Taxonomy

Monday, June 23, 2014 - 13:40
This was first published on openDemocracy5050 June 23, 2014
 
What should be the relationship between religion and human rights?  Larry Cox, formerly of Amnesty USA, says the two belong together. "Human rights and religion need each other".
 
I am reminded of the old feminist one liner, a woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle.
 
Cox argues that, without religion, human rights professionals are just talking to each other; they need to reach out to the popular classes, who are religious, as well as work in coalition with progressive religious groups and connect with the "inherent religious dimensions of their own ideas."  But why does one have to believe that human rights are inherently religious in order to work on campaigns with religious groups?  As Michael Bochenek says, "these partnerships hardly require a debate on the religious foundations of the rights movement in order to be effective".
 
The discussion emerges from legitimate concerns: a feeling that human rights work is too professionalised, lawyerish, and divorced from popular movements. But the way Cox has framed the questions obscures the critical point that every faith has its right and left wing.
 
There is a Catholic Right, Jewish Right, Protestant Right, Hindu Right, Muslim Right and a rapidly growing Buddhist Right—all tending towards virulent nationalism, ethnic cleansing, and fundamentalism.  Despite positive examples like Shirin Ebadi and Rev. William Barber, in the last twenty-five years, the political thrust of religion has been overwhelmingly to the right. A quick scan of recent headlines is makes the point:
 
Bloody Toll: Boko Haram behind deadliest killing spree since 9/11
Sri Lanka Buddhist mob attacks Colombo mosque
Is There a Christian Nationalist Majority in America?
Radical pyromania: How the religious right and the Haredim are setting Israel aflame
India Weed Out Christianity, says Hindu BJP nationalist leader
 
The question of the day is not how to get human rights professionals to reach out to regular folks, but how to counter the power of religious fanatics, strengthen civil society, and encourage free discussion rather than mob rule. 
 
The issue of secular space is central here.  I use the term secular space rather than secularism because so many people wrongly equate secularism with atheism.  Atheism, like a lot of other isms, describes a belief system.  Secularism describes a political system in which religion and the state are kept separate, for the protection of both.  Note that this is different from the state atheism practiced in the USSR, China, and some other countries.  Countries with policies of state atheism do not just separate religion from government; they try to crush it.  
 
Separation of religion and the state does not dispose of all social problems.  In countries with a secular state, you can still find racism, sexism, gender prejudice, authoritarianism, economic want, cruelty to children, corruption, and discrimination.  But it is impossible for the state to say these flaws are dictated by religious doctrine or that one group of people is privileged because God likes them better than the rest.  Thus separation between religion and the state creates some of the preconditions for a level playing field.
 
This is in theory; in practice no state is completely secular, whether in the North or South.  As Elizabeth Bernstein and Janet R. Jakobsen point out, states tend to skew in the religious direction of their founding population.  In the supposedly secular US, this means Christian: 
 
"U.S. politics, when secular, represents a hegemonically Protestant version of secularism. This hegemony means that when different actors are brought into the mainstream of U.S. public discourse, the connecting points tend to be those that emphasize similarity to the dominant Protestant heritage..... Moreover, it is the alliance between Christian influence and conservative secular politics that has empowered the participants in this coalition over the past several decades. To focus on either religious or secular influences alone would be to miss the relational dynamics that have promoted conservative power".  
 
Every country has its own approach to secularism.  In Lebanon, it is seen as the way to have checks and balances between different faith communities; this has resulted in 18 different systems of personal law governing marriage, divorce, and child custody.  Germany guarantees freedom of religion but people are born into a faith and have to pay a Church Tax unless they opt out.  The UK has an official majority faith in which hardly anyone participates, but religion looms large in relation to minorities, where the state's tendency to pick fundamentalist advisors has led to such violations of human rights as sex-segregated seating in university meetings and Law Society instructions on how to draw up sharia compliant wills.
 
In Quebec, the furor over "values" that arose when the Parti Quebecois attempted to pass a secular values charter in 2013 (and lost the election partly as a result), shows how far the question is from being resolved—and how self-described secularists may also practice discrimination: the discussion focused on religious symbols and, while the PQ said the Jewish kippeh, Muslim hijab, and Sikh turban could not be worn by public servants, they saw no problem in having a crucifix hanging in the National Assembly.
 
The same tropism towards Christianity can be seen even in ultra-secular France, as Aurelien Mondon notes, comparing government indifference to protests by the Muslim Right against the 2011 burqa law to government capitulation to the Catholic Right, when it turned out thousands to protest legalization of same-sex marriage.  To paraphrase Orwell, all religions are equal but some are more equal than others.
 
The Indian version of secularism is also showing signs of strain; in the past, it has "signified the peaceful co‑existence of religious communities and a creative interaction between various traditions...[not] state atheism, or an active opposition to religion, or even a ban on the public display of religious sentiment (as long as this was non‑ aggressive)".  This version of secularism has been increasingly under attack and is now threatened more than ever by the election of Hindu fundamentalist Narendra Modi.
 
Separation between religion and the state—secular space—is critical to women's human rights. As feminists like Gita Sahgal, Pragna Patel, and Karima Bennoune argue in The Struggle for Secularism in Europe and North America (2011), edited by Marieme Helie-Lucas, any approach to multi-cultural harmony that capitulates to organized religion is a threat to the rights of women and sexual minorities. The participation of women in society is dependent on their being defined not as members of an ethnic or religious group but as individual citizens, with rights equal to those of every other citizen, including their fathers and husbands.
 
Secular space is a necessary condition for freedom of thought and expression; only if state politics are kept clear of religion can people of different belief systems talk without anyone being jailed for blasphemy.  Secular space protects both religious and non-religious people, as well as minority faiths.  It is also the only way to ensure freedom of scientific investigation, which has been threatened by fundamentalists from the Taliban, who oppose vaccination, to Christian fundamentalists, who oppose stem cell research.  No suprise that fundamentalists also think global warming is just a theory.
 
The threat of fundamentalism is far broader than military drives and terrorist attacks by groups like ISIS and al Qaeda.  Examples are everywhere: Uganda and Kenya's new laws against homosexuality; Putin's alliance with Orthodox church in Russia; the leading role of  fundamentalist settlers and their backers in denying Palestinians their rights; the never-ending struggle for abortion rights in the US; Buddhist persecution of Muslims in Myanmar and Sri Lanka; and the enthusiastic use of blasphemy trials to silence free thought in Pakistan and Egypt.  
 
In her dazzling article, "Why I Am Not a Postsecularist"" Australian sociologist Melinda Cooper discusses similarities between today's fundamentalist movements and the fascist movements of the 1930s:
 
"It is remarkable, in fact, how closely the paranoid taxonomies of Hindu Nationalism or Salafi Islamism reproduce the discourse of European fascism in the mid-twentieth century, or for that matter the American religious right of today, both of which obsessively rehearse the cultural failures of 'Western secular liberalism'. The civilizational taxonomies of post-secular theory not only misrepresent the historical complexity of relations between religion and the state, they also seriously misunderstand the transnational organization of political religion today".
 
Which brings us back to the original question, the relationship of religion and human rights.  Because secular space is a necessary basis for protection of religious and sexual minorities, freedom of thought and expression, and women's rights—and might even be central to the survival of the planet—it cannot be compromised by ideas like "human rights and religion need each other."  Separation between religion and the state may not yet be part of the official human rights framework, but it must in time become so.

 

(0)
Tuesday, May 27, 2014 - 01:02

Rashid Rehman: Chronicle of a Death Foretold
 
On April 9, Rashid Rehman, director of the Multan office of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), appeared in Multan Central Jail on behalf of Junaid Hafeez, an adjunct teacher at the local university who was falsely accused of blasphemy.  The trial was held inside the jail because of the risk that Hafeez would be killed if it were held in a building open to the public. 
 
Rehman moved that the case be dismissed as fabricated.   As he stood before the judge, two prosecution lawyers and an unidentified third party approached and said that, if he did not drop the case, "You will not come to court next time because you will not exist any more."  Rehman called the judge's attention to the threat but the judge did nothing.  The next day Rehman and the HRCP appealed for police protection but the police did nothing.  In a BBC interview the next week, Rehman said that defending someone accused of blasphemy was like walking into the jaws of death. 
 
“There is fanaticism and intolerance in society, and such people never consider whether their accusation is right or wrong,” he said. “People kill for 50 rupees. So why should anyone hesitate to kill in a blasphemy case?”
 
On May 7, as Rehman was conferring in his office with a colleague and a client, two gunmen burst in.  They shot all three.  Rehman died instantly; the others are still hospitalized. 
 
These crimes were committed to preserve rule by mob, for if people accused of blasphemy cannot get legal representation, a fair trial is impossible, and the only justice is vigilante justice.  Thus Pakistan's extremist religious parties—including the ruling party, Nawaz Sharif's Muslim League—will do almost anything to preserve the blasphemy laws. 
 
British colonial laws against "offense" are common throughout South Asia, and are often used to silence any criticism of religion, but in Pakistan blasphemy laws were expanded and codified during the military dictatorship of Zia-ul-Haq (1977-1988), who used Saudi legal advisors for his "Islamization" campaign. Shemeem Abbas describes the process in Pakistan's Blasphemy Laws: From Islamic Empires to the Taliban
 
"In Pakistan the sharia discourse started with Zia-ul-Haq.  During the so-called Islamization of the laws, he apointed judges to the Shariat Court who would implement a very limited, orthodox version of the sharia, a construct foreign to the society at the time.....To this Zia-ul-Haq added the deadly Hudood ordinances against women....Pakistan's sharia laws under Zia-ul-Haq were intended to legitimize military rule in Islam's name, silence opposition, and repress freedom of speeh.  General Zia-ul-Haq became the Amir-ul Momineen (leader of the faithful) to lead the CIA-backed jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan.  And thus Pakistan, which had been a secular state, moved toward a theocracy..."
 
One of the problems with Pakistan's blasphemy laws is there is no evidentiary standard and penalties are extremely harsh.  Blasphemy is not defined and there is not even the need to prove intent in accusations of insulting the Prophet.  An accuser can assert that someone has blasphemed without being required to produce any documentation; and if the accusation is false, the accuser is not penalized, no matter what has happened to his victim in the meantime.  The laws can thus be used not only to stifle freedom of thought but to bring accusations that,  according to the 2013 HRCP Annual Report, are "motivated by economic considerations and personal vendetta."  The blasphemy  laws are also used to persecute members of minority religions, particularly Ahmadi, Shi'ites, and Christians, as in the case of  Asia Bibi, a Christian woman accused by a neighbor whose family was in a property dispute with hers. 
 
