War, Hospitality, and the Current Refugee Crisis

Home once meant a place exclusively for one’s family and occasionally guests. It is becoming conceptually a place where everyone belongs except what is meant by a family.

“The world’s six wealthiest countries (the USA, China, Japan, Germany, France, and the UK) have received less than nine percent of the 65 million people fleeing to escape war and poverty.” — L’Osservatore Romano (English, August 26, 2016)


A recent, short thirty-line article in L’Osservatore Romano’s English edition was entitled “A Paradox of Hospitality: The Most Welcoming Countries for Refugees”. It is worth a careful read, especially since it reveals much—perhaps too much—about the mentality of whoever wrote it.  The article itself was unsigned. It was based on a July 18 report of OXFAM, the views of which it seems to mirror. On reading this piece, I was struck by the framework of thought that evidently incited its author’s implicit sense of injustice about the current refugee situation. To him, the statistics that he cites clearly indicate a deep disorder of soul in the unwelcoming rich nations. 

We became used to terms such as “guest-workers” in an earlier era. Recovering Northern European countries provided a labor market for workers from Italy, Portugal, Spain, and Greece. The “moral” words used in this L’Osservatore column were not those of “rights” or “obligation” but those of “humanitarianism” and “hospitality”—words almost the opposite of what the words “rights” and “obligations” mean. The former are justice words; the latter are generosity words. The confounding of the two notions leads to all sorts of problems. Indeed, it undermines the very notion of what civilization means. It is one thing to welcome someone into one’s home. It is another for him or someone else to demand that someone be accepted in justice into anyone’s home. Home once meant a place exclusively for one’s family and occasionally guests. It is becoming conceptually a place where everyone belongs except what is meant by a family. 

Sixty-five million people are said to be “fleeing”. Why? “To escape war and poverty.” One might wonder: “Is this given reason, to ‘escape war and poverty’, anywhere near an accurate description of what is actually going on in areas from whence people ‘flee’”? After all, many people in the world are poor but they are not all trying to escape to somewhere else. And are all of these people simply “fleeing” or are many being systematically sent for other purposes than avoiding war and poverty? By not stating accurately what is going on, we have no way of understanding why these particular people are “fleeing” at this time and in these places. 

The fact that these “fleeing” people are mostly young Muslim males is more than a little suspicious. (In 2015, reported the United Nations, 72% of the “refugees and migrants” coming into Europe were male; in 2016 the number has been 54%.) Normally, one would think that Muslims, given a choice, would “flee” to more congenial Muslim lands, of which there are many. Once they arrive in non-Muslim lands, they do not assimilate with the locals, however gladly they use their free facilities. Rather, they set up their own exclusive enclaves as soon as possible. They establish and enforce their own laws and customs. They are not really emigrants to another land. They are bearers of their own ethos to other lands. It is mainly a form of political expansion more properly called an “invasion”. They, and the leaders that inspire them, understand the demographic principle in lands of declining populations. It is possible to use both force and the politics of their enemies to take over new areas. 

Moreover, what exactly are the “wars” from which people are seeking to escape? Do they really have much to do with poverty? It is not at all obvious that poverty is the cause of the current problems. Most of the major attacks in the West have been engineered by well-educated and often sophisticated young men. Those who blow themselves up to kill others do so because of religious, not economic, motives. Their religion tells them that it is an act of virtue to die working to expand Islam. Those they kill are justly killed in a just war to expand Islam, as the Prophet commanded them to do. We refuse to believe them; but that is our problem. They do not lie to us about what they are doing.


The real issue is of power and control—not poverty. Wars do not cause wars. The best way to cause a war is flatly to announce a policy of non-resistance. The frequent repetition of the mantra that “wars cause wars” is at best naïve. Wars are caused by ideas, principles, vices, interests, and beliefs translated into action. Not to know this is willful ignorance. It prevents any rational judgment about what is actually happening, particularly in the Middle East or other Muslim-dominated areas, where most of these problems are to be found. It is true that we see evil consequences coming even from the most just of wars. But it is also true that we see evils coming from a refusal to take action when it is possible to stop some widespread atrocities. To renounce implicitly and in terms of unpreparedness the intention never to use force in principle is simply another way to assure the success of tyrannies of various sorts, including ones claiming to be religious.

To find out why these wars, as we see them, are now taking place requires that we understand and do not avoid reading the history of Islam, the Qur’an, and what those causing the problems are actually saying. They almost never employ the language of poverty as a motivation for what is going on in their souls. Except for oil (the wealth of which is not caused by Muslim inventions or economies), Muslim countries are very poor and endemically unproductive. There are theological reasons for this backwardness, but we have to be willing to face what they are. To give them credit, Muslims are not primarily concerned with the question of poverty. They are concerned primarily with making the world subject to Allah—rich or poor, it really does not matter too much. I, for one, respect this intention and think we are deceiving ourselves if we refuse to see the power of this religious idea.

