Syrian refugees’ new ‘ummah’

Published on: 09-09-2015



Syrian Refugees    Courtesy: Reuters

Daddy, please don’t die!” three-year-old Aylan had pleaded with his father as Abdullah Kurdi struggled unsuccessfully to save his two children and wife from drowning in the Aegean Sea. In the end, daddy didn’t die. But he could not keep his family afloat.


Images of little Aylan’s body lying face down on a beach in Turkey now haunts the world just as the iconic image of a terror-struck little girl from My Lai in Vietnam, her “napalmed” body aflame, did half a century earlier. It’s no longer possible for decent folks anywhere to pretend ignorance of the colossal humanitarian crisis that has hit the Arab world.

Abdullah Kurdi’s desperate bid to take his family out of war-ravaged Syria ended in a gut-wrenching tragedy. Yet, left with little choice, hundreds of thousands of Muslims continue to vote with their feet. From Syria mostly but also from Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, even Iran, they are fleeing the conflict-torn regions of Darul Islam (abode of Islam), seeking safety and shelter in the land of Christians and “infidels”.

With the resources of neighbouring Turkey (1.8 million refugees), Lebanon (1.2 million) and Jordan (over 600,000 refugees) over-stretched, the hapless refugees are risking their lives hoping to find a new home somewhere in Europe: Germany, Austria, Spain, Italy, UK, wherever. Anywhere, ironically, except in the afloat-on-petro dollars Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman and UAE in their immediate neighbourhood.

You could ask many legitimate questions: Why did baby Aylan have to die for Europe to recognise that too many people have died? How long will the crisis of conscience last before the anti-immigrant xenophobes come howling down the streets of Europe? Why is the king of Saudi Arabia unmoved and the super-rich sheikhs of the Gulf region unshaken even now? Are the leaders of the Western world cynically encouraging the mass migration of refugees from Syria to create a political climate where the need to “take out” Syrian dictator President Bashar al-Assad becomes a matter of “common sense”?

You could ask these questions or you could suspend reason for a few minutes and listen with your heart.

Listen, to the charity workers and volunteers in Vienna (Austria), Munich (Germany) and elsewhere chanting: “Say it loud, say it clear, refugees are welcome here.” There’s hot tea and bed for the exhausted men and women. For the refugee children there are candies and stuffed toys too.

Listen, to German Chancellor Angela Merkel: “The right to political asylum has no limits on the number of asylum seekers. Germany won’t say no to any asylum seeker”.

Listen to Pope Francis, issuing a call during his Sunday Angelus prayer: “Every Catholic parish, every religious community, every monastery, every sanctuary in Europe should accommodate one family, beginning with my diocese of Rome.” The Vatican he says will house two refugee families.
Listen to the Finnish Prime Minister, Juha Sipila, and his wife, telling refugees: “Take my home.”

Listen to Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister of Scotland and leader of the Scottish National Party, saying: “I am overwhelmed with messages from people across Scotland saying they would be happy to give a home to somebody fleeing Syria.” Listen to her adding that she would be “absolutely happy” to share her official residence — Bute House, the 18th-century Edinburgh townhouse — with a refugee family.

Listen, to British musician Bob Geldof saying he feels “profound shame” over the response to the refugee crisis, and promising he will put up refugee families in his houses in London and Kent. Listen, to British Labour Party leadership hopeful Yvette Cooper offering to share his home too with those forced to flee their own.

Listen, to the message on the placard of a little girl leading a pro-refugee march in Cambridge (UK) last week: “Cameron, please don’t let any more of my little friends drown in the sea”. Listen next to the otherwise reluctant British Prime Minister David Cameron forced to announce his government’s plans to accept more refugees in his country.

Listen, to the football club Real Madrid announcing a one million euro donation for refugees seeking asylum in Spain, and hint that it could be looking for a little boy (like Aylan?) among the Syrian refugees to train him to one day play for it.

Listen, to Patrick Cockburn, veteran journalist and author of The Rise of Islamic State: “The hundreds of thousands of poor and huddled masses who wish to flee further from their tormentors are not sailing in leaking boats to where you might expect them to go — to the ‘ummah’, to Islam’s beating heart, to the land where the Prophet lived and where he received the word of God. No, the destitute of the Middle East are not heading for Saudi Arabia, the wealthy kingdoms of the Gulf, to pray for help from the builders of great mosques and the Keepers of Holy Places”.

Listen also to a Kuwaiti official, Fahad Al Shalami, explaining why the refugees are not heading in their direction: “Kuwait and other Gulf Co-operation Council countries are too valuable to accept any refugees. Our countries are only fit for workers. It’s too costly to relocate them here. Kuwait is too expensive for them anyway. As opposed to Lebanon or Turkey which are cheap. They are better suited for the Syrian refugees. In the end, it is not right for us to accept a people that are different from us. We don’t want people that suffer from internal stress and trauma in our country”.

Why are the refugees heading towards Europe?

Again Patrick Cockburn says: “It’s not because they want to scrounge on our generosity... I think they know that, deep beneath our carapace of cynicism and materialism and our lack of religious faith, the idea of humanism is alive in Europe and that we can be decent, good, thoughtful, honest people”.

The oil-rich kings and sheikhs may not want any refugees in their midst, but the folks in Iceland (total population 329,100) certainly do. Listen to the message from over 13,000 Icelander members of a newly launched Facebook group, “Syria is calling”: “Refugees are our future spouses, best friends, our next soul mate, the drummer in our children’s band, our next colleague, Miss Iceland 2022, the carpenter who finally fixes our bathroom, the chef in the cafeteria, the fireman, the hacker and the television host. People who we’ll never be able to say to: ‘Your life is worth less than mine.’”

The next time you hear the word ummah, listen to writer Ziauddin Sardar: “Ummah does not mean the global community of Muslims; it means the global community of the compassionate, religion and race no bar.”

 (This article was first published in The Asian Age on September  9, 2015)