The Malaysia That Could Be

Shortly after I arrived in Kuala Lumpur in 1991 as newly-appointed bureau chief for the Far Eastern Economic Review I was introduced to a Malaysian journalist then working for the Singapore Straits Times. We worked in a country well known for its disdain for the foreign media; and we were particular targets because our publications were deemed by the government to be biased against or even hostile to Malaysia.

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Partly because of the common challenges we faced, but perhaps mostly because we enjoyed eating nasi kandar and roti canai at street side stalls in Kuala Lumpur or on the many out-station reporting trips we took together, we became good friends.

A quarter of a century later my close friend Kalimullah Hassan is no longer a journalist – neither am I. Our beloved profession has been much affected by the decline of advertising revenues and the rise of social media. But Kali, as all his friends know him, remains as passionate and concerned about his country as he was when we drove for long hours around rural constituencies in out of the way parts of Kedah, Kelantan and Terengganu covering by-elections.

So when I read ‘The Malaysia That Could Be’, his newly published collection of columns and recollections, many of those earnest discussions and arguments we had over steaming cups of teh tarik in the 1990s came flooding back to me. There is his great pride in Malaysia’s ethnic diversity, his deep concern about the divisive racist rhetoric of contested politics and the corrosive impact of patronage and corruption in high places.

Like many of us who have lived or worked in Malaysia, whether we are Malaysian or not, what we see today is a nation once proud of its institutional integrity and ethnic diversity, now threatened by a deterioration of the probity and quality of governance and sharply polarized communal tendencies.

For Kali, the country is on a slippery slope. “Intolerance is growing and there is no firm guiding hand, no leadership to lead us back to the right path,” he writes in the introduction. In a bitter post-script to this collection of columns he wrote for The New Straits Times when he was Group Editor from 2004-7, he bemoans the erosion of ethnic and religious tolerance and the rise of chauvinistic right wing politicians who have replaced the narrative of renewal and reform with the rhetoric of bigotry and racism.

The book, which is privately published, is unashamedly a romantic yearning for the Malaysia of yesteryear, with endearing sketches of his hometown of Kroh along the Thai Malaysian border, where he grew up the son of immigrant Indian Muslim parents. He loves to describe ordinary Malaysians living modestly and uncomplainingly in rural splendour – ‘the rich cultural diversity, the beauty of the different cultures, the picture postcard scenery’. This strengthens his belief ‘ that Malaysia is wonderful its people marvellous.’

How right he is that ‘if you want to see Malaysia as Malaysia is and as it should be’, then celebrating the Harvest Festival in Sabah is exactly the place to be.

The postscript to the book is where Kali’s expresses deep disappointment and where he falls victim perhaps to bitterness that is sometimes hard to read. Like Kali I was extremely optimistic about Malaysia during the years when Abdullah Badawi was Prime Minister. As much as Mahathir Mohamad helped develop and modernise Malaysia, he was a complex, uncompromising man with deeply ingrained prejudices that made it hard to feel welcome as a foreigner, or safe as a journalist.

Abdullah was a charming breath of fresh air, a man of high moral caliber and moderate views. As Kali notes, his long years in the political wilderness left him neither bitter nor vindictive. When he was thrust into power after Mahathir’s surprise resignation in 2003, Abdullah set about the uphill task of restoring institutional integrity and dignity to the office of Prime Minister and was genuinely committed to reform and renewal.

I was drawn to him and his fresh faced, well educated advisors. Abdullah and his inner circle, which included Kali, made you feel there was hope for a democratic Malaysia. He was indeed “a decent man… who tried, in his own way, to make the country a more decent place to live in”. But as Kali reveals, there was tremendous pressure on Abdullah to move in the other direction, not least because instead of going quietly into retirement, Mahathir was critical of his successor, whom he considered weak and ineffective.

