In defense of the Grayzone: between ISIS and the West

By Sam Law On November 23, 2015

Post image for In defense of the Grayzone: between ISIS and the WestThe targets of the Paris attacks were not primarily the civilians killed but the world they inhabited — one not yet divided into two civilizations.

Photo: Mural of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi at the Abode of Chaos, by Thierry Ehrmann, via Flickr.

At this moment of closing borders and of politicians calling for surveillance of Muslims and deportations of refugees—with thought suspended and grief draped in the French flag—I hear whispers of the worst horrors of the last century. However, the document to which I turn to make sense of it all is a contemporary one. The Extinction of the Grayzone, an article published in the official ISIS magazine Dābiq, is a slick PDF that deftly binds together theology, politics and history in service of the so-called “caliphate.”

Reading Dābiq, I am struck by its reflection of the transnational, heterogeneous background of ISIS—demonstrating an impressive knowledge of contemporary graphic design, it is written in erudite English by those well-versed in ISIS’s theology. In its graphic depictions of violence, it is a document of barbarism, but then—as Walter Benjamin reminds us—so is every other document of civilization.

A world divided into two camps

Scrolling past images of militants brandishing kalashnikovs, knives held against bare necks, and graphic scenes of decapitations, I arrive at the issue’s eponymous article, “The Extinction of the Grayzone.” While “counter-terrorism experts” have argued that exploring the motives of the Paris attackers is futile, I believe this article demonstrates the importance of doing precisely that.

Through an examination of the establishment of their “Islamic Caliphate” and the attacks on Charlie Hebdo, the article clearly explains the goals of the Paris Attacks. In a tweet, the author and activist Iyad El-Baghdadi captured the main thrust of the article:

This world imagined by ISIS is one in which difference is contained, sterilized, and homogenized. It is a world of stark contrast where belief adheres to one of two strict orthodoxies and there is no middle ground.

Confounding those who argue ISIS is merely the product of blind adherence to an antiquated tradition, the author cites a distinctly modern figure as ISIS’ inspiration. This figure is none other than one of the most horrendous and violent individuals of this millennium: George W. Bush. The article cites Osama Bin Laden:

The world today is divided into two camps. Bush spoke the truth when he said, ‘Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.’ Meaning, either you are with the crusade or you are with Islam.

The only thing standing in the way of this world of two clearly opposed camps is the “Grayzone,” the messy zone of coexistence. As Iyad El-Baghdadi suggests, the grayness of the Grayzone contaminates the purity of ISIS’ clean division. As much for ISIS as for the “West,” the trouble with the Grayzone is that it ruptures and renders absurd the binary logic which forces a choice between us or them, between friend or enemy, the camp of Islam or that of the Crusaders.

In this sense, the Grayzone is what philosopher Giorgio Agamben refers to as a “zone of indistinction,” a zone which renders impossible the ability to determine inclusion and exclusion. Furthermore, in its contaminated grayness, it is an opaque blot that clouds the panoptic gaze of a regime of legibility, a gaze which forces the world to appear as a collection of discrete, uncontaminated wholes. Hidden from this gaze, the Grayzone is home to all those who live messy, entangled and irreducibly complex lives.

Planting one’s feet in the Grayzone and looking at the forces arrayed against it, the attacks of ISIS and subsequent jingoistic and military maneuvers of the West appear not as skirmishes in an almighty Clash of Civilizations but rather as different moments of a single strategy carried out by a Janus-faced power, a strategy intent on bringing about the extinction of the Grayzone. This is to say, the targets of the Paris attacks were not primarily the civilians killed but the world they inhabited, one not yet divided into two civilizations on the brink of total war.

Yet, the Grayzone offers more than a perspective to make sense of unfolding events. It also provides a footing to ward off the spectral presence of creeping fascisms and resurgent nationalisms. In these dark times, it is of the utmost importance to see the world from the Grayzone, to make common cause with those who inhabit it and to struggle for its defense.

Living in the twilight of the Grayzone

Created and inhabited through living messy lives that cross borders and don’t neatly correspond to fixed identities, the Grayzone is something we all experience, but some more viscerally than others. There are those who live entirely in the crepuscular light of this entangled indeterminacy. For these people, the experience of the Grayzone is not an abstraction, but their home in this world—a visceral texture of their day to day lives.