In a country where religious extremism is so out of control, merely saying the blasphemy law should be reformed can be fatal.  Charges can be laid even against someone as high placed as Pakistan's Ambassador to the US, Sherry Rehman, who was charged with blasphemy in 2013.  Her offense?  Daring to discuss reform of the law on TV.  When Salmaan Taseer, then Governor of Punjab, advocated reform in 2011, he was assassinated by one of his bodyguards, Mumtaz Qadri.  Taseer had previously warned about the Talibanization of Punjab by the political party led by Nazir Sharif, who is now Prime Minister.  When Taseer's assassin appeared in court, lawyers threw rose petals on him and the judge that found him guilty had to flee the country.  A popular mosque in Islamabad was built three years ago to honor Qadri.
 
As lawyer Zahir Ali Akbar points out, "One of the arguments put forward by protagonists of blasphemy law is that the presence of law prevents individuals from taking up guns."  The assassination of Rashid Rehman shows how far this argument is from the truth.  In fact, accusations of blasphemy are usually accompanied by mob violence and intimidation.  The case of Rashid Rehman's client, Junaid Hafeez, has been shaped by such violence from the beginning. 
 
A graduate student and adjunct teacher at Bahauddin Zakariya University in Multan, Hafeez was accused of blasphemy in March, 2013 as part of a campaign waged by Jamaat e Islami and its student organization to replace liberals with its own people.   Such blasphemy campaigns are a well-known practice of Jamaat e Islaami, a political party of so-called "moderate Islamists" with a violent history and a vicious student wing.  They first targeted the head of the English department and, when she left the country, went after her teaching assistant, Junaid Hafeez, who particularly offended them because, according to a friend's blog, he was "very keen about appreciating the concept and values of democracy, feminism, liberty, pluralism, humanism and freedom of expression."  Hafeez was also interested in theatre and did his MPhil thesis on decoding Pakistani masculinities through the lens of popular films.
 
Needless to say, this sort of thing did not make him popular with conservatives on the faculty.
 
When vacancies for new teachers were announced, and he was the most qualified, they moved against him.  On March 13, Rana Akbar Tabish, an active member of Islami jamea Talba (the student wing of Jamaat), circulated a leaflet saying Junaid Hafeez had made blasphemous remarks on a Facebook page and must be hanged immediately.  Another Islamist organization, Tehreek Tahaffuz-e-Namoos-e-Risalat (TTNR) organized a protest and "demanded immediate arrest and execution of the culprit, hurling a warning to the government that they would be forced to take to roads [i.e. riot] if the action was not taken forthwith."  Without investigating the charges against Hafeez, the Vice-Chancellor immediately terminated his teaching contract and housing allottment, and barred him from campus.
 
Hafeez fled but was soon arrested and charged with blasphemy under penal code 295-C. Blasphemy carries the death penalty in Pakistan. He had great difficulty finding a lawyer because the Multan Bar Association said they would expel anyone who took the case.  Only Rashid Rehman was brave enough to do so.  Now he is dead and his client is at great risk of his life. According to a 2010 report in the Pakistani Express-Tribune, between 1990 and 2010, 34 people accused of blasphemy were either killed by mob violence or died in jail under suspicious circumstances.  31 of these deaths occured in Punjab, the province where Hafeez is being held. 
 
One of the charges against him is that he operated two blasphemous websites, “So-Called Liberals of Pakistan” and “Mullah Munafiq”.  Although these charges were made over a year ago, the police have still not investigated the IP addresses to find out who actually owns the domains.  Nor has the prosecution noted that, though Hafeez has been in jail for over a year without access to computers, both websites have gone on as usual.  This failure to investigate supports the statement in the 2013 HRCP Report that "There is considerable evidence that those involved in faith-based violence have penetrated law enforcement agencies."
 
The indomitable HRCP has called for an investigation of police dereliction of duty and prosecution of the lawyers who threatened Rashid Rehman, and the judge who failed to protect him.  But Pakistani activists say that international pressure is necessary to protect Junaid Hafeez and help him regain his freedom.
 
Free expression groups including IDARE, International PEN, the International Cities of Rescue Network (ICORN), and the Scholars at Risk Network have come together in answer to this call and are planning a campaign on behalf of Hafeez.
 
(This blog appeared on March 26, 2014, in http://www.opendemocracy.net/5050/meredith-tax/rashid-rehman-chronicle-o...)

(0)
Monday, April 14, 2014 - 23:51
Climate Change and False Gods: Moloch and the Bible Punchers
First published on 50-50, openDemocracy, on April 14, 2014
 
http://www.opendemocracy.net/5050/meredith-tax/climate-change-and-false-gods-moloch-and-biblepunchers-in-us
 
In a report released Sunday, April 13, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which won the Nobel Prize in 2007, together with former US vice-president Al Gore, made it clear that, while the future will be sunny, it is anything but bright.  The report, written by an expert committee of 1250, made recommendations for immediate actions to mitigate, if not prevent, climate change. The leading one is to stop using fossil fuels and divert energy investment into renewable sources like wind, water power and solar. The report says we must limit global warming to 2°C by the year 2050; this can be done without wrecking the world economy but we have to move fast—‘we cannot afford to lose another decade’, says Ottmar Edenhofer, co-chair of the expert committee.
 
There is nothing new about this.  As  Elizabeth Kolbert notes in this week’s New Yorker, we have known since the seventies that carbon emissions are the cause of global warming.  The signs of impending disaster are clear. The polar ice caps are melting; the coral reefs are dying; the oceans are becoming more acidic as they absorb increased carbon emissions.  Heat waves, heavy rains and floods are worse and more frequent.  Species are becoming extinct; fresh water supplies are being used up; the world’s food supply is at risk. But we still keep burning carbon like there was no tomorrow; in fact 'atmospheric carbon dioxide levels [are] rising almost twice as fast in the first decade of this century as they did in the last decades of the 20th century’.
 
The US is not the only country putting the world at risk, but it is the one I know best, and it is an egregious offender which, instead of imposing a carbon tax, subsidizes fossil fuel production with tax incentives worth four billion dollars a year. As if things were not bad enough, now Congress has visions of checkmating Russia by supplying an endless supply of fracked natural gas to Europe, which will of course increase carbon emissions.  Meanwhile the Obama administration is still dithering about whether to green light the Keystone pipeline which, if approved, will carry tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada to the Gulf Coast refineries.  Climate scientist James Hansen of NASA says that if the pipeline goes through, ‘it will be game over for the climate’. 
 
In short, this is an emergency. Bishop Desmond Tutu has just issued a call to support the global campaign to divest from fossil fuels, and target the US over the pipeline, using similar tactics to the boycott of apartheid South Africa.  As he sees it, ‘We live in a world dominated by greed. We have allowed the interests of capital to outweigh the interests of human beings and our Earth’.
 
That is certainly true in American politics, where the power of money has reached an all time high; the disgraceful McCutcheon vs FEC Supreme Court decision will only increase the domination of millionaire donors. The Republicans, in particular, have long been ruled by an alliance between worshippers of Moloch and Bible-punchers. In the 2012 election, the infamous Koch brothers, whose wealth comes from oil, gave Republican candidates $3 million with another $36.6 million coming through their nonprofit foundation, Americans for Prosperity.
 
The Koch Brothers, libertarian believers in free enterprise, are also major funders of climate change disinformation. No surprise that they have also expressed the desire to 'take the unions out at the knees', are major donors to groups attacking women's reproductive rights and gay rights, and of course oppose Obamacare and other efforts to help the poor or extend the social safety net. 
 
One spokesman for the ‘free enterprise’ right is Joseph Bast, director of the Heartland Institute, a leading opponent of the scientific consensus on climate change, also known for combatting the idea that tobacco smoke had anything to do with cancer.  Among the many funders of the Heartland Institute are Phillip Morris and Exxon Mobile, the Walton family of Walmart fame, and various rightwing foundations.  Bast has already blasted the IPCC’s climate change report in Forbes magazine—whose motto is ‘a capitalist tool’—claiming that ‘No changes in precipitation patterns, snow, monsoons, or river flows that might be considered harmful to human well-being or plants or wildlife have been observed that could be attributed to rising CO2 levels’.   
 
I ask myself, what kind of people are willing to risk destroying life on earth just to make money?  Do they think they can survive in their gated communities if the rest of us perish?  Do they plan to relocate to another planet?  A prophet would say they worship false gods—in this case, Moloch, the money god of capitalism described long ago by Allen Ginsberg: ‘Moloch whose eyes are a thousand blind windows! ...Moloch whose smokestacks and antennae crown the cities! Moloch whose love is endless oil and stone! Moloch whose soul is electricity and banks!’
 
But US worshippers of Moloch are not the only obstruction to action on climate change; Christian fundamentalists are equally fierce in attacking the scientific consensus.  Some of them believe that the degradation of the climate is God’s punishment for sin, which they may define as anything from short skirts to homosexuality.  Others welcome global warming as a sign that the end of the world is coming and they will soon be raptured up to that gated community in the sky.
 
Only in this US is this level of unreason considered sane—in fact, according to the last Pew Research Center poll, one third of the US population believes the world was created exactly as described in Genesis.  Among them is Rep. Paul Broun, a Tea Party Republican from Georgia, who recently said: ‘I've come to understand that all that stuff I was taught about evolution, and embryology, and Big Bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell. And it’s lies to try to keep me and all the folks who are taught that from understanding that they need a savior.... I don’t believe that the earth’s but about 9,000 years old. I believe it was created in six days as we know them. That’s what the Bible says’.
 
It is hard to know what to do about a political system held captive by an alliance of big money and Bible-punchers.  US environmental groups are certainly becoming more activist in response to climate change; in March, 15,000 people turned out and hundreds of students were arrested at the White House in a protest against the Keystone pipeline.  But these are not the kind of numbers needed to save the planet, and most Americans are too busy struggling to make ends meet to have time for politics.  It is impossible to overstate the exhaustion and dis-empowerment of the working and/or middle class (over here, we have never been too clear about the difference). The official unemployment rate is stuck at 6.7%, a gross underestimate since it doesn’t count people who are working part time or have given up looking.  One-third of the workforce is now in contingent employment with no union or job security.  Many people have to work 60 to 80 hours a week, often putting together part time jobs.  Add to this the extra time and energy, mostly female, needed to make up for lack of public services for the elderly, young children, and the disabled, and the hours most Americans spend driving (producing carbon emissions) because of poor public transportation options, and you have a crushing burden of overwork.  Even though the system has lost all credibility, particularly with the young, the ruling elite has no problem keeping the lid on, because people are so hard-pressed and the American left is too weak to present a coherent alternative. 
 
