Who Is Responsible for the Refugee Crisis, and Who Must Act?


How did we get to this refugee crisis? Newton’s Third Law. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. It’s something we may not consciously clock as we hear news and see devastating photographs of migrants crossing dangerous waters in crowded boats, fleeing for their lives. Why is this happening? If you rewind the history of these countries, tracing political event to event, you’ll find the firestarter – and more often than not, it's a long arm that has reached past its own border to interfere in another country.

In this spirited and frenetic address, Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek talks about refugees, anti-immigration populism, and cultural incompatibility, bringing to light just how complex and tangled the dominant issues of our times are. Who is responsible for them? It’s a messy question.

One clear thread that swims beneath everything Žižek says is the concept of backlash. The wave of refugees coming to Europe from Syria and north Africa were displaced by previous military and political intervention. Hitler and Nazi Germany arose as a reaction to the West post WWI. Government-sanctioned homophobia and the oppression of women’s rights across Africa are a reaction against colonialist ideals. Everything is a pushback, and there are a million reactions firing off all over the geopolitical landscape.

Žižek argues that the only way out is transparency. We have many responsibilities when faced with the world’s problems, but the greatest one is to not be avoidant. We must ask and debate unpleasant and difficult questions, especially regarding immigration and the cultural clashes that will emerge – and already are. We are doomed, says Žižek, if we keep these issues at a distance.

Slavoj Žižek's most recent book is Refugees, Terror and Other Troubles with the Neighbors: Against the Double Blackmail.

  • Transcript


Slavoj Žižek:  We who try to be decent people are bombarded by some kind of moral political pressure from two sides: First there is the worst one, of course, this anti-immigrant populous side like why should we even allow refugees in; it's their fault; third world travel and so on, there are enough poor people here; they come from another civilization; it means conflict and so on and so on. So there is all the time this pressure of we are defending our way of life; refugees are disturbing it. And it's interesting how in some radical right wing circles we really have already new conspiracy theories, which always fascinate me in their madness.

A couple of weeks ago the main Slovenia, I'm a coming from Slovenia, right wing weekly journal something like, Slovene Time Magazine, published a comment by a guy, which was a ferocious attack on George Soros, the humanitarian billionaire, claiming that he's the most disgusting despicable and dangerous person today in the world because he's a Jew who is organizing Muslim invasion into Europe. The guy uses totally open brutal terms like Negroid Islamist hoards are invading Europe. Claiming that the Jewish plan is to destroy Christian Europe and they're using Muslims to do it. Why do I like, I mean don't misunderstand me I'm horrified at it, But why do I "like" this fantasy? Because it goes to the end and it brings together two different levels of conspiracy theory. One is Muslim invasion of Europe and the other is anti-Semitism.

Usually we think that there is some kind of a conflict in the Middle East between Palestinians or Muslims and Jews. This theory claims this is an appeared conflict to dilute us. In reality even the Muslim terrorists, all of them, Isis, it's a Zionist creation to ruin Europe. In the good old fashion or Stalinist way you know how fascists spoke about plutocratic Bolshevik plot, you bring the opposites together; they're doing this. So, not to get lost this is one blackmail. But then now things get much more problematic for some liberal leftist. Then there is the other blackmail, the humanitarian blackmail like poor suffering immigrants coming to Europe desperate; is Europe still Europe? Is it using its heart? How can we see all those people suffering and so on and so on? I basically, of course, agreed with this second position. I none the less think there is something terribly wrong in this automatic retranslation of, I don't want to call it a crisis but whatever you call it what's happening with refugees into a pure humanitarian problem, which is out there from somewhere we don't even analyze it closely hundreds of thousands of people are coming and it's purely a humanitarian question do we let them in or not? I question this on all levels.

First, I'm absolutely ready to admit that even crucial, that it's not simply something horrible happening in Third World or in this case in Middle East, as we say in Europe in our arrogant way they screwed it up and now we should pay the bill or what. Of course Europe, but not only Europe, we are deeply responsible for it. Look at the all origins of crisis were refugees are coming from, from northern bit not only northern Africa, Libya and is so on. We Europeans screwed it up with military intervention then. No Isis, no refugees from Syria or Iraq without American intervention there or without this global or geopolitical conflict between Russia and the United States, others involved, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran and so on. They are what is behind the Syrian civil war. So again, we cannot say there is a humanitarian crisis there and it's purely a question of moral sympathy we will receive them, we are deeply responsible for them.