Dābiq’s “Extinction” depicts the Grayzone as inhabited by “hypocrites” and “deviant innovators.” It encompasses, for Dābiq, the parties which “claim to be independent of both opposing camps.” I count three signs that mark these denizens of the Grayzone:

  1. those with a heretical relationship to orthodoxy;
  2. refugees, migrants and all the others living a life straddling two worlds; and,
  3. those fighting a war on two fronts and being “independent” of both ISIS and the West.

Being branded a so-called “heretic” or “hypocrite” is the first mark that you are a denizen of the Grayzone. However, this “heresy” is not an empirical reality that exists in-and-of itself but a question of judgment. For the “heretic”, their beliefs are not blasphemous but faithful to their own interpretation. Indeed, the “heretic” is only named as such by the particular orthodoxy or prevailing systems of norms which marks their beliefs or behaviors as deviant.

The “heretic” thus establishes the Grayzone by arriving at an alternative (marked as “deviant”, “heretical” or “blasphemous”) interpretation of a common code and living their life accordingly. In so doing, they demonstrate the contingency of any interpretation, threatening to topple the orthodoxy and turn the fictive homogeneity of one camp into a heterogeneous space of discussion and disagreement.

Dābiqs main focus is this form of “heresy.” Indeed, the magazine’s cover displays the “hypocrites” who reacted against the attacks last January on Charlie Hebdo. This danger of these “heretics” or “hypocrites” lay in the fact that their disloyalty does not take the form of a desertion, renouncing Islam, or moving to the camp of the crusader. Instead, by retaining their allegiances to Islam but deriving different interpretations, they fundamentally challenged the so-called “Islamic State” as the univocal enunciator of religious truth.

This is the exact strategy of the ISIS #NotInMyName campaign in which Muslims reject ISIS’ ability to act in the name of Muslims. For ISIS, the task of eliminating the threat these heretical interpretations pose lies in convincing the “heretics” to move “from Hypocrisy to Apostasy.” In other words, ISIS wants to eliminate the heretics by leading them to renounce their faith, to abandon the camp.

This call for apostasy is echoed by the other camp as well. It finds its purest expression in the Islamaphobic proselytization of secularism. Last Spring, in his thinly-veiled call for Western military occupation of Iraq and Syria entitled, “What ISIS Really Wants,” Graham Woode embraces ISIS’ hegemonic grasp on the interpretation of Islam. Arguing that Islam is a fundamentally “backward” religion and that the only principled thing for Muslims to do is to renounce Islam altogether, Woode leaves no room for faithful Muslims to live according to the example of the prophet and the Koran:

The only principled ground that the Islamic State’s opponents could take is to say that certain core texts and traditional teachings of Islam are no longer valid,’ Bernard Haykel says. That really would be an act of apostasy.

Here again, the Grayzone is under siege not just by ISIS but also by the opposing camp. The West, especially in its mostferventdefenses of the “enlightenment,” “western values” and “secularism” cannot step outside of the Clash of Civilizations narrative. The only choice they offer Muslims is apostasy or desertion to ISIS’s camp—the Crusader’s choice of conversion or exodus at the barrel of a gun.

To destabilize this notion of a singular fixed truth — this destructive certainty upon which wars are waged and spaces of thought and discussion are closed — we must renounce the idea that there are “true” or “false” notions of concepts like Jihad or freedom. Instead, we must recognize that truth itself is the result of a struggle over interpretation.

In the wake of the Paris Attacks, a widely-circulated story celebrated the actions of Zouheir, the Muslim security guard who allegedly turned away bombers from a crowded soccer stadium. The popularity of the story depended on the “exceptional” character of Zouheir’s “selfless” and “heroic” actions, a framing which assumes all Muslims are aligned with ISIS.

Yet, if the Paris attacks are understood as a strategy of destroying the Grayzone—the space in which Muslims who do not accept ISIS’ interpretation of Islam reside—this story becomes one not of “selfless heroism” but of self-defense, defending the possibility of Muslim life outside the orthodoxy of ISIS.

But we must not tokenize these acts of self-defense; we must stand in solidarity. To do this means to assert the value of Muslim life and, like Zouheir, to defend the Grayzone which fosters and supports it. For non-Muslims, to not tokenize Muslims means to avoid claims about the “truth” of various interpretations of Islam. Such statements not only efface the diversity of Islamic interpretation but also risks furthering ISIS’s claims that the “heretics” are nothing more than “western puppets.” Yet, solidarity with Muslims undermining the authority of ISIS is not enough. The bombings, police raids, calls for ID cards, detentions and deportations in the West must also be met by cries of “#NotInMyName”.