Being a civilized man of polite moderation, it is true that Abdullah lacked the venom and spite to effectively emasculate his opponents. Kali documents incidents he was witness to where Abdullah refused to use his executive power to influence the courts, or bridle the media. On taking office he told the judges, as Kali wrote at the time: ‘that they must preserve the independence of the judiciary and act without fear and favour.’ These affectionately crafted vignettes are among the most valuable in the book, as Abdullah’s premiership is not widely written about.

All that sense of hope and idealism seems like a distant memory today, as Kali would have it. Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak, in his view, has turned the clock back and failed to fulfill his promise of reform. “The Chinese have become more defensive and exclusive than ever; the Christians feel they are constantly under siege; the Malay Muslims, among the poorest in society, fear losing political power; the Indians continue to feel marginalised.”

Kali’s parting shot drives at the heart of what ails Malaysia today, which to my mind is the dangerous erosion of ethnic and religious harmony. He is right that Malaysians have always been conscious of the racial divide, and that there have always been bigots and racists in their midst; neither Singapore nor Malaysia can escape the colonial confection of polarised pluralism. But he has a point when he writes that in Malaysia today ‘the spirit of family and oneness is remembered only by the aged.’

‘The Malaysia That Could Be’ was published privately in Malaysia in March and sold out within weeks of its initial print run with all the proceeds donated to charity. Copies of the book are available from the author.

 

Cairo – A Memory

Fifty years ago I lived in Cairo, enrolled as a student at the American University of Cairo and took these photographs.

The AUC campus was at that time situated in an old pasha’s palace in the downtown Bab al Louq area, just off the famous Tahrir Square.   I lived nearby on Shariah El Falaky in the AUC Dorm, a drab lemon-coloured building with high walls that from outside looked rather like a prison.

Outside, the city was a dazzling whirlpool of life, a frenzy of melon seed sellers, garbage pickers and juice dispensers, of young street boys in rags forever asking you the time; of dowdy office clerks staring at shop window displays of shoes.  The pungent smell of decaying citrus and human odour pervaded the air.  The cries of the street sellers harmonized with the honking of horns and the periodic bray of a street donkey.

Through these streets I prowled with an old Russian Zenit camera, at the time the most affordable SLR, packed with Tri X Film that I kept in the Dorm fridge.

The Khan el Khalili Bazaar is still there, where copper pots are still beaten; Felukas still ply the Nile, and the Boab still pick their noses in Bab el Louk.

But like these pictures, much of the charm I knew has faded.

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Pluralism Imperiled in Southeast Asia

 

 

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Southeast Asia’s diverse peoples have coexisted more or less peacefully for centuries using traditional forms of cultural accommodation and modern forms of segregation imposed from outside.

Both have been loosely defined as forms of pluralism – a term that denotes the ability of people of different ethnic groups and faiths to live side-by side, even if separately.

Of late, however, these established patterns of social tolerance and stability have been subject to strain. Across the region, conflicts between different groups of people with long traditions of peaceful coexistence are increasingly common.

Just in the past year, Christian communities that never had problems with neighbouring Muslims saw their churches burned in Indonesia; Muslims who have lived and worked as citizens in Buddhist majority Myanmar were deprived of the right to vote or sit in parliament. In Malaysia, Christians were told they couldn’t use the Malay word for God and non-Muslims are finding themselves increasingly subject to conservative Muslim restraints on behavior.

The problem is that pluralism, with its comforting notion of togetherness even without integration, is being replaced by identity politics, where lines of race and religion are clearly drawn and used as battle lines to secure and protect political power. This in turn is generating tension, and at times violence.

The implications of this unravelling of pluralism for stability in Southeast Asia are grave. The probability of violent ethnic and religious conflict along communal fault lines increases; the opportunities for radicals to sow religiously inspired hatred and spread violent extremism proliferate.

Most of the nation states in Southeast Asia allow freedom of worship and recognise ethnic diversity to varying degrees.

