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Turkey and Syria Teach us a Powerful Lesson about Privilege


The devastating earthquake that hit Syria and Turkey should be a moment we all deeply reflect on. In some places, disaster brings out the peak of human morality and virtue. In others, it initiates a ‘Hunger Games’-like desperation – there is no morality or virtue; all is fair game. 

Most of us learned of the earthquake while in the warm comfort of our homes. We have a sense of guaranteed safety that comes with living in this part of the world. As the death toll surpasses 46,000, more from the earthquake that followed the initial one, we in the West are largely disconnected from what that number truly means. We feel grief for the tragedy, but it is far removed from the majority of us in both experience and understanding. 

Living in the West has created a detachment from the devastations that we assume only belong in other parts of the world. Our only real connection to such events comes from donation campaigns that often have to appeal to our deepest emotions to persuade us to financially support victims. Whether it is a natural disaster, a food crisis, or malnourishment in other parts of the world, citizens of the West often have to be convinced to feel even the most basic of human emotions such as empathy.

Photo credit: the Orphan Heritage Foundation

This reality is best seen through campaigns that realize they must appeal to emotions to create a sense of relatability, especially by using the relationship between a mother and child. After all, every parent can feel the distress of a mother in Kenya, Syria, Yemen, or Turkey who just wants a healthy child with the opportunity to live in the safety and comfort of a home. The most unfortunate part of this, however, is that it takes so much convincing to make us feel emotional enough to relate. 

While human nature embraces care, sacrifice, and empathy in the face of disaster, some societies have managed to erase all traces of those qualities to make individual self gratification and personal comfort the highest priority. This explains why even minor inconveniences make us visibly frustrated and entitled. The irony of this privileged life in the West is that while it is meant to promote greater liberty and equality, it has simultaneously managed to make its citizens the most arrogant and selfish.

It is no wonder that in the face of disaster, the people in the West fall into complete disarray and chaos. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic was enough to show just how inhumane Westerners can be when it comes to dealing with disaster. As Americans emptied out food shelves and fought each other over toilet paper amidst panic shopping, the world watched a privileged population experience just a glimpse of what a real disaster could look like.

Photo Credit: BBC News
Photo Credit: The Washington Post

In the Western world, disaster signals a competition for the available resources needed to survive. Panic about the uncertainty of the situation drives people to stock up and hoard everything from food and water, to toilet paper and hand sanitizer – all at the expense of others who are also in need of the same resources. The individualism inherent to the Western world shows itself in its most bare form; the citizens who are promised security and safety by their government eventually realize that their promise falls short.

In “underprivileged” societies, less emphasis is placed on the empty slogans of unlimited liberty and freedom, but the peak of human dignity and moral virtue is on display for anyone to witness. It is precisely at these times of difficulty that the difference between worldviews and moral compasses reveal themselves. The obsession with the self that exists in the West does not exist to the same degree elsewhere. In other places, people view themselves as a collective and tend to find meaning in shared struggles and helping one another.

In these “uncivilized” societies, its people display the most civilized of human behavior and nobility. In times of desperation, those who have the least to offer are often found giving the most – even at the expense of their own comfort. Their neighbor’s problem is also their own; they are affected by the difficulties of others. When trouble afflicts them, there is less complaining and more gratitude. There is patience and grace to be seen in their tears of loss. As every life is saved, praises to God are echoed amidst the sheer destruction. 

It is the greatest of ironies that the privileged nations that consider themselves the most civilized of people tend to degrade to the lowest points of human dignity when faced with calamity, whether it be a natural disaster, a global pandemic, a financial crisis, or any threat to human life. 

It is these instances of disaster and devastation that teach us that we have much to learn from nations that we have often called ‘uncivilized’. 

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  • Sarah Katib

    Sarah Katib is a multi-platform journalist who specializes in writing and research on international affairs, contemporary social issues, and Muslim identity in the West.

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