and Jews. The carnage lasted three days; many victims were beheaded; the streets ran with blood. In 1177, Saladin, the Sultan of Egypt, retook the city, but treated the Christians with respect, spared their lives and allowed them to worship freely. Richard the Lionheart, King of England, a prodigious Christian soldier finally defeated Saladin at Acre in 1191, he showed no compassion. When negotiations for ransom, agreed in a settlement between the two leaders, broke down, he slaughtered 2700 Muslim hostages in cold blood.
To move to more recent events, it is easy to see why many Muslims in the Middle East deeply resent Europeans and Americans. I will be brief, but a few historical episodes may shed light on the situation. During World War I the “Great Powers,” led by Britain, imposed their will on the region, designating protectorates, and drawing boundaries with little respect for the will of the people. The Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 arrogantly divided the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire north of the Arabian Peninsula into zones controlled by the French and British.
One year later, the Balfour Declaration voiced British Government support for a “Home for the Jewish people” in Palestine. With Zionist support from the USA and elsewhere, the plan went forward with almost total disregard for the stipulation “that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.” Since World War II, with the help of funding from the USA, the Palestinian people have been dispossessed of most of their birthright. As the successive maps show, forcible annexation and illegal settlements have reduced their lands to a fraction of their original extent. Billions of dollars provided to Israel for military purposes by American taxpayers assist in the oppression of Palestinians.
In 1953, the United States and Britain engineered a coup d’état to overthrow the democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh who was attempting to gain a just share of Iranian oil revenue for his people. This illegal and immoral act, carried out under CIA direction, increased the power of the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and eventually paved the way for the revolution of 1979 which enabled the present theocratic government to take power. If Eisenhower and Churchill, instead of approving the coup had respected and supported an emerging democracy, Iran might have taken a more moderate course as an agent of peace in the Middle East.
The Iraq war, built on ignorance and lies by George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, ended the rule of Saddam Hussein; but, after the loss of thousands of lives, it left the country in a much worse state than it was under the vicious dictator. By ousting the Sunnis in the military or government from any positions of power, they helped to create a power vacuum in which ISIS could thrive. The continuing bombing and drone strikes ordered by the US government, which have taken thousands of civilian lives including a high proportion of women and children have contributed to the conditions that cause Syrians to flee.
Syria, although a poor country, had a good system of education. Despite oppressive rule by the Assad father and son, the society was peaceful and tolerant. The people fleeing are mostly educated, middle class citizens caught in the struggle between a despotic dictator and the so called Islamic State, a hideously violent organization that flouts the principles of Islam. The Syrian refugees are victims of the failure of diplomacy and the preference for war over the alternatives that should appeal to Christians. We must welcome them and give them the support they need. Furthermore western leaders need to grasp the lessons of history to forge new policies based on understanding rather than dogma and prejudice.
On November 18, Walter Andrews a distinguished professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Washington shed light on the current crisis in a Seattle Times article headed “Some simple truths about Terrorism and how to respond.” He wrote “When our leaders deny relief to innocent people fleeing unendurable conditions in their homelands — conditions made worse by our interventions — those leaders are creating a huge recruiting ground for the like of the Islamic State”. He concludes that we can best defeat the Islamic State by “refusing to do what they want”.
I agree heartily with Walter Andrews that we should proclaim our values to the world by welcoming Syrian refugees.
I found some of the information and ideas in this blog from the following books,
David Levering Lewis, God’s Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe 570-1215
James Reston Warriors of God: Richard the Lionheart and Saladin in the Third Crusade
David Fromkin, A Peace to End all Peace: The Ottoman Empire and the Creation of a Modern Middle East Stephen Kinzer, All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup at the Roots of Middle East Terror 2003