Then there is the abysmal state of US science education—since local school boards determine curricula and standards, the teaching of evolution is likely to be compromised in conservative communities.  A survey of high school biology teachers estimated that only 28% deal with evolution in a robust way that unifies the curriculum.  Another 13% are creationists and roughly 60% want to avoid controversy.
 
Scientists are trying to respond to this problem through the media.  In February, 'Bill Nye the Science Guy', host of a popular kids’ program on public television, accepted an invitation to debate the founder of the Creation Museum of Petersburg, Kentucky, where diorama dinosaurs frolic with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.  And now Rupert Murdoch’s Fox TV, a profoundly rightwing station whose coverage of climate change was judged 72% misleading by the Union of Concerned Scientists, has jumped on the science bandwagon in collaboration with National Geographic.  They have produced 'Cosmos' a thirteen part series about space hosted by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of New York’s Hayden Planetarium.  The series had a huge debut, hitting 220 channels in 181 countries and 45 languages.  While the series will not address climate change or evolution directly, deGrasse Tyson believes that it will have an effect by saying to the audience: “You are equipped and empowered with this cosmic perspective, achieved by the methods and tools of science, applied to the universe. And are you going to be a good shepherd, or a bad shepherd?”
 
But science education, however necessary, is not enough to challenge the power of Moloch and the fundamentalists in Washington.  Bishop Tutu is right; pressure must be applied to the US by the rest of the world.  Corporations and governments who do business here and in Canada should be vocal about fossil fuel subsidies and refuse to work with anyone involved in the Keystone Pipeline.  Diplomats and journalists who engage with the US should become a lot more aggressive about climate concerns.  Countries and NGOs should consider developing the kind of popular education and organizing projects for the American heartland that the US government has used to “build democracy” in other countries. 
 
As the IPCC report says, we have to get moving now for it will soon be too late.  If our various intellectual, cultural and political elites are capable of mobilizing for the Olympics, for a “war on terror,” even to find the black box of a vanished airplane, they have got to be able to get going on climate change.  This crisis supersedes and includes all other questions; it will affect all our movements and constituencies, all our countries and peoples, millions of other species and the earth itself.  What is it going to take to get our governments to deal with it?

 

(0)
Monday, January 27, 2014 - 20:56

Gender-based censorship
In A Room of Her Own Virginia Woolf asked why the literary and intellectual world (overwhelmingly male in 1929) was so cold to works written by women.  She concluded that men need to believe women see them as superior beings in order to justify their control of society; hence evidence of women’s actual views is unwelcome. Silencing of women writers is thus essential to patriarchy.  Recent cases of gender-based censorship, ranging from Taslima Nasrin in India to feminist bloggers in the United States, indicate that Woolf’s analysis still holds.
 
And what is gender-based censorship?  The Women’s World Organization for Rights, Literature and Development (Women's WORLD) defined it in The Power of the Word: Culture, Censorship and Voice, drafted by yours truly in 1995:
 
"Women who write on issues of state politics are silenced by the same means used to silence men in opposition, though, in practice, even these forms of censorship are affected by gender. But gender-based censorship, as we see it, is much broader and more pervasive than this official, organized suppression. It is embedded in a range of social mechanisms that mute women's voices, deny validity to their experience, and exclude them from the political discourse. Its purpose is to obscure the real conditions of women's lives and the inequity of patriarchal gender relations, and prevent women writers from breaking the silence, by targeting women who don't know their place in order to intimidate the rest.”
 
Though much gender-based censorship today is done in the name of religion, its roots are in misogyny and sexual panic.  Take, for instance, the US, where this month’s big story is "Why Women Aren't Welcome on the Internet," by feminist journalist Amanda Hess, who describes herself as a freelance writer reporting on sex, Hollywood, teenagers, and technology, and whose blog is called Sex with Amanda Hess. Among other examples, she notes the blizzard of online rape threats that hit Caroline Criado-Perez when she started a website petitioning the Bank of England to put more women’s faces on banknotes. Hess also notes the lack of action on internet death and rape threats and the assiduous passing of the buck between law enforcement agencies and internet companies. Last year, for instance, US atheist blogger “skepchick” Rebecca Watson found that the reaction of the police when she reported death and rape threats was to say they couldn’t do anything unless someone actually did attack her, “at which point they’d have a pretty good lead.”
 
All this can have a chilling effect on women’s freedom of expression. As Hess relates, “Threats of rape, death, and stalking can overpower our emotional bandwidth, take up our time, and cost us money through legal fees, online protection services, and missed wages.”  Conor Friedersdorf postulates that such “gendered online abuse” may explain why there are so few prominent women bloggers compared to men; in response to a constant stream of threats and invective, many of his women friends “either shuttered their personal blogs and stopped writing for the public, or shifted their journalistic efforts to a traditional format rather than the more personalized blog format.”
 
The internet is an area in which censorship operates differently for men and women, for the interests of women bloggers, who need to feel safe enough to write, conflict with those of internet trolls who want to feel free to abuse women as much as they like.  The feminist movement fought for many years to develop legal protections like the US Violence Against Women Act, which criminalizes phone threats, and recently proposed including online threats.  The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a watchdog group, opposed this idea, citing privacy considerations.  But should privacy trump death threats?  In the age of Snowden, nobody wants to call for more government interference in online communications yet, like freedom of religion, male self-expression must be limited by recognition that women too have rights, and that women’s voices—especially when they take up subjects others do not want to deal with—are central to democracy, equality, and the public good. 
 
The same consideration applies to Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasrin, whose censors have brewed a lethal mix of fundamentalism, political opportunism, and sexual silencing to try to shut her up.  In 1994 Nasrin was driven from Bangladesh by a combination of Islamist fatwa and government indictment for “offending religious feelings.”  The Islamists hated the way she criticized religion and the government hated her because she wrote a book exposing Muslim violence against Hindus, which the Bangladesh National Party government claimed did not exist.  She was put under death threat, went underground, and became one of the Northern media’s first poster girls for Islamist mistreatment of women.  I helped organize a campaign on her behalf at the time and, I wrote in 2002, thought sex was as central to her persecution as religion or politics:
 
"Nasrin did not have to flee Bangladesh merely because she wrote a novel about the persecution of its Hindu minority, or told an Indian reporter the Sharia ... was outdated and should be left behind. Other Bangladeshi writers, male and female, have said such things; some have also been threatened by fundamentalists; but most are still there. Nasrin combined the violation of those taboos with an even more daring transgression: She opened the closet door on a whole world of subterranean sexual experience and feeling, much of it abusive, and none of it considered fit to be discussed. She wrote about sex and religion and state politics all together, and she did it at a bad time, when fundamentalism was on the rise. The combination did her in.”
 
Nasrin eventually settled in Kolkata, where she lived quite happily from 2004 until 2007, when Islamists began protesting her existence again.  What had begun as a movement by poor, largely Muslim farmers against forced industrialization and land seizures in Nandigram got deflected by political manipulation into a riot over Nasrin. The ruling party in West Bengal, at that time the leftwing CPI(M), found it a lot easier to get rid of her than to deal with land issues. When I saw Nasrin the next year in New York, she told me they had shipped her off to Delhi without even giving her time to pack.  In Delhi the federal government essentially kept her under house arrest for months, claiming this was for her own protection while trying to convince her to get out of India. 
 
One might ask why leftwing secularist parties like the CPI(M) and its federal ally, the Congress Party, would collude with Muslim fundamentalists to suppress free speech.  As Nasrin says, it is all about electoral politics. “Who doesn’t want to get Muslim votes? They are 25% of the population.”
 
She stayed away for a few years, then returned to India and, being barred from Kolkata, settled in Delhi, where she resumed work on a projected TV series for a Bengali station. The series, called Doohshahobash, which means something like Difficult Cohabitations, is about a Hindu family of three sisters who confront various kinds of gender oppression. The station ran a huge advertising campaign, plastering Taslima’s face on billboards around Kolkata, and the series was to be broadcast in December. 
 
But suddenly, on December 20th, everything ground to a halt when a coalition of 22 Islamist groups went to the government of West Bengal, now led by the Trinamool Congress party.  Even though they hadn’t seen any of the series, they were so certain it would offend Muslims that they insisted it should be banned; otherwise people might riot.  And, like the CPI(M) before it, the Trinamool Congress caved.  A station spokesperson told The Hindu, Due to external pressure we have deferred the telecast of this serial indefinitely."
 
As Nasrin noted in her blog, this censorship was met by a stunning lack of protest from Kolkata’s literary community.  Garga Chatterjee made a similar point in the Indian weekly Outlook: “Kolkata’s current and the erstwhile rulers, the Trinamool Congress and the CPI(M) respectively, seem to be competing with each other in setting a record on muzzling free speech at the instigation of groups in whose worldview free speech has no place. While there may be short-term electoral gain for such posturing, this race to the bottom has no winners.”
 
The silence of Kolkata’s literary lions may have more to do with male sexual solidarity than party politics. Nasrin is not deferential and has always been outspoken on issues of rape, child molestation, and sexual harassment.  The second volume of her memoirs, Dwikhandito, was banned in Kolkata, allegedly because it violated Muslim sentiments, but she told me in 2005 that the real reason was because she named names about sexual harassment and relationships within the literary elite.  She recently accused a well known Delhi intellectual, Sunil Gangopadhyay, of taking advantage of his position to harass young women writers.  Public discussion of this kind of thing is relatively new in India, where a law against workplace sexual harassment was just passed in April 2013, and a young journalist’s story of being assaulted in an elevator by her editor at the muckraking paper Tehelka made headlines in November.
 
A democracy’s commitment to freedom of expression can be measured by how it treats two groups of people: those of such low status that they have no voice, and those who push the limits of acceptable speech. There is no need to protect those who are powerful and those who never offend. Protesting gender-based censorship is part of mobilizing against rape and sexual harassment, for women’s freedom of expression and movement are related, and if either is limited to what does not offend, it will not exist.
 
