This will be my first blog post composed in the Czech Republic, where I am living for the fall, teaching at Masaryk University in the charming Moravian capital city of Brno. Even as I enjoy strolling the picturesque, Old European streets, sampling Czech beer and cuisine and falling in love with a very stylish cafe in Dominikánské náměstí called Skøg Urban Hub, where I now sit writing this, I am aware of gathering storm clouds looming over not only the Czech Republic but all of Europe. This is the migration crisis occasioned by the flight of tens, soon to be hundreds, of thousands of refugees seeking to escape the very real threats of devastation and death that they face in war-torn, economically and socially collapsing countries of the Middle East and North Africa, particularly but not only Syria. The four-year old Syrian civil war that grew out of Arab Spring protests and then spawned the violent, fanatical ISIS movement has now reached a stage where more and more people are simply giving up and leaving. Similarly unbearable situations are drawing people out of North Africa, Yemen and as far east as Afghanistan.
As these desperate masses stream into Europe, hoping for a better life in more prosperous and stable countries like Germany and Sweden, they encounter varying responses from the governments and peoples of Europe. Some Europeans are moved by empathy and compassion for these traumatized refugees, and are bringing them donations of food, water and clothing, while others resent the arrival of foreigners with different customs and complexions, and fear that their societies will be overwhelmed by these ethnic and religious Others. Leaders like the Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orbán are playing to this sentiment with actions like erecting barbed-wire fences, herding migrants into barely livable camps, some into the main Budapest train station, encouraging or at the very least not denouncing harsh police and border guard treatment of migrants including beatings and tear gas dispersal and so on. Still more extreme right-wing anti-immigrant groups are seeking to intimidate and terrorize these migrants by various methods from chanting anti-foreigner slogans outside refugee camps to firebombing places of asylum. The leaders of Germany and Sweden have distinguished themselves as standard-bearers for conscience and compassion by standing by their open-door policies toward refugees and migrants, while other countries and governments, not only Hungary but others as well even supposedly ultra-progressive Denmark, have taken delight in turning a cold, hard shoulder toward the new arrivals.
In a nutshell, Europe as a whole is split down the middle about whether to welcome and offer assistance to the incoming foreigners, or to resist their movement into their lands and seek to expel them by any means necessary.
As an American Pagan who has spent a fair amount of time researching European Pagan groups, I would expect that European Pagans share the same range of reactions to this migration crisis as do other Europeans. It is the same in the USA where the general population as well as the much smaller but still quite diverse Pagan population display a range of attitudes about incoming immigrants from Latin America and elsewhere. In the following, I will attempt to make a case for why European Pagans should welcome the migrants, not oppose or vilify them. I am sure that some, perhaps many European Pagans will disagree with what I have to say, but I believe I am standing on firm and principled ground, ground we can build on for the future.
First, a historical argument. Europe has a long history of receiving migrants from other regions, who added elements to each country's character and traditions without which each recipient society would have been poorer, economically, culturally, spiritually and otherwise. Without the migrations of the Anglo-Saxons (more specifically the Angles and the Saxons), there would be no England and no English language. Without the migrations of the Magyars from the Ural Mountains region into Central Europe, there would be no Hungary and no Hungarian language. Without Celts migrating from Central Europe to the British Isles, there would be nothing Celtic about Ireland, Wales or Scotland. Without Viking migrations, Ireland and Britain would not be what they are today, and Iceland would have neither Elves, nor sheep, nor people, and precious little Scandinavian mythology would have been written down and preserved, as most of this happened in medieval Iceland. Classical Greece and Rome were formed by migrants as well. That is to say, without a very long list of migrants and migrations that flowed into Europe at different points in time, Europe as we know it today would never have come into existence. To those who say, "we must protect our European traditions against foreign intrusion," I would answer with two points worth pondering: (1) European traditions were often formed by foreign intrusions, leading to this seemingly paradoxical, but historically supportable conclusion that (2) foreign intrusion is itself a very old European tradition.
But, some Pagans would say, these migrants today are different. They bring nothing positive, only an alternate form of Abrahamic monotheism that Pagans reject completely. But wait... might we be having this argument in a cafe over a couple of cappucinos? Ah, European coffeehouses, such a fine old tradition... but is coffee really European? It has been a popular beverage for many centuries, quite so, but it did not actually originate in Europe. The custom of drinking coffee and the social institution of the coffeehouse were creations of the Muslim world, transmitted to Europe via the Ottoman Empire. If you struggled as a child to learn mathematics, know that algebra was first created by Arabs. If you go to a hospital for surgery, be aware that the first hospitals were Muslim institutions, and that Arab-Muslim anatomy textbooks were a major part of European medical training up to the modern period. And take your foot off that Ottoman and stop watching TV lying on that sofa! And stop eating those kebabs and that hummus!
