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The Blaming ‘ancient hatreds’ for Srebrenica ignores politics

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There’s something about Srebrenica. Much like when I visited Auschwitz in the 1990s, there is a sense of something profoundly awful having happened there, which stains the very air you breath.

Twenty years have passed since around eight thousand men and boys were systematically killed, dumped in mass graves and then subsequently dug up to be reburied in secondary and even tertiary grave sites, in an effort to the cover up the crimes. To this day, bodies are still being discovered and in many cases, families are left to bury only a few bones, the last remaining evidence of a life lost.

In February, I travelled with the BBC to the site of the killings to make a documentary, A Deadly Warning: Srebrenica Revisited, about what impact learning about the events might have on a group of young people, born in the same year as the genocide.

The young people were part of a delegation organised by the group Remembering Srebrenica, a British organisation that takes people to learn about the tragedy.

We followed the group as they learnt about the siege of Sarajevo, the genocide at Srebrenica, the painstaking work of the International Commission on Missing Persons in trying to identify remains. And although the delegations do not usually meet Serb officials, the group accompanied me to speak with Milos Milovanovic, the Bosnian Serb Chair of the Municipal Assembly in the town of Srebrenica itself, who refuses to use the term “genocide”.

Although Serbia has condemned the events as a “horrible crime”, it and many Bosnian Serbs refuse to accept the verdicts of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and the International Court of Justice, both of which have called the events a genocide. In the context of Bosnia, the genocide was part of a broader process of ethnic cleansing, one aspect of a project of Bosnian Serbian extreme nationalism which sought to create an ethnically and religiously homogenous “Greater Serbia” in lieu of a diverse, integrated society.

Before I travelled to Bosnia-Herzegovina, my knowledge of what had happened at Srebrenica was limited to what I’d acquired within the Muslim community in the UK. The genocide at Srebrenica isn’t taught in British schools, something the young people featured in the BBC documentary felt was a serious omission. I began researching the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia and was particularly interested in better understanding how closely the narrative I’d acquired about Bosnia tallied with the facts.

There was – and to some extent there still is – a sense among British Muslims that Bosnia was “our” genocide, unrecognised, and moreover a symptom of a tacit anti-Muslim prejudice, which spilt over into politics, locally and internationally.

As with most narratives, there are undeniable elements of truth, but I also came to feel deeply uncomfortable with the “religification” and appropriation of the events.

Among the core arguments in the narrative is the view that Bosnian Muslims were left to slaughter because “Muslim blood is cheap”. Certainly, the evidence now suggests that western powers were much more aware than previously thought of events on the ground.

In a recent op-ed, former Bosnian foreign minister and ambassador to the UN Muhamed Sacirbey decried that “nowhere in official sanitised accounts has Washington, London or Paris acknowledged its role in leaving Srebrenica naked”, a reference to Nato’s failure to provide air support to Dutch peace keepers despite repeated requests and despite new evidence that American spy planes had images of the killings underway.

Mr Sacirbey also hints at what has become apparent since, that anti-Muslim stereotypes did play their part, with then-French president Francois Mitterrand objecting to a “Muslim-led unified Bosnia” and former US President Bill Clinton acknowledging in his memoir that “some European leaders were not eager to have a Muslim state in the heart of the Balkans”. Did such prejudice contribute to political considerations? It was certainly there.

According to a report in The Guardian, “British, American and French governments accepted – and sometimes argued – that Srebrenica and two other UN-protected safe areas were ‘untenable’ long before the Serb commander Ratko Mladic took the town”. They agreed to sacrifice Srebrenica to leave a political map amenable to the Serb leader Slobodan Miloševic.

Numerous books now indicate a strange affinity among some western leaders with the Serb leadership. But even with this, it is difficult to claim anti-Muslim prejudice specifically drove those decisions, rather than cold, political calculations over whom western powers felt could best manage the disintegrating region.

Part of the sense of injustice felt in connection to Srebrenica for many Muslims lies in the power equation involved.

Far from a “civil war”, as the broader conflict was often depicted, Srebrenica was an assault by a modern, strongly armed Bosnian Serb army against a UN safe zone in which male fighters had been convinced to give up their weapons.

The defenceless nature of the civilians who’d placed their trust in international institutions, only to be handed over to be executed, has cemented a sense that international organisations have long served only the interests of western powers and often failed – as in Rwanda – to protect those whose lives are deemed less worthy.

