The ‘refugee crisis’, religion, and encounters with the divine through the human at Christmas

A nativity scene at St Antony of Padua Church, Istanbul, decorated with objects found in shipwrecks of refugees on the Turkish coast. Christmas 15/16. Photographer: Pedro J. Pacheco. Used under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.
A nativity scene at St Antony of Padua Church, Istanbul, decorated with objects found in shipwrecks of refugees on the Turkish coast. Christmas 15/16. Photographer: Pedro J. Pacheco. Used under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Whether you see it as truth, myth or folklore, the Christmas story is a powerful narrative in contemporary politics in multiple contexts. In the midst of fraught politics around refugees and immigration, refugee advocates often highlight that ‘Jesus was a refugee’, his family being forced to flee to Egypt shortly after his birth to escape King Herod. Yet as well-meaning as this argument is, does this emphasis on Jesus as a ‘refugee’ help to inspire compassion, or does it retain an emphasis on labels and categories that prevent us from seeing fellow human beings? In today’s post Erin K. Wilson and Luca Mavelli explore this and other dimensions of how the Christmas story speaks to the current crisis of humanity that is often referred to as the ‘refugee crisis’. Whatever your beliefs, we wish all our readers a safe, peaceful and joyous holiday season.

According to the UNHCR, as of the end of 2015, 65.3 million people were displaced globally at a rate of 24 per minute. This is the largest number of displaced people ever recorded. With the ongoing atrocities in Aleppo, Yemen, South Sudan, Nigeria, to name just a fraction of the multiple global tragedies occurring right now, the number of displaced people will only have grown in 2016. Despite the enormity of the situation, responses from Western countries (who host a mere 24% of displaced persons in comparison to the 86% hosted in countries surrounding conflict zones) have been inadequate, to say the least. Their harsh exclusionary rhetoric has resulted in increasingly hard line immigration policies. Australia has led the way in this regard, deploying a deterrence-driven model of offshore mandatory indefinite detention, preventing asylum seekers from ever settling in the country at all, even if found to be ‘genuine refugees’, and laws that make family reunion almost impossible. Whilst this approach has been condemned by the UNHCR and multiple human rights organizations, it has been highlighted by numerous policymakers in Europe as a possible model for governing migration on the continent. Despite the notable exceptions of Germany and, to a smaller extent, Italy, European responses to the crisis have privileged exclusionary and securitizing policies, leading many commentators to observe that, rather than a refugee crisis, this should be more properly described as a crisis of leadership, a crisis of solidarity and even a crisis of humanity.

At this time of year, as families gather together to celebrate Christmas, it has become commonplace to point out that the story at the heart of Christmas focuses on a family who were forced to flee their home country with their new-born son because of political persecution. ‘Jesus was a refugee’ and other similar phrases and sentiments are voiced in an effort to inspire compassion and empathy in populations and political leaders of developed nations with a Judeo-Christian heritage and encourage more welcoming policies towards refugees and displaced persons.

As well-intentioned as such efforts are, they are also somewhat problematic. While endeavouring to inspire compassion, these arguments maintain emphasis on the identity of displaced persons as ‘refugees’, not as human beings. ‘Refugee’ has become a contested and problematic label within global political discourses, carrying ambivalent connotations. As such, efforts to shift public debate that retain the label or category of ‘refugee’ as a primary point of reference may not have the desired or intended effect. Indeed, they may have entirely the opposite effect.

Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh has termed this ambivalence the ‘good refugee/bad refugee’ narrative. ‘Good refugees’ are women, children and male victims of violence who patiently wait in refugee camps to be rescued by Western saviors via ‘legal’, ‘official’ or ‘formal’ resettlement channels – which can take years. Bad refugees are those who exercise agency by engaging in ‘proactive livelihood and survival strategies’ such as crossing Sub-Saharan Africa or the Mediterranean in order to seek refuge in Europe, or arriving by boat from Indonesia at Christmas Island. Bad refugees challenge the script ‘refugee=victim’ thus becoming a ‘swarm of people coming across the Mediterranean’ (UK Prime Minister David Cameron, cited in BBC News 2015c), ‘“queue jumpers” and “bogus asylum-seekers” who are jeopardising the protection claims made by ‘real’ (i.e. ‘good’) refugees’ (Fiddian-Qasmiyeh 2016). Even well-meaning arguments that focus on what ‘refugees’ and ‘immigrants’ contribute to our societies through work and entrepreneurship are implicitly and no doubt unconsciously premised on this good/bad distinction – ‘refugees’ are good because they contribute to making our societies better places. But what if they do not? What if they cannot? What if, owing to their experiences of fleeing war torn homelands and then languishing in camps or immigration detention centres for years on end, they are too traumatised and too debilitated to ‘contribute’ to our societies? Are such people then not deserving of our compassion and protection?

