CRUCIBLE: Arab Humanitarian Crisis (3)

QUEZON CITY (MindaNews / 17 Sept) – There are times when we can be gripped by a global crisis despite being far from the center of its gravity. We can be carried by our emotion. We can become sentimental or critical as we try to make sense its multifaceted causes and implications.

Rightly or wrongly, we could lose our bearing with our supposed rational and universal view on things that may veer us away from what the Qur’an refers to as urwathu l-wutqa or firmed handhold or foundation.

In this regard, there is a need to be aware of certain opening even in most serious a crisis. There can possibly spark a flickering light somewhere. This way we’ll see in its totality a much wider panorama how strong the tempest may be like today’s refugee and humanitarian crisis in the Middle East and Europe. Like any phenomenon thus, we should not lose tract in viewing a crisis as āyah or sign, with which we have to ponder upon.

Glimmer of hope

This is probably the reason why in many verses of the Qur’an, we are exhorted to be firm, to be patient, and to persevere amid difficulty given that we can only have a small glimpse of reality that presents as phenomenon and its innumerable unfolding. Apart from other verses, the Qur’an says in Suratu l-baqara says:

“Nay, seek God’s help with patient perseverance and prayer. It is indeed hard except for those who bring a lowly spirit who bear in mind the certainty that they are to meet their Lord and that they are to return to Him (45-46).”

From a superficial perspective, the call to patience and perseverance for those who are engaged or those who are not directly involved in a severe crisis may be viewed as too stoic or fatalistic – a recourse that can make us unmoved, as we could possibly and unduly accept anything that happens or push us to defeatism.

On the contrary, there is wisdom in hoping, in being patient, and in persevering. For, it is precisely in that small space that a glimmer of light may shine; and thus, would create a new dialectic to produce as counter phenomenon that may dose off even slightly the severity of crisis – an unfolding which we could simply utter in silence or simply hope.

This is the context when we sounded quite frustrated last week; yet, even as we spoke in joining the voice across the world to extend humanitarian assistance to refugees from the Middle East to Europe, we didn’t need to wait that long for glimmer of hope to happen. No less than Pope Francis and some kinder EU leaders called for, at least, a relative respite – a welcoming gesture for Syrian refugees and others.

Pope Francis rallied the whole Christendom in Europe to open their homes – for one Christian family to adopt one family of refugees. For his part, Finland Prime Minister Juha Sipila and his wife literally opened their home to refugees.

The European Union also came up with a regional policy on Syrian and other Arab refugees. Yesterday, European Commission Chief, Jean Claude Junker, said:

“We have the means to help those fleeing from war, terror, and oppression…It is true that Europe cannot house all the misery of the world but let us be honest and put things into perspectives…As long as there is a war in Syria and terror Libya, the refugee crisis will not simply go away…We are fighting the Islamic State, why are we not ready to accept those fleeing from Islamic State? We have to accept those people on European territory.”

These are words of hope from a leader of regional power that realized the need to extend empathy to struggling people like those 10 million Syrian refugees and other Arabs, Africans, and Kurds in exodus, although we lament why we could not hear from Arab and Muslim leaders the same expression of empathy let alone see concerted efforts of pan Arab or Islamic humanitarianism.

Where is the Arab League? Where is the Organization of Islamic Cooperation?

As character of war in our time changes, people’s advocacy and call to address humanitarian crisis and the problems of refugees have now gone beyond traditional instrumentalities of the United Nations, international human rights groups and international humanitarian agencies, albeit many of them are still doing important roles.

Aylan Kurdi

The tipping point was Aylan Kurdi, a three-year old boy from Kobane in Syria who became the face of today’s humanitarian and refugee crisis. His pitiful death triggered the barrage of calls in social media, twitter and the like for world leaders to act.

We could not help but ask: why should there be such sacrifice of hundred of thousands of innocents or what an European cartoonist depicts of Aylan as an angel before the world can feel the sense of humanity, that outpouring of empathy to Syrian and Iraqi refugees and others?

As a side note and as you’d long noticed, we’d always tried to join the cacophony of voices on many issues particularly the need to embrace higher ideals, common understanding, and humanitarianism.

Even if we are just a small gathering, we try to share our khutbah (discourse) in cyberspace. In our desire to help and in our quest for relevance, we could not close our eyes and be content in our comfort zone. We have to reach out even through our prayers, our voice, and our writings.