Indonesia with its Muslim majority guarantees freedom of faith in the constitution, as does Malaysia. Both countries avoided embracing Islamic statehood to avoid alienating non-Muslims. Similarly, Thailand is a majority Buddhist nation, but provides legal and constitutional guarantees for freedom of religion.

Worryingly these legal and constitutional safeguards are being steadily eroded.

In Indonesia, the constitutional right to freedom of worship is countered in many places by bureaucratic injunctions on establishing places of worship. In Malaysia, there are concerted efforts to impose the criminal code under Islamic Sharia Law.

Bills recently passed by the Myanmar parliament will likely make it illegal for a Muslim to take more than one wife, for a Buddhist to convert to Islam and greatly curb interfaith marriage.

Ethnic diversity is officially embraced and celebrated in all the nation states of Southeast Asia, but the practical arrangements often involve degrees of inequality and prejudice.

Unity and diversity underpins the basis of the state in Indonesia, but it was only in the past two decades that ethnic Chinese won the right to officially use the Chinese language and form their own social and political associations.

Malaysia has long had ethnically defined political parties, but the Indian and Chinese minorities are not accorded the same economic privileges as the Muslim Malay majority. Thailand defines all of its citizens as Thais speaking Thai.

Some space is given to Muslim Malays and hill tribe minorities to speak their languages and follow their customs, but administrative and political autonomy is denied to the Malays of the Deep South, which is the key driver of a violent conflict that has killed more than 6,000 people in the past decade.

Vietnam and Laos have battled their highland minorities but of late reached accommodation with them and introduced more tolerant policies. Myanmar recognises 135 different ethnic groups, but does not recognise the Muslim Rohingya of Rakhine State who are stateless.

The opening of political space and broadening of popular sovereignty accompanying slow moving reform across the region has had a mixed impact on levels of tolerance and integration.

Democracy and decentralisation has tended to sharpen the boundaries of faith and identity rather than blur them. This is perhaps because political parties appeal to issues of race and religion to garner votes rather than presenting platforms based on inclusive social and economic development.

In the recent Myanmar election, for example, a radical Buddhist nationalist movement, Ma Ba Tha, promoted the military backed ruling party using anti-Muslim rhetoric.

When around 200,000 people took to the streets of Kuala Lumpur in mid 2015 to call for investigation of a government corruption scandal, the government said the protest movement, known as ‘Bersih’, wasn’t representative because most of the protestors were Indian and Chinese. A government-backed counter protest stirred up racial tension prompting the Chinese ambassador to visit Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown area and call for tolerance.

This erosion of pluralism doesn’t just risk the outbreak of violent conflict; it also obstructs the development of mature democratic societies where citizens have equal opportunities.

The disenfranchisement of around one million Rohingya in Myanmar stands out, but there are growing concerns about the future for ethnic Chinese and Indians in Malaysia, who find themselves increasingly marginalised and unable to contribute fully to their nation’s development. Many are simply leaving as a result. Intermarriage with Malays, though not illegal, involves obligatory conversion to Islam.

More alarming is the polarisation along religious lines.

Southeast Asia’s 600 million people are roughly equally divided between Theravada Buddhists and primarily Sunni Muslims. The mass movement of Muslim Rohingya out of Rakhine State – an estimated 70,000 have left in the past two years – could herald an alarming trend towards migration to escape the threat of sectarian violence. The recent attacks on Christian churches in Aceh Singkil displaced close to 10,000 people in a matter of weeks.

Segregation is common in areas affected by religious tension. A vicious religious conflict in Indonesia’s Maluku province, which ended in 2001, has left Christians and Muslims living apart. As a result fear and prejudice prevails. In the aftermath of the Aceh Singkil church burnings in October, it took some effort by community leaders in Maluku to halt a Christian backlash against Muslims.

Is there a way to stop this deterioration of the plural fabric of Southeast Asian societies? Is a sectarian, segregated future avoidable?

