The European McVeigh, and His Wider Significance (or Lack Thereof)

May 12, 2012

Anders Behring Breivik is now on trial for his massacre.  It’s a trial that on the whole says wonderful things about Norway, while also underscoring the very real, very gruesome, very powerful effects perception can have, especially vis a vis cultural or transnational issues.   What truth is there in Breivik’s claim that he is but one member of a large anti-Muslim movement lurking on the fringes of European society?

Amidst the discussions of high finance and international political economic reform in the Eurozone, the issues of multiculturalism’s track record, the integration of the continent’s immigrant and immigrant descendant Muslims, and beyond that of how a supra-organization of nation-states negotiates cultural identity in the 21st century were not given the attention that they should have received.   The massacre (not “the tragedy”; there is little about a one-man targeted killing spree which implies a random act of divine will or natural disaster) , while something Breivik alone is culpable for,  put these issues back in the forefront of European and US attention.

Whether or not the specific group the Knights Templar exists, a very chillingly nuanced argument has been made by some of the psychiatrists who have looked at Breivik’s case: it isn’t technically a delusion if other people share it.  And we do know that Breivik, although singular in his tactics, is not alone in his beliefs.   The right-wing backlash is almost as  old as the waves of predominantly Turkish and North Africa immigration themselves.

The nature of that backlash may be obscured by the justifiably intense emotions surrounding the massacre, so it is worth clarifying: Breivik is NOT trying to ignite a religious war in Europe motivated by anything close to purely doctrinal differences.   When he, a lapsed Lutheran rather indifferent to the moral or theological basis of Christianity, declares his allegiance to something called the Knights Templar and his ideology to be anti-Muslim, he really refers to socio-cultural categories marking in-group vs. out-group.   “Muslims” with their foreign customs threaten the cultural purity of Europe.  It is more or less the case that with this ideology, any out-group would do as a scapegoat.  Muslims are a wise choice, though, for both their contemporary and historical salience to the European imagination.

The historical nature of what Breivik wants to achieve, however, is vividly invoked by the use of “Knights Templar”:  a vastly less socially, economically, politically, linguistically complicated Europe, united in a gloriously honorable quest to re-secure the symbol of its common cultural heritage from them, who are heathens because they are the Other as much as they are the Other because they are heathens.

Europe as a whole has not gone crazy, or returned to war with itself.  But if and when we say Breivik should receive full time psychiatric care, we — Europeans and Americans — should keep in mind that he is not quite the singular actor that we want or need him to be.



What’s in a Name / On a Collective Label for the Non-West

April 2, 2012

Say one wishes to make a statement or ask a question about all the parts of the globe that, well, aren’t rich from capitalism to the degree the West is.  Say (for the sake of argument) that one did not wish to be more specific, referring to one or more particular regions of the … Not West.  What all-encompassing label could be used to describe some salient characteristic that a) distinguishes this portion of the globe from the West while b) applying more or less equally to all countries therein?   The usual pattern of label development has been top-down, with neologisms used by government and/or academia, and then being adopted by popular media.

The popular press is guilty of being especially slippery in their use of the various terms, but even in more academic writing the terms are interchanged with a carelessness more common (and more fitting) among teenagers. Which, when one recollects that we the West are attempting to apply a general label to a good plurality if not the majority of the world’s population who we wish to lump together simply by virtue of the fact that they are not us, well, one might appreciate that this whole label thing is kind of A Serious Matter not worthy of sophomoricism. (Yes, this is a population game and not about land area. Physical geographers are going to sit this one out. Again. Sorry folks.)

Thus, let us consider the labels for the non-West in widest current use:

  • Third World
  • Developing world
  • Global South

What may be immediately apparent is that each term highlights — reifies, really — a distinct aspect of the contrast between West and non-West. “Third World” emphasizes the hierarchical nature of the labeling exercise. It comes from a Cold War-era scheme dividing the globe into the First World (the West), the Second World (the Communist countries), and the Third World (every other country on the face of the Earth, largely overlapping with the Non-Aligned Movement). Following the fall of communism in Eastern Europe and then the break-up of the USSR, the middle rung of this ladder fell apart, but somehow the two end terms stuck around, because even listeners who have no idea of the origins of the construct still see the inherent power dynamic the term invokes — we have it, they don’t.

