Hazem Saghieh

Syrian Refugees and Demographic Ideology

As some Lebanese were busy publicly outbidding one another: There are two million Syrians in Lebanon, even three million, and in some popular talk, there are four... We saw the emergence of figures that aroused envy put forward by some Turks: There are ten million Syrians in Türkiye, Erdogan’s presidential rival Kilicdaroglu claimed. “Zaffar Party” chief Umit Ozdag raised the figure even higher: actually, there are 13 million.

The numbers ball has been shot so high that it is difficult to reach. The fact is that it is unclear whether the astronomical figures put forward by Turkish politicians will encourage their Lebanese counterparts to press forward, despite everything, with what they had started, or frustrate and alert them to the scurrilous nature of this game that exposes those who play it.
One certainty is that the language of figures is a coherent ideological system in itself and that its first modern emergence and expansive application came with the Industrial Revolution. As rural people arrived in the cities searching for work in industry, living in crowded slums, they ignited various fears among those astounded by the formidable shift that had penetrated their lives and that they failed to soundly interpret.

In 1798, the English economist and demographer Thomas Robert Malthus transformed his fear of this population into a theory: population increased geometrically (1-2-4) while the quantity of food increased arithmetically (1-2-3). Thus, humanity had to choose between a global famine and drastic measures to reduce population growth.

However, as the industrial revolution bore its fruits, ameliorating the living conditions of citizens and increasing life expectancy, food began to increase exponentially while the number of residents increased arithmetically. The Malthusian scenario went down in history as an error marred by bad intentions.

Less than a century later, “Social Darwinism” espoused hatred of population increases. This time, “science” was used instead of the economy. The laws developed by Charles Darwin to explain how animals and plants evolved over millions of years were applied to human evolution over a short and compressed time frame. The “survival of the fittest,” according to the British philosopher and scientist Herbert Spencer, meant that the weakest members of the population would pay the price of the “struggle for existence”, as life is nothing but this struggle. On a broader scale, “Social Darwinism” was used to justify social disparities, military expansion, and racism. The myth that would be called “eugenics” was founded on its ideas.
This same era also saw many writers and novelists running wild with claims about the threats presented by the spikes in population that raging and erratic nature had been bombarding us with.

The French writer Gustave Le Bon attributed destructiveness to “the crowd,” arguing that it was governed by emotions and lacked the capacity to think. In opposition to the tendency to organize within trade unions and political parties to defend the interests of the poorest and the weakest segments of society, which had been prevalent during the industrial era, Le Bon argued that crowd psychology numbed consciousness and replaced the mind with collective instincts.
While the major dictators of the twentieth century read and admired Le Bon in the 1930s, the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset, who was terrified of “the rule of the masses,” made his contribution. He contrasted the “life of the common people,” with the barbarism and primitiveness that comes with it, and the “noble life,” while social and cultural panic only began with the demographic explosion that followed the industrial revolution.

It is revealing the English writer and novelist H.G. Wells (1866-1946), who came to be known as the “Father of science fiction,” influenced a young Mustafa Kemal Ataturk more than anyone else. In Wells’ works, population growth ascends to the level of a fully-fledged calamity that overwhelms civilization and threatens a dictatorship of the masses. Wells’ most prominent work of science fiction may have been his writings that advocated social engineering to create another virtuous republic in which engineers and technicians are tasked with reducing population figures.

After the Industrial Revolution, demagogic politicians took it upon themselves to awaken wicked imaginations by adding zeros to the figures. Reinforced by the depth of the impact that this myth continues to have on us, comparisons of the masses with insects, pests, bacteria, and contagious illnesses became popular. These analogies were similar to Hitler and his partisans' depictions of Jews. They multiply, spread, and become octopuses, expanding and occupying space, gnawing at resources, gushing out like water, and hardening like stone - always and forever proliferating like mice. However, the mouse within them can easily coexist with snakes, foxes, and hyenas, as well as countless creatures that emerge from beneath the ground and descend from above before swooping down on us with fangs dripping blood.

This school of thought, which reduces human beings to figures, is also used for self-aggrandizement, turning this adulation into deprecation. The “million martyrs” slogan that arose in Algeria was fertile ground on which other sick ideas and images grew. The Lebanese will remember another example; in the 1980s, the leader of the Lebanese “Amal Movement,” Nabih Berri, claimed that Muslims had always been secretly waging a “reproductive war” against “Maronite hegemony.” For decades, Arab poets threatened the world with “the nation of seventy million strong,” with the figure later rising to ninety million. However, since the number of Arabs exceeded one hundred million, poetic performances and their resonance could no longer accommodate the figures.

Human life, in the end, is not a bureaucratic statistics office, nor is it a hospital that treats the feelings of failure felt by a politician here and a segment of the population or political group there. In all cases, reducing bodies and souls to figures, and perhaps corpses, cannot be ethical. Of course, it cannot be sound. However, it cannot be wrong either, as the matter goes beyond human right and wrong.

Today, these atrocities target Syrian communities more than they do any other group.