The Grayzone is also a home for those who straddle different worlds. They cannot be neatly sorted into either camp. In this sense, the Grayzone is also a space inhabited by migrants and refugees. Forming a thread which entangles the fate of remote locales, they are a living testament to the porosity of borders.

Once more, we see ISIS and the West unified in their strategy to destroy the Grayzone, both undertaking measures to sterilize and purify their camps. In the West, this sterilization targets the bodies of migrants and refugees: restricting their movement, turning them away at borders, surveilling, containing, detaining and deporting them. For ISIS, the refugees fleeing violence are also heretics and apostates, blasphemously failing to heed the call to move to the so-called Caliphate. Yet, in Dābiq, ISIS envisions the outcome of these attacks as the production of a West so hostile to Muslims that they will have to choose between the “Caliphate” and renouncing Islam entirely.

Reflections and ghostly shadows

In this moment of widespread xenophobia cloaked in the language of security, I see reflections and ghostly shadows. ISIS’s desire for a West hostile to Muslims mirrors the xenophobic nationalists’ fantasy of Muslim self-deportation. And in the logic of immobilization, containment and sterilization, I see the specter of the unthinking bureaucratic administration of bodies—that specter which recalls some of the most horrific memories of the past century.

Our collective memory is crucial as we formulate responses to calls like those of Donald Trump for databases and identification cards for the two million Muslims living in America or by Slavoj Zizek for coordinated military detention and transportation of refugees. To honor this memory, we must reject attempts like those of Trump and Zizek to transform migrants and refugees into numbers in an administrative database or bodies in heavily guarded camps and instead forcefully affirm their freedom of movement that marks them as denizens of the Grayzone.

A final sign that marks someone as a denizen of the Grayzone is being targeted by or otherwise being at war on two fronts. Here, Dābiq gives significant attention to the “grayish calls and movements” of the “independent” Islamic parties in the Syrian Civil War.

To this account of “grayish” factions of the Syrian Civil War, it would be remiss not mention the Kurdish fighters of Rojava who are attacked regularly by bothISIS and the West—in the guise of NATO-ally Turkey. In their struggle for neither a nation-state nor a caliphate but a large territory of autonomous self-governed communities the Rojavan Kurds offer a powerful articulation of the Grayzone and the ethical and political possibilities that exists beyond the two choices proffered by ISIS and the West.

It is, however, not necessary to look as far afield as the Syrian civil war to find examples of those targeted by both ISIS and the West. As I have already discussed, this is also the case for Muslims in the West who face the daily threat of Islamophobic violence but would just as likely face violence at the hands of ISIS. So too is it the case with the refugees, who find themselves trapped between two hostile worlds and are thus forced to inhabit the Grayzone between them.

Facing this many-headed hydra intent on the destruction of the Grayzone, we cannot stand idly by.

Instead, heeding the grayish call, we must resist any attempt to divide the world into “us versus them” and rupture the fictive unity of these two camp by refusing to allow violent acts to be perpetrated in our name.

To defend the Grayzone means to call out Islamophobia and make sure that Muslim communities are safe. It means to counter an isolationist border policy by welcoming the stranger, the migrant and the refugee into our midst. And it means to refuse to let our grief to be draped in a flag, responding with the same outrage and grief to the airstrikes of the West as we did to the attacks in Paris.

Rejecting the narrative of an inevitable Clash of Civilizations, we must instead insist on coexistence. In the face of calls for its extinction, we must celebrate the entangled life that flourishes in the messy indeterminacy of the Grayzone.

Sam Law is a delivery boy in Brooklyn, NY. When not delivering bagels, he writes about and participates in struggles for autonomy, life and the commons. He blogs at The Counter Apparatus. Follow him on Twitter at @walmas.

Jihadism Isn’t Nihilism

What Everyone Gets Wrong About ISIS

ISIS’s ideology has been called extreme nihilism. Here’s why that’s not accurate.

Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL) – Sunni jihadist group. Self-proclaimed as a caliphate, it claims religious authority over Muslims worldwide. Al-Qaeda is a global militant Islamist organization.
Photo Credit: Steve Allen

In the partisan battle over describing the Islamic State, Democrats have fastened on a philosophical term from 19th century European intellectual history. They’re being too clever by half.