Public secular space, on the internet and on the streets, in intellectual fora and on TV, is essential to the health of civil society. This space must be as accessible to women and atheists as to men and the pious. That means that men—including Kolkata intellectuals and US bloggers—should defend women’s right to a public voice, and women should be able to speak publicly without fear of violence. And if these women then offend against male amour-propre, hey, as Virginia Woolf said in 1929, that’s part of free speech.
 
(published on openDemocracy 5050   on Jan. 27, 2014)

(0)
Wednesday, December 11, 2013 - 01:59

An interview with Cathy Albisa of NESRI (National Economic and Social Rights Intiative) for Human Rights Day, 2013.
 

American politicians often talk as if human rights were only relevant in other countries, but grassroots organisations are increasingly using the human rights framework to win social and economic rights for the poorest and most marginalised people in the US. Cathy Albisa, director of the National Economic and Social Rights Inititative, spoke to Meredith Tax

Crowd of people wearing green t-shirts behind a large banner reading 'Farmworker freedom march' Photo: NESRI (National Economic and Social Rights Initiative)
 
Meredith Tax: Looking at the history of human rights in the US, why do you think it has taken progressives so long to use the ideas of human rights for social and economic change?
 
Cathy Albisa: Progressives in the US have used the ideas for centuries, including in the abolitionist movement, but politics intervened after World War II when the formal human rights system was created. With regard to the United States, Carol Anderson spells out this history in her book Eyes Off the Prize: The United Nations and the African-American Struggle for Human Rights, 1944-1955
 
People in the Civil Rights Movement recognized they needed a human rights strategy to achieve full equality because civil rights alone, without economic and social rights, would be inadequate.  But at the same time, you had forces pushing in the opposite direction.  On the international stage, the world was moving from a time of global unity against fascism to the East-West divisions of the Cold War.  In this environment, human rights became highly politicized, with the USSR claiming economic and social rights and the US claiming political and civil ones.  The cruel irony for people in both parts of the world was that the Soviet Union wasn’t adequately delivering social and economic rights and the US wasn’t actually delivering civil and political rights to a substantial portion of its population.  But within the US, human rights became a political football and anyone who pushed for economic and social rights would be accused of aiding communism and being a traitor.  And the Far Right had a very effective strategy of associating labor and human rights with what they described as the communist threat.
 
This dynamic was evident from the inception of the system.  When the UN was first founded and the Charter was being negotiated in San Francisco, both the NAACP and the American Jewish Congress were there to link domestic issues to international human rights.  The US government suddenly became concerned that they might be held accountable to this vision they were promoting for the rest of the world, and ensured a sovereignty clause in the UN Charter indicating that the system could not interfere in domestic concerns.  Already, the United States saw human rights as a threat domestically.    
 
Nonetheless, US leadership, in the person of Eleanor Roosevelt, was a key driver of the UHDR (Universal Declaration of Human Rights).  Yet when the NAACP sought to use the international stage to make abuses against African-American visible, she threatened to resign from the US delegation to the UN. Eleanor wanted to keep human rights primarily an international vision to avoid political fallout at home. 
 
MT: But she was being called a communist anyway.
 
CA: Right. She didn’t want to deal with any more attacks. And the backlash was so intense that conservatives almost succeeded in passing an amendment to the constitution, the Bricker Amendment, that would strip the presidency of power to enter and enforce treaties. It was stopped in the Senate in 1954 but it lost by only one vote. Eisenhower basically had to promise not to enter into and enforce any human rights treaties in order to make the threat go away.
 
MT: And their motivation was mostly racism? 
 
CA: I think it was a package; there was both a racial component and an economic one in this toxic opposition to human rights. To give you an idea, Frank E. Holman, who was the head of the American Bar Association, went all over the country claiming Americans had to oppose human rights because they might lead to anti-lynching laws, mixed marriages, and desegregation.  Clearly racism was a huge part of this, but human rights were also attacked as socialist.  So at the moment of the founding of the UN, when the US might actually have embraced human rights within government institutions, the backlash became overwhelming. And because of this, the more mainstream people in the civil rights movement felt that they had to step back or they wouldn’t achieve anything at all.
 
The next visible effort to call for domestic economic and social rights came in the second wave of the civil rights movement with the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the Poor Peoples' Campaign, and Malcolm's call to place civil rights in the context of international anti-colonial struggles.  But the civil rights movement was being seriously attacked at that time, people were being killed, and the community was so pressed it lost all faith or hope in the notion of American values and rights. Instead people understandably began to say they had to build their own power—that was the Black Power movement.  
 
But the predecessors of the people now pressing for economic and social rights came out of that period. Marian Kramer from Detroit and George Wiley founded the National Welfare Rights Organization in 1966. George died in 1973 but Marion kept working even in periods where nobody else was talking about economics in terms of rights. The conversation was kept alive in the South as well, among African-Americans in particular.  
 
MT: How did the US human rights movement develop after the 70s?
 
CA: First of all, you have to see the domestic human rights movement in the US as separate from the international human rights movement, or what we call the INGOs, International Non-Governmental Organizations.  Though I wasn’t aware of much of a domestic human rights movement here until the early 90s, I have heard that even during the 1980’s there were efforts on the ground.  But in 1989, the end of the Cold War prompted a heightened level of interest, because there was now a space where the ideas of human rights could be detached from international power politics and used for authentic social change. 
 
In the early to mid 90s, new conversations began to develop about how to bring a human rights approach to the US.  The two reasons that were cited—from the perspective of domestic advocates—were that we needed a more genuine definition of discrimination than the narrow legal version that prevails in the US.  We needed a definition of discrimination that took on structural issues. And we needed economic and social rights. Those were the twin arguments I heard over and over again.
 
MT: Who was making these arguments?
 
CA: There were two different types of people at the table in the early 90s. The first were from grassroots groups that had the seeds of a human rights analysis, small ones, welfare rights in particular, in Tennessee, Philadelphia, and West Virginia, and there were the public housing residents in Chicago.  There was also the farm workers’ organization, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) which formed in 93.  They started in a church with ten farm workers and copies of the UHDR which they read together, and were founded as a human rights organization from the beginning.  They were from Mexico, Guatemala, and Haiti, and included founder Lucas Benitez and two graduates from Brown who were former legal services paralegals, Greg Asbed and Laura Germino. What they have built in Immokalee with a human rights vision is extraordinary.   
 
The grassroots groups were interested because people were being crushed economically.  When you look at the impact of Clinton's welfare reform, the bottom half of welfare recipients’ lives became far worse.  So the first people I saw walk into the room were the most marginalized communities: welfare moms and farm workers.  Things were so bad in farm work that in the 90s (and up until recently) there were several slavery cases in Florida prosecuted by the federal government, liberating more than 1000 workers and leading to up to 30 year prison terms.
 
In addition to the grassroots activists of the 90s, some lawyers were interested, like Deborah LaBelle in Michigan, who fought to stop rape in women’s prisons through litigation.  And some international advocates were at the table, like Larry Cox, who later became the head of Amnesty USA but was at the Ford Foundation at the time, and Dorothy Thomas, founder of the Women’s Rights Division at Human Rights Watch. They thought the example of a US that wasn’t willing to be accountable to human rights standards even on paper was undermining the legitimacy of human rights worldwide. 
 
So the movement spread from two poles: INGOs way up high and grassroots voices with very tiny organizations and very little money and power.  And somehow this weird mix came together and started a conversation that’s now gone on for 20 years and has catalyzed new organizations and ways of working. Today you see a lot more people talking about economic and social rights partly because more people are feeling harmed—the students, the more traditional labor organizations, the people in Occupy.  The AFL is increasingly using human rights messages and approaches, and claims to want to build an alt labor movement, which looks at labor and community together, not segregating out issues but really trying see to how the web of society works.
 
MT: But the pivotal moment for US economic and social rights was the early 90s.
 
CA: Yes.  And the movement was initially founded by communities that were being squeezed into the darkest shadows of the economy by the pressure of market fundamentalism—which Clinton promoted very strongly and which seeded the housing crisis as well as some of the economic problems we see today.
 
MT: We’ll have to remember that in the next election. And what about the US left?  How does that deal with human rights?
 
CA: The US left obviously has some mixed attitudes towards human rights. Many of the older generation want nothing to do with human rights because it does have a very tainted history and they also think that kind of work can only be reformist. But some of us, and there is a generational difference here, believe that if we take the language literally at its word that it’s inherently transformative. The co-founder of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, Greg Asbed, and several of his co-workers were given the Roosevelt Award this year, the Freedom from Want award, and in his acceptance speech he mentioned the UDHR.  He told me afterwards, “You know, I was looking at the audience and I could tell that a lot of people hadn’t even heard about it.”  And that was in New York!  He said, “It’s really a shame because if you take this little book seriously as a blueprint for society, it would be completely transformative.” 
 
The UDHR is not only written in beautiful and poetic language, it has the right ideas and it sets a high bar if you take it at its word.  What many people in the US human rights movement want to do is reclaim it and insist that it means what it says and it says what it means.
 
MT: Let’s talk about women and gender in terms of social and economic rights.  
 
CA: I am not a person who privileges one set of rights over another by any stretch - but frankly, this is the set that shape most women’s lives because women are the ones who fill the gaps in a society that doesn’t protect economic and social rights.  Usually it’s at the intersection of gender and race where you see the poorest people in society and it’s women who are the caretakers and have to watch their children go hungry and un-housed.  Which is why it was women on welfare who were among the first to begin this movement.
 
The challenge is that there isn’t much of a women’s movement left in this country at all and, within the other social movements, there’s less of an explicitly feminist perspective than ever.  I think some of that is changing but not through the growth of women’s organizations.  I see it starting to change through more explicitly gendered discussion in non-women-led organizations.
 
Look at the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. They have made sexual harassment one of the four pillars of their Campaign for Fair Food, which has entered human rights agreements with eleven of the large produce purchasers including Taco Bell, McDonalds, Burger King, Subway, Whole Foods, and Trader Joe’s, to improve wages and working conditions in the tomato fields.  Why sexual harassment? The depth of the problem became very clear when they started enforcing their Fair Foods Code of Conduct, which includes a worker-to-worker education process.  And the women who were getting the education said, “You mean, this isn’t supposed to happen?  You mean, I can do something about this?”  And the complaints started coming in significant numbers and the women started getting more active and the female membership increased.  And now they talk a lot about what women farm workers go through.
 
MT:  Are you saying the CIW was started by men, so they weren’t aware of the issue, and as they tried to recruit women the issue came up?
 
