The Arab Press Reacts to the European Refugee Crisis

"We are a nauseating nation."


"We are a nauseating nation," wrote the Saudi journalist 'Ali Sa'd Al-Moussa in Al-Watan on September 5, in reaction to images of Syrians and other refugees fleeing to Europe. The "nation" he was angrily condemning was not only Saudi Arabia, but the greater Arab world. It is a world, he lamented, "that kills people for their opinions or affiliation. Compare [this] to the parallel image: in the central train station in Munich, dozens of German citizens gather to welcome the first train arriving from Budapest carrying hundreds of immigrants…

"We should feel some sense of shame for being victims of an education [based on] curses, which has been adopted by all the circles, schools, speeches and platforms—from the pan-Arabists and the Nasserites to the Ba'thists and the Islamic extremists. After all these curses and inculcation of hatred, we discover that the [norms of] tolerance and acceptance [that characterize] European society have become a goal worth risking our lives for[.] Europe is now home to 11 million Arab immigrants… who have attained rights and have a prospect of receiving citizenship, equality and justice under the law—all the things whose absence drove them to flee their Arab countries of origin…"

"Stop talking about the hypocrisy of [Western] morals and values, because reality exposes nothing but our own ugly countenance."

Al-Moussa's furious diatribe is one of many in the Arab press occasioned both by the pictures of Arab refugees seeking haven in Europe, and especially by the images of Aylan Kurdi, the 3-year-old Syrian Kurdish boy whose body washed up on the shores of Turkey. The Middle East Media Research Institute has collected and translated several of these remarkable reactions, many of them expressing shame over what the images of desperation and death imply about the region the refugees have been fleeing. (It has also reprinted many political cartoons from the region expressing the same revulsion.) Although some commenters have trained their anger on European and American policies that have contributed to the crisis, many of the pieces are remarkable not for maligning the West, but for fulsomely praising its virtues, if not romanticizing its culture. The excoriation is largely reserved for the Middle East itself.

The example of the Aylan Kurdi photographs is especially striking. While many Westerners reacted to the images with a sense of guilt over restrictive refugee admissions policies, some Arab writers saw the "sad, shameful and painful" photographs as an accusation against themselves. For example, Muhammad Hussein asked in Egypt's Al-Ahram, "Does the picture of the boy who drowned represent the death certificate of this nation, which died recently and is [now only] awaiting a burial permit?…

"In the face of the boy who drowned I saw the face of an entire nation cast out [on the beach] like a small dead fish that exudes a stench of death, but also additional foul smells of oil, shame, impotence, treachery, conspiracy and collusion…"

Adnan Hussein, writing in Iraq's Al-Mada, condemned the Middle East by praising the West's values (choosing to overlook, for example, the anti-refugee rhetoric and actions in Hungary, to say nothing of the ethnic- and religion-based Balkan conflicts of a generation ago, much less Europe's appalling 20th century). "The lofty [value of] human sentiment is rooted in cultured societies from Japan to the US," he wrote on September 4. "In Europe and other civilized countries a sharp sense of humanity is inculcated from early childhood…

"We too could be like them and our countries could be like their countries, which do not persecute the citizens and do open their arms to the victims of natural and political disasters. Yes, we could be like them if we  thoroughly examined our barbaric political regime, our backwards social order, our obsolete curricula, our media that operates without professional norms, and our religious establishment that interprets the texts in a barbaric fashion, inciting to hatred and to abuse of the other, even members of the Islamic faith! This situation clearly mandates a velvet revolution that the educated [sector] must launch."

(Hussein's call for a "velvet revolution" is, of course, an appeal to a European solution. He's evoking the non-violent overthrow of the communist regime by students and dissidents in 1989 in what was then Czechoslovakia.)

Some commenters did turn their anger on the West, especially on President Barack Obama, whose Mideast policies they see as destructive, inhumane, and feckless. The Iraqi journalist 'Aziz Al-Hajj, writing on the Elaph website on September 3, charged that, "The West is responsible [for the crisis], not because it is unable to absorb millions of refugees that might transform Europe's social and cultural fabric… but because of the wretched and dangerous Western policy, in particular Obama's policy, which has helped spark crises of conflict in our region, especially in Syria, Libya, Yemen and Iraq.

"If those who preach humanitarianism—in fact, if the international community at large—had cared for the lives and security of our [Arab] peoples, they would not have abandoned Libya mid way, and would not have shrugged off the decisions of the [June 2012] Geneva I [Conference on Syria] when it was still possible to find a balanced, gradual and peaceful solution [to the Syrian crisis] that did not include Assad. Back then ISIS did not exist and there were no deadly barrel bombs… Another opportunity came when it was proved that Assad had used gas [i.e., chemical weapons]… [But] Obama withdrew his threats [to act in Syria]… and, backed by the EU, he allowed Putin and Iran to do as they pleased, yet now he is shedding crocodile tears over the tragedy of the [Syrian] refugees…

(What Al-Hajj calls Obama's "crocodile tears" is a theme that has arisen with a vengeance in the Western press as well, an example, perhaps, of "shame" at work among Western commenters, too. In August, former Ambassador Frederic C. Hof wrote in Foreign Policy magazine about the Obama administration's "pantomime of outrage" concerning the Middle East's refugees. More recent columns by Michael Gerson ["Syria has become the graveyard of U.S. credibility"] by The New York Times' Roger Cohen ["Syria will be the biggest blot on the Obama presidency, a debacle of staggering proportions."] and by Glenn Reynolds in USA Today ["In the Middle East, everything Obama has touched has failed disastrously"] have made arguments that echo Al-Hajj's outrage. Most prominently, Fred Hiatt, the editorial-page editor of The Washington Post, wrote in a signed op-ed on September 6 that not only has the president "presided over a humanitarian and cultural disaster of epochal proportions," but that "the strategic results of Obama's disengagement have been nearly as disastrous as the human consequences.")

Left unsaid in these pieces is the germane fact that some Arab countries have taken in very large numbers of Syrian refugees. Jordan has accepted hundreds of thousands, and tiny Lebanon is overwhelmed with over a million; one-third of Lebanon's current population is estimated to consist of refugees. However, Lebanon's "boom" years didn't survive its ruinous civil war, and Jordan never enjoyed a boom at all; these are not wealthy nations. As for the rich countries of the Arab world, they have thus far refused to accept any refugees.

The Gulf Times, an English-language daily in Qatar, has harshly criticized the policy. Citing the welcoming placards greeting refugees in Austria, and the opening of homes to refugees in Germany, the paper contrasted Europe with the silence of the Gulf. "Tragically, the cash-rich Gulf countries have not yet issued a collective statement on the crisis – much less come up with a strategy to help the migrants who are overwhelmingly Muslim," the paper editorialized on September 2. In the Gulf, "the silence is deafening."

But that silence is not absolute. Back on March 17, Fahd Al-Shelaimi, a Kuwaiti and the Chairman of the Gulf Forum for Peace and Security, was interviewed by the Arabic-language service of the French news channel, France24. He was asked then why the Gulf states, including Kuwait, were refusing to take in refugees. His answer speaks for itself: "At the end of the day, you cannot accept other people, who come from a different atmosphere, from a different place… These are people who suffer from psychological problems, from trauma, and you [cannot] place them in [Gulf] societies just like that."

Al-Shelaimi, explained that "Kuwait and the Gulf countries are expensive, and are not suitable for refugees. They are suitable for workers. The transportation is expensive. The cost of living in Kuwait is high, whereas the cost of living in Lebanon or Turkey is perhaps cheaper. Therefore it is much easier to pay the refugees [to stay there]…."