Earlier this month, my Facebook feed exploded with concern. Many suddenly felt an urgent need to do something for the refugees flowing into European Union countries. At first glance, Western concern for the desperate and oppressed seems like a positive thing. But this isn’t my first glance.
The exodus from the Middle East has been going on for more than a year, long before the tragic picture of a single toddler washed ashore rushed through the media and inspired pleading posts from popular bloggers like Momastery. Readers asked her to comment on Kim Davis. Others asked Jen Hatmaker, another popular mommy blogger, to discuss the Planned Parenthood butchery. Instead, Glennon and Jen turned their readers’ attention to the plight of the refugees. The posts of concern started flying. My honest question: Why now?
It can’t simply be Aylan’s picture. British media and Right media here in the United States have published many stories with pictures or video. Go back in the archives for the last 18 months. One can find images of heads on pikes in town squares, brutal executions, and young girls sold into sex slavery, including sensational items such as sex-slave price lists. (Nine-year-old girls cost the most.) If that all seemed too horrible, there were other stories, with pictures, of historical destruction involving statues smashed, ancient cathedrals demolished.
Furthermore, if this were a simple case of identifying with the victim—“the little boy looks like my little boy”—again, we have images and stories. Two come quickly to my mind: a grandmother’s plea and a story from the Vicar of Baghdad requesting books for children who wanted the normalcy of school as their families fled the terror.
Calls For Help Have Come for Months
If the public only required poignant visuals to capture their attention to the horrors going on in the Middle East, then we would have seen popular calls for action months ago.
Thirteen months ago, I published two articles on the Christian purge from the Middle East, each titled rather precisely: “The Need to Prepare for Christian Refugees” and “Don’t Close Your Eyes to Christians Purged and Tortured in Iraq.“ Both pieces provided a link to the long-standing Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East, founded and led by the brave “Vicar of Baghdad,” Canon Andrew White.
They offered a legal argument for accepting children fleeing the violence and called for individuals to start planning for refugees. They were not completely ignored. A few readers contacted me about details, and I helped connect a few doers with ideas. More personally, one of my church rectors provided some source verification and encouraged me to write more on the topic. When he invited the former bishop of Pakistan to speak to our congregation on living with terrorism, I wrote that up, too.
The terrible news was known in some Christian circles. That’s why the Arabic “N” started appearing in social media avatars. Like the Nazis marked Jewish property with a Star of David, ISIS marked Christian property with an N for Nazarene, a common slander for Christians, followers of Jesus of Nazareth.
I certainly wasn’t the only one writing. Just at The Federalist about six weeks after my “Don’t Close Your Eyes” piece, Mollie Hemingway published “Can We Finally Start Talking about Global Persecution of Christians?“ No, apparently not. In the spring, “60 Minutes” tried to make waves with a show about the Christian exodus from the region. It showed a grandfatherly bishop in tears over the destruction of buildings and irreplaceable texts that had survived so many other destruction attempts. Still, the public was quiet.
Suddenly, Hashtags Appear
Among my set I mostly heard a passing “that’s so sad,” or a bunch of “my, aren’t you willing to tackle the controversial topics in public.” For 13 months, few normal folks seemed to care enough to act.
But now, we have a hashtag! That mark of modern activism. #Refugeeswelcome is notable because, unlike the other ones—think #heforshe, #bringbackourgirls, or any of the variations of #livesmatter—it does not solely instruct other people to do something. The “welcome” carries the implication that the tweeter might actually do something herself. Even so, that is a thin difference.
Most of the newly concerned do not appear to have given much consideration to nuance. Have they thought about why the Gulf States are not accepting refugees? Peggy Noonan noted the disconnect on this issue between the elite and common folk. On top of that gap, Americans have geography. A continent and an ocean lie between us and reality.
We can be as aloof as any in the current field of presidential candidates prefers—until, of course, the European nations, who built their attractive social welfare states under the umbrella of American defense, are overwhelmed by the flow of migrants and beg us to help them because they do not have the will or the means to help and assimilate the newcomers, to protect their populations from potential bad actors certainly hiding in the flow, or to address the source of the migration alone. America will lead from behind, just like we planned.
Is It Lack of Compassion or Lack of Courage?
The current refugee crisis is far more complicated than the hashtag would suggest. To follow the refugee news (or any news, really) beyond picture politics, I recommend branching out from U.S. media. British media covers news better than the mainstream U.S. press. Witness The Spectator earlier this month: “It’s easy to say that Aylan Kurdi died due to our lack of compassion. But the reality is far more complicated“:
Actually, if we are to seek first causes for the death of this child – and his brother and mother – from Kobani, perhaps we should go back a bit. A year ago this week, the canton of Kobani where they lived, and dozens of its villages first fell to Isis, after a massive onslaught – resisted largely by the Kurds who live in many of those villages – using rockets, artillery and tanks. Most of us can remember just how it was that Isis came into possession of that heavy weaponry. It was after they walked into Mosul a few weeks previously, thereby taking possession not just of the central bank but of one of the Iraqi Army’s biggest arsenals of US weapons, after the Iraqi army simply ran away.