“Extremist nihilism” is what Barack Obama has called ISIS’s ideology. In the second Democratic debate, Hillary Clinton labeled it a “kind of barbarism and nihilism.” John Kerry dismissed it as “nothing more than a form of criminal anarchy, nihilism which illegitimately claims an ideological and religious foundation.”

This makes it sound like nihilism has nothing to do with religion. But it has everything to do with religion.

Nihilism is a consequence of losing faith. It’s a trap door that opens when a divine sanction for morality loses authority. It’s a repercussion of the Enlightenment, a cost of learning science, a risk of higher education. Whatever God you once believed in, whatever scripture you once obeyed, whatever story about a realm beyond this one that once bound you to your tribe, nihilism is the stomach-churning corollary of realizing – in the words of the philosopher most closely associated with it, Friedrich Nietzsche – “God is dead.”

People find different ways to deal with that wound.

For some, nihilism turns out to be a way station on the human journey, a stage of moral development, a rite of passage to intellectual maturity. Eventually, and not without pain, you discover that secular values can provide a durable basis for human decency. You realize you can live by biblical bywords – “therefore choose life,” “do unto others” – but without biblical theology. You can find in philosophy – in the categorical imperative of Kantian ethics, say, or in the “veil of ignorance” of John Rawls’s theory of justice – a rationale for civilized behavior. You can find in nature an inspiration for reverence and awe; in love and art, an experience of transcendence; in evolutionary biology, an adaptive advantage for family and empathy. There may be no God on high, but immanence – the godliness within us and within everything – is no less spiritually authentic, and has a lot less blood on its hands, than official organized religion.

But what is a difficult passage for some can be a life sentence for others. With nihilism can come despair, a dark night of the soul that never turns to dawn. If there is no God, then life is pointless and absurd. Culture is just a desperate attempt to evade our mortality. Values are all arbitrary; truths are all political; epiphanies are just meaningless squirts of feel-good molecules. Nothing matters, and everything sucks.

From here, there are two possible moves. One is decadence. If morality is a socially-constructed scam, then there is no sin in the deadly sins. Since the only god is Chance, you might as well make your one night in the casino a hedonic blowout. The other move is more sinister.  As Dostoevsky’s characters are prone to observe, If God is dead, then everything is permitted. Why not steal? Why not murder? Coveting your neighbor’s wife won’t send you to hell; neither will killing him if he catches you. Psychopaths don’t know the difference between right and wrong. Nihilists know the difference, but they don’t believe it makes any difference.

So nihilism is the wrong word for ISIS. Extremist jihadism is a consequence of faith, not a consequence of losing faith.

You can say the Islam of ISIS is a perversion of the teachings of Muhammad, just as you can say the Inquisition and the Crusades were a perversion of the teachings of Jesus, or that the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin was a perversion of the teachings of the Torah. You can say the Islam of ISIS is fundamentalist and extreme, just as you can say the Christianity that supports Israel to hasten the arrival of Armageddon and the Second Coming of Christ is fundamentalist and extreme, or that the Judaism that supports replacing the Al-Aqsa Mosque with the Third Temple to hasten the arrival of the Messiah is fundamentalist and extreme. But what you cannot say is that the jihadism of the butchers of Paris, Beirut and Sharm el-Sheikh is a consequence of their concluding that Allah is dead, which is what calling them nihilists would mean.

Ironically, in their minds, we’re the nihilists. The sensual pleasure we take in life, they view as a sign of our decadence. Our modernity is a threat to moral order. We are infidels. It is bad enough that we do not believe in the One True God whose name is Allah. Our pluralism – our democratic refusal to embrace the notion that any God is the One True God – is to them evidence of our evil, proof we believe in no God, reason for holy warriors to have us in their sights.

Democrats may believe that calling ISIS’s ideology nihilism – or criminal anarchy, or barbarism – decouples their religion from their terrorism. That’s wishful thinking. “Nihilist” belongs to a Western narrative about a God that failed. ISIS isn’t part of that story. It’s discomfiting that ISIS’s evil is rooted in the Koran – the most apocalyptic, ultra-conservative, literalist reading imaginable, yet the Koran nevertheless. But it’s disingenuous of Democrats to root it in Nietzsche.

New York City police deploy new counterterrorism unit


By Sandy English
23 November 2015

The political establishment in New York City is using the November 13 attacks in Paris to justify the further militarization of the New York City Police Department (NYPD).

