There has been mounting criticism over the role of the Arab states when it comes to taking in the refugees on their own doorstep. According to human rights activist Iyad El-Baghdadi, this is an Arab moral crisis.
Deutsche Welle: The mounting refugee crisis has been dominating Europe’s news the past few weeks. How do the Arab states react to this crisis?
Iyad El-Baghdadi: The fact that it is not dominating Arab news as much and the fact that we have to flee our homes and that we have to become stateless and homeless at all – that really upsets me. In 2011 the region had the opportunity to rise up and to experience a revival on the basis of which we don’t need to seek a future elsewhere. But because this historical moment was crushed so severely, the result is what we see today.
What do you think of Europe’s response so far?
I am impressed that the discussion about the right and moral thing to do is entering the debate. We are witnessing a moral crisis whereby we have to look to Europe, to the Vatican and to the Pope for moral leadership. We cannot handle our own refugee crisis while we are a net producer of refugees. The burden is now on Europe to do the right thing.
A number of Arab countries are not taking in any Syrian refugees. What do you make of that?
Well, we did not expect them to, because in four out of the six Gulf states, the local population is already a minority within the country. The social dynamics in the European context are very different. In Europe refugees are put on a path to citizenship, they are completely integrated into society and they are expected to be active even in public life. But this dynamic does not exist in the Gulf states. The political space is very narrow or even non-existent there. Any demographic change is going to be very disruptive for the political order, and the regimes cannot handle this kind of disruption. After all, there is no political will and I don’t think it is going to come.
In the Gulf states religion plays a key role and Islam preaches compassion. Could it be that Europeans are the better Muslims in this instance?
If we actually break down the principles of Islam, we see that Europeans are the better Muslims in this case. Whenever you have a political system based upon autocracy, eventually it is going to gain control over the religious establishment as well, which means that it cannot have an independent moral voice. But there is something changing, I can feel a certain change in psyche. There are Muslims who are looking at the events, seeing a mature societal and moral response from Europe. That makes them question what it means to be moral in this day and age.
If you talk to people in Europe about the refugee crisis, it is a very emotional debate where fears often clash with compassion. Some are worried about a creeping Islamization of Europe. Do they have any grounds to be worried?
The question leads us back to European liberalism, the rule of law and human rights. I believe very strongly that no matter what culture, you want to integrate into society. When it comes to matters of human rights and the rule of law, that should be completely non-negotiable. So if you have a strong constitution and political system, there is no need to be worried. What is worrying though, is the rise of the far-right. And if you add that to the refugee crisis, you can get a quite explosive situation. Also, when it comes to Islamism and extremism, it is all about identity. Whenever a minority feels threatened because of its identity, its response is to grasp onto that identity even more. And that sets a hurdle in front of integration.
Given the hopeless situations in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen, have you personally given up on the region or what gives you hope that the region can return to peace one day?
The underlying demographic changes and the generational shift which gave rise to the Arab Spring are still with us. But we are in limbo right now. We basically had to jump from an autocratic regime to an Arab Spring solution. But the chaos that we see today is not the result of the Arab Spring, it is the result of its crack-down. I think the solution to all of this is to embrace liberty, democracy and tolerance, as well as saying no to sectarianism and tyranny. And that is an inter-generational challenge. And this is really our salvation – not only for the Arab people but also for the world, because we cannot continue to be a region that exports refugees, illegal immigrants and terrorists.
Iyad El-Baghdadi is a leading Arab Spring activist and blogger. He is Palestinian by birth but was raised in the United Arab Emirates from where he was expelled in April, most likely for his outspoken pro-democracy views and activism. He was ultimately granted asylum in Norway.
The interview was conducted by Neil King.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of MuslimVillage.com.