Jerome Melancon: Hospitality after the Paris Attacks: A #porteouverte for Canada

With shooters and suicide bombers in their midst, Parisians living in the 10th and 11th arrondissements opened their doors to anyone experiencing the same threat. On Twitter, they used the hashtag #porteouverte (#opendoor) to indicate they were willing to be reached by direct message to share their address and welcome strangers in their homes. They expressed and acted upon their solidarity by overcoming the fear that usually divides neighbours and leads to locked doors and closed borders.

At the same moment, as Canadians were learning about the attacks, calls for the government to repeal its plan to welcome Syrian refugees appeared on social media. That the same reaction took place elsewhere (notably in the United States where, since the attacks, Governors have indicated they would refuse Syrian refugees) does not explain or excuse the Canadian reaction any more than fear or shock did. Two weeks after the attacks, just over half of Canadians opposed the plan to welcome the Syrian refugees by the end of 2015. Half of the respondents to the same survey indicated that their opposition was due to the timeline being too tight, but also because no Syrian refugees should be taken in (29%), because 25,000 refugees is too much (10%) or too expensive (8%).

In other words, the movement of solidarity Canadians deployed toward Parisians was accompanied by a movement of exclusion they deployed against Syrians and other groups (which were named Muslims, refugees, or immigrants). The solidarity that emerged from a sense of association and shared threat helped create a sense of community, allowing Canadians to see what they shared with Parisians on the basis of their emotional reaction to the attacks. However, this solidification of a sentiment into acts of community-building, be they limited to semi-public statements expressed on social media a few days following attacks, demanded that limits be drawn to this new community.

The limits to solidarity

After all, similar attacks take place on a regular basis elsewhere in the world, and similar forms of violence are the daily lot of the inhabitants of zones where war and civil war constantly threaten their lives. The urge to turn away when we are not concerned by violence so that we may maintain emotional balance is understandable, as is the need for Canadians to limit their solidarity to those groups with whom they already associate or to the victims of phenomena that may also affect them so that they may preserve their energies and effort. (A sociologist, Gérôme Truc, makes a similar point about the boundlessness of responsibility and the temptation to limit its scope. See Truc, Gérôme. 2008. Assumer l’humanité. Hannah Arendt: La responsabilité face à la pluralité, Brussels: Presses de l’Université de Bruxelles; see also Sidérations. Une sociologie des attentats, forthcoming in January 2016, Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.) The Minister of Foreign Affairs, Stéphane Dion, pointed out the day after the attacks that Syrian refugees are fleeing the same kind of violence and indeed a much higher degree and frequency of violence than the one-time attacks in Paris. Appealing to our solidarity, he was attempting to overcome the fear that similar attacks might take place in Canada.

However, the fear that is central to the association of Syrian refugees with the members of ISIS – which many of them are fleeing – has its own problematic bases. Sherene Razack explains the process through which men are racialized as Arabic, and confused with Muslims, to “dangerous Muslim men,” a process she names Muslimification (See Razack, Sherene H. 2008. Casting Out: The Eviction of Muslims from Western Law and Politics. Toronto: University of Toronto Press). To this treatment we can add the complementary process of designation of Arabic men as dangerous through the debates on the veil. The same electoral campaign that led to promises to welcome Syrian refugees was centred on the question of whether women ought to be allowed to cover their face while taking the citizenship oath or while voting (in the latter case, in spite of the possibility to vote by mail). The justification for disallowing the veil in this case (or in any case, as the debate on the Québec Charter of Values displayed) rests on the assumption that women would only wear veils if they are forced to do so by the men in their lives, and so on the underlying assumption that Muslim men are violent oppressors. As a result, some women wear the niqab, for instance, in spite of opposition from the men in their lives. As a result of these processes of exclusion, the Liberal government announced its plan to welcome refugees by March 1 rather than January 1, 2016, it reassured the population that single men would not be accepted to Canada.

Such processes also have an effect on racialized Canadians, whether they immigrated to Canada or were born in Canada (and so never asked to be Canadians), who find themselves associated with terrorists and find out that the majority of Canadians do not believe they will ever be fully Canadian. Coupled with the spotlight on Paris and the absence of reaction to the attacks in Lebanon and Egypt before, and Mali since, such solidarity takes on its opposite meaning for those who are outside of its reach. The exclusion of Syrian refugees thus extends to Canadians.

