The war in Syria is triggering the escape of many, but the true cause can be found much deeper. Arab societies need such vast reforms that Europe must stand as a model, rather than play realpolitik.
BERLIN — Hundreds of people lined up in front of the French embassy in Tunis, hoping for a visa for France. In Casablanca, young women who'd married Turkish men living in Germany attended language classes at the Goethe Institute, desperate to learn the minimum 300 German words needed to enter the country. In the Turkish region of Anatolia, thousands of girls married cousins in Germany. The question — from Morocco to Turkey — was always the same: "How do I get to Europe?"
And that was in 2012, when the Arab Spring still held the promise for some of better times ahead at home, when young people still had a reason to stay in their own countries. Since then, the wars in Syria and Iraq have put even more pressure on people to leave. But war is not the sole driving force behind emigration from the Middle East. Often it's just the final trigger for people who already had a long list of reasons to pack their bags, and who see the open borders in Europe as a "window of opportunity."
The dictatorial Islamic states of the Middle East, fighting among themselves and against the world, have failed to match the West's modern spirit. Their social structures, headed by authoritarian religious leadership, are obsolete. Only countries like Saudi Arabia, which buys everything and everyone with petrodollars, can be considered as a stable Sharia dictatorship — and only because they manage to feed their population and let foreigners and slaves do the dirty work for them.
If the borders with Turkey were opened today, or if Tunisians, Algerians, Moroccans and Egyptians were allowed to enter Europe, the young people of those countries would leave en masse and not go back. Economic opportunities are part of the reason. But an even bigger lure is the individual freedom people are afforded in the West. Young people turn away from their societies because they are being disregarded as citizens and are offered so little, not only in terms of jobs, but also education, art and culture.
Islamic states are young societies, demographically speaking, but they are intellectually outdated because for generations, they have been living according to the principles of Taqlid— imitation and repetition — rejecting innovation and excluding doubt. Young people are expected to obey. There's no way for them to break out of the established patterns.
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Praying in Damascus' Umayyad Mosque in 2009 — Photo: Arian Zwegers
The economies in those countries rarely produce or develop anything new of their own. They are made up of merchants and landlords, without avibrant and autonomous corporate culture. The number of property owners is growing, but only numerically, so the only options left are repression, suppression and, for those willing or able to risk it, escape.
A couple of years ago, thousands of graduates protested daily in front of the department of education of Rabat, Morocco's capital, because, as inconceivable as it sounds for a country with such a high illiteracy rate, teachers had no job opportunities. A Moroccan once told me: "The King loves his country, but not its people."
Sadly, the situation is pretty much the same in most of the region's countries — leaders don't care about the well-being of their people. They seek power, benefice and nepotism. Islam and its traditions form the moral structure of their worldview, characterized by inner and outer obedience.
The societies, as a result, are incredibly restrictive: people are watched from the outside by the state, secret services, clans and families; and controlled on the inside by a code of conduct, of honor and dishonor, that hinders any personal development. Even Turkey is now in danger as Islam threatens to become a state religion, suffocating people's hope for freedom and change.
The ultimate reason for destabilization in the region is not, as often claimed, colonialism or exploitation of natural resources, even though the West continues to repeat its same mistakes.
A better explanation is the Islamic Ummah and its idea of man and the state, based on the Koran. Muslims rely on their closed community before God —called Ummah. Within Islamic states, it's not much different, and as such, there is no such thing as solidarity among Islamic countries, with factionalism playing out in geopolitics that are often hard to decipher.
Betting on strongmen
Petrodollars are being invested on the world's financial markets, but not used for the region's development. The wealthy may distribute Zakat (handouts) and thus create a certain dependency, but they don't contribute to the sustainable development of impoverished communities.
Koranic schools were forced on Palestinians by pious Saudi Arabians. Syrian refugees aren't welcome in Riyadh. Saudi and Qatar foundations finance mosques worldwide, in Germany too, but don't let refugees enter the high-tech pilgrimage states of Mecca, don't build any schools in Gaza, don't integrate people through education and fail to build any lasting infrastructure.
The former scraggy desert territory of Israel, on the other hand, proves that there's another way by becoming, in the span of just a few decades, a successful exporter of both citrus fruit and high-tech innovation. Israel has been restrictive in its own ways, most notably by banishing the Palestinians. But it's also true that it has absorbed 800,000 Jews who were expelled from Arab countries.
With its bombing campaigns, Europe will probably obtain silence, but not peace in Syria. Nor will it solve the problem of the region's obsolete Islamic model of society. And it's this broken down system in the Middle East, from Afghanistan to Morocco, that compells people to leave.
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In Morocco — Photo: 16:9Clue
Today it seems as if Europe might return to a preference for dictatorships, like the one in Egypt, because only those kinds of regimes can stop the refugees at the borders. But just like in the classic tragedy, the eventual failure of this policy is inevitable.
We must assume that the millions of refugees won't want to go home, and that even more will follow. And that's why integration must start where the strengths of our society can be found. Personal development, communication of freedom, responsibility and tolerance. Our greatest strength lies in personal and social freedom in the strictly secular state.
This may sound hackneyed, when facing more practical problems such as providing shelter and food, but it's at the heart of the problem. Yes, we must accept our share of newcomers. But only by defending the cornerstones of our culture — including rule of law, free market economy, accessible education and the constant reviewing of norms, traditions and creativity — can Europe help fix a foreign problem that has become an urgent problem at home too.