Summary of First Thursday Discussion, May 7th 2015
The first reading in our morning prayers described the way Cities of Refuge were set up in Israel (Deuteronomy chapter 19), giving those who were involved in accidental or innocent homicide a chance to escape revenge from the victim’s relatives.
Refugees are in the news these days. In Syria more than 7 million people are “internally displaced”- away from their homes but still in their own country. More than a million are refugees in Lebanon (one in 5 of the Lebanese population- the equivalent of 12 million people in the UK) and more than 600,000 in Jordan (one in 13 of Jordan’s population). Some Syrian refugees, with others from eg Eritrea and Somalia, are able to make their way to Libya, and pay for transport across the Mediterranean to southern Europe. The UK Government is resisting calls to take a fair share of these- presumably because of what they take to be the pressure of public opinion here.
International law obliges countries to accept refugees who have fled in fear of their lives (in the 1930s there was resistance to accepting Jewish refugees from Hitler’s Germany unless they could show they would not cost the British State expenditure). Are those who flee the threat of starvation also “in fear of their lives” (like Irish immigrants after the 1840s Potato Famine), or can they be dismissed as “economic migrants”?
Middle Eastern and Arab countries are often “lumped together” as if they are all much the same- but there are wide differences: Oil-rich United Arab Emirates is wealthy enough to consider launching a probe to Mars. In Syria the Alawites were a despised minority, not regarded as “true” Muslims, then found a role within the Army and eventually became strong enough to capture the state- but now face determined opposition. The divisions in Syria and Iraq have created a vacuum that ISIL has filled. In 18th century Arabia a Muslim reformer, Al-Wahhab, formed an alliance with the Saud family. Today Saudi Arabia is a strong supporter of a conservative and “puritan” version of Islam, “Salafism” (derived from “salaf”, “predecessors” or “ancestors”, an attempt to “return” to the earliest forms of Islam, purged of later corruptions- in some senses, therefore, similar to the Reformation in 16th century western European Christianity).
Do people who are sent abroad for education in eg Europe and North America return to their home countries and make a positive contribution? Or do they often lose contact with the needs of their own communities, even becoming tyrants, involved in corruption? All the evidence indicates that the most useful kind of investment in education is in the education of girls and women. And it is only when that kind of education leads to the strengthening of local communities that there is a real chance of dealing with corrupt and ineffective government.