The original definition of pluralism is derived from the work of a British colonial official John Furnivall. He observed members of different ethnic communities artificially thrown together by the colonial economy ‘mixing but not combining’ in the market places of Rangoon and Jakarta.

“Each group holds by its own religion, its own culture and language, its own ideas and ways,” Furnivall wrote. “As individuals they meet, but only in the marketplace in buying and selling. There is a plural society, with different sections of the community living side by side, within the same political unit.”

The colonial powers used strict lines of racial division to control exploited populations, thus bequeathing the region disintegrated societies at the birth of modern nationhood. Modern Malaysia and Myanmar remain prisoners of this colonial legacy of pluralism, which helps explain some of the contemporary social pathology and how it is manipulated.

It remains all too easy for aspiring power holders to tug on these arcane social strictures to cement their grip on power.

The Malays in Malaysia are constantly being told by their leaders that they are threatened by non-Malay races, that they must seek protection from their government – just as the colonial rulers offered privilege and protection to the Malays to keep them from bonding with Chinese and Indian labourers and questioning the colonial order. This is very much old pluralism in a new guise.

But there is another, modern meaning of pluralism, that has more positive implications for social integration. This assumes that the democratic process creates a better understanding between different communities by empowering them at the ballot box thus ensuring their interests are heard and represented.

There is no doubt for example that the Muslim Moro of Mindanao in the southern Philippines have grown less restive and feel they have more dignity after being granted a form of autonomy that allows them to elect their own Governor, as in the Indonesian province of Aceh, where the former Free Aceh Movement now leads an autonomous elected government.

Perhaps the best way to preserve the peace and ensure prosperity in a region so defined by diversity is to promote the new definition of pluralism at the expense of the old. Togetherness and a common sense of national identity needs to replace notions of divide and rule as well as exploitation instilled by colonial systems of rule.

However, pluralistic politics needs the modern tools and institutions of democracy to prevent political parties and their leaders seeking refuge in the cloistered catacombs of identity. This means that political parties need inclusive programs; election campaigns need strict codes of conduct, and leaders need to represent all their people, not just some

As for the situation today: sadly if John Furnivall were alive, he would recognise many of the characteristics of pluralism as he first defined it in the 1930s.

[First Posted on New Mandala 18th December 2015]
http://asiapacific.anu.edu.au/newmandala/2015/12/18/pluralism-imperiled-in-southeast-asia/

Paradise Unspoilt

As an unseasonably hot sun set in Ubud last night there were mixed views about how badly the annual Writers & Readers Festival had been affected – or damaged – by the organiser’s decision to cancel scheduled events discussing ‘1965’; the generic term referring to the mass killings that year. Some decried the decision, taken, it was said, due to pressure from the police. Others questioned the motives for the cancellations. In the end, however, two things happened: there was plenty of discussion about the mass killings of 1965, and a great deal of healthy debate about the state of freedom in Indonesia.

 

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These were important and useful discussions, which were not just indulged in by a mainly elitist, white-outsider audience. Senior Indonesian journalist Endy Bayuni said in his opening keynote address that for the past seventeen years Indonesia had been free, but recent trends suggested this may no longer be true. Another influential Indonesian journalist, Andreas Harsono, warned of increasing pressure to forbid any public discussion about events of the past.

In Ubud, form triumphed over substance, as only the only sessions cancelled were those with ‘1965’ somewhere in their title. My own session on ‘the persistence on memory’ focused on recollections of the killings. In another session, Galuh Wandita, Indonesia’s foremost expert in transitional justice, made an urgent, moving plea, stressing the need for some kind of truth and reconciliation. No more sweeping things under the carpet, she said. ‘We can’t even sit on the carpet because it is so lumpy!’

