Compassion lies at the heart of the Christian story celebrated tomorrow, as it does for the tradition celebrating the Prophet’s birthday today. Sympathy and concern for the plight of others, generosity and charity towards strangers, respect for the least of our brothers and sisters. Sadly, only a small fraction of the headlines this year suggest that either faith has much to show for its appreciation of this virtue.
The displacement of nearly 60 million people (half of them children), mostly due to war and persecution, has tested the compassion of Christian Europe and North America with very mixed results. Sometimes the newcomers have been welcomed with open arms, more often they have been forced to keep moving, so that they become someone else’s problem.
In September, shortly after the corpses of 71 suffocated migrants were found in a truck on a highway between Hungary and Austria, the Icelandic folklorist and author Bryndis Bjorgvinsdottir, founded a Facebook group named Syria is Calling, inviting her compatriots to open their homes to refugees. In an open letter to the government, she wrote: “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 letter attracted 12,000 signatures and succeeded in getting the government to increase its refugee quota.
Bryndis’s secular rephrasing of compassion offers a telling contrast to the older ethnic and religious traditions which have let so many others ignore the plight or actively shun the approach of refugees. The repellent ease with which American politicians can talk not just about refusing safety to families fleeing war but of vetting or disbarring Muslims from entering their country is one of several depressing examples of this syndrome.
Paranoia about other religions and cultures has been a recurrent feature of Europe’s sanguinary history and, to a lesser extent, America’s, and many non-Muslim migrants have faced the indignities that more recent asylum seekers have had to endure. At best, however, this is only a partial explanation of the political situation, not an excuse. Tolerance has long been recognised as an indispensable part of liberal democracy and the faltering responses from so many countries that ought to know better – not least because of their own recollection of the horrors of the Second World War – has revealed an embarrassing gap between Europe’s political ideals and its darker, xenophobic reality. Isolated acts of compassion, like Bryndis’s show up this failure, but they do not amount to a satisfactory solution.
It should not be forgotten, of course, that religious fanaticism is central to many of the conflicts which have driven millions from the Middle East and North Africa, not least the barbarous extremism of the Islamic State. Nor should the fact that the primary victims, by an overwhelming margin, of the much-discussed radical Islamic terrorists are ordinary Muslims who are just as fearful of the fanatics in their midst as the Western nations who work so earnestly to deny them refuge.
The failure of so many regional powers to respond to these crises, out of a mixture of cynical self-interest, or fear of being held to account for their own wrongdoings, is utterly shameful. In many cases they have preferred to engage in appalling conflicts, by proxy, rather than press for a political solution. It is no less shameful that many supposedly mature democracies have done so little to prevent the death cults in Raqqa and elsewhere, from being confused and conflated, in the public mind, with their victims. If knowledgeable compassion and tolerance can’t take root at home, what chance do strangers have?
Rather than simply lament the wrongs of the world, we should actively seek to correct them. That is the true spirit of the religious traditions so many of us pay tribute to at this time of year. Several Guyanese have argued, persuasively, that we should open our society to refugees, to acknowledge our common humanity with them and the simple fact that their lives are worth no less than ours. Perhaps this idea would carry more weight if the churches, mosques and temples in this country created a multi-faith coalition to make it a political reality. In the meantime, more of us should do whatever we can to ensure that the less fortunate among us receive the compassion they deserve.