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How can we defend our liberal heritage by abandoning its values?

24 November 2015

4:04 PM

24 November 2015

4:04 PM

Yusuf, when I last saw him, was still smiling, a middle-aged man with the greying pony-tail of a rock roadie. He described himself as a feminist: he met his wife through work, where, he told me proudly, she was a better computer engineer than he. Yusuf had the stoop of a tall man who’d spent most of his life under ceilings too low for him, and the corrugated iron hut his family now called home was no exception. So we sat cross-legged on the floor, while I asked him about religious tensions in a southern Turkish refugee camp.

‘If you want to know, I’m an atheist. I mean, in Damascus, my friends all were – it’s not like you’re living in a village, your grandfather checking you’re in mosque. I don’t believe in any of it. But I never shouted about it. And here, since the al-Nusra types started moving into the camp, it’s been a bit harder. Two of my friends here grew religious beards, just to avoid trouble.’

A year later, I met Sham, an educated twenty-three year old Syrian woman living in an overcrowded basement in Amman in Jordan. Unlike Yusuf, Sham is very much a woman of faith: the sense of Allah’s presence, she says, is one of the few things that’s got her through the indignities of exile. Back in Damascus, she rarely went to mosque. But now she’s a refugee, religion has its comforts: praying regularly gives her days structure and purpose, and amid the inhospitality of the Jordanian state, and the failure of the UN World Food programme, a local Jordanian mosque is the one place her family have found fellowship and generosity.

The last week has seen America convulsed over the Syrian refugee question, the spectre of the Islamist terrorist haunting the debate. Donald Trump seems to be backtracking on his reported suggestion for a database of American Muslims, a demand that sent a chill through anyone with a basic knowledge of the Holocaust. But he’s not the only Republican candidate who seems to think you can categorise humans in crisis. Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush have both suggested limiting asylum to Christians (like Nigel Farage before them): a video is currently circulating of Jeb insisting that Christians refugees can and should prove their faith to gain visas.


We shouldn’t need to explain the danger of rounding people up and ordering them to swear allegiance, whether to a faith or to a flag. (Catholics, after all, venerate Thomas More for refusing just such an oath). And yet, seemingly, we do. If you are a Christian, you’ll know that Jeb’s attitude would have received short shrift in the Gospels. The key commandment, we’re told, is ‘Love Your Neighbour,’ but crucially, when Christ delivers this lesson, he gets the question we all want to ask: ‘Who is my neighbour?’ So he tells the parable of the Good Samaritan, a story about a foreigner giving aid to a Jew whom two others have ignored.

Much of the parable is about the danger of putting people into categories, Jew v Samaritan. It’s practical advice, too. When politicians talk about the superiority of Christian refugees, I think of Yusuf, and of Sham. Neither fit into easy pigeonholes; neither is an Islamist threat to the US. (I’ve rarely met anyone who hates Isis more than Sham, who like so many Syrians, sneers at the foreign fighters carving up Raqqa). Should we judge Sham by the agnostic self she left behind in Damascus, or by the religious practice that makes her less lonely in Amman? And if you send a local official to a refugee camp calling for non-Muslims to identify themselves, I doubt Yusuf will come running. Not while anyone’s looking.

Jeb’s chest thumping may sound like a very American news-story. Certainly, it exposes the parallels between the fundamentalist Protestant traditions that mark the American South, and the Wahhabi movement behind Isis. Both privilege salvation through scripture, and through testimony, rather than private behaviour: it is Islamic terrorists, remember, who decide who gets shot according to who can mindlessly recite the Shahada. But there’s a similar rhetoric emerging here in the UK. Not 24 hours after the Paris attacks, Douglas Murray attacked the decision to continue with the latest arrivals of Syrian refugees, asking on Coffee House ‘whether we have any capability whatsoever to work out who is who.’

Now, I agree with Douglas that the left has appeased radical Islam in the name of ‘diversity’; I agree with him that ‘all religions are the problem’ is, as he puts it, ‘the atheist social media coward’s way out’ of confronting the specific problems of Islamic history. But the idea that we defend a liberal, or a Christian heritage by abandoning those very values needs to be challenged.

We may well make mistakes in our vetting processes. I accept that we’re scared, not just of letting in an Isis operative now, but of creating the breeding ground for the next generation of homegrown terrorists. But in a war of values, we make greater mistakes by making hypocrites of ourselves.

The irony is that if the West really had a preference for liberal, urbanised, secular or Christian refugees, we should have opened our borders two years ago. The middle class suburbs of Damascus emptied when Assad first started cracking down on dissidents; it’s more recently that Isis has marched through the countryside, and more traditional Muslim communities have packed their bags too.

But most Syrian refugees, Christian, Muslim, atheist or Yazidi, still have as complex and contradictory a set of influences as any of us. You can listen to some of them on Radio 4’s new soap opera this week, Welcome to Zaatari. And like the Jewish refugees who swore loyalty this country – like the Jewish men who died fighting for this country on D-Day – their allegiance is ours to win. They’re running from people who see life in black and white, too.


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