CA: No. The co-founders included women.  But it’s an 80 to 90 percent male work force and the CIW had to deal with a very degraded labor environment for everyone, and gender issues did not rise to the surface for a while.  But here’s where the human rights approach comes in. They always saw themselves as a human rights organization, so when they entered into the agreements, they were committed to looking at the whole system and the full set of rights, and they automatically put in a prohibition on sexual harassment.  What wasn’t clear was that this would end up becoming a signature issue.  But when the enforcement began in 2009, this rose to the top, because for the first time the women in the fields were told, “Yeah, this can’t happen and we will do something about it if you file a complaint.” And many of them did.  And they became far more vocal and far more visible. 
 
The male leadership in the organization is as deeply invested in ending the sexual harassment and abuse as any women's organization I have seen. There is a deep solidarity in the organization.  And you can’t do anti-sexual harassment work only vertically, you have to do it horizontally as well.  So when they developed their public education, they couldn’t just go into the fields and say, “The boss is not allowed to sexually harass the women farm workers.” They had to talk about it more broadly. And they would give examples, “What if this happened to your sister, what if this happened to your mother,” you know, really trying to personalize it.  At the end of the education session they would turn and say, “Well, these are your sisters and your mothers in the field when you are working together.”  
 
It’s been amazing.  And they will acknowledge that this as the hardest work they’re doing.  It’s harder than ending the wage stealing.  It’s harder than ending the violence.  But that’s how gender gets integrated; people push for different kinds of structural changes and then the gender dimensions rise to the top. 
 
MT: How does gender come up in other US domestic human rights work?
 
CA: In the domestic workers' movement, you see a lot of organizing led by women but you don’t see a lot of organizing that necessarily engages in an explicit feminist analysis. 
 
In housing, we’ve done a lot of our work in public housing, which is 80% women.  It’s one of those issues that people don’t talk about it in terms of women - there isn’t a real analysis, though it’s obvious that the predominance of women tenants in public housing has to do with the criminalization of black men and the feminization of poverty. 
 
In our school-to-prison pipeline work there’s definitely a gender perspective because the schools target black males and that’s as important a gender perspective as anything else, though all students are affected. The Dignity in Schools Campaign has become more and more sophisticated at talking about the different nuances and manifestations of abusive discipline in targeting particular children. And now there’s a growing alliance and participation by the LGBTQ community in the campaign. That campaign started out with a classic school-to-prison lens and it has become more nuanced over time, especially around the sexual orientation work. And it is led by women at the parent level.
 
So it’s not that you don’t have movements led by women.  But what we don’t have right now in this country is a lot of grassroots work that talks about the way women are specifically impacted.  And I don’t know what the best solution is to that.  I am really encouraged by what I see at the CIW and what I’d like to see is more integrated work, where gender is an explicit piece of it, rather than necessarily having women isolated.  
 
And you do have groups like the Vermont Workers' Center. The Vermont Workers’ Center is probably—this is a big word I try to avoid in any kind of public discourse—but it’s probably the most intersectional of our partners. They’re an organization that’s mostly white because they’re in Vermont but they have a lot of anti-racism trainings and gender discussions. They’re very conscious on that level.  I also believe their work on healthcare is feminist work, although because of the way women’s issues are defined in this country, healthcare financing somehow doesn’t make the list. Nurses are a disproportionately female profession and they have a close and deep alliance with the nurses’ union in this work. 
 
The Vermont Workers’ Center explicitly supported reproductive rights in the new state single payer system, which commits to publicly and equitably financed healthcare.  But I think we need to rethink what we talk about as women’s issues in this country.  Because when you have a workers’ center coming together to campaign for public financing for health care in deep alliance with the nurses’ organization, I mean, these are women’s issues.  It sometimes boggles the mind why we don’t see them as such. 
 
In this country, women’s issues are defined to exclude anything that affects men as well as women. But that means we are defining women’s issues in relation to men!  Because it’s much rarer for men to be targets of sexual harassment or rape, though it happens, those become women’s issues.  Because men don’t get pregnant, abortion becomes a women’s issue.  But that’s a very strange way to define what a women’s issue is.  Even though most of the parents who work on education programs are women, education is not seen as a women’s issue unless there is some kind of discrimination.
 
MT: I used to do parent organizing and had arguments about whether this was feminist work. I would say, “I’m a feminist, I’m doing it, so it’s feminist work.”  But some of my friends didn’t think a parent-initiated school was feminist work; it had to be something about gender roles.
 
CA: I’ve committed to seeing feminism as a perspective not a piece of work. I think, for example, when you try to raise your children in a democratic household, that’s feminist work, whether you are raising boys or girls. Sexism is predicated on the very notion of hierarchy and I think any time you try to challenge hierarchy and come up with other models of interacting and organizing yourselves socially, it should be seen as feminist work.  Single-payer health insurance, is about creating shared risks—it’s a solidarity insurance system based on public financing, and that’s a feminist vision for the world.
Published first on openDemocracy.

(0)
Thursday, October 17, 2013 - 16:15

[originally published on openDemocracy on Sept. 17]
Whew. It’s over. At least until next time.  At 10:40 PM on Wednesday, Republicans in the US House of Representatives voted to end the shutdown they began so cavalierly on Oct. 1. But not until the world saw the US government screech to a halt and the global economy held hostage by a bunch of irresponsible yahoos who wanted to play chicken with the President, threatening a default on US debts unless he backed down on the Affordable Care Act.
 
Observers from Bill Moyers to Andrew Sullivan to John McCain pointed out that the shutdown was unconstitutional. The Affordable Care Act was passed twice by Congress, signed by a President who had just been re-elected by a substantial majority, and approved by the Supreme Court. That makes it law. Congress is constitutionally obligated to fund laws once they are passed.  
 
But Tea Party Republicans have their own interpretation of the Constitution, and were unmoved by the misery they caused by putting eighty thousand federal employees on furlough, shutting down infant feeding programs, holding up subsistence money to Indian reservations, and closing Head Start and daycare centers.  Damage to US prestige has also been extensive, and there is talk in China of going off the dollar as the world’s reserve currency.
 
What caused such a mess?  US liberals and leftists have offered three main explanations of the debacle.
 
Explanation 1: The shutdown was caused by a capitalist cabal of climate-denying, big government-hating, welfare-cutting libertarian oil magnates and international capitalists, led by the Koch Brothers of Wichita, Kansas.  This position was laid out by an investigative report by Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Mike McIntire in the New York Times, and echoed in a recent openDemocracy interview with Colin Greer.  According to the Times, the shutdown plan was hatched by former Attorney General Edwin Meese and Michael Needham of Heritage for America, the recipient of a half million in Koch Brothers money.  Other groups involved include Tea Party Patriots, Americans for Prosperity, Freedomworks, and the Club for Growth—all also funded by David and Charles Koch. 
 
And who are the Koch Brothers? Their father, a founder of the John Birch Society, set up oil refineries under Stalin, saw his associates purged, and  became convinced that socialism—which he saw as identical to big government—was the source of all the world’s ills.  His sons David and Charlie are billionaire oilmen, and, according to a 2010 New Yorker profile, “longtime libertarians who believe in drastically lower personal and corporate taxes, minimal social services for the needy, and much less oversight of industry—especially environmental regulation. These views dovetail with the brothers’ corporate interests.”  The Koch brothers are often cited as an example of the unprecedented power of capital in US politics since the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision removed limits on corporate campaign contributions. 
 
Explanation 2: The shutdown was a rational expression of the class interests of the old Southern oligarchy, descendents of slave owners, who are scared by the fact that white men are now a minority and hope to keep control over their local turf and its people by weakening the federal government. This position has been developed by Michael Lind in Salon and Ryan Lizza in the New Yorker.
 
Noting that the shutdown Congressmen come from electoral districts that differ demographically from the rest of the country, Ryan Lizza says, “The members of the suicide caucus live in a different America from the one that most political commentators describe when talking about how the country is transforming. The average suicide caucus district is seventy-five per cent white, while the average House district is sixty-three per cent white. Latinos make up an average of nine per cent of suicide-district residents, while the over-all average is seventeen per cent.”  And a majority of them come from Texas and the South, former slave states.
 
The long term economic strategy of the Southern white elite has been to attract investment by holding down wages, crushing labour unions, and skimping on social services to keep taxes low.  They use voter suppression to keep blacks and immigrants from voting, particularly since a June 2013 Supreme Court decision invalidated parts of the Voters Rights Act.  And, says Michael Lind, if these tactics are not enough, their representatives in Congress can try to stop new federal programmes that would help the working poor of the South by “devolving federal programs to the states, privatizing federal programs like Social Security and Medicare, blocking the implementation of new federal entitlements like Obamacare.”
 
Bill Moyers, a Southerner himself, has gone so far as to call the shutdown a second effort at secession: “Like the die-hards of the racist South a century and a half ago, who would destroy the union before giving up their slaves, so would these people burn down the place, sink the ship.... At least, let's name this for what it is: sabotage of the democratic process. Secession by another means.”
 
Explanation 3: The shutdown was caused by Christian fundamentalists who think destroying the US government and economic system will kick off the End Times, from which they will emerge the ultimate winners of history.  This argument has been advanced by a number of people who track the religious right, including Amanda Marcotte, Chris Hedges, and Morgan Guyton of the United Methodist Church.
 
Two of the shutdown’s cheerleaders, Rep. Michelle Bachman of Minnesota and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, are associated with a strand of evangelical Christianity called Dominianism.  As defined by Political Research Associates, a US think tank that investigates the Christian right, Dominianism is the theocratic idea that...heterosexual Christian men are called by God to exercise dominion over secular society by taking control of political and cultural institutions.” Dominionists believe that the US always was and always should be a Christian nation; that there can be no equality between faiths; and that US civil law should be based on the Bible.
 
Michelle Bachman recently gave an interview in which she accused Obama of arming Al Qaeda in Syria, but said this was really good news because “I’m a believer in Jesus Christ, as I look at the End Times scripture, this says to me that the leaf is on the fig tree and we are to understand the signs of the times.”  Fortunately Bachman isn’t running for re-election. Ted Cruz, on the other hand, is aiming for the heights; last week’s Value Voters Summit, a convention of conservatives hosted by the anti-abortion and anti-gay Family Research Council, voted him their pick for president in 2016.  Cruz was educated in Baptist schools and his father, Rafael Cruz, a Cuban exile, is an evangelist with the Purifying Fire Ministry, ministering to the US, Mexico, and Central America. 
 
