The world has been stirred by the image of a 3-year-old Syrian boy, Aylan Kurdi, lying face down in the sand in tidy clothes and sneakers, drowned by the waters off Turkey that now lapped on his limp, dead body. The stirring image has left many wondering: How could this tragedy happen and who should take responsibility for fixing it?
This week, Deepa Kumar, an associate professor of media studies and Middle East Studies at Rutgers University, published an op-ed on Al Jazeera, the Qatar-based media outlet, distributing the article with a note, “This is heartbreaking. Hit ‘like’ and share if you think that others need to see the unconscionable suffering of Syrians and why Europe and the U.S. need to follow the example set by the over 10k Icelanders who have opened their homes to refugees.”
But a growing number of Muslims, Arabs, South Asian diaspora writers and others—folks who don’t always agree on current-event issues—are rightly asking another question: Rather than laying all of the responsibility and blame at the footsteps of the West, why aren’t Arab leaders giving these refugees safe haven?
While the images of refugees are stirring, including the poor 2-year-old boy whose body washed ashore, we can’t allow Western liberalism and political correctness to let Arab leaders off the hook for finding solutions for the conflicts and crises in their own region. This is not to be heartless, but, as a Muslim immigrant to the United States from India, I understand and appreciate the need for Western governments to secure their borders. The influx of refugees will break many social welfare nets in the West, with refugees needing a flood of services including language training, job training, schooling, and mental health services, to name just a few. Already, the refugee crisis is taxing law enforcement and immigration and border control services.
It is not politically correct to utter, but it has to be acknowledged that the arrival of millions of refugees from, yes, mostly Muslim regions raises serious long-term demographic and policing concerns for countries in the West, which will likely see the character and values of their communities completely transformed by refugees who may have values and attitudes about secularism very different from the countries they would be calling home. Already, countries like the United Kingdom struggle with issues of Islamic extremism among legal immigrants that have transformed British culture to the point that London is nicknamed “Londonistan.”
There are serious issues of ideology and identity at risk here.
Reasonable, rational, tolerant folks are saying that the refugee crisis isn’t Europe’s problem to fix, and it is, in fact, a form of reverse racism to let Muslim countries off the hook, as if they are just too backward, intolerant and incapable of finding homes for these refugees. The family of young Aylan, after all, was fleeing Turkey, a Muslim country, for the West, because the father said that the refugees weren’t treated respectfully in Turkey. That is a policy problem in Turkey that needs to be fixed, not displaced to other countries.
Last December, Amnesty International released statistics highlighting that the five Gulf countries—Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Bahrain—“have offered zero resettlement places to Syrian refugees.”
The current wave of scrutiny took off four days ago, before young Aylan’s death, when former TIME International editor Bobby Ghosh quoted from Amnesty International’s analysis, saying about the Gulf countries, “Shame on them all.”
Late Thursday night, at home in East London, a graphics designer, writing under the name Rafiq “Abu Safiyyah,” 27, using a kunya, or moniker, “father of Safiyyah,” for his last name, got on his PC, stirred by the image of the young Aylan. He did his research and “found that many of the Gulf countries hadn't officially taken in refugees,” while Levant countries, including Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan, had absorbed millions of refugees.
He created a bold and dramatic graphic with the caption, “Number of Syrian refugees taken in by countries in the Middle East.”
A map of the Middle East showed Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Qatar at “0.”
The designer, who was born in England to parents who had emigrated from Bangladesh, sent the graphic around the world from the social media feeds for IlmFeed.com, a Muslim publishing website he launched last year.
He told The Daily Beast, “Basically after the photos of the young boy found on the Turkish beach went viral and there was talk in British media about allowing in more refugees and that Germany was allowing 800,000 refugees I wanted to see what the response was in the Muslim world as ilmfeed focuses on Muslim issues.”
While the lists were popping around, he thought a map could help illustrate “the geographical proximities of the countries.”
He wanted to chronicle the Muslim countries that are helping, but “I also wanted to highlight that other Muslim countries can do more.” He was stunned by the number of shares the graphic received on Facebook, numbering about 21,000 now.