“Developing world” may seem more benign in comparison, but a closer examination of that term’s roots within Western concepts of economic development — wherein the West is the assumed model — reveals a very linear, technological ideal of progress, one that sees the non-West as existing at an earlier temporal point. “Progress” in this model is steadily incremental, and signifies an emphasis on material goods that by and large (ware a further stereotype) the non-West has not embraced culturally to the extent the West has. More broadly, development theory tends to assume a globally universal endpoint — “developed” — which is relatively static and fixed to the set progression which proceeds it. All of this is problematic vis a vis the non-West: definition, method, metric, goal, and universality.

Finally, “global South” appears at first blush to be straightforwardly, even blandly, geographical. As any geographer of any stripe will be among the first to admit, however, geography and politics have a chicken-and-egg relationship. And so with this label for the non-West. A South implies a North, just as a West implies an East. However, the visual orientation of humans has led to a certain way of valuing or privileging whatever is “highest”, spatially. North is “on top” of South, and so the superiority-inferiority dynamic continues.

What term will suffice, then? Perhaps a truer solution is the one suggested already — moving away from a tendency to apply a blanket label to the non-West.

Meanwhile, in the Other Mexico

April 2, 2012

Far from the limelight of the violent drug war in Ciudad Juarez, NAFTA appears to be working more or less as intended: the Mexican middle class is growing by leaps and bounds.   In the city of Queretaro in central Mexico, people are more concerned with mortgage payments and the quality of their kids’ public schools.   Chatting with a transfronterizo recently — one who went to my brother Catholic high school by commuting from across the border — reminded me what a new and promising phenomenon this is.  Those opportunities used to be the exclusive preserve of the rich.  No longer.

The middle class anywhere is as much about mindset and social attitudes as it is about an income bracket. That plays out in the case of Mexico, a rising middle income country where purchasing power is still quite high.  For this new class in the geographic middle of the country, there is also the virtue of being far from the drug violence of the northern states — something their own middle class attitudes and habits perpetuate and reconstruct, so that the distance becomes socio-economic as well as purely geographic.  Those who fled the violence especially serve to promote the distinction.

The Mexican middle class is young enough to share another of its characteristics with another society that experienced economic shock around the same time.  The Russian experience was unique, of course.   But nearly two decades later the majority of citizens in both countries want to hold onto what they have.

There are two main intersecting metrics for how to measure the middle class: consumption and perception.  An overwhelming majority of Mexicans see themselves as middle class — figures that would no doubt surprise most U.S. politicians, especially in the Southwest, to say nothing of voters.   We have become so used to drug violence being the narrative frame for this entire country that this development, the same thing that is happening globally for the same structural reasons, has been overlooked almost completely.  (Making it a perfect NYT story candidate, but I digress.)

If we have ignored such a major trend in our southern neighbor, if — more to the point — the popular imagination in the United States has even come to think Mexico is immune to the positive forces of development?  Houston, tenemos un problema.

On the Way to Mandalay…

April 1, 2012

One of the more ridiculous conversations I had while in Cairo was the hatching of a mad-cap plan to visit Myanmar, nee Burma, while it was still a closed, authoritarian system untouched by tourist hands.  My co-conspirator (she of the DRC juice reference) and I were so caught up in the grandiosity of the thing that it’s laughable in retrospect how little we even tried to foresee the almost predictable outcome. This was in December 2007, during the so-called Saffron Revolution, which was ultimately crushed by the ruling junta like the pods of the saffron plant.

I reflect on that conversation now as reports come in that the new elections in this more authentically open Burma, the one visited by Secretary of State Clinton, have brought the National League for Democracy and its leader, Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi into the country’s parliament.    The elections themselves have obviously brought more foreign journalists and observers into the country to see the first chance in 20 years for the NLD to stand before the voters.

I’m thinking too of the ethnic minorities of Burma/Myanmar: the Karen, the Kachin, the Rohingya.  The NLD has been vague — as it can and should be in suppressed opposition — but going forward they will need to take a position on what is essentially the biggest issue facing the country’s sovereignty.

Burma’s on the path — the former junta leader has committed to working with Suu Kyi.  Considering how many examples there are of countries stuck in neutral or headed in the wrong direction, some optimism in the face of Burma’s progress today doesn’t seem grandiose at all.

Au nom de l’identite/In the Name of Identity

March 21, 2012

The latest update out of Toulouse, France, where a rabbi,  his two kids, and another child were killed by a gunman firing at a Jewish school is that the shooter is a 24-year-old Algerian-Frenchman.  A stand-off ensued after this man was identified as the suspect, with him claiming allegiance to al-Qaeda as French SWAT teams surround his house.