In contemporary global politics, the category of ‘refugee’ has become entangled with another category that further exacerbates its ambivalence – the category of ‘Muslim’. Religion has arguably become the primary characteristic by which refugees are imagined and understood, resulting in three main false assumptions:

1) Since the majority of refugees are from countries where Islam is the dominant religion, they must therefore be Muslim; the reality is that many refugees are Christian, Atheist, Baha’i, Druze, Yazidi, as well as Muslim;

2) Not only are all refugees assumed to be predominantly Muslim, but they are all Muslim in the same way, ignoring the numerous variations in beliefs, rituals and practices across understandings of what it means to be ‘Muslim’;

3) The concurrent rise of mass displacement and violent extremism (stereotypically associated with Islam), has resulted in a complicated entanglement where ‘refugee’ equals ‘Muslim’ and ‘Muslim’ equals ‘terrorist’ in public discourse and consciousness. This is contributing to the belief that all refugees are potential terrorists and prompting narrow policy responses primarily concerned with security rather than solidarity and humanitarianism.

In other words, the ‘good refugee/bad refugee’ narrative has become entangled with the ‘good Muslim/bad Muslim’ narrative.

As Mahmood Mamdani observed in the aftermath of 9/11, the dominant discourse that has emerged regarding Islam does not just emphasize the connection between Islam and terrorism, but also urges us ‘to distinguish “good Muslims” from “bad Muslims”’. Good Muslims are peaceful, law-abiding and abhor acts of violence that threaten the authority of the secular Western state. Bad Muslims commit acts of violence and, according to political leaders like George W. Bush and Tony Blair, blaspheme the name of Allah and do not adhere to the proper teachings of the Koran. While these statements could be cast as attempts to de-essentialize Islam by emphasizing that violence is not an endemic feature, but only the product of some ‘bad Muslims’, the ‘good Muslim/bad Muslim’ narrative has also contributed to constructing ‘good Muslims’ as devoid of agency, as potential victims of a growing ‘radicalised and politicised view of Islam’ (as Tony Blair argued in 2014) whose only hopes rest on external salvation from the West.

This narrative draws on an Orientalist tradition that is also reproduced in Western approaches towards refugees. A case in point is the UK decision in September 2015 to take 20,000 Syrian refugees over a period of 5 years directly from camps in Syria’s neighboring countries and that the refugees would be selected, as then Prime Minister David Cameron explained, on the basis of need by privileging ‘disabled children, … women who have been raped, … men who have suffered torture’. In this policy, we can clearly see the articulation of the idea that there are ‘good refugees’ deserving of Western salvation, and ‘bad refugees’ who are not. The ‘good Muslim/bad Muslim’ distinction is deeply intertwined with the ‘good refugee/bad refugee’ narrative because, as José Casanova has pointed out, in Europe:

Immigration and Islam are almost synonymous. The overwhelming majority of immigrants in most European countries [excluding immigrants from other European countries] … are Muslims and the overwhelming majority of Western European Muslims are immigrants… This entails a superimposition of different dimensions of “otherness” that exacerbates issues of boundaries, accommodation and incorporation. The immigrant, the religious, the racial, and the socio-economic disprivileged “other” all tend to coincide.

While the majority of immigrants in the US are not Muslims, President-elect Donald Trump’s anti-Islamic stance, including his proposal to end Muslim immigration, suggests that the ‘superimposition of different dimensions of “otherness”’ described by Casanova has also been taking place in the US. Similar debates have occurred in the Australian context, with Pauline Hanson calling for a ban on all Muslim immigration.

Considered in their overlapping dimension, the ‘good Muslim/ bad Muslim’ and ‘good refugee/bad refugee’ divides contribute to explaining in Europe, North America and Australia the growing importance of religious identity in the politics of migration and refugees and the hierarchization of refugees according to religious-racial attributes. At the top of the hierarchy are Christian refugees, ideally victims of religious (Muslim) persecution. This is evidenced in statements from politicians in Eastern Europe, the US and in Australia that only Christian refugees should be accepted. Next are Muslim refugees, who wait patiently in camps for Western salvation, and the ‘woman and child’ or child refugee, who symbolize the quintessence of vulnerability. At the bottom of this hierarchy are the ‘bad refugees’, mostly represented by those who escape the ‘victim script’ by taking matters into their own hands, venturing to the ‘North’ across dangerous and illegal routes.

This hierarchy is essential to understand Western policy responses to the crisis, such as the suspension and scaling down of search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean, taking refugees directly from Syrian camps, and the EU-Turkey deal. These initiatives have often been justified in ‘humanitarian’ terms: reducing ‘unintended “pull factors”, that encourage more migrants to attempt the dangerous sea crossing and thereby leading to more tragic and unnecessary deaths’ (UK Foreign Office Minister Lady Anelay on the British government decision to no longer support search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean in October 2014). This explanation is tenuous to say the least. Refugees are fleeing for their lives anyway. Introducing harsh measures to reduce irregular migration, whilst not at the same time opening up more legal pathways for greater numbers to be resettled, does little to actually prevent people dying. The EU-Turkey deal has succeeded in closing down the shortest and safest sea voyage into Europe from Turkey to Greece, but has meant that migrants are now focused on the central crossing from Libya to Italy, which is longer and far more dangerous. On 23 December 2016, following the drowning of another 100 migrants, the UNHCR announced that the number of people who had drowned attempting to cross the Mediterranean in 2016 had reached 5000 – ‘the worst annual death toll ever seen’, and at least 1200 more than in 2015. In other words, the EU-Turkey deal has not stopped people trying to come to Europe. It has merely made their journey options more life-threatening. As William Maley has forcefully observed, such policies are not about ‘saving lives’ or preventing ‘unnecessary deaths’. Their real message is a simple one: “Go and die somewhere else”.