Today, Ishaan Tharoor, a foreign affairs writer at The Washington Post, published a piece, headlined, “The Arab world’s wealthiest nations are doing next to nothing for Syria’s refugees,” chronicling calls around the world to hold Gulf countries accountable. The son of a former representative from India to the United Nations, Shashi Tharoor, the Washington Post writer wrote there was “no reason other than either indifference or a total lack of political will” that the most wealthy Arab countries haven’t opened their doors to the refugees.
On Facebook, Faisal Saeed al Muther, an Iraqi secular activist and writer who received refugee status, himself, in the U.S. not long ago, promoted a cartoon of Arab leaders standing over the dead body of young Aylan. “Where is the Ummah?” he asked, using an Arabic word that refers to the “Muslim community.” “We are only united when it comes to hatred of Israel and U.S. invasion of Arab Lands. But we forget about each other about almost everything else.”
In the past few days, the absence of Gulf country support for the refugees has become glaringly transparent.
In wall-to-wall coverage, Al Jazeera English reporters, working for the global TV network funded by the Qatari ruling royal family, chronicled, breathlessly with eyebrows furrowed, the “dread and despair,” “massive determination,” “fear of police,” and a “grief-stricken” refugee “wailing from grief,” all trying to storm Hungary’s borders to reach the rest of Europe.
“Where is humanity?” an Al Jazeera reporter, Muhammad Jamjoom, reported a sign read, held up by a refugee in Hungary.
“It’s just extraordinary, isn’t it?” an Al Jazeera English reporter, Andrew Simmons, asked, reporting from the hike of refugees in Herceghalom, Hungary. The segment had a dramatic title: “Desperate Journeys.”
Meanwhile, a black luxury car pulled up to the doors of the White House this afternoon—Salman, designated “the king” of Saudi Arabia, stepped out of the car and was personally greeted by a smiling President Obama. The Saudi government has not announced any lifting of its entry restrictions for refugees.
“The most astounding thing about holding European states accountable for neglecting refugees but not Arab and Muslim states is the racism of lowered expectations,” says Ali Rizvi, a Pakistani-Canadian writer on issues related to Islam. “Oil-rich countries like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Kuwait have taken in zero refugees—why not talk about that? Why not hold wealthy brown people to the same standard of conscience as wealthy white people?”
As talk of the “dread and despair” was relayed to the world, another report circulated, stating that the Saudi governmental authority is banning adoption of Syrian orphans by Saudi families. Even as most Gulf countries continue to refuse citizenship to foreign immigrants and some Muslims, like-minded allies are charging the West with “xenophobia” and “Islamophobia” for not welcoming the refugees with open arms and open borders.
In an article, “Migrant crisis: Why Syrians do not flee to Gulf states,” Amira Fathalla with BBC Monitoring, dared to ask the question, “Not welcome?” She included a cartoon published in the Makkah Newspaper, a Saudi publication, which published a cartoon with a man in traditional Gulf clothing looking out from behind the window on a door blockaded with barbed wire and pointing his finger at a door with symbols of the European Union on it. A woman in a long gown and her hair covered holds a limp child in her arms, kneeling in front of the European Union door.
The man, drawn to look like a man from the Gulf, asks: “Why don't you open the door for them, oh, you people with little compassion?!”
Two writers of Arab ancestry, Donna Abu-Nasr and Deema Almashabi, contributed to an article at Bloomberg that answered the BBC Monitoring question, in part, noting, “Syria’s Refugees Feel More Welcome in Europe Than in the Gulf: Syrians who want an ‘honorable life’ say that’s something they can hope for in western Europe, not the Gulf states.”
Ultimately, the issue that too many people in the West face in having this conversation honestly is that they will be accused of expresssing “xenophobia” or “Islamophobia,” as a writer, Sarab Al-Jijakli, alleged is at play, in a piece published in The Guardian, arguing, “The U.S. must do more to help Syria. Step one: let more refugees resettle here.”
Interestingly, Rafiq “Abu Safiyyah,” the graphics designer, was also shocked to receive “a lot of negative comments.” Today, he published a clarification that he wasn’t “against Saudi Arabia.”
“My intention wasn’t to portray Saudi as a bad country,” he says.
Speaking for many of us, Muslim Twitter users responded: He didn’t need to issue a clarification.