Later, at an informal lunchtime talk given by Dutch author Saskia Wieringa about her novel, Crocodile Hole, victims of 1965 embraced a young woman who broke down and wept. Her grandfather had been a victim. Between sobs she spoke of the stigma of silence that has given her sleepless nights. ‘It is time to stop using fear as a tool to control our emotions,’ she said, as police and intelligence agents hovered on the edge of the venue, unsure what to do. They were further befuddled when approached by a prominent Indonesian lawyer, Todung Mulya Lubis, who asked them if it were illegal for people to read or discuss matters of interest – over lunch, in private. The confused-looking police simply gave up, and beat a retreat after photographing the scene.

Other discussions and events over the five day festival also lent urgency to the opening day’s warnings about censorship. Papuan journalist Aprilla Wayar bravely declared that the current Indonesian government is preparing to introduce even stricter controls for reporters in Papua. Galuh Wandita warned of the impunity that is ‘creeping back across the border’ in East Timor, where she says there are no programmes organized to help victims of violence.

Meanwhile, for East Timorese filmmaker Francisca Maia, her short film Decisions – about the torture of a young Timorese girl at the hands of Indonesian police during the occupation – brought home again the importance of recounting the tragedies of the past.

‘It’s a big setback, but not the end of the road,’ said Endy Bayuni of the censorship evident not just in Ubud but in other parts of Indonesia at this moment in time.

‘We have the tools to fight through legal action,’ insisted Harsono. ‘Don’t be fearful. Be brave.’

We heard brave words, too, from others who face persecution around the world: from Hyeonseo Lee, who fled the ‘ridiculous state’ of North Korea; from Anchee Minn who fled China under Mao after almost denouncing her own mother; and from Palestinian playwright Nathalie Handal who painfully described how even love is occupied in the occupied territories of Palestine where ‘everyday is a lifetime’.

None of us in Ubud this year were really intimidated by the cancellation of certain programmes. And what about those who boycotted or pulled out of the festival as a result of the decision? In my view, they lost their voice, and made it easier for the increasingly conservative Indonesian ruling establishment to play divide and rule.

I was left thinking about the words of a young Indonesian poet, Tia Setiadi: ‘Sometimes, to enjoy poetry you need to close your eyes, allowing the sounds of your soul to connect to the sounds outside you.’ We did that this year in Ubud: we closed our eyes to the actions of fearful, small-minded people who would use fear as a weapon. Om Shanti Shanti Shanti Om.

(First published on the site ‘Ubud Now and Then’ on 2 November 2015)

 

Indonesia’s Forgotten Genocide

Fear of the future explains failure to grapple with the past.

With each passing year, the memories of violent death dim the way that old photographs lose their colour.

It’s now been 50 long years since that night in Jakarta on 30 September when seven Indonesian army officers including six generals were slaughtered by rebel troops, unleashing an orgy of violence across much of Java and Bali where it still remains unclear if more or less than a million people died.

The victims were for the most part ordinary Indonesians from towns and villages across Java and Bali, killed cruelly and without mercy, usually cudgeled or strangled in the middle of the night, on the merest hint of communist sympathy.

Most would have joined some communist party organised activities – with a membership of at least three million, it was one of the largest political parties in the country and had the tacit backing of President Sukarno, the nation’s founder. Many of the victims were educated, as it was believed that intellectuals were prone to communism sympathies. You faced death merely if you wore spectacles.

For three long decades, the victims suffered in silence. Every year to mark the attempted coup on 30 September, President Soeharto’s New Order government showed a dramatic reconstruction of the events on that fateful night which portrayed the murdered generals as heroes, and the communist plotters as brutal killers, staying silent on the mass killings that followed.

There was hope for a reckoning of the past after 1998, when Indonesia threw off the authoritarian yoke and finally embraced the democratic system envisaged by the country’s founding fathers.

But liberal democracy has proven a weak tool for either justice or reconciliation in Indonesia. The media’s ability to chronicle Indonesia’s tragic past has not resulted in a collective commitment to establishing the truth or holding those responsible accountable.

Instead, the victims have been tortured further – promised some form of recognition in the form of a national apology, only to be told that the killings were justified by an aggressive conservative establishment that continues to stand by its anti-communist beliefs three decades after communism collapsed.