Both Cruz and Bachman are also associated with the Tea Party.  They represent the US Christian equivalent of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, who sought political power through elections in order to dismantle the secular state and inaugurate the rule of the pious, meaning them.  The shutdown has demonstrated that Christian fundamentalists are equally willing to destroy democracy in order to save souls.  And, despite their claims, they no more represent most Americans than the Muslim Brotherhood represented most Egyptians. According to a 2010 New York Times/CBS poll, Tea Party members are older, whiter, better educated and richer than the general population.  And while  Cruz may been raised by Texas bible-punchers, he also attended Princeton and Harvard Law School, where he was an editor of the Law Review, just like Obama, and went on to clerk for Chief Justice William Rehnquist.
 
So while the Koch Brothers, Southern good ol’ boys, and Christian fundamentalists all bear responsibility for the shutdown, none were its sole movers.  The interesting question is the relationship between them—and their relationship to oil.
 
Oil may be the world’s most valued commodity and source of political clout.  Oil has made Norway a social-democratic icon, Venezuela a South American leader, Saudi Arabia the funder of Islamists all over the world.  But oil, which may have doomed our planet, is itself a doomed, non-renewable source of energy.  As Michael T. Klare, an historian of oil, observed in 2011: 
 
“America’s rise to economic and military supremacy was fueled in no small measure by its control over the world’s supply of oil.  Oil powered the country’s first giant corporations, ensured success in World War II, and underlay the great economic boom of the postwar period.  Even in an era of nuclear weapons, it was the global deployment of oil-powered ships, helicopters, planes, tanks, and missiles that sustained America’s superpower status during and after the Cold War.  It should come as no surprise, then, that the country’s current economic and military decline coincides with the relative decline of oil as a major source of energy.”
 
No wonder the Koch brothers are unhappy. No wonder they fight the idea of climate change with such fury. Their End Time approacheth.  As does that of the Southern oligarchs who ruled for so many years by union-busting, race-baiting and terror.  Few of them run factories or plantations any more; as Michael Lind puts it, they are “the lords of the local car dealership, country club and chamber of commerce...more likely to be millionaires than billionaires, more likely to run low-wage construction or auto supply businesses than multinational corporations. They are second-tier people on a national level but first-tier people in their states and counties and cities.”
 
Desperate to hold onto political power, these billionaires and local gentry seek allies who can appear to represent “the people,” and lo! here come the fundamentalists, always good at raising a crowd, and not only in the US.  Hindu supremacists, political Islamists, fanatical West Bank settlers, and Bible punchers of every description have donors among the global rich as well as local elites. The Koch Brothers fund the Tea Party. The Saudis fund madrassas in Africa, South Asia, even Bosnia-Herzogovina, building a power base to project their ideas far into the future.  Needless to say, fundamentalist groups have their own agendas: stop abortion, subordinate women, fight the hereditary enemy (usually the ethnic or religious group next door.)  
 
But this does not worry their patrons, who assume they can rein them in if necessary.
 
But can they?  The Tea Party bolted for 16 days, threatening the world economic system until the Koch Brothers got so nervous they disowned the shutdown.  Sometimes puppet masters have less control than they think. 
 
These are not comforting thoughts.  But it is better to see things as they are than to think you have one enemy when you really have three.

(0)
Tuesday, September 3, 2013 - 01:06

Watching James Baldwin, Thinking About Syria
 
            The other night, trying to stop brooding about Syria, I watched “The Price of the Ticket,” a biopic about James Baldwin which PBS rebroadcast to honor the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington.  This year is also the anniversary of Baldwin’s book The Fire Next Time, which includes a letter to his nephew about racism.  In the spring of 1963, I heard him read from it at Brandeis, where I was then a student.  Baldwin was a skinny little guy with enormous eyes and an unforgettable voice: soft and mellow with great expressive range.  His words moved me deeply, but though I read his book over and over, I did not know where to go with the feelings it evoked. 
 
            My life until then had been completely segregated, shaped by my parents’ flight to the suburbs of Milwaukee.  By the time I reached high school I knew I hated white bread suburban culture, but had no idea how to fight it and no connection with any movement.  At college, there was a small civil rights movement; one of my friends was in it and I went with her to picket Woolworth's.  The seduction of collective action was already palpable and I certainly felt it but was afraid to succumb.  My goal was to become a writer, hard enough for a girl in those days, so instead of plunging into activism, I fled to Europe.  From London I watched as Malcolm was shot; Bobby Kennedy was shot; Dr. King was shot, and the riots began in Harlem, Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, Newark.  Finally I could stay away no longer; as Baldwin had suggested in 1963, I had to commit:
 
            “[White people] are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it. They have had to believe for many years, and for innumerable reasons, that black men are inferior to white men. Many of them, indeed, know better, but, as you will discover, people find it very difficult to act on what they know. To act is to be committed, and to be committed is to be in danger.”  
 
            Baldwin believed in integration thouigh some of his friends, like Malcolm X, disagreed. Though Baldwin could be scathing about white racism, cruelty and stupidity, it is clear in the PBS bio that he also had a lot of white friends, especially artists and writers.  I wanted that kind of life for myself.  I wanted to live in a world where people could meet one another as individuals, ignoring boundaries of history and prejudice and identity and taking pleasure in their differences rather than being divided by them.  I knew that, in such a world, I would find friends everywhere.
 
            There are many barriers to the construction of such a world.  Racism is one, religious fundamentalism another, the complex tangles of international power politics a third.  And then there is the Alpha Male, in all his many international and local varieties.  The Alpha Male is not interested in promoting human connections.  His self-image is based on protecting his turf, his women, and his children from the poison of otherness.  He has to make sure they will never hear ideas he doesn’t agree with, never date people who are not like him, and never move away.  In order to do this, he has to fence off sexual conduct and gender identity.  To a man whose goal is to control the herd, gay sexuality and feminism are equally threatening.
 
            When I returned to the US in 1968, Malcolm X and Dr. King were dead, civil rights had been replaced by Black Power, and James Baldwin was in eclipse, dissed by Alpha Males like Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver.  Cleaver saw rape as a political act by which black men could throw off their shackles; they could practise on black women to work up to the ultimate transgression of raping white women. He wrote a poisonous essay on Baldwin’s homosexuality, published first in Ramparts and then in his book Soul on Ice:   
 
       “... it seems that many Negro homosexuals, acquiescing in this racial death-wish, are outraged and frustrated because in their sickness they are unable to have a baby by a white man.  The cross they have to bear is that already bending over and touching their toes for the white man, the fruit of their miscegenation is not the little half-white offspring of their dreams but an increase in the unwinding of their nerves—though they redouble their efforts and intake of the white man’s sperm.”          
 
            It isn’t such a big jump from this kind of thing to the everpresent macho attacks on Barack Obama, today’s most prominent Black political leader, who has been called a wuss (by Bill Clinton), a pussy (by Don Imus and Mark Halperin), a guy with no balls (by Matt Damon, of all people) and “not tough enough” (by Fox News, Jesse Jackson, and many others).  I have plenty of criticisms of Obama but it is a relief that he does not feel the need to be an Alpha Male.
 
            Unfortunately, he has a tendency to surround himself with them—Rahm Emmanuel, the odious Larry Summers, John Kerry.  Even his female advisors (Hillary Clinton, Susan Rice, Samantha Power) sometimes seem to have a very male notion of strong leadership.
 
            The problem is that, since the days of Teddy Roosevelt at least, the US has defined itself as the Alpha Male of nations.  Many of us hoped, especially after his 2007 speech on race, that Obama would move us towards a different self-definition, one based on principle and humanity.  This hasn’t happened, but it remains necessary.
 
            Rather than fearing the US will be seen as a “pitiful, helpless giant”—a fate that Nixon invaded Cambodia to avert—or worrying about loss of credibility, would it not make sense to develop better non-military ways to exercise leadership?  Like putting on real pressure to negotiate, and trying to get Russia to do the same, rather than having a hissy fit over Snowden?  Far from using our muscle to produce any outcome that might serve the Syrian people, we have used it to stop the Syrian resistance from getting heavy weapons—you would think we wanted the result of this war to be a country divided between al Qaeda and a mad dictator, rather than a democratic revolution. 
           
            Unfortunately, many on the US left have been relying on the reporting of Robert Fisk, whose embeddedness with the Assad regime was exposed last year by Syrian writers Rime Allaf and Yassin Al Haj Saleh.  Meanwhile the mainstream media have framed Syria as a sectarian civil war or one where the only choices are al-Qaeda and Bashar al-Assad.  As in Egypt, they have left a major player out of the picture—Syrian civil society, whose ideas of revolution is not necessarily represented by the exiles in the Syrian National Council.
 
            Here is an alternative summary by Robin Yassin-Kassab: “The Syrian regime’s ultra-violent repression of a peaceful protest movement spawned an armed resistance. The regime met the armed resistance with genocide and ethnic cleansing. Then a week ago the regime struck multiple targets in the Damascus suburbs with chemical weapons, perhaps killing as many Syrians in three hours as Palestinians were killed in Israel’s month-long rampage in Gaza (2008/9).”
 
            What does that have to do with the US?  Shouldn’t we concentrate on domestic problems?  Sure.  But we live in a world where everything is connected.  Of course US progressives should oppose a rush to war and point out the pitfalls of intervention, but we should also find ways to support the Syrian resistance and help make sure that the Syrian people do not end up trapped between al-Qaeda and Bashar al-Assad. 
 
             A simple antiwar position is not enough in a situation where a government has killed 100,000 of its own people and driven at least a fourth of the population into refugee camps, even before it used Sarin gas.  Why has the US consistently refused to allow the rebels weapons that can shoot down bombers?  The reason given is the fear that these weapons might fall into “the wrong hands,” but the wrong hands already have plenty of heavy guns; it’s the right hands that are lacking.   No wonder some in the Syrian resistance think the purpose of a US attack will be “saving the regime from itself, allowing it to undertake the ‘good fight’ as defined from an American and European perspective: fighting al-Qaeda and the Salafist-Jihadist organizations.”
 
            Such hypocrisy.  But, as Robin Yassin-Kassab says, “all states—if we must compare them with people—are hypocrites, and America, as (still) the world’s most powerful state, much more than most.” All the more reason that its citizens must not be simple-minded. As James Baldwin said in his letter to his nephew fifty years ago, “One can be—indeed, one must strive to become—tough and philosophical concerning destruction and death, for this is what most of mankind has been best at since we have heard of war; remember, I said most of mankind, but it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.”
 