But to view these events outside of their broader context plays into a depiction of the conflict in the Balkans as the product of ancient hatreds, a view that former aide to Mr Clinton, Richard Holbrook, bemoans as a strategic failure that cemented a sense that the ethnic strife was too ancient and ingrained to be prevented by outsiders.

This perception of the broader conflict as pitting Serbs against Bosnian Muslims ignored the reality that, as Brendan Simms points out in his book Unfinest Hour, the Bosnian government forces, in some theatres “included substantial Catholic Croat and Orthodox Serb contingents” despite being routinely described in the media as “the Muslims”.

This vision was itself internalised by many Muslims, who saw in the conflict an assault on Islam itself, rather than a supremacist Serb nationalism that sought to divide integrated communities along lines that had until then been perceived as broadly indiscernible.

The Muslim identity was one of those lines and the long term consequence of identifying Bosnian Muslims as Muslims first and foremost has been a renewed sense of themselves in religious terms.

To paint the genocide at Srebrenica as the product of pure anti-Muslim hate reduces the events to the inevitable outpouring of age-old hatreds, rather than acknowledging root causes and political failures. The Bosnian people’s suffering shouldn’t be appropriated. Ultimately, it remains a disservice to the victims not to truly seek to understand what led to this tragedy.

Myriam Francois is a journalist and broadcaster. She presented the BBC1 documentary A Deadly Warning: Srebrenica Revisited

You can read the original piece on The National website here


Written by Myriam Francois

July 18, 2015 at 14:26

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Demonstrating for dignity: why are Muslims SO enraged?

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A version of this article was published on the Index on Censorship website, you can read it here or on my Huffington Post blog, here

Muslims eh, they just cant seem to take a joke can they? It would be very easy to cast, as many ‎commentators have, the latest riots in response to the islamophobic film, as another example of ‎intolerant Muslims lacking a funny bone. The Rushdie affair, the Danish cartoons, the murder of ‎Van Gogh – surely the latest saga fits neatly into a pattern of evidence suggesting Muslims are over ‎sensitive and violent. After all, critics will argue, Christians are regularly derided through the arts ‎and media and they don’t go around burning embassies and killing people. Only the situation is ‎hardly analogous. The power relations in which a dominant majority can be perceived as insulting ‎and humiliating a disgruntled and feeble minority, cannot be ignored in the analysis of Muslim ‎responses to offensive art works. But the truth is, the protests across the Arab world are about ‎much more than the usual ‘free speech’ Vs ‘Islam’ blah. In fact, at the ‎heart of the unrest is a powerful current of anti-Americanism rooted in imperialist policies and ‎bolstered dictatorships and the expected instability to be found in post-revolutionary states.

Firstly, although the film may have been the catalyst for the riots, it would be wrong to assume ‎that all the riots have exactly the same cause. The murder of American embassy staff in Libya ‎appears to have been the work of an Al Qaida fringe which had been plotting the revenge of one ‎its senior leaders and used the protest against the film as a smokescreen for its attack. What ‎brought regular Libyans to the embassy was undoubtedly initially, opposition to the film. However ‎there and elsewhere, the anger of the masses has appeared to morph into something much ‎broader – a reflection of anti-American sentiment grounded in the USA’s historically fraught ‎relationship to the region.‎
This is hardly the first demonstration of anger against Western targets in any of the countries at ‎hand, it is only possibly amongst the most mediatised because of the spin placed on the story, ‎represented as it has been, as some sort of reflection of the fundamental intolerance of Islam.‎

For those with a short memory, it was only last month that a pipe bomb exploded outside the US ‎embassy in Libya and both the Red cross and other Western aid organisations have come under ‎fire there in recent months. It is certainly a misnomer to think that NATO intervention in support of ‎the rebels against Gadhafi somehow erased deep-seated grievances against the US, not least the ‎sense of humiliation of the Arab world against decades of Western domination. Sure, we may have ‎helped get rid of Gadhafi when it was expedient, but for a long time, we traded quite happily with ‎the man whilst he brutally repressed his people. In some cases, we even helped him do it. A ‎recent Human Rights Watch report, Delivered into Enemy Hands: US-Led Abuse and Rendition of ‎Opponents to Gaddafi’s Libya , details the stories of Libyan opposition figures tortured in US-run ‎prisons in Afghanistan and elsewhere, and then delivered back to Libya, with full-awareness that ‎they were going to be tortured or possibly killed. Even in the “new Libya”, not all sections of the ‎Revolution feel the outcome of the elections was truly representative of popular feeling. Not to ‎mention Egypt, where Mubarak, whom Hilary Clinton once described as a “close family friend”, ‎tortured and killed innumerable dissidents in a US backed dictatorship. To think the elections which ‎happened just months ago would transform popular opinion concerning the US’s role in the region ‎is ludicrous. And that’s before we even get to Iraq.‎