When he was President, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono endorsed a National Human Rights Commission report into the killings. The voluminous report recommended action to provide redress to the victims. Yudhoyono contemplated a national apology, but met with fierce resistance from within the ranks of the military and the Islamic establishment, whose members carried out many of the killings.

Perhaps this was a vain hope; Yudhoyono’s own father in law, Sarwo Edhie, was the Special Forces General ordered to initiate the crackdown on communists and their sympathisers. To make matters worse, before the end of his Presidential term, Yudhoyono mulled a proposal to make Sarwo Edhie a national hero.
There was renewed hope that Indonesian President Joko Widodo, popularly elected last year and with no links to the old conservative establishment, would finally address the issue. Contemplating an apology for human rights abuses was one of the many vague promises he made as he rode to power. But as the 50th anniversary approaches, his officials say the President has more pressing issues of social and economic development to attend to.

The army remains a strong pillar of the establishment and seems unwilling to make amends for its bloody past. Indeed, there is still anger in military circles about the alleged communist involvement in the deaths of the generals. “We are victims too,” one former military officer once told me.

Neither do the Islamic organisations implicated in carrying out the killings want their role highlighted by any move to apologise for the past. News of Joko Widodo’s decision not to issue an apology this year came after a meeting with Muhammadiya, the country’s second largest Muslim organisation.

Behind the excuses, the disappointment and the failure to address what the rest of the world considers a forgotten genocide, lies a profound fear of the future. “What did the Communists want?” asked a conservative figure at one meeting to discuss reconciliation during Yudhoyono’s administration. “They wanted land reform.” Then he asked: “Do we have land reform today?”

Fear of social change in a society still plagued by inequality perhaps explains why anti-communists protests still happen each time political leaders contemplate addressing the mass killings. The poverty rate may have halved in the last 15 years, but income distribution has become much more unequal; about 40 per cent of the country’s 250 million people still live on less than $2 per day

Threats to social cohesion could also be a factor preventing accountability. Javanese society in 1965 was composed of a more balanced mixture of Christian and Muslim communities; the communist party made gains in the Christian community, and anti-communist sentiment found root among Muslims.

It is no secret that much of the actual killing was carried out by Muslim youth gangs and militia, encouraged and armed by the army. Afterwards many Christians converted to Islam to escape suspicion and further harassment. The legacy of accelerated Islamicisation since then has weakened the traditional cultural mechanisms for maintaining harmony between faiths, and religious conflict is on the rise.

Opening up these old wounds, many Indonesians argue, will only highlight modern inequalities and reinforce social divisions that already frequently result in conflict. So why rock the boat?

The old photographs may fade and the images of death and immense suffering on such a massive scale all but physically disappear, but the collective social trauma lives on in the Indonesian psyche. It appears in the creative works of writers like Leila Chudori and Laksmi Pamuntjak who were born just before or after the killings. It has been vividly expressed by some of the actors themselves – both killers and their victims – in the films of Joshua Oppenheimer.

What photographs hide is how people feel; deep down many Indonesians feel ashamed about a period in their history they can’t erase. This dark spot on the past clouds their vision of the future.

First published in New Mandala, 29 September, 2015

 

 

Migrants Then and Now

The migrant crisis confronting Europe may well be seen by historians as one of those tipping points that alters the social fabric of the continent and its relationship with Africa and the Middle East, from where millions of people are trying to reach safety from war.  Yet as European government’s ring their hands over the conflicting need to safeguard security and show compassion, reflecting fears of Muslim hordes reaching the gates of Vienna just as they did in the 16th century, it’s worth remembering that the flow of people has at other times been in the other direction.