 

(0)
Tuesday, June 25, 2013 - 22:36

Fundamentalism and education
 
Meredith Tax  25 June 2013
 
(This was published on openDemocracy on June 25, 2013.)
 
At a time when global warming requires that we do our most creative thinking, public education and free thought are under attack by both austerity programs and religious fundamentalism.  So where are our new creative thinkers supposed to come from?
 
When the city of Chicago closes 49 “underperforming” schools in poor neighborhoods, who gets hurt?
 
When fundamentalist parents control what information their kids are exposed to by home schooling them, who are the victims?
 
In both cases, children are being hurt.  But they are not the only ones.
 
We live at a time when, according to environmentalists, our continued existence on this planet is at risk.  More than ever, in the years ahead, people will need both scientific and humanistic knowledge to confront this challenge.  But our educational institutions are lagging behind, rather than gearing up to mobilize the vast stores of human creativity that will be needed as we face irreversible climate change.  They are lagging behind for two reasons.
 
The first is cutbacks. In the US, the last big era of public spending on education and other social goods was the sixties.  Today Chicago’s neoliberal Mayor Rahm Emmanuel is closing 49 schools in poor minority neighborhoods and has just announced he will spend some of the money the city saved on subsidizing a new arena for DePaul (a private Catholic university).  Similarly, a major trigger of last week’s riots in Brazil was the prioritizing of money for Olympic stadiums (bread and circuses) over public education and transportation.  In the last few years, mass protests over university tuition have taken place in Chile, Quebec, the UK, and the US, among other places.
 
But neoliberal austerity programs are not the only threat to education.  Fundamentalism is another.   
 
Eighty-eight years ago, the American Civil Liberties Union decided to bring a test case against Tennessee’s Butler Act, which prohibited the teaching of evolution in its public schools.  The result was the celebrated Scopes Trial, a media circus in which John Scopes, a substitute science teacher, was prosecuted with the assistance of William Jennings Bryan, a three times presidential candidate who particularly objected to the notion that men could be descended from monkeys.  The famous trial lawyer Clarence Darrow, an agnostic, led the defense team.  The jury found Scopes guilty, though the verdict was later overturned on a technicality, and the trial led to attempts to pass anti-evolution laws in a number of other states.  Not until the 1950s, when Sputnik led to a national panic over science education, and Congress passed the National Defense Education Act, did evolution become recognized as an essential part of the US public education curriculum.
 
Today as in 1925, religious fundamentalists are trying to control education in places all over the world.
 
The Taliban is famous for attacking girls’ schools; in the years they ruled Afghanistan, they forbade female education completely.  In the uproar last year after the attempted assassination of Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani Taliban said they opposed only “secular” education, but last week they blew up a school bus full of girls in Quetta, pursuing survivors of the first suicide attack with a second attack on the hospital where they were taken.  And even secular education in Pakistan is not all that secular; both public and private schools are required to use a state curriculum for Islamic studies and Pakistani history which has been described as teaching “a narrow interpretation of Islam that encourages religious intolerance and extremism through negative references to Pakistan’s minorities (religious and other).”
 
Reem Abdel-Razek, a young Egyptian who went to an international high school in Saudi Arabia, says their English science texts as published included sections on evolution and human reproduction, but the teacher was required to rip out all those pages and teach creationism. When she tried to order social science or other secular books online, she couldn’t get them because of internet censorship. Her father, himself a scientist, told her that evolutionary theory was a plot by Jews to weaken Islam by making Muslims doubt the Koran; this was evidenced by the fact that many scientists are Jewish.  “They say Arab societies are stagnant because of the effects of colonialism and the power of the Jews,” Reem says, “but the real reason is that they won’t let us learn anything!” 
 
This problem is not restricted to Islam.  Fundamentalists of every persuasion oppose any curriculum that might cause children to question religious dogma.
 
In Israel, fundamentalist opposition to secular education has become an economic as well as a political problem; the haredi (ultra-Orthodox Israeli Jews), a growing percentage of the population because of their high birth rate, are almost unemployable because they don't study anything but religious texts.  The government is now threatening to cut their educational subsidies if they don’t add classes in English and math.  Like Islamists, fundamentalist Christians, and the Vatican, the haredi also have problems with women.
 
In India, a country with many minorities including a huge Muslim one, the Hindutva movement promotes the notion of a single unchangeable Indian culture identical to their version of Hinduism.  The RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sang) has its own network of schools which, while constrained to use the common curricula and textbooks, has a supplementary curriculum in which “facts” taught for examination include the ideas that Aryans originated in India and subsequently spread to Iran; that the former site of the Babri Masjid was the birthplace of Ram; and that Homer’s Iliad is an adaptation of the Ramayana
 
According to Latha Menon, wherever the BJP (the political party of the Hindutva movement) came to power, it attempted to insert these ideas into state educational curricula, despite opposition from secular intellectuals:  “Since the late 1990s, national education has become a battleground, drawing in many distinguished historians, scientists, and other academics who have refused to tolerate any move away from a strictly secular education system; who have protested against the mingling of myth alongside history, and pseudoscience alongside science.” 
 
In the United States around 2 million children are being home schooled—about the same number as are in charter schools, which in some parts of the country are thinly disguised religious academies.  The vast majority of home schooled children come from families with a religious objection to secular education.  The Minerva Coalition, which was set up “to provide a voice for victims of religious abuse,” has a spin-off website and Facebook page called Homeschoolers Anonymous, [30] full of testimonies like this one: 
 
“I’m a 19 year old from Missouri, recently liberated from my parents and my home school. I was taught via the curriculum offered by Alpha Omega Academy, a YEC-oriented set of curricula which taught the wrong things and didn’t even teach them well. I learned that Pi = 3, that the Earth is 6,000 years old and that the ‘only’ way fossils could possibly exist is if a great flood happened. It also tended to use History class as indoctrination, and tried to teach 9 and 10 year olds that they should only vote for Christians in elections because ‘otherwise, we’d have to live by Man’s law, and not God’s.’ All of this, of course, paled in comparison to the largest problem this caused. I was completely isolated from civilization for most of my life, with the exception of the internet.”
 
In the US, despite the constitutional separation of religion and the state, there are constant battles over the teaching of creationism, prayer and religious symbols in public schools, voucher systems which allow parents to send their children to religious schools at public expense, and the use of school buildings for prayer meetings.  In the UK, where there is no constitutional separation, the state actually funds religious education; as Gita Sahgal observed in 2011, “large sums of public money [are] being made available to a programme of work that transforms education from a system that encourages questioning and inquiry to one where, according to Christian evangelicals, even the existence of doubt is due to Satanic influence.” In Canada, except for Quebec, public schools mandate classes in either religious or moral education while multiculturalism has created other problems, according to Ariane Brunet by allowing for “‘identity education’ that accommodates religion, culture and patriarchal values.”
 
In a Catholic Church embattled over issues like celibacy, child abuse, and the ordination of women, education has become another focus of struggle.  In Lima, for instance, Cardinal Juan Luis Cipriani, a Fujimori supporter and member of the ultra-conservative organization Opus Dei, has ordered the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru to either submit to Vatican authority or change its name; the university has refused.  The Vatican says the university is a nest of liberation theology (oh, the horror!) while the university says the Church wants to control its curriculum and valuable real estate holdings.  Pablo Quintanilla, a faculty member, wrote recently:  “The conflict here is about what a Catholic university should be: either a pluralistic place for religious freedom and Catholic thought, or a dogmatic guardian of one particular way to understand faith.”
 
These battles over education will affect all of us.  Since the nineties, feminists have been warning of two great obstacles to human progress: the dog-eat-dog, market-driven ideology of neoliberal economics, and the growth of religious fundamentalist movements.  Creative thinking requires time and money for education; it also requires secular space for freedom of thought.  For this reason, education is a crucial front in the struggle for planetary survival.

(1)
Tuesday, June 11, 2013 - 22:18

 
Taksim, Convergence and Secular Space
 
On June 11, following threats by Turkey’s PM Erdogan that demonstrators who held out would “pay a price,” an overwhelming force of 20,000 riot police, complete with agents provocateurs  throwing Molotov cocktails, cleared Gezi Park in scenes reminiscent of Occupy Wall Street.  Like OWS, the struggle over the fate of Gezi Park in Taksim Square has been many things.  It has been a real struggle over real space.  It has been a symbolic struggle over the meaning of democracy.  It has been an illustration of the connection between secular space and human rights, including the right to freedom of expression and assembly.  And it has been a key moment in the convergence between neoliberal and “moderate Islamist” agendas. 
 
A public park is a secular space with trees.  That's why Erdogan wants to get rid of Gezi Park, prime footage in an area marked for gentrification.  Privatize public space, turn the city over to the developers, tear down popular coffeehouses and restaurants, close the bars, and leave nowhere for people to go but the mosque. 
 
Erdogan’s agenda is a combination of neoliberal development for the 1% and what his party calls “moral and social conservativsm” for everyone else.  He wants to outlaw abortion and the morning after pill, says every Turkish woman should have three children, and has reverted to the old regime’s persecution of artists and writers, indicting a a classical pianist for an atheist tweet and putting hundreds of journalists in jail.
 
For all these reasons, the planned destruction of the park became a flashpoint for the whole country.  Like New York’s Union Square, Gezi is the historic site of Mayday celebrations and demonstrations in favor of unpopular causes.  The planned redesign will eliminate most pedestrian entrances in favor of car tunnels and replace trees with a shopping mall.  Talk about symbolism—you couldn’t make this stuff up.
 
Gezi Park is one of the few green lungs in Istanbul.  Another Erdogan project, a third airport scheduled to be the largest in Europe, will replace most of the forest on the northern side of the city.  No environmental assessement or public commentary has been invited on this or other major projects.  Erdogan’s democratic theory, like that of Putin and Khamenei, combines elections with authoritarianism: first you win an election and then you get to do whatever you want.  The police have defended this theory of democracy with great enthusiasm, killing two people and injuring an estimated five thousand.
 
A public park embodies a different theory of democracy.  A hundred forty years ago the first planned park in the US was completed by Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmstead, a crusading anti-slavery journalist, conservationist, and co-founder of The Nation.  To Olmstead, Central Park was “a democratic development of the highest significance,” a free, green environment in which city dwellers stifled by vistas of endless concrete could reconnect with nature and regenerate mentally and physically.      
           