At a media event last Monday, the city’s Democratic Mayor, Bill de Blasio, and Police Commissioner William Bratton announced the formation of the new counterterrorism unit called the Critical Response Command (CRC), comprised of more than 500 officers. De Blasio emphasized “how critical it is to have our own capacity to deal with each and every situation.” The creation of the new unit has been in the works for months.

About 100 CRC cops will be on duty at all times. The unit will be headquartered at Randall’s Island, which offers quick access to all five of the city’s boroughs. Randall’s Island is also where the NYPD conducted riot training during the Occupy Wall Street protests in 2011.

CRC teams will be equipped with special cars that can hold Colt M4 semiautomatic long rifles. The CRC, as the New York Times noted, will also be trained to “conduct undercover ‘hostile surveillance’ to detect those who might be gathering information about potential targets, and the use of new devices.”

On Thursday the new unit held training maneuvers in the city’s subway system with other agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security. The mock scenario included terrorists with automatic weapons and suicide vests. One hundred CRC cops will be present at the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade on Thursday.

In line with a number of officials and former officials in the federal military-intelligence apparatus, Bratton also called last week for eliminating restrictions on police surveillance in New York. “The [offensive] in our case is intelligence, the gathering of intelligence, nobody does it better than the NYPD and our partnership with the FBI,” he told the media. Promoting the campaign against the use of encryption software he noted: “We encounter that all the time. We’re monitoring and they go dark. They go on to sites that we cannot access.”

The CRC joins other specialized heavily armed NYPD units, such as the 800-member Strategic Response Group comprised of patrol officers, and the 700 cops in the Emergency Service Unit, the NYPD’s SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) team. In the last few months, the NYPD has roughly tripled the number of officers armed with high-powered semi-automatic rifles.

The NYPD also operates a massive spying apparatus of thousands of cops that includes the Intelligence Division and the Counterterrorism Unit. The notorious Demographic Unit that spied on Muslims at mosques, restaurants and other businesses after the terrorist attacks of 2001 was a part of the Intelligence Division. Combined, these units have offices in 11 cities worldwide.

This year the de Blasio administration supported several increases in funding for the NYPD, one of which included the hiring of 1,000 more cops, “that will be focused on counter-terrorism and crowd management,” as Bratton told NBC’s Meet the Press yesterday.

Bratton’s reference to “crowd management” is significant, and hints at the real purposes behind the increasing militarization of the NYPD.

During the frequent and sometimes massive protests against police violence late last year and early this year—provoked by longstanding grievances with the police that had been building for years, and especially by the refusal of a grand jury to indict Daniel Pantaleo, the cop who choked to death Staten Island resident Eric Garner in July 2014. Demonstrators have noted the presence of NYPD officers wearing jackets that identified them as members of special counterterrorism units.

In January Bratton confirmed the NYPD’s intention to deploy militarized police against these and other peaceful protesters when he announced plans to form a heavily armed counterterrorism unit to “deal with events like our recent protests.”

This was entirely in line with the character of NYPD intimidation against the non-violent Occupy Wall Street protesters in lower Manhattan in late 2011. Demonstrators were besieged by hundreds of police every day, who filmed them, pepper-sprayed them, used sound cannons to disperse them, and eventually expelled them from their encampment in Zuccotti Park.

The reemergence of thousands of protesters on the streets of New York City in the last few years has been brought about by increasingly precarious social conditions for millions of New Yorkers. Rents have skyrocketed, wages have declined, real unemployment remains in the double digits, and the behavior of the NYPD itself has only increased the social volatility.

Last week the New York Times and Siena College conducted a survey of New Yorkers, which noted that half of those polled “say they are struggling economically, making ends meet just barely, if at all, and most feel sharp uncertainty about the future of the city’s next generation.”

Thirty-three percent of residents in the Bronx and 25 percent of residents in Brooklyn, the two poorest boroughs, said, “the prospects for finding a job are poor,” and 44 and 36 percent in each borough respectively said, “the chance that a family member will be incarcerated is very likely or almost certain.”

Twenty-one percent citywide said that there had been times in the last 12 months when they did not have enough money to buy food for themselves or their family, and 66 percent citywide said that local government’s responsiveness to the needs of their neighborhood was fair or poor. Even in the less socially polarized borough of Staten Island, 46 percent of respondents said that life was getting worse.

Such sentiments will produce a response by millions, and the NYPD and other police agencies are arming and training elite and specialized forces to protect the privileges of the handful of multimillionaires and billionaires who rule the city.