As the son of European immigrants whose antecedents populated the Levantine world in the Middle East, I am acutely conscious of the deep historical ties between the European and Arab world.  My great great grandfather Samuele Sornaga, a Jew from Italy, fled nationalist turmoil of the 1840s to find safety and eventually considerable wealth and prosperity in Egypt under its late Ottoman rulers. My great grandfather Yannis Vatikiotis left the island of Hydra in the mid-1860s to seek better prospects on the coast of Palestine.

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Giacomo Sornaga, son of Samuele, who prospered in Egypt

For Greeks, Italians, Maltese, and other peoples of the Eastern Mediterranean, the mid-19th century was a period of turmoil and uncertainty; by contrast, the Middle East was a land of opportunity and relative security. They flocked to the bustling Levantine capitals of Beirut, Alexandria, and Cairo, where they found jobs as artisans and functionaries for the modernising vassal states of the Ottoman Empire. In contrast to the obstacles to entry and citizenship that prevail in modern Europe, they obtained security under special laws that protected Europeans as French and British power took hold in the region.

They came, these Europeans, as refugees from war or migrants escaping economic depression and found not only wealth and security but also contributed a cultural and physical legacy, as seen in the language, art and architecture of contemporary Beirut, Alexandria and Cairo.  They were largely welcomed – not only because the local rulers desperately wanted to modernise and fend off European colonial depredation, but also because of a basic form of religious and ethnic tolerance that late Ottoman rule fostered.

How ironic and so sad that war and upheaval, which has pushed close to four million Syrians out of their country, is also destroying the last vestiges of that rich religious and cultural pluralism that characterised the Middle East when my parents grew up there.

Early one morning the other day I jogged through Mon Repos Park in central Geneva, in the heart of Europe, almost stumbling over small huddles of homeless Africans and Middle Easterners sleeping under trees. Watching them rub their weary eyes and stare blankly at the trimmed and tidy city that for them is like a huge insurmountable wall, I reflected on my family legacy.

When Europe was in turmoil, convulsed by nationalist struggle and revolution, Italian Jews and Greek Christian islanders found shelter amongst the mainly Muslim forbears of these migrants.  Like the mostly educated, middle class people trudging towards Austria and Germany today clutching smartphones and their branded apparel, many of the Europeans who left on steamers to the Middle East were educated, petit bourgeois traders and artisans.

Like the Syrians and Iraqis who aspire to be computer scientists and technology entrepreneurs in Germany, my Italian and Greek forbears harnessed their skills to the growth and development of their new homeland in the desert. My Greek grandfather Jerasimous Vatikiotis helped run the Hejaz railway; an Italian great uncle helped run the Post Office in Cairo.

Now, a century or more later, the Syrians and Iraqis have come in search of shelter. I bristle at the notion that we must somehow keep them out. How dare some European leaders speak of a ‘Muslim threat’ to a Christian culture. Doesn’t the threat, as such, stem from the current deep divide between the different religions of the book? Couldn’t we somehow help bridge that divide by integrating refugees from the great cities of Aleppo and Damascus into our own cosmopolitan centres?

It is heartening to see the warm welcome ordinary citizens have given to the refugees as they pour across the borders of Austria and Germany, proving that people are so much better than their governments, though I worry how long that welcome will last.

Both the Europe and the Middle East of today would seem alien to my Levantine ancestors.  They would feel threatened by the violence and destruction generated by criminally enforced Islamic orthodoxy; but just as offended by the kind of rhetoric we have heard these past few weeks in Europe about a Muslim threat to Christian culture. One of my Greek forbears in Palestine helped defend the Holy sites for the Greek Orthodox Church. A great uncle rebuilt a Byzantine era Christian monastery on the road from Bethlehem to Jerusalem. The Khedives of Egypt liked to gamble, along with my Italian relatives.

Sadly, theirs is a lost era of tolerance and coexistence, and the reality today is the jackhammer in the hands of some nameless masked IS militant, who could for all we know be a European, chiseling off the ancient stone splendour of Palmyra. He will doubtless lose his life on some dusty desert road to a Hellfire missile, possibly fired by another European.