In this conception of democracy, secularism—the separation of government and religion—is a given.  A secular space like Central Park is free to any and all; it is a place where the pious and the apostate can rub noses; where people can play football, read, picnic, or just lie on the grass.  In a secular space, there are no dress codes or morality police; itinerant ranters must compete with rap music, and the young are free to kiss one another if they like.
 
The subway is another secular space and this too is being contested in Erdogan’s Turkey.  The week before the Taksim protest began, two kids were kicked off the Ankara subway for “displaying public affection.”  Asking who made the subway system a guardian of public morality, a hundred people staged a "kiss-in" to protest.
           
Fundamentalists and businessmen prefer spaces that are empty and blank, in which the only messages available come from them.  But urban public spaces are messy, noisy, and full of people with conflicting needs.  On the NY subway, for instance, citizens are often exposed to displays of public affection more heated than they may find appropriate, not to mention high decibel rap, acrobatic performances, and preachers haranguing them to come to Jesus.  These annoyances are the price we pay for freedom of expression; a society in which there was no space for crazed preachers to rant—or where only one variety of crazed preacher could do so—would limit everyone else’s freedom of expression too.
           
For the last ten years, the US has been using Erdogan as the poster boy among Muslim leaders, a “modern” Islamist, tolerant of all views and friendly to capital.  Lately Erdogan’s tolerance has not been much in evidence, but his friendliness to capital remains.  The destruction of Gezi Park is thus a landmark in the convergence between the neoliberal and “moderate Islamist” agendas: rebuild the center city for the rich and tourists; exile the poor to the outskirts; and console them with religion.  This agenda also entails cutting back public spending in favor of "faith-based" charity.   It is an agenda many in Washington can get behind.
           
But the Taksim protestors, like Occupy Wall Street, are claiming the right to public spaces that are both green and free—the right to the city.  Their demonstrations brought together Kemalists, anarchists, communists, Kurdish nationalists, LGBT activists, and feminists, all uniting against police brutality and religious encroachment to imagine a kind of democracy that goes deeper than periodic elections, a kind of democracy that is continuous and that responds to the needs of the people, not the developers—a vision just as relevant to Russia, Iran, and the US as to Turkey.
           
 
          

(0)
Saturday, May 25, 2013 - 13:53

Tunisian feminist blogger Amina Tyler arrested
 
[I translated the following article, with the help of Google Translate, because this story has not yet hit the English speaking press although Amina was arrested last Sunday.  This story published in the French magazine Marianne on May 22.  For the an earlier look at Amina and other nude bloggers, see my blog of April 22, "Hot Boobs and Political Contradictions."
 
Amina is in prison: The political underside
 
By Nadia El Fani et Caroline Fourest
 
[Nadia El Fani is a Tunisian documentary film maker now in exile in Paris.  Caroline Fourest is a French feminist who has written widely on fundamentalism and recently came under attack for her support of gay marriage.]
 
http://www.marianne.net/Amina-en-prison-Les-dessous-d-un-acte-politique_a229012.html
 
Amina, otherwise known as the "Tunisian FEMEN," was arrested on May 19.  The trial promises to be very political. On May 21, she appeared before the High Court of Kairouan [a town in central Tunisia, also called Al-Qayrawan, site of an historic mosque and a holy city for Islamists]. The prosecutor gave a press conference to announce the charges against her: “desecrating a cemetery” and “offenses against modesty.” She could be held for as long as 14 months while awaiting trial and faces up to two years in prison. The charges are totally ludicrous in light of her action: a simple graffiti tag on a wall less than a foot high.

This wall, probably constructed by the city of Kairouan, surrounds the cemetery adjoined  to the mosque. It can easily be cleaned. Amina simply spray painted the word FEMEN, the name of her feminist group, in order to thumb her nose at a government that is trying to prohibit the movement and especially to confront, in her own way, the 40,000 Salafis who threatened to meet in the city illegally. 
 
Late last Sunday morning, May 19, 2013, furious residents recognized Amina and nearly lynched her. The police immediately arrested her in the presence of Tunisian and foreign journalists. She called us from the police station to tell us what she had come to do and to warn us of her arrest.
 
We have been in contact with Amina since she fled her family home, where, how shall we say it, even though she is of age, they had imprisoned her and spent three weeks trying to re-educate her with anti-depressant medications and required reading of the Koran.  And what was her crime?  She had posted a topless picture of herself on Facebook to affirm her membership in FEMEN.
 
At the time, the Salafis said she deserved stoning. An international campaign of solidarity with Amina was then launched to claim her right to freedom. Since her escape, Nadia El Fani has spoken to her almost every day, partly to coordinate the conditions of her travel to France. Amina wanted to come to France to resume her studies and pass her Baccalaureate.
 
Worried about her security and her future, we launched a call for donations (which raised $5200 on the Internet) to cover at least part of the costs to come, including her ticket and finding her a home. An organization was charged with getting her a scholarship and a school placement. Amina recently contacted the French Embassy for a visa.  Everything was ready— except her new passport.
 
The Tunisian Ministry of the Interior, looking for a way to keep her there, pretended there was an error he had to correct.  She waited ten days, ten long days, when everyone was worried about her and she herself felt it was time to leave
 
Before her arrest, Amina spoke constantly about doing a last action before leaving Tunisia. She has never ceased to defy fundamentalism and its accomplices. On May 1 she didn’t hestitate to act alone and disrupt a public meeting of the CPR Party (the party of Moncef Marzouki, “provisional” President of the Republic) and heckle Sihem Badi, its Minister for Women's Rights, in the middle of downtown Tunis on the Avenue Habib Bourguiba.  When the police tried to stop her that day, a crowd of demonstrators demanded her immediate release so she was released.
 
From the beginning her determination has been indomitable and her rebellion against what is happening in Tunisia inexhaustible. It is characteristic of young people to believe they have the power to change things, as it was during the revolution.  Can we blame them?  What's not to admire about this? All we could do was to try in our own way to prepare everything to protect her and count the days.
 
Suffice to say that we pressed Amina to come as soon as we read the bold announcement on her Facebook page that she intended to go to Kairouan to defy Ansar al Sharia at their conference, no less! The Tunisian press picked up the story and presented it without seeming to be offended.  This had a surprising effect.  Suddenly, the government announced that it would not issue a permit for the rally.  That day, Amina both reassured us and fooled us: she had no need to go to Kairouna since the conference was canceled!
 
[Ansar al-Sharia, the most militant of the Tunisian Salafi groups, had called a national conference in Kairoun on May 19; when the government banned the meeting, they moved it to a suburb of Tunis, where they fought the police and some were arrested.  According to the Beirut paper al-Akhbar, “The government has hardened its position towards Islamist extremists in recent months, after the moderate Islamist party al-Nahda was strongly criticized for being too lenient and failing to prevent a wave of violence around the country.”]
 
But on Saturday night, she was indeed in Kairouan when she called Nadia El Fani, announcing the action she intended to take the next day. Going topless was out of the question, so she planned only a simple symbolic action, but still!  Nadia tried to explain that this was madness, useless and too risky, and would accomplish nothing, but Amina had decided to act with all the courage nobody else had.
 
What she lacked was not so much organized movement experience as the solidarity that would have come had there been a Tunisian movement effective and courageous enough to give Amina and her friends support so they could fight against injustice in an organized way.  All injustice, she said.
 
Sunday, May 19, at around noon, Amina called Nadia again. She was at the Kairouan police station, and was about to be arrested. We were not very worried, thinking the police probably just wanted to protect her from the madness of the Salafi protesters. The Commissioner himself told us he would release her very soon.
 
But since then, the situation has changed, clearly at someone’s direction.  A real political trial is looming, as if it were necessary to make an example out of Amina in order to “balance” the arrest of Salafi militants and terrorists. As if spray painting the word “FEMEN” posed the same kind of danger as attacks signed “Al Qaeda”—or was seen as representing an even greater danger, since most of the Salafi terrorists have now been released, while Amina is still in jail.
 
Are they really going to blame all the insecurity in Tunisia on an 18 year old?  What about Ghannouchi himself (the historic leader of the Islamist party Ennahdha) who freely confides that the Salafis “remind him of his own youth” and that “they are like his children?”  This is much more likely to bring chaos and to soil the image of Tunisia than a graffiti tag.
 
Obviously, it is easier to blame everything on a kid who lacks neither courage nor audacity—a kid who knows what she doesn’t want! And is trying to wake people up when they are once again becoming deaf, dumb and blind all at the same time—except on the Internet, where propaganda, incitement to hatred and cowardice are proceeding at full speed.
 
Streams of crazy tweets accused Carolina Fourest of plotting a “conspiracy” with Amina and of having paid her “$25,000 dollars” to execute it! What vivid imaginationa!  We are obviously not deceived about whose interests are represented by such propaganda, or the dirty games being played in Tunisia between Ennhada’s Islamist strategists, their allies, and the hardline Salafis, to the detriment of Amina.

We simply ask Tunisian democrats and secularist to hear this simple message:
 
1) Nobody is “behind” Amina; on the other hand, we support her right as a human being to be indignant, to rebel, and to express herself.

2) We are not supporting her in order to create additional problems; we know how difficult the situation is in Tunisia; but this generation cannot stand to see their liberties confiscated either by fundamentalism or political cynicism and has decided to use its capacity to act, as at the time of the revolution, using peaceful and symbolic means. How can one not support their courage? What is one supposed to do—look the other way and abandon them?

3) Whether or not one approves of Amina’s activism, her adherence to Femen, her action of posting a topless photo to oppose sexism like the Egyptian Aliaa Elmahdy, or her tagging the graffiti "FEMEN" to challenge 40,000 Salafis, nothing justifies the disproportionate retaliatory measures the government has hit her with.  She should have neither detention nor prison.
 
As long as the murderers of Chokri Belaïd are still running around, as long as filmmakers, artists, bloggers, intellectuals, patrons of television channels, press, lawyers, and other free spirits are endlessly prosecuted and punished with extreme severity simply for speaking their conscience on religion or politics or the mixture of the two, nobody can believe that Amina’s trial is trivial.

Liberty of conscience dies in Tunisia every time that secular democrats all over the world fail to lift a hand to defend the rights of free expression and assembly and to insist that the judiciary must be independent of those in power.
 
In this spirit of vigilance, we demand the release of Amina, author of a single graffti tag on a wall of the Kairoun cemetery.

Freedom for Amina. Freedom for Tunisia.
 
 

(0)
Syndicate content
Copyright © Meredith Tax 2010. All Rights Reserved.