European Enlightenment and Humanism in Danger: Refugee Crisis

As the number of refugees worldwide continues to increase, Western nations struggle to show off their true humanism and the Enlightenment in the face of massive movements of desperate people. Making matters worse, certain politicians and several news organizations and groups continue to make harsh and disparaging comments about refugees. This reproachful and ruthless propaganda hurts humanity and the roots of European culture in the Enlightenment. As a call to return to the eighteenth century European Enlightenment, l would like to share some points using my own experience of immigration and my background in two different cultures. I divide my concerns into two groups: theory and practice.

Fundamental Concepts and Misunderstandings:

1) Missing time and space. Though there are some common themes between humanity and many animal species with regards to having a home, humanity is the only specie which makes history, based on an understanding of time, and thus creates civilization. Time and space shape the human mind and play a role in wishes, concepts, emotions and the will. A refugee not only leaves the hometown and the space to which he belonged, but also leaves time to which he is accustomed. I am not talking only about the transition from a traditional to a modern society, a change in calendar, working schedule, holidays and celebrations. I also refer to the huge change in self-consciousness which appears in language. For example, they used to introduce themselves in their own communities, answering who they are. Right now, they have to answer what they are doing. It's not simply a matter of an expression; rather it is a matter of entering a new world. S/he is a refuge because s/he experienced an extraordinary evolution. This gives them the opportunity not just to bear the previous traditions and culture, as most people taught, but a chance to celebrate new achievements; they can be freer because their idols are already broken down. Openness to new ideas, cultures, and achievements is at the heart of the European Enlightenment. Change in the concept of time was another element that led to the age of reason.

2) There are only humans, no tools. Ernest Cassirer, the great historian of the Enlightenment attributed to this age this motto that humanity is the origin and the end of knowledge because 'the proper study of mankind is man'. The categorical imperative of Immanuel Kant was that we treat every human person as a subject or an end not as an object or a means to an end. This European spirit is lost in today's massive movements of desperate people. Why? Look, even humanitarians are spreading the news of this migration and they encourage others to act benevolently and to help the needy and the suffering. Humanitarian media highlight the child dead on the beach or the grieving mother. The refugees must be treated with dignity even if their particular circumstances are not heart breaking. Such images highlight the refugees' helplessness. This harms their integral dignity and is contrary to the United Nation's Refuge Convention and The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Thus, refugees deserve to be treated as a person with an identical human nature rather than as a weak and lesser being. Their character, dignity and honor are forgotten. The worst case happens with several European immigrant policies; countries which need workers give the refugees a warmer welcome than those countries which have no need for additional workers. Apparently, humans are reduced to tools and detached from their own dignity and rights. Is it an enlightened approach which shaped modern Europe? Surely not.

3) Change is the foundation of advancement. In contrast to the Enlightenment's openness toward the "Other" and acknowledgment of cosmopolitanism, today the West fears that it is losing its nature. Today Europe reveals its lack of self-confidence in the face of the 'Other'. The United States has gone through this a number of times. As each new wave of immigrants came to America, those who were already living there began to worry. When the Catholic Irish came the predominately protestant English and German Americans feared their political culture, society, and lifestyle were at risk. This happened again when the Poles, Lithuanians, Ukrainians and others from central and eastern Europe came. On the West Coast, the arrival of Chinese immigrants, and the integration of large Spanish-speaking, Catholic communities in the formerly Mexican territories created the same fear and worry. Even the Puerto Ricans and the Italians famously described in West Side Story caused trouble for those already living in the States. Each of these groups changed and were changed by America. There is no reason why the Muslims and Christians fleeing the Syrian Civil War and those fleeing the gang-violence in Central America will not follow the same path. Protestant-Catholic relations have come a long way from the 16th century when some Lutherans thought Ottoman conquest to be better than Catholic domination. In the 20th century the United States was able to elect the Catholic Kennedy president. Americans today have a lack of knowledge and understanding of the political culture, philosophy, theology, culture, and family relations of the refugees just as they did of previous immigrants; but their fears proved unfounded. The Europeans can learn from this American experience. If they do they will find many of their fears to be unfounded. There has never existed a pure unadulterated culture.

4) Reality deserves realism. The Enlightenment Philosophy replaced synthetic conceptualization with realistic analysis to teach humanity a new perspective on life. They changed from geo-centrism to helio-centrism, but they also moved from imaginary concepts to experimental facts. To our point, massive immigration is a given, a reality that cannot stop with dreams. Why not celebrate this opportunity, work with that and use these new forces to enrich human civilization. Mass communication media and social networking have made the globe like a close-knit village; the massive refugees embody the real changes before our physical life. New problems require new solutions.

5) Mutual responsibility. The current refugee crisis is a product of all humanity and requires responsibility of all. How? Sure, it immediately comes from political games and international policies, but nobody can forget the great financial gains from the sale of large numbers of small-arms and large weapon systems. Recently a report showed how the Saudis used of so many European-made weapons in Yemen. To be honest and to "be brave to think," the other motto of the Enlightenment, asks a greater attention to control the deaths caused by the sale of large numbers of weapons to both sides. People are not fleeing from political conflict; rather, this mass of refugees is more the product of using vast numbers of deadly weapons exported from Western countries.

6) Opportunities, not burdens. The refugees seem homeless and to be suffering. This causes them to be seen as a burden to Western people. It is wrong, because as long as they bring their sufferings, they carry also their potential and talent. Many of them are highly-educated and highly-skilled people who left their countries because of persecution and a lack of safety. They had a successful life in the past and can create new jobs, businesses, and opportunities in their host lands. This is also an enlightened approach which substituted the inner force with an exterior force in Newtonian Physics; it means if they there are in the position of moving toward progress, they can function as well!

However, the fundamental values demonstrate their real validity in a time of crisis. Both Imam Ali ibn Abitalib and C.S. Lewis stated that you see the true nature of a person by their conduct during unexpected and challenging circumstances. In times of plenty all value systems function similarly. This is a time for the Enlightenment to illustrate clearly its respect of humanity; otherwise, it has not lived up to its nature in the modern West.


I would like to end my paper with some practical points as follow.

1) Special aids: as I wrote earlier so many of these refugees are well skilled and professionals including physicians, professors, bloggers, business people, and the like. They only need a fair resettlement and few special aids to enrich their hosts. A professor can teach, a doctor can help other refugees' medically, a business can change markets with innovations, and an artist can inspire new ideas.

2) The international policy needs to take seriously several particular strategies to remove the roots of violence. The production and export of offensive indiscriminate weapons or weapons of mass destruction must be banned or at least severely controlled in the context of civil war. The international powers must also fight against the political games which cost people their lives and dignity. For example, the last EU-Turkey deal explicitly considers the life and dignity of refugees to be a political issue. If such a deal was made between China and Russia, for example, would it still be welcomed by Europeans?

3) Change in the Public narrative. The media, political leaders, and other elites need to inspire the people to accept the refugees. The Enlightenment teaches the need to welcome the 'Other'. In accordance with the roots in the Enlightenment, they need to explain how the refugees are human persons who deserve dignity and respect. They need to show how the refugees can contribute positively to society.

4) The refugees will face the shock of dislocation. They will need help to avoid the moral pitfalls that come with such dislocation. Dislocation does not justify moral evil, it only increases the opportunities for such sins and crimes. It is suggested that the host countries try to help them reunite their families in order to prevent such problems.

I hope that this short presentation can help see the potential benefits refugees can make and see the need to treat the refugees in accordance with the Enlightenment's humanism and openness.

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