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We Can't Choose Our Refugees Or Enemies — What Racists Don't Understand About War

The European far-right's sympathies for "white and Christian" Ukrainians shows its devotion to the idea of the "clash of civilizations." But it fails to see the basic paradoxes of war, where you may be fighting those who most resemble you and be forced to welcome those who look different.

We Can't Choose Our Refugees Or Enemies — What Racists Don't Understand About War

A train in Pokrovsk station during the evacuation of civilians from Donbas

Farid Kahhat


In a recent tweet, Hermann Tertsch, a far-right member of European Parliament, clarified what his ilk understood refugees to be. The member of Spain's populist Vox party wrote that "in Ukraine, they are real refugees. Christian, white refugees."

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He was supposedly listing criteria relevant only to the state of Ukrainians, while ignoring the fact that the Russian soldiers who have brutally turned them into refugees are just as white and Christian.

The conflict that yielded the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees — World War II — also had white Christians among its chief victims and perpetrators. Indeed, the identifications that provoked that war were either ethnic nationalism or political ideology, but not religion or skin color.

A Clash of Civilizations?

In any case, being "white" is a relative thing — especially among racists and supremacists. Let's remember that for Adolph Hitler, as set out in Mein Kampf, the Slavs of Eastern Europe, like both Russians and Ukrainians, were inferior peoples.

The radical right in the developed world remains stuck in the Clash of Civilizations thesis proposed by the writer Samuel Huntington, in spite of that failure to explain a good many contemporary conflicts. Huntington underestimated the probability of war between Ukraine and Russia precisely because the countries emerged from the same civilization and have had centuries of close social, cultural and religious ties.

Race and religion appear to be distractions in the conflicts.

And it is for their dogged acceptance of Huntington's theses that people like Tertsch are unable to properly conceptualize events in Ukraine. Indeed, events long before the war in Ukraine revealed the shortcomings in Huntington's thesis, both in 1993 when his article appeared and in 1996, when that turned into a book.

A banner to welcome refugees in Madrid, Spain

Maria Teneva

Counter-examples from history

In those years, NATO (white Christians) intervened in Bosnia-Herzegovina on the side of a coalition of Muslims and Croats, against the Serbs (with Christians on both sides). All the warring sides, including the Muslims, were white Slavs. In 1999, NATO intervened on behalf of the Kosovars (mostly Muslims), against the Serbian ruler Milošević (purportedly the "Christian" side).

Before Huntington's article, the administration of U.S. President Ronald Reagan backed Muslim rebels (who included in their numbers people like Osama bin Laden) in Afghanistan, fighting the Soviet Union (whose people were white and, in many cases, Christian). It was pointed out at the time that strong Protestant influences in the Reagan administration were instrumental in its finding closer affinity with God-fearing Muslims than the atheist Soviet regime.

Race and religion appear to be distractions in the conflicts cited, and have no role in the forging of alliances like NATO. Religion did not cause the wars in Yugoslavia, Afghanistan or Ukraine, and as for race, neither the Afghans nor the Soviets noticed skin color as they fired at each other.

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The Colonial Spirit And "Soft Racism" Of White Savior Syndrome

Tracing back to Christian colonialism, which was supposed to somehow "civilize" and save the souls of native people, White Savior Syndrome lives on in modern times: from Mother Teresa to Princess Diana and the current First Lady of Colombia, Verónica Alcocer.

photo of a child patient holding hand of an adult

Good intentions are part of the formula

Ton Koene / Vwpics/ZUMA
Sher Herrera


CARTAGENA — The White Savior Syndrome is a social practice that exploits or economically, politically, symbolically takes advantage of individuals or communities they've racialized, perceiving them as in need of being saved and thus forever indebted and grateful to the white savior.

Although this racist phenomenon has gained more visibility and sparked public debate with the rise of social media, it is actually as old as European colonization itself. It's important to remember that one of Europe's main justifications for subjugating, pillaging and enslaving African and American territories was to bring "civilization and save their souls" through "missions."

Even today, many white supremacists hold onto these ideas. In other words, they believe that we still owe them something.

This white savior phenomenon is a legacy of Christian colonialism, and among its notable figures, we can highlight Saint Peter Claver, known as "the slave of the slaves," Bartolomé de Las Casas, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Princess Diana herself, and even the First Lady of Colombia, Verónica Alcocer.

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