Broken by poverty, threatened by drones, caught in the war between al Aaida and the US, to many ‎Arab Muslims, the film represents an attack on the last shelter of dignity – sacred beliefs – when all ‎else has been desecrated. ‎

It is no surprise that some of the worst scenes of violence come from Yemen, where US policy has ‎resulted in the deaths of dozens of civilians, fuelling anger against a regime whose brutality and ‎corruption has left the country ranking amongst the poorest in the Arab world. Given that it is also ‎one of the countries where people have the least access to computers and the internet, it is also ‎entirely likely that many protestors never even saw the film. It also seems unlikely anyone ‎believed the film was actually produced by the American government. Though many might have ‎believed the US government could act to restrict the film’s diffusion, censorship being altogether ‎common in many of these countries, the focus on American symbols – embassies, American ‎schools – even KFC – suggests the roots of popular anger is not hurt religious pride. These ‎symbols of America were not the unwitting target of frustration over a film – rather the film has ‎provided an unwitting focal point for massive and widespread anger at US foreign policy in the ‎region. If the Arab revolutions let the dictators know exactly how people felt about their ‎repression, these demonstrations should be read as equally indicative of popular anguish with the ‎US’s role in the region.‎

The film is merely the straw that broke the camel’s back – to stand in consternation at the fact a ‎single straw could cripple such a sturdy beast is to be naïve or wilfully blind to the accumulated ‎bales which made the straw so hard to carry. ‎
This is not an attempt to minimise the offense caused by the film – Mohamed is a man whose ‎status in the eyes of many Muslims, cannot be overstated. When your country has been bombed, ‎you’ve lost friends and family, possibly your livelihood and home, dignity is pretty much all you ‎have left.‎

The producers of the film may have known very little about film-making, but they knew lots about ‎how to cause a stir. Despite its obscure origins, mediatised references to an “Israeli” director living ‎in the US, to a “100 Jewish donors” who allegedly provided “5 million dollars”, to a hazy “Coptic ‎network” – all played into a well-known register. When 2 out of five Arabs live in poverty, a 5 million ‎dollar insult has more than a slight sting to it.‎

Those who sought to bring winter to an Arab spring and possibly destabilise a US election, were ‎keenly aware of the impact those words would have, situating the film within on-going tensions ‎between Israel and the Arab world and stirring up the hornet’s nest of minority relations in a ‎region where they remain unsettled.‎

In a tweet, the Atheist academic Richard Dawkins decried the events by lambasting “these ‎ridiculous hysterical Muslims”. In so doing, he, like others, not only failed to read these events for ‎what they are – predominantly political protests against US meddling, but he also failed to ‎recognise the basic humanity of the protestors. To dismiss deep anger as mere hysteria is to ‎diminish to decades of oppression experienced by many Muslims, particularly in the Arab world, ‎often with US complicity.‎
If you deny any relationship between the systematic discrimination of Muslims and stigmatization ‎of Islam and the overreaction of the Muslim community to offensive jokes, or films, or cartoons, ‎then you are only left with essentialist explanations of Muslim hysteria and violence. These ‎protests aren’t about a film – they’re about the totality of ways in which Muslims have felt ‎humiliated over decades.‎ Humiliation doesn’t justify violence, but it certainly helps explain it.

Reporting on the “incident” as somehow indicative of Islam’s essential incompatibility with the ‎West not only conveniently omits the realities of Muslim oppression globally, but also reinforces ‎them in many ways. Before we start searching for the nebulous network behind the film, or the ‎reasons why “Muslims are so prone to getting offended”, we would do better to actually search ‎for the conditions that have contributed to rendering the mass dehumanization of particular group ‎of people socially unobjectionable and do well to remember that the right to protest, angrily even, ‎is just as central to the concept of free speech, as the right to make offensive movies.‎

Update: this piece was written in the very early days of the protests and consequently, I would want to nuance some of the points I’ve made here in light of more recent developments.
Firstly, popular anger in many countries might well have as much to do with the instability of a post-revolutionary context as it does with anti-US feelings. In Tunisia, in Libya, these protests might also be seen as occasions to vent anguish at more localised concerns.
Secondly, the protests were clearly instrumentalised very quickly by ‘islamist’ groups to bolster popularity by waiving the ever unifying banner of anti-US feeling. This suggest they took on a local, political dimension very rapdily.
Thirdly, in some countries, such as Libya, local people even took to the streets in following days to oppose extremist elements and express solidarity with the murdered embassy staff. This doesnt discount mistrust or anger with previous US policies in the region but it certainly suggests a more complex relationship wit the US following the NATO support to rebels.
Fourthly, only a very very small proportion of people protested and an even smaller number engaged in violence. In many stable countries, such as Malaysia or Turkey, protests remained peaceful. Those countries which saw the most violence were often the most unstable and local factors – disaffection, unemployement, anger at government, poverty – are all essential components having contributed to people’s behaviour during the protests.

