Fear of the ‘other’ causes ructions in Britain and Norway

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL January 26, 2020

Certain groups of people are being dehumanised and cast as the “other” because of fear. Because of that, the crime of hate is being normalised.

No easy answers. Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson outside 10 Downing Street in central London, January 21. (AFP)

In December, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson led his Conservative Party to a huge parliamentary majority, which gave him leeway to steer Brexit, controversial trade talks with the United States and almost any issue in whichever direction he chose.

On January 21, the British government was defeated in the House of Lords on an issue that revolves around moral crime and compassion rather than commerce and statutes.

The House of Lords vote was about Johnson’s decision to deny unaccompanied child refugees currently in Europe the right to be united with their families in the United Kingdom. They are a small number. Safe Passage, an NGO that supports child refugees, said 2,307 unaccompanied children applied for asylum in the United Kingdom in 2017-18. Just more than half were granted it or “another form of leave” to remain in Britain, said Safe Passage.

Alf Dubs, the opposition Labour Party peer who proposed the amendment to the Johnson government’s legislation, was a child refugee from the Nazi persecution of Jews. Dubs, who arrived in the United Kingdom in 1939 as a refugee from Prague, said the government’s defeat in the upper house was “based on humanitarian principles.”

As it happens, those “humanitarian principles” are likely to prove too weak to withstand the force of Johnson’s massive parliamentary majority. The lower house can insist on passing the law without the Dubs amendment and Brexit Britain, as per Johnson’s breezy rendering, will go on to be buccaneering and bold-faced about Europe, about trade deals and, yes, about vulnerable children.

In the week Britain considered its capacity for compassion, Norway faced a similar test. The country’s governing centre-right coalition lost a long-serving ally, the anti-immigration Progress Party. Progress withdrew from the government over a cabinet decision to repatriate a Norwegian woman from Syria so that one of her young children could receive medical treatment.

The 29-year-old mother, who is of Pakistani ethnicity, left Norway for Syria in 2013, lived in territory controlled by the Islamic State (ISIS) and married twice while in the caliphate, both times to ISIS fighters.

Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg explained the woman’s return to the country saying her sick child needed treatment and that’s “what is important.” Solberg summed up her government’s dilemma as follows: “to bring home a child with his mother or risk that a sick 5-year-old child might die.” She added: “To me, it was important that the boy came home to Norway.”

Note the word “home.” The child, who has never known Norway, is allowed to go “home” but the Norwegian born-and-bred mother’s return is controversial. Why?

“This woman has turned her back on us,” said Jon Engen-Helgheim, a Progress Party spokesman. “She hates all that we stand for. She joined a gruesome terror army and contributed to prosecution, decapitation, burnings and the murder of innocent women, children and adults. We do not want her kind in Norway and we certainly don’t want Norwegian authorities spending enormous resources getting them to Norway.”

There are two problems with that statement. Like it or not, the woman belongs to Norway and that’s where she should be tried. Second, it’s not as if she doesn’t face consequences in Norway for her apparent allegiance to ISIS. The Norwegian Security Police has charged the woman with “participation in a terrorist organisation” and she faces up to six years in prison.

The Progress Party spokesman’s words and the British government’s deeds prompt the question: Why are they behaving like this?

Much of the literary world has been marking the 70th anniversary of the death of George Orwell. Accordingly, it’s worth repeating a truth Orwell stated as he watched the horrors of fascism and hate towards “the other.” “Sometimes,” said Orwell, “the first duty of intelligent men is the restatement of the obvious.”

Let us restate the obvious in searching for the answer to that question about Britain and Norway. Certain groups of people are being dehumanised and cast as the “other” because of fear. Because of that, the crime of hate is being normalised.

Originally published in The Arab Weekly