Views are my own.
Content Warning: Discussion of the far-right, Islamophobia, hate symbols.
Featured image sourced from Reuters.
Written 14 March 2022.
Author’s Note: Article is for educational purposes, to be used as a tool for awareness within activist circles. Political diversity is important for humanitarian circles, but a line must be drawn at racism and violent conspiracies. This is not intended to reproduce racist messages.
A defining memory of what it means to be a refugee rights activist was in my teen years, when I was privately reprimanded by a member of senior management at my Catholic High School for ‘supporting terrorists’. I was organising events to support Syrian refugees.
I wonder, how many people think this way, and why this applied to the Syrian refugee crisis, when refugees were Middle Eastern and Muslim?
An outpouring of global condemnation of Putin’s jingoisms and violent expansionism, as well as the beautiful expressions of solidarity and care towards Ukrainian refugees, has shown a capacity for compassion which can and should be exercised in times of global crisis.
This has restored a simultaneous sense of pride in humanity, but also a burning sting of my high school memory and the uphill battle I faced in encouraging students and teachers in supporting a doubled refugee quota, when then, to be a refugee was to be a person of colour with an unfamiliar faith. In their actual words, “illegal immigrant”, “economic migrant” and “security threat”.
In my day job, I work in communications for a humanitarian NGO. As part of my role, I monitor global news and issues affecting refugee communities. In my daily life, I am a keen political observer.
As waves of refugees fled Ukraine, talkback radio, BBC commentators and netizens all made this distinction: “Because Ukrainian refugees are European and Christian, it will be easier for them to assimilate and contribute to society”.* Such comments range from political incorrectness to introductions to nativist ideas. In other words, the worth of human life is determined through assimilation and economic participation. In a situation of significant tragedy and imminent mass death, don’t you think that such a metric seems cruel and arbitrary?
Enter Eric Zemmour.
A colleague forwarded me a clip of an interview which had been gaining traction in France and online refugee groups. Far-right presidential candidate, Eric Zemmour is an unlikely ‘expert’ in humanitarian issues, but has commented on the Ukrainian refugee crisis. He claims that refugees should only be supported if they have existing links to France and are European. He argues that it is a “question of assimilation”, that Middle Eastern and/or Muslim refugees are “too unlike us”.* Such a comment is a dogwhistle, a subtle means to discredit the narratives and worth of the lives of this group.
I thought to myself, “I can’t listen to this knobhead any longer!” until I was wondering, why this guy was so familiar and why he was trying to mingle with the humanitarian crowd.
Eric Zemmour is one of France’s most vocal proponents of the theory of the Great Replacement. In a nutshell, this is the idea that national identity, usually European national identity is being replaced by Islam and those of ethnic Middle Eastern background. This idea is common amongst the Identitarian movement, which we recognise in our local Neo Nazi groups* in Aotearoa and the Christchurch Shooter’s justification* of the 15th March Al Noor Mosque massacre. It is a flawed idea that regional identity is static and unchanging.
History and anthropology determine that immigration and refugee flows from inter and intra-state conflict as well as migrant workers from colonies and beyond are not new phenomena, but are patterns observed since the emergence of human culture.
Zemmour and his proponents define France and European countries in this way and highlight differences of the outsider groups, especially violent differences. For example, far-right sites such as Breitbart emphasise stonings and vigilante ‘justice’ against LGBTQI+ in the Islamic world.* This is not to support the targeted minorities, but to convey the idea that the other culture is incompatible and can corrupt the home country.
As Zemmour strengthens the idea of an ethnically ‘pure’ Europe, this has an implicit undercurrent of racism and even white supremacy.
My answer as to why Zemmour might be commenting within refugee discourse is to latch on to perhaps more centrist European people in order to appeal to their emotions in a facade of mercy. The success of any group, or election is a numbers game. At the end of the day, the successful ends justify the contradictory means. This is likely opportunistic to broaden his audience as the 2022 French Presidential Elections approach, to simultaneously appear sympathetic and as a ‘tough leader’.
Such a formula only works in a political environment primed to accept discrimination and for people in a position of desperation. France was able to resist last time around, but in a fragile pandemic world, mass disinformation makes me worried that even the compassionate can be swayed. I wonder if the compassionate around the world could be swayed too.
We must be watchful in our movements against similar uncritical racism and embrace commitment and care towards all displaced people. Activism should remain inclusive, anti-racist and intersectional, for if we are not fighting for these values, what are we fighting for?
*Author has withheld names and reproduction of discriminatory speech in full in order to prevent notoriety and exposure.
For resources for refugee advocacy, visit @openheartsandminds on Instagram.
Recommended Reading: ‘Still Alive’, graphic novel by Safdar Ahmed, a commentary, a chronology of modern history and a personal story of witnessing refugee detention and anti-refugee rhetoric. An excellent and essential text for human rights enthusiasts, activists and political observers.