Myriam Francois Cerrah – France shootings, BBC World, News, March 2012

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An interview I did on BBC World about the Toulouse and Montauban shootings in March 2012

Written by Myriam Francois

March 20, 2012 at 16:32

Europe: Tucking Away the Real Deal

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Current tumult over bans and restrictions on religious symbols are largely a smokescreen for the real issues which plague our society and the rest of Europe. As the economy shows little sign of recovery, the rise of the far-right in Europe poses a fundamental challenge to longstanding European values. Standing against a ban on religious symbols is the current frontline for combating a corrosive and exclusionary ideology which is chipping away at the ideals of a free and fair society. People of religion may be on the frontline, but it is the fundamental and guiding principles of our nations which are truly at stake.

Undeniably, Europe has in recent years become a progressively worse place to be a person of faith. According to a recent Pew Poll (2010), Europe had the largest proportion of countries in which social hostilities related to religion were on the rise from mid-2006 to mid-2009. In an earlier poll, the Pew Survey of Global Attitudes found that hostile attitudes to Jews were rising all across continental Europe and that suspicion of Muslims in Europe was considerably higher than hostility to Jews, though the increase in anti-Semitism had taken place much more rapidly. Whilst Americans and Britons displayed the lowest levels of anti-Semitism, one in four in both countries were hostile to Muslims

This increased hostility aimed at religious communities is largely linked to the rise of divisive, xenophobic and racist ideas and groups across Europe, whose growth has been fuelled by the economic depression. It is an all too familiar and recent pattern in European history, that when the chips are down, the usual suspects – public services and migrants, become prime targets for hate and government policies (sometimes indistinguishable). After the economic devastation of WWI, German cartoons of the time depicted people with wheelbarrows full of money who could not buy a loaf of bread. It was in this climate, that Hitler’s vitriolic discourse found an eager audience as he blamed Jews for the country’s woes. And the pattern is not limited to Europe. In America, illegal immigrants from Mexico are often used as scapegoats during periods of economic hardships.

The real issue, namely addressing a dysfunctional economy, dominated by a financial sector driven by speculation rather than productive investment, is not so easily or willingly addressed. Nor is the growing gap between rich and poor, our spiralling living costs, or the deterioration of our public services.

Life has become increasingly hard for Britons and is set to get much harder as inflation is predicted to hit a three year high. FareShare, a food supply organisation for the vulnerable and needy, have seen a drastic increase in the number of people unable to feed themselves at a most basic level. After bailing out the banks, nine out of ten Brits are now poorer than this time last year, NHS waiting time is up drastically and the cost of living has gone through the roof. Meanwhile our politicians have proposed a bill which will end the NHS as a comprehensive service equally available to all, while spending £750million on nuclear weapons. People are understandably angry and in such times of desperation, populist discourse finds an avid audience.

The economic squeeze has led many to support nationalist parties who promise to favour the ‘native’ population and largely expel immigrants (or those who look like immigrants) to relieve the economic strain. In 2010 Sweden became the third EU member state to find itself without a governing majority after elections marked by the rise of far-right and anti-immigration parties. The Netherlands and Belgium are in the same position. Far-right parties are currently in government in Italy and also sit in the parliaments of Austria, Bulgaria, Denmark, Hungary, Latvia and Slovakia, as well as in the European Parliament.

In Hungary, the far-right Jobbik party – whose name means “movement for a better Hungary” – has its own uniformed street militia, the Hungarian Guard, who target the country’s Roma population. Critics say the militia bears a disturbing resemblance to the Arrow Cross, Hungary’s Second World War fascist militiamen, who collaborated with the Nazis in killing tens of thousands of Hungary’s other prominent minority, the Jews. In a speech which could be attributed to a number of mainstream European parties today, the Jobbik party spoke about stopping Roma, the country’s biggest ethnic minority, from ‘sponging off the state’ – forcing anyone claiming benefits to perform public service in return and promising to “give back Hungary’s national pride and identity”. The party achieved 17 per cent of the vote in general elections.