First geopolitically and at a deeper level economically. I mean this brutal direct colonialism is more or less over, but economic neocolonialism this in a way stronger than ever. We know how big Western, and not only Western also other powers are destroying local agriculture and so on and so on. Like these are things we don't read a lot about them, but are you aware of what's happening now? Even in some African countries where there is starvation like Ethiopia and so on. Western companies, and in this case happily I'm ready to say it's not the usual culprits Europe and the United States, it's more some rich Arab countries like Saudi Arabia and some Asian countries like South Korea and so on, they're buying gigantic parts of these countries for agricultural use growing industrial plants and so on and so on with the millions of people who can be employed for the time being when production still goes on, but when there's a crisis everything is chaotic. And so for me the symbol of today's world, and it's typical of how we talk of all the crisis we read so little about that crisis, is the Republic of Congo may be one of the wealthiest countries in the world with regards to natural resources and so on, but a non-existing country; central government doesn't work, local warlords rule all in direct connection with foreign companies all their precious metals to export and so on and so on.

So again, this is the situation out of which refugees are created. And now if anything it's getting even worse. We all sympathize hopes of 20 years ago with the tragedy of Sarajevo in ex-Yugoslavia, a big city of hundreds of thousands people under siege like in medieval times. Okay, but what's happening now in Aleppo is even worse in a way. It's a really big city of almost two million people and at least out of egotism we should worry more. Are we aware what kind of explosive new refugee crisis is being prepared there? So again, I buy all of this. On the other hand, now comes the problematic part, I don't believe that first that we are the only culprits. Because is not simply us Western Europeans, Americans and Arabs, there is a mega class division rich countries, poor countries, corruption among Arabs themselves. And as some people pointed out you cannot just simply say many left liberals enjoy this, they have a kind of a perverse pleasure whenever there is a crisis in a Third World country they always will someway prove oh it's our possibility. There is something so patronizing in this as if they are even too stupid all those Arabs or black Africans to be really evil. If they do something catastrophic only we are big enough even in the direction of the evil to do it.

So let's take this case, let's ask a simple question, which some people don't like to ask, aren't they immediately below the big crisis region, Syria, Iraq, aren't there a couple of Arab Muslim countries who are among the richest in the world, take Qatar where they control their own Al Jazeera who all the time emphasizes the plight of immigrants and so on. Qatar usually, at least among the first three per capital with greatest per capital income richest countries in the world, competition is somewhere, Lichtenstein, Europe, Qatar and Singapore. You know how many refugees they took? None. All of them, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Emirates, none, only the poor countries are invaded by them. So I don't think these questions should be taboo like what's the international geopolitical game that is being played here? That's the first point. The second point, so called Moslem fundamentalism. You know, we should not simply say - okay of course I'm not condemning it in a racist way, but it's also not enough to say okay this is just a reaction to Western imperialism so automatically again we are guilty.

Of course it's a reaction, but listen, let me draw a parallel. Hitler was also just a reaction to brutal Western imperialism, treatment of Germany after World War I. It's absolutely clear in this sense Western Europe, England, France were responsible for Hitler, but this doesn't mean that they were wrong to fight it afterwards. And it's the same way here. Arab's have been exploited all that, all of that, but nonetheless Moslem fundamentalism is not to simply just a pure passive reaction to a difficult predicament, it's nonetheless a conscious choice, it's certain active politics, it's a way in a very strong sense to react to what? To modern crisis. So for me instead of accepting this official coordinates, on the one hand we Western permissive society, on the other hand bad fundamentalists. A more radical question is what is fundamentalism today? In what sense is it generated by inner antagonisms of global capitalism. Even in the United States you probably know it's simple, it's not Guy Fieri, but great book Thomas Frank what happened in Kansas. This is the enigma Kansas, which was for over a century the quintessentially progressive American state from anti-slavery campaigns and so on. In the last 30/40 years it became the very backdrop of new Christian fundamentalism.

So if you look at numbers of fundamentalists in the United States they are pretty much the same in percentage, some three/four percent as the number of radical fundamentalist among Arab countries and so on. First we should approach the problem in this more fundamental way, not simply blaming Islam and so on, Islam is a problematical religion but every religion is problematic. I think we are living today in an era of, I'm not too afraid to speak as a leftist moral conservative, an era of ethical decay, disintegration of ethical substance where things which were simply unimaginable decades ago can be said or done today. Let's take the example of a state, which boast itself as the only island of reason in that area of the Middle East. Do you know that the highest religious authority in the army of a country there said two or three months ago, I checked it with my friends, it's not a hoax it's true, that when the army of their country occupies another land of people, soldiers have the right to rape local women there. Now we will say who was this Isis? No, the big Rabi of idea of Israeli defense forces. The truth are with all my disagreement with the politics of their government now they are the ultimate people of civilization, but you see even they are part of this decay.