The background to this horrific event — the failure of the French state and society to fully integrate North African migrants into the national fabric — seems to have gotten lost in the anxiety over the financial crisis and cohesion at the EU level.   “Frenchness” has always been very narrowly defined.  After all, a thousand years ago the Frankish kingdom of Charlemange and Pippin coalesced into arguably continental Europe’s first nation state, one based then and now on two things, the twin markers of classic ethnic identity: common language and common religion.  Race — such a comparatively modern construction!–never entered the formula as such.  If French was your native tongue and Roman Catholicism your religion, well, what else could you be but white in the shade of a Parisian?

At least, this was the ideological line of French nationalism — France has never been as homogeneous as the rest of Europe or eventually the world was led to believe.  Linguistically: Bretons, the Basque, and Corsicans.  Religiously, Hueguenots and Jews, many Sephardic, descendents of those who fled the Spanish Inquisition.

The tolerance of liberte, equalite, fraternite has papered over that diversity for centuries.  France has been like Kemalist Turkey in that regard: there is one national identity, one way to be a Turkish national or a French national.   Speak Breton or Kurdish? You’re doing it wrong.  Observe Christianity or Islam or (heavens!) something else too passionately or overtly for  the careful civic secularism of the state?  You’re doing it wrong.

So besides the violent and obviously criminal nature of this shooting, it’s crossing several red lines for the French: ethnic Algerian young man (we’ll see how good his French is when they finally get him)  claiming allegiance to an organization whose goal is an Islamic caliphate, targeting an institution of the group he’s been radicalized to despise yet has been able under French nationalist ideology to make something of a place for itself.   These sorts of sectarian-based hatreds are supposed to be beyond the French.  Allegedly.  All that has led to, however, are Algerian-majority slums whose existence is ignored and whose youth are easily radicalized.  To Israel making noises about the handling of the whole thing.  To a France whose hypocrisy on the European and world stages is increasingly grating.

It’s not the wisest way to manage the aftermath of empire.  Or to manage identity in the 21st century.


Hat tip to Amin Maalouf.

Khojaly: War Crimes PR in Washington DC

March 17, 2012


Riding the bus back and forth to work here in DC, I couldn’t fail to notice a starkly understated poster occupying prime ad space behind the driver’s seat.  KHOJALY, it reads:  A Human Tragedy Against Azerbaijan.  At the top are the following stats: 444 men, 106 women, 63 children; and then a date, February 26, 1992.  “20 years ago…”

A single red drop curls downward from the O in Khojaly.  The word in its huge font dominates the poster.

And then, the ad ends with a plea to the reader: “Honor the dead: learn the truth….help Armenia and Azerbaijan find peace”.  The fine print gives the website of the group behind the ad:   In and of itself the existence of such a group, let alone one able to mount any public awareness effort, is remarkable.   The large population of Armenian-Americans who rightly lobby for maintaining recognition of the Armenian genocide would seem to preclude much visibility for any lobby group for the other side in the much more recent conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh.  Perhaps related to this, perhaps not: the poster actually understates the number of children killed — the official figure is 83.

NK is of course where Khojaly is located, geographically and within the broader narrative of the conflict over the majority ethnic Armenian territory surrounded and claimed by Azerbaijan.  The conflict became a shooting war just as the USSR was breaking up and Yugoslavia was unraveling into violence.   Reading about Khojaly — yes, Wikipedia has an article on the event — feels rather like reading about Bosnia a few years later.

Here is the AAA’s Youtube video about the massacre and the campaign:

So clearly this group got its symbolic timing right.   But while “helping [two still suspicious former adversaries] find peace” is admirable, one doesn’t need much of an international relations/conflict resolution background to suspect there is more to the contemporary story behind these ads.

Sure enough, the website given includes language urging web surfers to “Click here to learn about our campaign to urge Congress to rescind the unfair, irrational ban on direct aid to the Government of Azerbaijan (Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act)”.   The backbone of nearly all the U.S.’s “alliances” with non-Western countries is aid, whether military or economic.   In this post-9/11 world, of course, this legislation sounds like some counterterrorism measure George W. Bush put his signature to in the days after the attacks.  Ironically, a waiver to Section 907 was passed in October 2001.