In the L’Osservatore column, the present situation is described as the “greatest humanitarian emergency since the Second World War”. The use of the word “humanitarian” is of interest. Normally, we would not use the term “humanitarian” for war refugees. We use it for people caught in non-voluntary natural disasters such as floods, fires, or earthquakes. Moreover, in war situations, we do not accept enemy prisoners or refugees until after they are rendered harmless. They are, if at all possible, to be returned to their own lands. The refugees we are to look after are those uprooted by whoever caused the war or crisis.

The idea that a country should fill itself with members of the country that is attacking it is absurd. This is the real issue that Europe and America are facing today whether they like it or not. Are they “welcoming” into their midst the very forces that are most likely to overturn their system of government? Ironically, it is the one issue that is mostly avoided because of a priori doctrines of multi-culturalism and diversity that make distinctions of motive and power almost impossible.


The poorest nations, the report went on, receive fifty percent of those leaving their countries. These countries are Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, Pakistan, South Africa, and Palestine West Bank, all of which, except South Africa, are Muslim-ruled countries. These states represent only about two percent of the world’s economy, but they have over fifty percent of the people driven out of their own countries. Of course, these are the countries adjacent to much of the turmoil. 

This situation in the column is called “asymmetrical” and “disproportionate”. These are most interesting words to describe what is going on. What kind of thinking assumes that something “symmetrical” or “proportioned” should be the criterion to decide the places to where these people should go? Basically, it is a mathematical, not political or religious, model. We make a list of all nations by wealth; we count up the number of those fleeing; we distribute them proportionately giving the most numbers to the wealthiest; case settled. By this formula, most countries in the world would soon cease to be what they are. The formula takes into consideration no criterion other than calculation of numbers. The very idea that people ought to be cared for is itself a religious and cultural idea. 

Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Libya are not mentioned in this column. Nor is Saudi Arabia, Iran, or the other Gulf states referred to. Russia, Scandinavia, and the Balkan states are passed over. Many of these states, led by Hungary, recall the Ottoman Empire’s invasions. They have taken positive steps to stop any flow of what they see, probably correctly, as an invasion designed ultimately to take over their lands.  Germany, now itself having second thoughts, is said to take most refugees; Italy the least number.

Many of the most ill-treated refugees are Christians, so why are they not mentioned? Everyone knows it is mainly the Christians who are persecuted. And why are not Saudi Arabia and Iran, among other Muslim states, mentioned as the logical and wealthiest places for Muslim escapees to turn? It appears utterly ironical to see this whole issue proposed over as if such Muslim states that have considerable wealth are not factors. Muslim practice usually restricts its aid to other Muslims. Muslim disputes between Shiites and Sunnis are part of the war and immigration scene itself. 

All through the column, the word used to describe those “fleeing” is “people”—not “persecuted” or “victims”. Near the end of the article, Germany is said to have “opened its borders” to “refugees”. They are “welcomed”, again, a hospitality word. Often what is said to be going on is a “migration”. We are, mindful of the early middle ages, dealing with “migrants”; that is, people who just want to change their situation to another country. Few of these peoples, however, are “migrants” and to describe them as such is an insult to them. Most of these people would have preferred to remain in their own homes. 

Yet, in September, two summit meetings were scheduled to “define how to cope with the migratory crisis.” We learn that what is going on is a “migration”. These are the last words of the article in L’Osservatore Romano: “OXFAM has issued an appeal to world leaders to be called upon to guarantee safety, protection, dignity, and a future to millions of people forced to leave everything behind.”

This column appears in the papal newspaper as a straight-forward presentation of an OXFAM report. But what strikes me about it is that certain words and issues do not appear. They were conspicuously avoided. The report used words are all generalized abstractions. Again, not a word is said of Christians specifically being killed on a wide scale almost anywhere in the Middle East. One would expect this fact to be the major issue of concern in this journal. The word “Islam” never enters the calculations, as if Islam, with its well-articulated theology and history, has nothing to do with the problems actually occurring more and more both in the Middle East and on our very streets. This silence strikes me as an insult to the Christians being killed and driven out of these areas.  But is also an unfair to those Muslims who make no apologies for following exactly what they are commanded to do by their religion.

While I understand the relativist background that finds no grounds to judge anything by standards of truth (and the prudential background that knows how Islamic followers often react violently against the innocent when Islam in any way is criticized), the fact is that a column such as this reveals exactly where the problem really lies: in the inability or unwillingness to understand that wars do not cause wars. Ideas do, and in this case they are mainly religions ideas. The only paradox about it is that ideas, our confused ideas, are also what prevent us from seeing what is going on even when our own self-interest, beliefs, and our very lives are ultimately at stake.

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About James V. Schall, S.J. 177 Articles
James V. Schall, S.J. taught political philosophy at Georgetown University for many years until retiring in 2012. He was the author of numerous books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics. One of his last books was On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018 (Ignatius Press, 2018). He died at the age of 91 on April 17, 2019. Visit his site, "Another Sort of Learning", for more about his writings and work.