And why did they run away? Well, possibly because, as a force, they had, arguably, a good deal less morale and singleness of purpose than the Iraqi army had before it was disbanded and reformed by the coalition after Saddam. So, if we’re unravelling the reasons why this child died, I think it’s a bit more complicated than a want of compassion for refugees. My own view is that if we’d responded a good deal more robustly to the initial IS onslaught, then we wouldn’t be dealing with quite so many refugees now. And to carry on with this Russian doll-style approach to the cause question, why didn’t we see IS coming? I remember exactly where I was the day Mosul fell – at the Excel centre, watching Angelina Jolie and William Hague launch their excellent initiative against sexual violence in war, which of course we all support. It’s just one of those ironies that an awful lot more sexual violence happened as a result of the success of the IS advance while our eyes were off the ball. [I’m with her on the ironies.]
In the past 18 months, the crisis has touched on star power, devastating tales of dead children and women and men, destruction of ancient structures (there’s a Wikipedia entry for all of that), religious extremism—everything that normally makes for a news sensation.
But only now, when the Christians have largely left or been enslaved or killed, and the intervention options have dwindled and become more difficult because ISIS has taken territory and terrorized the population, we see furious article sharing, email threads, and Twitter campaigns. Oh my! Dead toddler! We must help! Make blog posts! We need a hashtag! Send money and stuff! Shame everyone to do the right thing!
What’s the Deal?
I want to know what I and other writers could have done to capture the public’s attention last year. Right now, I only have theories. Is it that the stories appeared in Right media? As hard as I find it to accept at this point, many still believe that reading The New York Times or other legacy U.S. media and catching a news program will keep them well informed. It won’t, and take this publication for an example.
The Federalist is perhaps the fastest-growing site on the Right, in part due to its female writer ratio (at least 50/50, which is unheard of anywhere else) and reaching beyond the stagnant talent pool of Beltway writers. Yet when I tell acquaintances at Houston dinner parties the places where I publish, unless they already read Right, they tend give me the adult version of patting my head and sending me back to bed with a cup of water. So source prejudice might be a problem, happily one with a simple fix: cast a wider reading net and be better informed.
Another theory: perhaps the news didn’t catch public attention because early on it was mostly Christians being told convert, leave, or die, and it is acceptable to persecute Christians.
Christians are the most persecuted religion (scroll down to the section on group harassment), although one would hardly learn that truth reading legacy media. When stories of Christian persecution get told, they are questionably dismissed or billed as stories about something else.
For instance, the Boko Haram girls story played in the Western public as a story of sexism, when really the story was about persecution of Christians. Christian families were educating their children, boys and girls. Muslim terrorists killed the boys. They trapped them in their schools and set the buildings on fire and later kidnapped the girls and forced them into sex slavery to breed the Christians out. Desperate Nigerian Christians simply figured out that if they sold the story to the United States as a story about female oppression it would get more attention, and possibly help.
Their hope got attention, but not help. The United States is not in an intervening mood. A few of the girls did manage to escape on their own, long after the hashtag died.
So why did the current refugee story start to surge only after the Christian purge? Even White left the region last December. He was determined to stay, to inspire courage in the region’s Christians, but by last fall he admitted that asking them to stay was asking them to die. By December most were gone, and the Archbishop of Canterbury convinced White that he was worth more to the cause of reconciliation alive rather than dead. So now that ISIS has largely accomplished the Christian purge, reporting on the current migration is acceptable?
The last theory I have—the one I hope is wrong—posits that the story is surging now because we can offer help when there is no chance we will ever be judged on success. At this point, really, there are so many intervening factors that any specific bit of help could never, ever be negatively consequential.
The money I donate now might feed a toddler for a week, and the teddy and the clothes I donate might boost her morale for a moment while her family moves. I get all of the good feels from knowing that I donated a Band Aid and can deny any guilt I might feel for not even examining the origin of the tragedy, much less supporting the difficult work that would be required to fix it. It is a charitable indulgence, a way to pay for my guilt for clinging to a naive worldview.
I’m trying to sort out how to advocate for the oppressed more effectively, because right now it looks like we are jumping at an opportunity to help a little without dirtying our hands. That isn’t enough. Maybe if I wrote about what ISIS does to dogs…