Turns out that the legislation was actually signed by Bush the Elder, making it the same age as the Khojaly Massacre.   Its raison d’etre was promoting democratization in the former Soviet republics through US aid.  Section 907 of the Act apparently singled out Azerbaijan, prohibiting it from receiving aid without a congressional permission slip approving of its progress due to the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh.  Think about that.  There are at least two sides to every conflict, and both sides in this case were ex-Soviet republics.   Why single out the Azeris?

U.S. domestic politics is always a good place to search out answers to that kind of question.   The Armenian-American community is well-established, locally and nationally powerful, and lobbies continuously on the recognition of the Armenian Genocide.  Could they have leveraged some of that influence in regards to this latest conflict? Especially considering that NK was at the time the conflict broke out approximately 90% ethnic Armenian, there was surely a sympathetic congressional audience for treating the war as a one-sided affair.

And thus the focus on Khojaly, where the roles of that narrative were reversed, Armenians the aggressors against Azeris, in what the forthrightly calls “a slaughter”. If our narrative frame is wrong, isn’t it at least possible our aid policy is too? Particularly if you’re just hearing about NK from these posters — if you don’t have a preconceived notion of the conflict. And so the cynic in me might be forgiven for thinking that plea to “help … find peace” is really for U.S. consumption.  We are allies with both these countries, after all, albeit not the warmest with the Azeris.  The campaign gets down to this basic psychology (forget context!):

Doesn’t everyone want to see their two friends get along?

On #StopKony and the Role of Context

March 10, 2012

You’ve seen it, or at least heard about it, if you can access this blog: the 29 minute video about a central African warlord who began a guerrilla insurgency against the Ugandan government 26 years ago, an insurgency that devolved into a reign of terror against the civilian population of Acholiland.

Invisible Children, the organization behind both this viral video and aa2005 feature-length documentary on Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army, takes its name and its laser-narrow perspective on the LRA from what is arguably the most sensationally disturbing atrocities of the conflict in northern Uganda — the nighttime abduction, indoctrination, and conscription of rural children into the LRA, as well as the so-called “night commuters”, children who came into towns each night to escape the rural abductions.

The key, however, is that Uganda’s conflict has always been more complex than two white surfer dudes from San Diego (IC’s founders) could discover.  To take but one example, Kony wasn’t the only spiritualist leader preaching against the government in 1980s Acholiland.

More broadly, IC tells a very one-sided story.  And they didn’t need to! It is possible to be appalled at the LRA’s (former, more on that below) tactics, to even call them evil, while still condemning the Ugandan military and the regime of Yoweri Museveni for human rights abuses in Acholiland committed in the name of fighting the LRA.  To condemn the treatment of Acholiland by the central government that was a factor in Kony’s rise.

But IC doesn’t give that side. They barely bother to explain, at least in the 2005 documentary, what socio-economic and political forces at work in mid-1980s Uganda led to the LRA.

And as I hinted above, they do not update the story to the present day. Yes, Kony is still at large. But he and the LRA do not operate solely in Uganda anymore. They’ve moved on to neighboring countries most Americans still haven’t heard of: South Sudan, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  They are now one player among the many in the conflicts in each of these other countries.  Meanwhile, they may now only number in the few hundreds in Uganda, although estimates vary widely.

Now, it’s easy to understand why IC chose, for they did choose, to ignore all that.   Those two dudes from San Diego are filmmakers*, not historians of the non-West nor political scientists, and were not any kind of NGO worker prior to IC’s founding.   So they did what filmmakers do: they told a simple story, with an overarching narrative that had clear heroes and villains.

And Kony is clearly made into a villain, even demonized, in the 2005 film.  And nowhere in the narration and witness to the group’s atrocities is the emphasis on “one man, one story” even questioned.  For IC, context is inconvenient: the Ugandan government and the military are barely mentioned, and only in positive terms. The “solution” of essentially permanent camps of those Acholis deliberately displaced by the anti-LRA campaign is not mentioned.  And on and on. Real world conflicts have context: multiple perspectives, multiple actors, history, messy “solutions” possibly worse than the problem, and no completely happy ending.

It really does seem as though Kony is a villain in a vacuum to IC.  But that’s the thing.  If you want to see the inside of a vacuum, watch a Dyson commercial.   Out here in the real world, the Disney treatment doesn’t do real suffering and real complex problems any justice.

*I know a filmmaker, a filmmaker is a relative of mine.  And these, Senator, are two rather naive and disingenuous filmmakers.