This is the reason why we could be stuck in discoursing politically loaded issues like refugee and humanitarian crisis, global politics of war, why the Middle East has become laboratory of arms race by big powers, and so on. We thought this is our way in speaking truth to power and in sharing our views to express our empathy with suffering peoples.

Some critics may mistake us as preposterous for speaking continuously of war and the refugee issue despite being far from the center of conflict and as if we had our own war experience.

It is our view that wars and their victims wherever they happen share common traits whether they are Syria and Iraq, Ukraine and Chechnya, Palestine and Southern Philippines and many others. War defies geography and time.

Children of war

This is not to flaunt our experience as war refugees – as children of war in the ’70s. In the interest in showing the universality of experience among war victims particularly children, it must not be arrogance or immodesty to share a glimpse of that experience.

We have to note that the Moroland was the first Muslim area in the Muslim world that was continuously subjected to colonial machination since the rise of Pax Americana in the 19th century. It was not Afghanistan; it was not Iraq or elsewhere in the Muslim areas. It was a dying British Empire and few European colonial powers that had taken grip of many parts of the Muslim world before Pax Americana.

Decades later and as Jabidah Massacre babies, we were witness to many wars. We’d stared war and its horror in the face. We were subjected to intermittent rain of land, air and sea bombings from Tora-Tora, naval boats, and canons from Bud Datu for more than two years. We were, in a sense, the early batch of child bakwit or evacuees known to Tausug as pāguy.

As pocket yet fierce wars continued in hinterlands and other parts of the Sulu Archipelago until the signing of the Tripoli Agreement in 1976, hiding in paksul or foxholes for days, running aimlessly amid rain of cannons, and crossing turbulent seas are usual sight among pāguy. Undoubtedly, Tausug children of that generation suffered with unimaginable hardship and difficulty. By the way, scars of war don’t heal; they remain etched in every child’s subconscious.

That scar could lead children to carry a psychology of vengeance for life, especially when the search for peace is irritatingly politicized and becomes cyclical and ritualistic where it reaches a point of near banality; more so, when children’s needs like education and so on remain unaddressed. Most often, those children become easy prey or ready recruits of rebellion and extremism.

Fine for those children whose trauma has healed. They could easily mainstream back to society.

Softening hearts

Children of war do not always contribute negatively in society. They could possess rich reservoir of talents and ways in handling pressure. Place those children in any crucible; they have their own way in wading through. As they mature early, they have real grasp of life. They consider their war scars their badge of honor.

This must be true before today’s influx of war refugees and immigrants to Western countries. Africans and Arabs who migrated earlier succeeded in making their imprints in Europe and America.

Lest, we forget that US President Barrack Obama is a son of poor Muslim from Kenya and a stepson of an Indonesian. He undoubtedly made audacious efforts to succeed despite his modest background. This is not to mention that Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple, is a son of Syrian immigrant. Apart from Buddhism and being techie on computers, Steve left a Syrian “gene” with what millions of people are frequently holding on their lap.

This is just to show that while we lament on the hardness of hearts amongst world leaders amid spiraling number of Syrian refugees, we have to be ready to look at the bigger picture – how a ferment could cascade to form a dialectic and conjures to produce another ray of light even if it simply appears as a bare shadow in the beginning.

What we are quite sure is that the crisis in the Middle East has emboldened mass of people across the globe, as they are now the ones calling for their leaders and governments to adopt humanitarian and refugee policy that is kinder and humane to war victims and so on.

Policies are policies. They can be heartless in most cases. They spring from decisions by certain leaders that take into account their national interest and country’s security bordering on ultra-nationalism and sheer fear of the other. But those responsible in making policy are individuals with hearts. We have to knock on those hearts – the reservoir of Divine light that is simply shrouded with fear.

The nature of the heart is that, as Ibn Arabi said, it is in state of taqallub or flux. It is constantly changing. How heedless those Arab and EU leaders may be, they are men and women whose hearts are not made of rock and stone; they are as pliant that could be softened with the cause of humanity. With truth speaking to power, patience and perseverance is as valuable as our ways of solidarity to refugees and war victims in the Middle East and Europe today.

[MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. A khutbah (with revision) delivered at the UP-Institute of Islamic Studies on 11 September 2014. Julkipli Wadi is Professor of Islamic Studies, University of the Philippines.]