Dreaming of democracy: refugees on Europe’s periphery

By Cirila Toplak On November 20, 2015

Post image for Dreaming of democracy: refugees on Europe’s periphery

Tensions are rising in Slovenia, where passing refugees continue to dream of Europe while the local population is losing all hope of a better future.

Photo: refugees waiting in line to board a ship in Greece, by CAFOD Photo Library, via Flickr.

Many Slovenians have very firm opinions on refugees without ever having seen one of them: surely, they are all dangerous Islamists and they come to Europe to take something away from us. The few people here that have had personal contact with the refugees generalize their singular experience into a bigger picture: if one sees a group of refugees composed of mostly men, then surely only men are coming, and women and children are there just for the cameras.

Others still create a pattern based on second hand information: one refugee with an expensive smartphone turns into all of them just pretending to be destitute; one woman saying on TV that she would not stay here because Slovenia is too poor, explains why all the refugees want to go to Germany.

I can agree that the refugees are about to take something away from us, here on Europe’s periphery. They threaten our miserable status quo, imposed by our neoliberal rulers. Yes, Slovenia is poor, compared to Germany. There is a certain subconscious concession in the indignation over the refugees unwilling to stay here: were Slovenia a prosperous, tolerant and open minded society, they would certainly think twice.

By merely passing through, they hold up a mirror to us. If they managed their ultimate pilgrimage so far, they will persevere to a place where they feel welcome. They cannot easily feel welcome in Slovenia. Let me explain why, as someone working at a refugee camp.

Slovenian authorities have perfected a “humanitarian corridor.” It is intended for the transfer of refugees across the territory of Slovenia as quickly as possible without any contact with the local population–lately not even with the media. Considering the majority’s intolerance towards the refugees, the corridor protects the refugees at least as much as the locals.

Presently, a barbed wire fence is being erected on the Slovenian-Croatian border. Only weeks ago the Prime Minister publicly boasted of Slovenia as ‘too European and progressive’ to ever follow the example of our Hungarian neighbors and close off the border. To save his face, he speaks of ‘technical barriers’ being installed, but no one is fooled.

The media also do their part. First they referred to “refugees”, then to “migrants” and now to “foreigners”. These are not exactly synonyms. Refugees fleeing to save their lives have the right to international legal protection. Migrants “only” flee poverty — as if extreme poverty in Nigeria or Iraq was not a matter of life and death; as if both, refugees and migrants were not pushed to leave their countries by the same factors and actors ruling our unequal world. And foreigners are simply all those who are not us. Yet, from what I have seen, these people, however we call them, are us in more than one way.

So far, the barbed wire on the European Union’s outer rim has only stopped local wildlife in its tracks. The free flow of people is one of the EU’s trademarks, after all. The refugees cannot be stopped and there is something hopeful in this power of the powerless. Their sheer number is formidable, when encountered in an open field, at a train station, or in a refugee camp. Perhaps that is why sensationalist media speak of an “invasion”, when only a million of them have reached Europe this year. I say only a million, because there are 500 million Europeans, and the thing to fear most is still our own irrational fears.

To feed this fear, the refugees better remain abstract numbers to us. If we knew their personal stories and saw them as human beings, it would be much more difficult to fear and loathe them. Numeration is good for something else too: it helps to dehumanize the refugees in their own eyes.

Have you ever wondered why they had to ride, walk and even swim the 2,000 kilometer Balkan trail, while an airplane would take them to Germany in a few hours? Maybe, so that now when they arrive at their final destination, they’re so exhausted, deprived, humiliated and apathetic that they are easy to handle. Moreover, they are grateful their ordeal is over and many cannot wait to start their new careers as cheap labor — pushing labor costs down for all workers and promising an uncertain future for their integration.

Crossing Slovenia, the refugees are so detached from their surroundings they often do not know where they are. But the isolation in the “corridor” is only one reason Slovenia doesn’t appear welcoming to them. In the refugee camp where I volunteer for the Red Cross, some government employees and even humanitarians are quite openly hostile to the refugees.

A soldier guarding the camp told me that his entire unit was to go on a mission abroad. Instead, they were stuck on endless freezing night shifts at the refugee camp. Missions abroad are the only opportunity for the soldiers to augment their sorry salaries. The refugees on the other hand, the soldier said, traveled with hundreds of thousands of euros on them. I asked him how many cases like that he knew out of over 240,000 refugees that have crossed Slovenia recently. He knew two.

