She said she was in favor immigration. Just not “this immigration,” meaning the current wave of immigrants arriving on Italy’s shores. Stating that EU immigration policy had “totally failed,” Souad Sbai blamed NATO’s Libyan campaign for creating the current refugee crisis, telling her host that Europe is better prepared to fight wars than deal with immigration. She called for a Marshall plan for North Africa, as proper recompense for its oil. Still, the Italian legislator argued, despite the fact that Europe bears some responsibility for this situation, it cannot take the Mideast’s problems on. The Arabs must sort them out.
The mix of Arab solidarity and Europe criticism sounds leftwing. But it isn’t. Pay careful attention to what she says, and how she qualifies herself. The more she criticizes Europe, the more she says it’s their problem. Confused? You have every right to be. The speaker is obviously of Arab background. Her criticisms of Europe make sense, especially if you’re of the opinion that Europe is to blame. Up to a point. Sit back and listen to her elaborate her positions, and eventually, you know where she stands.
Schengen was tearing itself apart, Sbai told the Euronews host. Illegal immigration was out of control, making the distinction between Italy and the Mideast irrelevant. “The big problem, mainly for Sicilians…and people on Lampedusa….the myth of Europe virtually doesn’t exist anymore,” she said. Citing European unemployment rates, Sbai expressed sympathy with rightist ambivalence about immigration, suggesting that Europe must get its own house in order before it could accept more newcomers.
Sitting in my apartment in London, watching television, I was impressed. If you were going to have someone represent the Italian government on an international news channel, the Moroccan-born journalist was a good choice. If you had the patience to follow her, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume she was presenting an objective assessment of Europe’s immigration crisis. It is only coincidental that Sbai’s views coincided with the position of the European right. Particularly that of her employer, Silvio Berlusconi’s People of Liberty (PDL) party, for whom she serves as a parliamentarian.
Sbai’s body language communicated intense discomfort. The balancing act she was trying to perform was obviously a difficult one. Unconvincing to her interlocutors, she must have recognized that they were being disdainful towards her. The program’s decidedly unsympathetic, French-speaking host wasn’t exactly friendly towards the Arab MP either. Consistently cutting Sbai short, he repeatedly signaled his preference for his liberal guests, who, as though on cue, came across as rational European men.
So conspicuously was Sbai disliked, you might have even been inclined to suspect she was being discriminated against. Whether it was due to her gender, as the only female in the mix, or her ethnicity, it would have been an easy conclusion to make. The problem was that there was no identifiable distinction between her marginality, in the liberal-left context of this program, and that which one might ascribe to her existence within a similarly conservative European one, as an Arab female. She was equally isolated, albeit for different reasons.
I don’t mean to imply that more should have been done to make Sbai feel welcome. The show’s other guests, though in disagreement with her, were all extremely polite and well-mannered in their dealings with the legislator. Nevertheless, it is important to emphasize Sbai’s alienation in order to point out one of the most significant consequences of her politics. Adopting rightwing positions, such as advocating limits on immigration, as an immigrant, can be just as isolating as being an ethnic minority in a xenophobic context.
While this will appear old hat to those familiar with the conservatism new immigrants frequently espouse, there’s still something troubling about the exceptions migrants are always expected to make. Thus, we might refer to the refugee crisis afflicting Europe, decried by Sbai, and her boss, Silvio Berlusconi. Why feel compelled to defend anti-immigration policies, at the expense of the lives of other migrants? What value is there to supporting state initiatives at odds with Sbai’s equality, as an ethnic minority?
If you were to ask what upset me the most about watching this program, it wasn’t so much Sbai’s politics. They were predictable, even though it was the first time I’d witnessed an Arab-European assume such reactionary positions on immigration. Rather, it was the fact that I identified with her disenfranchisement, as a foreigner, in Europe. The kind that would push her to want to defend the status quo, in a liberal context, as much as be alienated amongst liberals, who had her best interests at heart.
Photograph by Joel Schalit