The Dalai Lama is widely considered to be a moral paradigm in the world. This is why so many were surprised by his recent statements on the Syrian refugee crisis.
In an interview with German reporters on May 31, 2016, the Dalai Lama claimed there are “too many” refugees seeking asylum in Europe, according to The Washington Post. The Post also reported that the Dalai Lama laughingly declared that Germany “cannot become an Arab country,” for the reason that “Germany is Germany.”
These musings unfortunately reflect an elementary understanding of identity politics in the West, not to mention the Syrian war.
In claiming that Germany “cannot become an Arab country,” and that refugees should only be admitted temporarily “from a moral point of view,” the Dalai Lama unwittingly feeds into two malevolent ideas. First, that there should be a limit to the tolerance we afford refugees, and second, that the refugees are a demographic threat—an idea that has absolutely no basis in reality.
Perhaps the most disappointing part of the interview, however, is that the Dalai Lama fails to mention the primary cause of the refugee crisis, namely Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. In choosing to focus, instead, on the consequences of accepting “too many” refugees, the Dalai Lama treats the refugees’ conditions—and the circumstances that led to them—as secondary to the overarching political concerns of European nations. This blithely ignores the fact that most refugees are only in Europe out of dire necessity, and wish to return to their homes as soon as possible.
Although the spotlight may currently be trained on this most famous of refugees (the Dalai Lama has lived in exile in India since the thwarted 1959 Tibetan Uprising against China), it is important to remember he is not alone in having recently made such statements. On May 28, 2016, for example, German parliamentarian, Sahra Wagenknecht, said that “not all refugees can come to Germany,” according to ABC News. Four days earlier, on May 24, the Austrian government announced that it would tighten restrictions on immigration and curb its asylum policy.
Given the Dalai Lama’s own experience as a refugee and statements about the need for more humanity in the world, it is ironic that his position on refugees is similar to that of figures like Wagenknecht.
But the Dalai Lama has his defenders. In a piece published by Bloomberg, Leonid Bershidsky, a columnist for the website, makes the case that the Dalai Lama’s statements, while arguably problematic, are actually well-intentioned. He argues that the Dalai Lama is, in fact, projecting his own experience as a refugee onto Syrians; his claim that refugees should, morally-speaking, only be granted temporary asylum is rooted in a belief that they have an obligation to rebuild their country.
Though Bershidsky is correct to highlight these points, good intentions do not necessarily mitigate incautious opinions. Of course, the Dalai Lama is just as susceptible to imprudent points of view as any other public figure. But, neither his title nor his intentions are shields against foolishness. To excuse the Dalai Lama as “inherently good” and “wise,” regardless of his words or actions, is a dangerous form of essentialism that should be rejected. Given his exalted status and influence, he deserves to be held to a higher standard.