So, as these examples illustrate in a hopefully light-hearted way, Muslims and Arabs of the past contributed quite a lot to European civilization. Welcomed into Europe today, who knows what peoples from Syria and Yemen and Afghanistan and other such lands might contribute today that would eventually become well-loved "European traditions." The fear, of course, is that they will contribute Islamic militancy and terrorism. I would answer to that fear that how a people respond to a new social environment depends greatly on how they are received. That is to say, if xenophobic, right-wing Europeans do all that they can to make 21st century Muslim migrants feel unwelcome, distrusted, excluded,and even hated, then you can expect that some such immigrants may well be attracted to radical movements that offer them some measure of pride and dignity, even if in a suicidal, destructive form. On the other hand, if Muslims are sincerely welcomed and treated with respect for their traditions, beliefs and customs, and not shunted into ghettos devoid of economic and social opportunity, many will be able to adjust to life in Europe quite happily, as millions of Muslims have already done.
When non-Muslim Europeans engage in overheated fantasies about the supposed "menace" of Muslim immigration, they often fail to note that Many Muslims are already living in Europe so quietly and successfully that their presence often goes unnoticed, while the incidents of violence and terrorism perpetrated by Muslim-Europeans are unusual, sensational events committed by a very small percentage of European Muslims. If the same out-of-proportion standard of judgment were applied against violent incidents perpetrated by white Europeans, might not the argument be made that Europe is facing a "white menace" that requires urgent action, such as deporting all white Europeans to the Caucasus mountain region?
Let us not fail to note that similar arguments about the "Jewish menace" and the need to expel European Jews from Europe were once quite popular among non-Jewish Europeans, and that the application of this prejudiced viewpoint to political life led to one of the most shameful episodes in European history. Let us also keep in mind that the Roma (gypsies) were another target of persecution of the Nazis, and that, proportionately speaking, as many Roma as Jews died in the Holocaust. This is poignantly described in Brno's Museum of Romany Culture (http://www.rommuz.cz/en, the only Museum of Roma culture and history in all of Europe). Sadly for the Roma, their days of persecution are not yet over, but I will leave this topic for another day. It will suffice to say that the mass persecution of Jews and Roma did nothing to improve European life or preserve "European traditions and identity," but only led to untold suffering and everlasting shame. Shall the Muslim migrants be treated as were the Jews and Roma, or have we really learned nothing from Nazism and the Holocaust?
Apart from the basic humanitarian consideration of helping fellow human beings find safety and succor, there are other reasons too why Pagans should endeavor to receive these Muslim migrants kindly. Modern Paganism is only possible because of a general respect for the principle of diversity. Whatever can strengthen the rule of diversity in European--and other--societies will be good for Pagans and for the continuing development of the different forms of Paganism now arising or reviving in Europe; whatever weakens the rule of diversity will open the door to persecution and disadvantagement not only for Muslims--but also for Pagans among other religious "Others." It should sound alarm bells for European Pagans that some of the loudest voices opposing the current wave of Muslim migration are characterizing the situation as a defense of "Christian Europe" against the invasion of Muslims from the East, as if this were the 1683 Siege of Vienna all over again. See http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2015/09/11/world/europe/ap-eu-eastern-europe-migrants.html .
Some ethnically-oriented Pagans may initially feel they can happily whistle along with right-wing European nationalist leaders when they sing of protecting and upholding European ethnic heritage by blocking Muslim immigration, but they may start to find this cheerful political tune less joyful and melodious when they realize that right-wing leaders like our dear friend Mr. Orbán equate European heritage and identity with Christianity, that is, European = Christian, meaning there is "no space at the inn," to use a suitable Christian turn of phrase, for Pagans in a Europe so defined. As non-Christians, Pagans therefore have very practical, self-interested reasons to make common cause with Muslims in standing up for religious diversity in Europe, a diversity that embraces Christians, Jews, Muslims, AND Pagans (along with Buddhists and Hindus and Sufis and Krishnaites and Cthulu-followers and many others). When any non-Christian is threatened, Pagans are threatened too, and so by protecting the rights of Muslims to live in Europe and freely practice their religion, Pagans protect their own rights too.
Though these words are perhaps overused, and though I know I risk descending into cliché by quoting them, I do find the warning of the German Protestant minister Martin Niemöller very pertinent in this regard:
"First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me."
Shall we update and adapt Herr Niemöller's message to suit our current situation?
"First they came for the terrorists, and I did not speak out--
because I am not a terrorist.
Then they came for the immigrants, and I did not speak out--
because I am not a immigrant.
Then they came for the Muslims, and I did not speak out--
because I am not a Muslim.
Then they came for the cultists, and I did not speak out--
because I do not consider my religion a "cult."
Then they came for the Pagans--and there was no one left to speak for me."
Protect your religious rights. Defend religious freedom for all!