Even in traditionally liberal countries, the far-right have made significant gains. In Sweden, the stridently anti-immigration platform of the Sweden Democrats secured the party 5.7 per cent of the vote and 20 parliamentary seats in the 2010 general election, enough to deny the governing centre-right coalition a majority.

In the Netherlands, the far-right Freedom Party came third in June elections after its poster boy, Geert Wilders described Islam as a “fascist ideology”, comparing the Quran to Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf.

Here in the UK, UKIP has sought to unite conservatives and fascists on areas of apparently overlapping concern by proposing a burka ban. Not to be outdone, Conservative MP Philip Hollobone proposed such a bill in parliament this summer. And in 2008, two British National Party MEPs were elected, followed in 2009 by the creation of the English Defence League, which according to Dr Matthew Feldman, who runs the UK’s only research unit on new media and domestic extremism, has links to the Aryan Strike Force (ASF).

But the most worrying developments have to be in former fascist states. In France, the National Front, performed strongly in March’s regional elections with 15% of the vote, with its talk of expulsing illegal Roma immigrants and comparing the presence of French Arabs to the Nazi invasion. Two polls published in March this year suggest that Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front, would beat Nicolas Sarkozy in the first round of a presidential election.

In Vienna, the Mayor’s Freedom party almost doubled its vote in recent elections, running strongly on banning minarets (as in neighbouring Switzerland), despite there being only one minaret in the Austrian capital, and advocating the ban of Islamic headgear, as was pledged in the Netherlands, in its efforts to “to keep the city’s blood Viennese”.

It is hardly surprising, therefore, to note that the Austrian government recorded a 28% increase in xenophobic, far-right, racist, islamophobic and anti-semitic crimes since last year.

In Germany, referring to its Turkish population, which lest we remind ourselves was invited to Germany after WWII to help do the hard labour of reconstructing the country, Interior Minister Hans Peter-Friedrich, said Islam “does not belong in Germany”. Bundesbank board member Thilo Sarrazin’s book, Germany is doing away with itself, is currently in its 14th edition and is Germany’s best-selling book since WWII. It claims that Turks, who make up around 5% of the population, are “dumbing down” the country with their inferior gene pool. A poll published in October showed 31% of respondents agreeing that Germany is “becoming dumber” because of immigrants and 62% said Sarrazin’s comments were “justified”.

Banking on the political capital to be gained from sourcing Sarrazin’s popularity, Merkel stated that the nation’s “multi-kulti” project had been a complete failure.

This slippage of far-right discourse into the mainstream is not singular to Germany. In fact, the debates during France’s recent regional elections were largely dictated by the National Front and the banning of the Burka united the political spectrum with virtually no dissent. In Italy, proposals to ban the burka even had the support of human-rights groups. And here in the UK, British TV personality and member of a conservative think tank, Douglas Murray argued in a speech to the Dutch Parliament that “conditions for Muslims in Europe must be made harder across the board.”

It is precisely this growing acceptability of far-right themes and ideas in the mainstream, which is so deeply concerning. It is worth recalling that in 1928, the Nazis achieved less than 3% of the national vote in Germany. Today, many fascist parties have ten times that number. Their influence is therefore commensurate and cannot be ignored.

In different countries, the Far-right takes different forms and has differing focuses but common themes are evident: Anti-immigrant, anti-semitic, islampohobic and promoting long standing myths of national purity and exclusionism. These groups offer convenient scapegoat solutions to less tangible or accessible problems.

During the Burka debate in France, UMP politician Frederic Lefebvre summed up the current climate when he stated that women who wear the face veil should be “deprived of their rights”. It is precisely the type of climate in which an elected representative can speak of depriving a fellow citizen of her rights that must absolutely be challenged. As regressive policies become increasingly common, from Theresa May suggesting the UK’s Human Rights Act be scrapped, to being urged to spy on and denounce one’s neighbours, it is essential we stand against this nihilistic tide, for an affirmation of our core values as Europeans. These are values fought for by our forefathers and often enshrined in founding documents. The themes are universal and universalist. Human rights. Equality. Justice. Pluralism. Solidarity. Human rights. Freedom. Freedom of thought. Freedom of speech. Freedom from fear and persecution. Real and meaningful freedom, with no caveats or exceptions.

(This article can also be found here)

Written by Myriam Francois

October 21, 2011 at 19:18