A fight for empathy

Why Europe fears the immigrants

21 FEBRUARY 2016,
America is not just a land of immigrants, it was built by “foreigners” to reinvent themselves.
America is not just a land of immigrants, it was built by “foreigners” to reinvent themselves.

In most Humanities and Middle Eastern departments of European universities, students are taught that Western colonialism is the reason for all the violence and misery in the Arab world. A dwindling number of students, due to bad job prospects inherent to these programs, read and write papers on tons of literature geared to confirming this supposed fact. The darling of this form of academia Edward Said still heads their literature list with his book Orientalism, decades after his death. This book, written in 1978, is the bible of blame against the West, and is still very popular at universities everywhere.

But what happens to these ideas floating around academia when they seem to find so little resonance outside of university's gates? Will they be able to stand the test of time, or is academia always supposed to be a bubble far removed from the realities of modern life? In European countries where graduates struggle to find jobs, or even internships, the relevance of ideas and ideologies instilled there tends to show itself pretty fast. And maybe not in a positive way. And for a Europe that is fast becoming a continent under pressure, due to the steady influx of hundreds of thousands of immigrants, there is a need to adjust to this new situation rapidly. Both for European politicians and their citizens. The questions that will need answering are those of: How much is the student nowadays in touch with reality, and how does he or she want his or her own future to look like in Europe? And, as most politicians come from their countries’ many universities, what are the ideas of the future that are useful to society?

In theory, the future politicians that may or may not come out of these programs and are carrying this white man’s burden of guilt, will have to be the ones imbuing their subjects with some form of empathy towards the Arab world, and adjust their policies accordingly. In Europe, a region where everybody nowadays seems to have an opinion about the Middle East, this is increasingly a hard thing to do. The region, its violence, and its export of violence are in the news almost constantly. And where maybe years ago cries coming out of that part of the world for help, food or money would have found resonance with at least a part of society, it seems that empathy now is replaced by a feeling that the region and its people do not seem to be able to help themselves.

The masses of immigrants that are setting sail for Europe every day have a way of instilling fear in the European, because there seems to be no end to it. There are those that see no place for them in their own countries, because they are already overstretched regarding resources, housing and jobs. A country like Greece, for example. Then there is the cost of decades of welfare for millions more that will have to come out of the pocket of the taxpayer. Things like gas for your car will become more expensive, because the government needs to get it from somewhere. And in countries like France, Belgium and Holland, people fear a new forming of parallel societies with hardly immigrated, often criminal immigrants and their offspring, like those that set foot in the seventies and eighties. Regardless of any positive or negative feelings towards immigrants that Europeans might have, there seems to be no stop to the flood. They escape war, financial hardship, lack of opportunity and an honorable future, and come from places where dictators rule and violence and poverty is part of everyday life. But as the European project loses its shine to many of its inhabitants, and countries re-asses their sovereignty, a bunker mentality is forming, and countries will decide that which will only concern their own well being. The empathy for a region of the world that has saddled them up with all these problems is slowly dissipating.

What will happen to an already fragmented and dangerous Middle East when Western countries, their politicians and its citizens will build mental walls around it? Will they, after a while, start to erect physical walls so they feel more safe? The Middle East, increasingly chaotic and unstable, will have to deal with a different West, one less willing to do good, but more what is good for themselves. A West less willing to solve conflicts, but guards its own narrow interests like security, oil and the safety of shipping lanes. Immigrants to Europe could be great emissaries and examples of their cultures and societies, and take away some of the fear in the mind of the European. But with incidents like Cologne and the violence and criminality already present in immigrant shelters, this is something that is going in the wrong direction. Will both sides be able to meet each other halfway? That is dependent on the amount of immigrants Europe is willing to take in and what will happen after countries will say ‘no more’. Both sides will need to adjust, and each side’s willingness to do so will add to the degree of success of the immigration question.