A change of mood in public opinion within Western countries, in regards to the predicament of the Middle East, seem to have taken place as of lately. To some extent, Westerners appear to have run out of empathy towards Muslims and to the destiny of Arab populations in nations trapped into a spiral of violence and instability–from Yemen and Iraq to Syria and Afghanistan. The “humanitarian credit,” so-to-speak, Western populations used to have for their Middle Eastern counterparts seems to have been lost.
The causes for this turn in public attitude are diverse. Fatigue over a seemly endless Israeli-Palestinian conflict, over time, can be one. Adverse reactions to the Syrian refugee crisis and waves of new immigrants, particularly in Europe, are not to be overlooked. We cannot underestimate either the anger and disgust the brutal, ISIS-inspired, terrorist attacks in the heart of several European capitals and American soil have provoked.
The shift has been gradual but has definitively crystallized over the last eighteen months or so. Genuine interest in the Arab world rose after 9/11. The public tried to understand the Arab mind. What led to such antagonism between some belligerent sectors of Islam and the West? The study, and the commentary, on the ideological, political, and socio-economic conditions that had harvest such a violent response among Muslim populations took a front seat. Today, that interest has decreased, if not disappeared.
The rise of populist movements and right-wing parties in elections across the Western world have capitalized in this wide-spread sentiment. The demonization of Muslim refugees has escalated in electoral campaigns in Europe and, more recently, in the U.S. The Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential ascendancy confirm a return to economic protectionism and the calls for immigration reform. A long-lasting crisis hit Westerners with unprecedented austerity measures and a sharp decline, in many cases, of their standard of living. Thus, the majority has come to the conclusion that their political leaders ought to pay attention to them first and that, in the sphere of global affairs, national interest should be the absolute priority.
Without this loss of public interest, it’s difficult to understand how Westerners have become so detached and sensitized to Syria’s tragic destiny. Never since the War in the Balkans the West has remained so passive about a conflict with direct ramifications for our societies and our basic understanding of human rights. (Conversely, Russia and Iran have skillfully exploited the West’s lack of policy activity in Syria.) Many in the West seem to believe nowadays that a solution to jihadism has to start with a different set of attitudes and measures within the Muslim communities, in and outside the West. And a more active role of the Middle East Arab nations is necessary to solve the growing refugee crisis.
I spent three weeks this past summer in my hometown in Spain–a quiet, mid-size city located in the Northwest Atlantic coast. (I have been a legal resident of the U.S.A. for more than 17 years. Before settling in the U.S., I worked and lived in France for more than seven years.) My visit took place just after the July 2016, Nice terrorist attack. In a gathering with a dozen of the closest friends I grew up with the shift in the tenor and the content of their rhetoric on issues of immigration and tolerance struck me. These people are middle-upper class fathers and mothers, well-educated, well-traveled, successful professionals. They are also liberal in their political views and usually, tend to vote left. The group included two French nationals who are married to Spaniards. Although sympathetic to the plight of Syrian refugees, and deeply moved by the tragic images coming from different points of the Mediterranean, all except one were adamantly opposed to the refugee policies set in place in the European Union. Economic reasons and, above all, concerns about cultural transformations and a threat to existing traditional values guided their point of view.
This is just anecdotal evidence. But I have had similar conversations with friends in the United States, France, and the U.K. The blogosphere is full of commentary that confirms a similar feeling is widespread across the Western world–from Germany to Australia. Opinions will vary on whether this pivot in public sentiment is just pure selfishness, or a basic survival instinct, or a justified reaction to a transformation of Western societies and culture. It is difficult to assess. But one wonders if for many Westerners the time for multicultural encounters with the Middle East and unconditional humanitarian and monetary support has passed. The time for introspection, and for a ferocious safeguard of their cultural heritage–however they understand such construct–could be here to stay for decades, in detriment to dedicated efforts for the advancement of peace and prosperity in the Levant.