Hundreds of thousands of people fleeing war and poverty from the Middle East, Africa and Asia continue to converge onto Europe representing the largest exodus since the Second World War. At a time of heightened anxiety in Europe, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s courageous stance in welcoming an unprecedented number of refugees singles her out as among the great leaders of the modern age. Mashaal Gauhar reports.
Several countries have responded with fear and hostility at the prospect of sheltering the desperate people fleeing from their homeland to seek refuge elsewhere. However, Angela Merkel’s unequivocal dismissal of the increasingly shrill xenophobic rhetoric has won her acclaim. “There can be no tolerance of those who question the dignity of other people,” she asserted. “There is no tolerance of those who are not ready to help, where, for legal and humanitarian reasons, help is due.”
Standing defiant amid a wave of anti-immigrant sentiment, her bold message is firmly anchored in shrewd political pragmatism. As eminent theologian T. J. Winter, also known as Abdal Hakim Murad observes, “Merkel knows that for historical reasons Germany cannot appear harsh to refugees fleeing from oppression.”
Acutely aware of Germany’s chilling past, the symbolism of this move represents a paradigm shift for a country across which the dark shadow of genocide still looms. A key learning site for recognising the brutality of our times, 2015 marked 70 years since the Holocaust. Merkel has now seized this unique opportunity to recast Germany as a land of hope and peace.
Speaking to Al Shindagah, Abdal Hakim Murad highlights the economic expediency underpinning Merkel’s embrace of refugees seeking safe haven, “She knows that given the country’s low birthrate, immigration is essential to replenish the working-age population and maintain economic productivity.” Keen to address Germany’s problematic demographic, Merkel demonstrates unique foresight, long-term thinking and unrivalled political acumen through not only rehabilitating Germany’s reputation as a land of refuge for all, but also tackling the problems posed by a rising ageing population.
An early favourite recipient of the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize*, her political maturity stands in sharp contrast to her EU counterparts who are largely capitalising on the current politics of fear for short-term political gains rather than long-term nation building. “Merkel has given great hope to many refugees, and her country can absorb many of them,” says celebrated journalist and Middle East expert Charles Glass.
However, Merkel’s refugee policies have exacted a heavy toll on her popularity both within Germany and across the EU. It is still too early to gauge the repercussions, but it is timely to remember that Merkel represents a true visionary among European leaders: in 2005 she became the first woman, as well as the first former East German politician, to head the government. Her influence on Germany has been so profound that the country’s young population is referred to as the ‘Merkel Generation.’ Her resolute approach in decommissioning Germany’s nuclear facilities in the wake of Japan’s Fukushima disaster won applause with other European countries emulating her example.
Unnerved by unemployment, financial strife across the EU and anxieties over cultural assimilation, the anti-immigrant narrative continues to gain momentum. Merkel could not have been unaware of the backlash but perhaps her approach reflects a recognition of the need to embrace the new reality of a globalised society.
Though Merkel’s strategy is clearly predicated on reinvention, redemption and economic efficacy, the concept of providing safe haven to the downtrodden and dispossessed is of central importance in Islamic tradition. In fact, this is a theme which resonates profoundly with all the great monotheist religions: Moses’ exile from Egypt by the implacable Pharaoh and his deliverance to safety has been rendered in art, film and literature countless times.
Islam’s exposition of refugee law is richly detailed and expansive. Perhaps this is because of the pervasive theme of dispossession during the religion’s nascent stages. Fleeing persecution from the Quraysh, the first hijrah or migration of the Holy Prophet Muhammad’s followers to Abyssinia resulted in the Christian king offering them sanctuary. In spite of the Quraysh’s calls for extradition, the king remained steadfast in his protection and the new guests lived peacefully alongside their Christian hosts. Similarly, in 622 CE when Prophet Muhammad fled Mecca to escape his assassins, the people of Medina afforded him protection after a treacherous desert journey. These events embody the essence of Islamic refugee law. The fact that the Islamic calendar commences from the date of the Prophet’s hijrah underscores the importance of this event.
The granting of refuge to all asylum seekers transcends race, religion and nationality as elucidated in the Holy Koran: And if anyone of the disbelievers seeks your protection, then grant him protection so that he may hear the word of Allah, and then escort him to where he will be secure. (Surah 9:6)
This ecumenical spirit was regularly put into practice as illustrated by the Convention of Najran (632) which explicitly codified the rights and freedoms of the Christians of Najran. Similarly, the Constitution of Medina (622) sought to unify all religious groups under a single community framework. Providing assistance to the needy and building a just society is integral in Islam. Mosques were not only places of worship, but open to all who sought shelter. Scholars are unanimous on the point that Muslims are obliged to offer asylum requested by those fleeing persecution. Today, Muslim countries host over 50 per cent of the world’s refugee population. However, increasing antipathy towards the plight of migrants has prompted an urgent need to revisit the fundamental importance of helping the needy and dispossessed, an undeniably essential foundation of a religion based on justice, compassion and welfare.
Hapless victims of the region’s deadly political power play, this epic human tragedy can only be halted once the conflict in the Middle East comes to an end. “The real problem is not the exodus. The real problem is the war that causes the exodus from Syria and Iraq. Rather than escalate it, the US and Russia should resolve it,” explains Charles Glass.
As the vexed and embittered immigration debate continues, Angela Merkel’s clarion call for compassion sets her apart from the current political milieu, reminding the world of their duty towards others - a message all too often lost in today’s ruthlessly capitalist world.