The police in the camp have other understandable worries. They are in charge of preventing the refugees from scattering outside the corridor (although upon their registration the refugees receive a temporary Schengen visa allowing them to move freely). When a large group of refugees are waiting at the camp to be let across the border to Austria, special police forces in full combat gear yell at them and have their clubs out, ready to prevent a stampede. The police must feel uneasy for they are perhaps a few dozen commanding close to a thousand sometimes.

Their mission to keep the crowd in check reminds somewhat of the “1% versus 99%”. Our oligarchs are also well armed by extension of the state repressive apparatus and well protected by our political and legal institutions. Their media discourse is loud and authoritative to make them appear more powerful than they are. The multitude opposing the outnumbered police is poorly equipped for survival, let alone for confrontation. They obey because they still have something to lose: hope. Hope for a better life in the Promised Land of Europe. What hope, what future do we Europeans on the periphery have left, hopelessly caught as we are in daily struggle for survival, debt, consumerism and instant gratification? What can we still believe in?

No one speaks of religion in the camp; I have seen no one pray. The children are numb with hardship and discomfort, as if they had no more tears to cry. Adults look serious and irritated with extreme fatigue. Some tell me that this refugee camp is the first on the Balkan trail where they are entitled to a warm shower, a proper dinner and some sleep, albeit in noisy and smelly tent structures increasingly unfit for winter temperatures. Meanwhile, neighboring Croatia claims to champion humanitarian solidarity by opening its borders and letting all incomers to gather at the gates of Slovenia.

This “humanitarian” policy consists of setting the maximum time for a refugee to spend in Croatia between 6 and 12 hours. Slovenian authorities follow the rules of a de facto defunct Schengen system that slows down the flow of refugees for the sake of bureaucracy. The refugees end up being grateful for that because it means warm food and rest. They are after all human beings, not goods to be transported and delivered ASAP. Some have been traveling for weeks, those from Afghanistan and Pakistan for months. I have met three young boys from Kabul who made it to Slovenia alone, covering 6,000 kilometers.

Although exhausted, many refugees are willing to recount their experience. Young Syrian university graduates, two men and a woman, travel together. Syria is currently being depopulated, they say, the border with Turkey is unguarded; a sign of a failed state. So those who prefer peace to war and cannot identify with the radical Islam of ISIS leave first for Turkey. When these three saw the conditions in Turkish border refugee camps, they pushed on to Greece and survived the rubber boat crossing of the increasingly choppy Mediterranean. They are critical of Arab contemporary art: it lacks abstraction and memory, they say, seemingly unaware of the orientalization by the orientalized.

They abhor traveling together with other refugees who are different from them and who, unlike them, have nothing to offer to Europe. These educated atheist Syrians complain so earnestly of those “peasants’” eating and hygiene habits that they make me smile at how similar we are, similarly intolerant to Others. They try to keep their individualism – another very western concept – alive, just like that young woman who badly needs a coat but is not happy with the size of the one I find for her in the clothes storage tent.

The shoes are the wrong color, too, but this is her challenged self, trying to survive in anonymous crowd, not vanity or pickiness as the soldier outside the tent hisses. Today you help them, tomorrow you’ll get a bullet in the head, he adds knowingly. I have learned not to react to such assumptions; one cannot win an argument with those who know it all. Only children deserve unmitigated compassion, perhaps some of the police and military have kids at home, too.

From a distance the refugees all seem the same, even within the camp. A dark crowd of the malnourished and poorly dressed, faces tight with worries. Only from up close can you tell Syrians from Afghanis–the two most represented ethnicities–hear a Babylon of languages, and appreciate their diversity. Were the European Union’s motto ‘United In Diversity’ anything more than a political platitude, these people would be an asset, for they are all sorts and kinds.

On my evening shift, one large group is leaving for the no man’s land between Slovenia and Austria where they will wait for long hours in the freezing cold to be transported onwards. Meanwhile, another group is already walking off and limping on the next train. For a short time, the enormous tents housing hundreds are almost empty. A family in the far corner waits for a child who had to be hospitalized. An old man and his daughter have also been allowed to spend the night inside with their gravely ill wife and mother. The doctor says that she has hours to live and her hollow face has the gray color of the dying.

She refuses to go to the hospital so her deathbed is set amidst temporarily empty army bunk beds and aggressive smells of garbage and excrements. Her dignified relatives seem at peace with her departure. The frail old man starts telling me of his life in Syria as a journalist and political activist, his 16 years in prison, the horrors of torture by five different Syrian secret police, and finally, the difficult escape together with his sick spouse.