To reject the refugees would be to punish them for what has been done to them and for what has been done to Canadians – in fact, for what has been done to others with whom they choose to associate themselves. It would also contribute to alienate Syrians, Syrian Canadians, and other groups baselessly thought to be with terrorism who already in Canada.

Solidarity and privilege

The solidification of a community on the basis of solidarity then also depends on the exclusion of those toward whom there is no solidarity. There is a very small step from the exclusion from the community of those who threaten it to the exclusion of those who are thought to be associated with them or might potentially threaten it. In this case, then, we may ask what is being protected by the exclusion of Syrian refugees – when the cost of welcoming these refugees amounts to $1.2 billion over many years, a cost comparable to that of running refugee camps around Syria, which may cost USD 2 million a year for one camp, or USD 362.5 million for 2015 for all of UNHCR’s operations – without offering an end to the status of refugee or guest of those who live imprisoned within the camps.

What is being asked of Canadians – by their government, by the European Union and the United Nations – is not to open their homes or maintain entirely open doors or borders, but rather to meet their responsibilities toward refugees. Of course, the government may have a responsibility to Canadians. However, the need for the Liberal Party to uphold an electoral promise and the corresponding mandate given to it by the population suggest that the Party might have been elected on its basis, whereas a poll showed that in early September of 2015, only 19% of the population favoured the Liberal plan for Syrian refugees over those of the other parties, compared to 24% in favour of the Conservatives’ plan. Such figures are not sufficient to claim a strong need to uphold a promise.

Instead, responsibility may derive from the consequences of the actions of Canadians. The attacks in Paris, Bamako, Beirut, and on a plane leaving from Egypt ought to remind us that Canada is part of a war against ISIS and other terrorist organizations, and that it has taken part in creating the civil war that has led to the displacement of so many Syrians. Solidarity has been accompanied by outrage that France was attacked, and that Canada might thus also be targeted. In expressing such emotions together, in failing to recognize the situation for what it is, and in refusing refugees on these bases, Canada presents itself as a state who will not listen to others who are affected by its actions, who will consider others guilty and never give them the chance to prove themselves to be innocent (as Said once argued about the United States:  Said, Edward. 2008. Culture and Resistance: Conversations with Edward Said. Brooklyn: South End Press).

The demonstration of solidarity for Parisians could thus be extended to Syrians, just as they are being associated with ISIS. To demonstrate solidarity is a political action, a choice that can be made, just as Canadians make the choice to associate with France, just as some Canadians make the choice to exclude racialized Canadians and Syrians from those with whom they form a community.

Opening doors on the basis of hospitality

While solidarity does open our doors, it might only open them on the bases of pre-formed communities and pre-existing sentiments of association and belonging. In hospitality we have a value that turns our attention not to those for whom we feel (or come to feel, based on further reflection) solidarity and demonstrate it, but rather to our home, to its reasons for being, and to the space that remains free for others within it. Responsibility is then established not on the basis of what we have done, but of what we can do.

Hospitality demands nothing in return for what is given or received, as it is not based on property or appropriation of what belongs to the other (Derrida, Jacques. 2000. Of Hospitality. Stanford: Stanford University Press). Instead, it disregards belongings and belonging and does not require equality or equivalence. Like friendship, which makes us seek out others and care for them, hospitality emerges from a perception of the others as more worthy of respect and care than we are.

The logic of hospitality, which is both rational and emotional, begins with the premise of an ability to demonstrate respect and care for others. It is a reaction to the presence of persons whose situation (and not their actions) makes them both vulnerable to factors beyond their control (like a traveler – a family member or a stranger – who needs shelter) and venerable as they have endured moral hardships. The logic of hospitality concludes that we must respect and care for those who exhibit these two intertwined parts of humanity, while respecting their autonomy, letting them make their own choices and expecting nothing in return.

For Canadians to open their doors to refugees in general is an act of hospitality, a recognition of the hardships that displaced them and led them to seek asylum or to seek shelter in camps, of the dehumanizing effect of these conditions. If they are to accept Syrian refugees specifically, regardless of their gender or condition, it cannot be because of pictures of dead children and refugees, but rather as a way to assume their responsibility for their actions, both in terms of the war that is being waged abroad and of their treatment of Canadians whom they already racialize and exclude.

Dr. Jérôme Melançon is a Sessional Lecturer in Political Studies and Philosophy at the University of Alberta Augustana Campus. For further information about his research go to this website.