Muslim migration across international borders

Muslim migration into Europe has produced a backlash that has had important political consequences


Shahid Javed Burki September 05, 2022
The writer is a former caretaker finance minister and served as vice-president at the World Bank

People have always moved. It is their perpetual movement that brought them out of Africa into the Caucasus and from there to Europe in the northeast and South Asia in the southeast. International migration has played an important role in the world, not only in politics. It has taken many forms. The most cited example of this is the settlement of what was viewed as the empty land of the Americas — both the northern and southern parts of the continent. For over a century, Europeans arrived in this part of the world to settle and bring to life the land they found full of riches but empty of workers and enterprise. “The natives” as the original inhabitants came to be known resisted a bit — but only a bit — the new settlers. But their resistance was overcome with the use of often great cruelty. The same technique was used by the Europeans in Australia and New Zealand which quickly became Europeanised.

While the Europeans moved to improve their economic situation, the new waves of migration involved economic, religious and ethnic considerations. Religion has entered the picture not because the new migrants, mostly Muslims, are escaping persecutions in the lands they are leaving behind but also because of persecution in the places in which they are hoping to make their new homes. There is evidence of growing Islamophobia in most of the world where white populations feel threatened. Muslim migration into Europe has produced a backlash that has had important political consequences. This is the case not only in the countries of the eastern part of the continent but also in some of those in the west. Hungary under the long-serving Prime Minister Viktor Oban has politicised the anti-Muslim sentiment to keep himself in power. Islamophobia was also an important factor in the recent presidential elections in France. The United States has also been affected by Islamophobia.

However, ethnic considerations are playing an important role in lending resistance to migration. It is causing considerable political chaos in Turkey, a Muslim country. There, as I will discuss below, the arrival of Syrians has led to ethnic conflict. Pakistan and Turkey are two examples of Muslim countries that have treated very differently Muslim refugees from the troubled Islamic countries in their neighborhood. Anti-Syrian sentiment in Turkey is now strong enough for The Washington Post to write a front-page story in its issue of August 29, 2022 to describe some of what is happening in Turkey.

The newspaper quoted Asli Aydintasbas, a senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, to indicate how many in Turkey are reacting to the arrival of millions of refugees from Syria. “Turkey has swung in a nationalist direction in all respects,” he said. President Recep Tayyab Erdogan who allowed millions of Syrian refugees to come to his country is struggling to respond to the anger, his administration alternating between defending immigrants and passing new legislations to limit their visibility. Facing a critical election next year, Erdogan has sometimes indicated that he would send a million Syrians home, a policy seen as impractical and illegal and that has done little to reduce the level of calls from his opponents for more resolute action.

The anti-refugee sentiment in Turkey has led to the political rise of Umit Ozdag who, as the leader of the nationalist Victory Party, has stoked anti-Arab politics in the country. There is little room in Turkey for Arabs and for the people who belong to that ethnic group. Turks have not forgotten or forgiven the Arab opposition to the rule by the Ottoman of Arab lands. It was this sentiment that propelled TE Lawrence to action and then to fame in the Muslim world. Anti-Syrian rhetoric is not “surprising within popular discourse,” says Howard Eisenstadt, a professor of history at St Lawrence University. “Nativism is deeply embedded into the sense of who Turks are. When people in Turkey think about fraternal relations, they think of about Muslims in the Russian empire, in the Balkans — they really don’t think about the Muslims of the Ottoman Middle East,” he said.

In the earlier years of the Syrian war, “there was more of a sense of solidarity and empathy,” said Aydintasbas at a time when European governments did everything to prevent them for reaching their borders, including paying to keep them away under a 2016 deal that provided Turkey with $6.6 billion in aid. That empathy is no longer in evidence in Turkey. The Turkish leadership belonging to all segments of the political spectrum has made it clear that new waves of refugees from Arab countries are no longer welcome. In fact, a serious attempt will be made to repatriate those who have already arrived.

Compared to Turkey, Pakistan has reacted differently to the arrival of refuges into the country. Pakistan has hosted a larger population of refugees from Afghanistan, its long-troubled neighbour than Turkey has from Syria. Islamabad began admitting Afghan refugees in 1979, before and after the Soviet-Afghan war. By the end of 2001, three years after the formal end of the war¸ the official count of the Afghan refugees was 4 million. There were probably many more.

It has also paid a political price but of a different kind. While the Syrians were ethnically different from the Turks among whom they are trying to settle, almost all the refugees who have come into Pakistan from Afghanistan belong to Pashtun ethnicity. It is estimated that 85 per cent of the refugees from Afghanistan were Pashtuns. That such a large proportion belonged to this particular group made sense since of the total world population of Pashtuns of 65 million, 60 per cent are in Pakistan. But other ethnic groups also arrived. Those who came to Pakistan included Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks and Baluch. The arrival of the Hazaras is a development the government of Pakistan will have to watch. This group is made up of Shiites and has been subjected to ill treatment by the extremist Sunni Taliban. There have been some attacks on the Hazaras in Pakistan, attributed mostly to the Sunni extremists whose number has increased because of the arrival of refugees from Afghanistan.

Some of those who have taken refuge in Pakistan have brought Islamic extremism into the country. The Taliban as a religious and political movement was born in Pakistan and then exported to Afghanistan. It took that name as those who joined the insurgent group were students in the seminaries established along the long Pakistan-Afghanistan border to provide education to the youth among the refugees. A movement that goes under the name of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) is fighting the state in attempting to gain control of the areas in which they have settled. The Pakistani military worked hard a few years ago to rid the area of North Waziristan of the insurgents. The TTP adherents were pushed back into Afghanistan, but they have come back and taken up residence in the area from which they were expelled. The long-term consequences of the migration of the Afghans to Pakistan will need to be watched and studied. That is something I will do in future columns in this space.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 5th, 2022.

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