Growing up in 1980s Athens, there was an annoying, but popular Greek expression loved by aspiring urbane ladies of a certain age and social class that roughly translated as: “The wild have come to chase away the tamed.”
Alongside much tut-tutting and shaking of candy-floss hair, it would be brandished at the end of a good gossip to rhetorically expel their object of ire. Of course, no explanation was forthcoming about why the wild shouldn’t be chasing away the tame; my impression that this was the natural order of things was only reinforced by my historian parents’ cautionary tales of the collapse of foolishly overextended empires.
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But, perhaps, for a young, rapidly urbanising country like Greece, anxious to put Ottoman and Nazi occupations, refugee trauma, and domestic bickering behind it to take its place in the “pantheon of the tame” – also known as the European Economic Community (EEC) – such pearls of popular wisdom were necessary parts of the process of social formation.
Fast forward 25 years, and a host of emerging factors are rapidly brewing a perfect storm. A new type of mostly asymmetrical internal conflict is being generated in many countries at the intersection of economic crises, environmental deterioration, globalisation-enabled amplification, overpopulation, and mismatched resource distribution.
In places such as Egypt, Tunisia, and Syria, it has resulted first in the rolling back of the state, then the ending of a social pact by which allegiance was swapped for stability and social services, and eventually civil strife.
In turn, it has created a refugee emergency that will affect all of us as it ripples out of the Middle East and North Africa region, delivering the “wild” (or simply those more adapted to survival) into the heart of Europe.
So is it the turn of the domesticated citizens of a demographically mature, post-religious, secular continent to be chased away?
The age of frivolity
I grew up in the 1980s and ’90s in an age of self-absorbed frivolity backgrounded by pre-crisis Greece and an England posing as “Cool Britannia”, with near-capacity employment, generous salaries, and easy credit-fuelled conspicuous consumption and upward mobility, and without too much consideration of what it all meant. Britain was establishing itself as a global financial services centre, and Greece was borrowing on the markets like a crack addict.
We called ‘Third World’ economies ’emergent’, even as they were being hollowed out by neoliberal free trade policies.
Some will recall these as “the good times” when globalisation created a corridor from “developing” to “First World”, delivering cheap goods and below-cost services adjusted for economies of scale. We called “Third World” economies “emergent”, even as they were being hollowed out by neoliberal, free trade policies.
The decline did not take long in coming once the 2008 crisis betrayed how over-leveraged the global economic system was, and the narrative of permanent growth was refuted. Quantitative easing introduced fresh credit into the system and softened dislocating shocks, but the rot spread to the EU, which protected its currency by pretending that the emperor has clothes, or that the Greeks would fully repay their debt.
The refusal to make hard choices and reform an exploitative economic system meant that southern Europe died a silent, austerity-imposed death.
A generation of Greeks that did little with their expensive foreign educations during the good times were forced to toughen up, as the youngest and best-educated committed to becoming emigre workers and Greece lost a stunning four percent of its population.
But the millions more eviscerated figures emerging from ruined cities like Syria’s Homs, Iraq’s Fallujah, Yemen’s Saada and Libya’s Benghazi, or the semi-permanent refugee camp incubators of despair in Jordan, Turkey, and northern Iraq, will have far greater impact.
Only the youngest, fittest, and leanest have proven desperate enough to remain unfazed by distance, wild seas, and high walls in their quest to march north to a better life, which is why three in four of the arrivals are mature men.
They are both product and agent of a transformational force reshaping Europe and the world, and their role will jolt us – and northern Europeans, in particular – out of a decades-long indifference.
The conventional wisdom that our present can only mature into a better future is being challenged by Europe’s demographic decline, decreased religiosity and the incapacity to effectively respond to the economic crisis. This spreading entropy suggests that Europe’s thirst for life is waning.
The refugees arriving from Syria, in their majority – young, educated, and from moderate, urban backgrounds – will transpose the appetite for life of a young, but now-shattered country, to a greying continent and disprove US neoconservatives who held out “Eurabiasation” as a nightmare scenario in the 1990s.
While the majority of entrants into the EU have not been from Syria, it is Syrians who should be actively courted to settle in Europe, because, rather than being civilisationally remote, their lands have been a part of Europe’s cultural “near abroad” since cross-Mediterranean trade transformed sleepy Phoenician fishing villages into business hubs 3,500 years ago, and an oasis in the middle of the desert into the glorious city of Palmyra.
Despite long years of witnessing foreign extremists and a brutal army reduce their country to rubble, proof that Syrians have largely remained moderate lies in their low representation, relatively, in the ranks of the most extreme jihadi groups.
How ironic, then, that just as those Syrians hungry enough for a new life have put pressure on privileged Western societies, they are themselves an illustration of the meek fleeing before the savage.
Many of the arrivals to Europe are young men from government-held territories, who, in fleeing Syria to dodge the draft, are indirectly facilitating the expansion of a force that is, perhaps, the very definition of the wild of this world united to drive the tame away: ISIL.
Iason Athanasiadis is a photojournalist who covers the Middle East.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.