What seems to have been forgotten in the dominant narratives around the refugee crisis is that, to put it simply, refugees are people. Commentaries that overly emphasize religious identity or focus predominantly on whether someone is a ‘genuine refugee’ or an economic migrant – a distinction that is largely meaningless on the ground – willingly or unwillingly neglect the complexities that make up the human beings who are currently displaced. They are not just ‘Muslims’ or ‘refugees’. They are parents, children, brothers and sisters, doctors, lawyers, teachers, engineers, citizens, activists, friends – in other words their identities are complex and cannot be reduced to simplified categories of ‘Muslim’ or ‘refugee’.

It is in this way that the Christmas story can speak into current discussions concerning the crisis of humanity that is commonly referred to as a ‘refugee crisis’ – not in emphasizing the identity of Jesus as a refugee, but in emphasizing the identity of Jesus as human. The danger in emphasizing people’s identities as refugees is that we continue to see them only as labels or categories, which we fill with our own assumptions and preconceived ideas. In emphasizing their identity as human beings, we have more possibility to see them in their full complexity, to make the encounter between ‘us’ and ‘them’ an opportunity to learn, share, laugh or cry; an opportunity to embrace the ‘in-beween’ between us and them and establish a new and unexpected ‘we’; indeed an opportunity to encounter the divine through the ‘other’.

This is what philosopher Martin Buber had in mind when he theorized his famousI-Thou relationship. The encounter between myself and the ‘other’ is never just the sum of the two of us. The only way to fully encounter our fellow human beings is through God, who in turn can only be encountered through our fellow human beings. The I-Thou is thus a triangular way of thinking ourselves in the world – I-thou-Thou – and making space for those who have no space, who no longer have a country or a safe haven. It is an encounter with ourselves, with our fear and our lack of understanding, and yet with our potential and unlimited possibilities to love and care (unfortunately, matched by an equal capacity to hate and be indifferent). The I-thou-Thou encourages us to encounter the unknown other not as an agency-less end-user of a policy – a refugee that needs to be rescued –, an ‘It’ to be feared or hated, or as an object of pity to boost our sense of moral worthiness and self-righteousness, , but rather as a fully agentive subject, a human being in all their glories and failures, their strengths and vulnerabilities. For Buber, what matters in this encounter between the self, the empirical other and the transcendent other is not I, or you, or Thou, but the space between I, you and Thou – in other words it is the encounter itself and the space for dialogue and relationship that the encounter creates that matters most.

And this is what Christmas is – the creation of a space of encounter for I, you and Thou; for ourselves with other human beings and with the divine; a space for dialogue, for exploration, for doubt, for questioning, for knowing, for relationship. In the Christmas story that space is created and encounters take place across gender, class, racial and social divides amongst shepherds, peasants, royalty and the divine.

It is precisely this space for encounter that is presently missing in conversations about the so-called refugee crisis. Discussions take place amongst media, politicians, spokespersons – where are the everyday encounters with people who have been displaced? Yet arguably this space is also missing in our society and politics more generally. We too quickly see ‘refugees’, ‘Muslims’, ‘populists’, ‘conservatives’, ‘progressives’, ‘idealists’, before we see people. The Christmas story invites us to see the human first before the label, and maybe in seeing the human first, we may also encounter the divine.

In most religious or faith traditions, there is a belief that all human beings have value because they are made in the image of God, or they are God’s representatives on earth, or they are gods, or they have some element of the divine in them, depending on which faith tradition you come from (and of course which interpretation of that faith tradition – as we know, faith traditions have also been used to dehumanise people). But whether we come from a faith perspective or not, the question we must all answer is whether we are willing to recognise the humanity of another person, to see ourselves – with all our strengths and weaknesses, faults and vulnerabilities – in them, and to see them in us. It is sheer accidents of birth that some of us live in countries of relative stability and others are fighting for their lives in countries riven apart by war, poverty, famine, climate change and innumerable other ills. That does not make them any more or less human than the rest of us. It is all part of the complex mess that makes up the human experience. That is what in some ways the Christmas story, and the life of Jesus of Nazareth highlights – that being human is difficult, complex and messy. This Christmas, and in 2017, may we all be more willing to grant one another grace and look beyond labels, categories and stereotypes to see the human and the divine.

Erin K. Wilson is the Director of the Centre for Religion, Conflict and the Public Domain, Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies, University of Groningen.

Luca Mavelli is Senior Lecturer, School of Politics and International Relations, University of Kent.

This post draws on sections of the introduction to their new edited volume, The Refugee Crisis and Religion, as well as portions of recent posts at The Immanent Frame and LSE Religion and the Public Sphere blog. The piece in its entirety was originally published on ABC Religion and Ethics and re-posted here with permission.

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