So that I don't lose the track, the first thing to do with refugees is to locate them in this global economic ideological political situation. The second thing is nonetheless not to make a taboo of the fact that they are not just passive victims, day by day I mean here not refugees as such but those among them who clearly are fundamentalists, and we should debate these issues openly. The third thing, and that may be the crux of the misunderstanding why people attacked me. The third point is look, we tend to forget that we all are not just abstract free individual citizens of the world, we do live as part of concrete communities with certain ways of life which are focused precisely on ways of enjoyment of how sexual relations are regulated all that that's very core of a community and we are different to here so we should not avoid all these questions of, for example, Muslims, Muslim Arabs entering Europe they come with their customs. And okay the politically correct way is to say we should leave them their customs, we have our customs, we should elevate ourselves above these differences and take care of fundamental equality human rights and so on.

This I claim doesn't work because human rights are universal values are never abstractly elevated above concrete ways of life. Like examples that you get in Germany, I write about them in my book. Over 2000 girls per years of immigrants to Germany who go to ordinary German high schools escape from home because they were more seduced by the western way of life, visit night clubs, have German boyfriends and so on. And then their families put pressure on them like we know in what sense and they escape, seek refugee with the police. Do you know that they already have over 20 safe houses in Germany where these girls are provided with fake ID and so on and so on. And of course, massive community cries or you are ruining our way of life. Let's be frank, in a way they are right. I mean you cannot impose on a Muslim community our Western notions of freedom if we need to choose the sex partners and claim we respect your way of life. The way that family deals with a woman is the very basic components of their way of life. I'm not saying there is an easy way out here, but I'm just saying that you see my point that the problem is real here, the problem is real and I think we - and also I know the Muslim intolerance is often exaggerated, there is a big story of intolerance of Western people towards Muslims, but there is also the other side of the story.

For example, I learned this from leftists in Berlin, in Sweden, in Denmark and in Netherlands, Muslim communities they're attacking gay parades or when they see public display of homosexuality and so on and so on. So you see what I mean. What I'm simply advocating it's not, of course not, oppressing refugees on behalf of our Western standards, but I hope you admit you have to set a certain limit and it's a difficult limit it has to be renegotiated like I don't know, when a girl who doesn't want to be veiled is forced by her family to wear a veil and she comes to German police and complains. You have to decide, you say no that's their problem or do you say no we respect a certain notion of feminine freedom their rights, we will not tolerate that. Whatever you do it will be very painful. I'm claiming this, if we don't approach these topic's openly in a public debate we are just feeding the anti-immigrant populist racists and we will get in 10/20 years a terrible Europe where the predominant force will be anti-immigrant populists.

So again, my point is not we are incompatible with immigrants let's not have them in Europe, no we can have even more immigrants. But we should absolutely talk about these problems in an open away not ignore these problems. Ignoring these problems means you leave the space open for anti-immigrant populous and then you have this after catastrophe of literally divided nations were simply the liberal left attitude is as if if you just mentioned these problems they claim no this is anti-immigrant Islamophobic racism, these excel the problems. No, ordinary people experience see these problems and we have to also address those concerns. I'm not talking here as a right wing populist, on the opposite if I make a quick jump to American politics that's why, although I know we shouldn't expect too much from Bernie Sanders but my admiration for Bernie Sanders was that he mobilized for a progressive project precisely those ordinary small half impoverished farmers workers who ideally vote for the new populist Republican right. Bernie Sanders opened up the scope of the terrain for progressive cost for the left outside all this academic LGBT whatever and included into it also ordinary impoverished people who are the ideal pray of right wing populace. For me everything politically depends on this.

We have two struggles today, one which unfortunately are combined enough. One struggle is all the struggle against sexism and so on, gay rights. And the others struggle is the struggle for poor people, economic struggle, Third World and so on. And the most tragic thing I write about this in my book is I hope you noticed this, it's when Third World countries advocate controlling women, homophobia and so on as part of their anti-colonialism. No this is like - the ridiculous example of this is Mugaba who openly stands for it. But you have in the Kenya in all those countries where openly the very notion of women's rights, gay rights is dismissed as neocolonialists strategy of ruining the local communities, of destroying local ways of life and so on and so on. But if this problem will not be resolved, if we will be caught in our politically correct struggle against discrimination and so on and keeping this at the distance from basic economic social struggles then we are doomed.