Syrian and Afghan men brawling in refugee shelters. Saudi jets pounding Yemen. Islamic State fighters rounding up and killing civilians, most of whom are Muslim. These realities in Dar al Islam, or "the world of Islam," show us that there is no single Islamic way; no iconic Muslim persona to hate or fear; no guarantee that yesterday's partner might not become tomorrow's enemy; and always the possibility that today's foe may become tomorrow's friend.
These east-west, north-south and Islam-not-Islam dynamics create a complicated and multilayered playing field where scenario planning and strategic policy may suddenly slip and slide like rocks on the California coast after a hard rain. "It can be pretty hard to tell when a particular policy was the wrong one without knowing what other policies were realistically available," Philip Bobbitt writes. "About the most we can say is that a policy is wrong when it fails to achieve its objectives, which doesn't say very much about what a better policy would have been."
How do we find the right balance between security and compassion? How much empathy can we show? Where are the edges of personal, family and community safety? About all we can control is our own personal, moral and ethical responses to each case we come across, and ask: Will we take the high road, or the low one?
Making First Contact
The post-apocalyptic movie Star Trek: First Contact concludes with a similar challenge to humanity's higher attributes. The 1996 film imagines a community in the American Northwest that has survived a devastating, planetwide conflict. While its members work to revitalize space flight, they see a UFO land, and from the alien spaceship's lightening-white door emerges one of Gene Roddenberry's enduring creatures: a Vulcan. Does his unexpected arrival portend enslavement and an end to human supremacy on Earth (as if catastrophic war hadn't already done that)? Or might the encounter bring new hope and partnership to a dispirited society? The biggest question, of course, is how will the humans receive the strangers? Will they greet them with hostility or hospitality, ferocity or trust? Which choice better defines being human?
Of course, First Contact is set in the mid-21st century, some 40-50 years hence, and pre-supposes a world war we have not met. Yet fear here and now is mounting as immigration and terrorism swell. Hospitality may seem dangerous, costly and counterintuitive to government leaders and homeowners because many immigrants come from the same place as the people responsible for blowing up the Bataclan theater and Brussels Airport. Many practice the same faith. Stratfor's Scott Stewart points out that arrests alone will not solve the intractable problem of radicalized Muslims who may be bent on attacking Europe. "Until the underlying issues that drive radicalization on the Continent are addressed, authorities will be neutralizing only the immediate threat, not countering its root cause." Stewart does not address the root causes in his analysis, nor will I in this essay. But it is clear that as refugees and victims of terrorism flood into Europe, the Continent's citizens face the same existential choice put before the fictitious Star Trek characters: to extend a hand of friendship to strangers or not. What are the consequences of welcome, not only for the lives of the migrants be also for the conscience of the Continental community?
What are the consequences of welcome, not only for the lives of the migrants be also for the conscience of the Continental community?
This is not just a "migrant crisis," as the Huffington Post and so many other media outlets have called the en masse escape from Africa, the Middle East and South Asia. Just as the World War II flights from Poland, the Netherlands, Germany, London and Paris were, this is a crisis of violence. The weary and worn people who are struggling to find safe harbor are not coming to challenge our values and threaten our security. They are coming to avoid the pre-apocalyptic nightmare plaguing their homelands. They could be us.
More Opportunity Than Threat
Together we face an existential crisis that is challenging us to define what it means to be human, whether as victims, warriors, liberators or visionaries. "Don't respond with policies — torture, ethnic or religious persecution, aerial bombing of innocent civilians, the elections of ultranationalist demagogues — of which you will be ashamed later," Bobbitt cautions. "Our values arise from our actions, as the existentialists observed, but our fates are determined by the interplay of our actions and, among many other factors, the actions of others."
Actions like those of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Recently nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for her role in championing peace and providing leadership during a time of great instability, Merkel has boldly gone where no European leader has gone before, allowing nearly a million asylum seekers into Germany last year. In spite of some domestic pushback, the refugees keep coming.
"There is no tolerance of those who are not ready to help, where, for legal and humanitarian reasons, help is due," Merkel has said, noting that it is "part of the identity of [Germany] to do great things." The chancellor recognizes that many of the new arrivals to her country, particularly women, have suffered extreme trauma, and she has urged them to learn the language and integrate themselves into Germany's liberal European society.
She is not the only one making room for migrants, either. Other Europeans are stretching themselves and their resources to assist people in crisis, making the same choice Star Trek's characters do by making "first contact" with another life form. The movie's reliable vision of optimism for the victory of our better nature over our worse shows the man in charge of the post-apocalyptic community approaching the Vulcan with an outstretched hand. He chooses hospitality over hostility and welcomes the alien into the compound, offering distilled spirits and turning up the jukebox with an invitation to dance. The stranger politely tolerates these gestures. Fans of the science fiction series know this scene marks the beginning of a centuries-long curious, mostly respectful and sometimes strained relationship within which the parties learn from each other — as will certainly be the path of the new communities, norms and balances settling into Europe.
Plenty of Afghans, Syrians and Somalis will return to their countries when it is safe; after all, there's no place like home. But many people will also stay in Europe and create new homes. The likelihood is remote that sprawling refugee camps will become brick-and-mortar towns on the outskirts of European capitals and villages —as the camps in which many displaced Palestinians have lived for over 60 years have become outside Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Amman and Beirut. Rather, as they are processed and relocated, migrants-cum-immigrants will find or build new permanent neighborhoods, find jobs and create small businesses. Their children will grow up blending cultures, translating shopping lists and report cards for their parents as many American-born Mexican and Pakistani children do for their parents in the United States today, and as Italian and German children did for their parents generations ago. The New Europeans will struggle, like the New Americans did, to find a balance between tradition and opportunity. They'll figure out when it is smarter to extend a hand than to retract it; when to stick to a treasured family recipe and when to taste a local dish. They'll suffer the de rigueur bigotry and discrimination that every newcomer seems to earn without cause ... until the next group comes along and bias turns against its newest target.
Human beings have always been on the move, sometimes for adventure, sometimes for wealth, sometimes to escape natural disaster or flee man-made ones, and often to find better lives. Think of the Exodus, the Silk Road, the Crusades, the exploration and scourge of the Americas, and the earthquakes of the Rift Valley and San Andreas Fault. We are witnesses to history in the making. And our strategies for encountering the other will either enrich or impoverish us and our futures each step of the way. Brawl by brawl.