The daughter, a lawyer, shows me her father’s sentence: to become a non-human, unworthy of funeral, were he found dead. I bled for democracy, the old man says in French. How could this man not have a place in the stronghold of democracy the European Union claims to be?  Unless this word, democracy, means nothing anymore.

It seems that Europe cannot get rid of barbed wire. The bygone era of borders and fences is catching up with us all over again. The Europeans–at least the ones on Europe’s periphery–see their European dreams shattered by non-Europeans who still believe in it. Maybe the refugees will settle down among us, and open their eyes to the reality around them. Then, we can finally get to know each other, and perhaps even start creating a different Europe together.

Cirila Toplak is a professor of political science at the University of Ljubljana, animal welfare activist and Red Cross volunteer.

Paris attacks: it’s time for a more radical reaction

By Claire Veale On November 19, 2015

Post image for Paris attacks: it’s time for a more radical reactionIn the wake of the Paris attacks fingers were pointed in all directions, but few were directed at France itself. What has radicalized the French youth?

Photo: A young man is arrested at a student protest in Paris, by Philipe Leroyer, via Flickr.

The deadly attacks in Paris on the night of Friday, November 13, were quickly met by a global rush of solidarity with France and the French people. From world leaders expressing their sympathies, to raising the French flag on buildings across the globe, and more visibly, on Facebook profiles, everyone stood unequivocally united with France.

The sentiment of solidarity behind this mass concern is heart-warming, however it must come hand in hand with a demand for a serious debate on matters of terrorism, violence and war. Rage and sadness should not hinder our ability to think.

Why Paris? Who were the attackers, and how could they do such things? How can we counter these kind of attacks? Before bowing to the often narrow interpretations provided by the media and our political leaders, we must look for well-informed answers to these important questions. The current response–including more French bombings in Syria and extreme security measures on French territory–may be a fuel for further violence, rather than bring viable solutions.

“Us versus Them”

As a French national, the sudden inundation of the tricolored flag on my Facebook wall was a little unsettling. I do feel grateful for the surge of solidarity and wonderful messages calling for love and unity from all over the world. However, I find myself wondering if the French flag is truly the appropriate symbol to demonstrate this call for peace and inclusiveness, and to bring people together in unity against terror.

To me, the French flag represents first and foremost the French state, the respective governments that have ruled my country, and their foreign policies. Domestically, it is mostly a nationalist symbol, too often used by the likes of Marine Le Pen to create enemies out of foreigners. It represents certain values defined as “French”, as opposed to foreign values France should not welcome, and as such it can be a dangerous vector of racism.

In parallel to this bleu-blanc-rouge frenzy, many artists and humorists have responded to the attacks defending the stereotypes of French culture; drinking wine, enjoying life, smoking on terrasses. They state that any attack on French values is an attack on enjoying life itself. Although flattering in a way, as they praise what may seem the essence of being French, it unjustly encourages us to see the attacks through the lens of the “clash of civilisations” where enemy and foreign ideals threaten our way of life, our moral values.

Let us be clear about two things. First, in this “us” versus “them” discourse, I am not sure who the “us” is supposed to be. Am I–a French citizen who has long opposed aggressive foreign policy in the Middle East–all of a sudden on the same side as my government?

To many of us, the political elites of the country, who have insisted in involving France in wars that we did not want, are part of the problem. The different successive French governments have indirectly contributed to the rise of extremist groups and the radicalization of young men to join them. Waving the French flag could contribute to diminishing their role and the responsibility they hold in this crisis. Worse, it could legitimize further undesirable military actions abroad.

And second, who is “them”? The “War on Terror”, as it has been clearly framed by world leaders, is not a war in the traditional sense, with a clear, visible enemy. The attackers of the Paris killings weren’t foreigners; most of them were French or European citizens, born and raised on European soil. We are not talking about a mysterious, faraway enemy, but about young French men and women who are as much a part of French society as anyone else.

A show of force

And yet, the French president so promptly declared “war” and intensified the direct and aggressive bombings of IS targets in Syria. The terrorists being mostly European citizens, may it not be wiser to ask ourselves what is wrong in our own societies instead of taking such rash military action abroad?

Worryingly, there has been little resistance within the media or even within French left-wing circles, to Hollande’s policies. Has the emotion and anger from the Paris attacks impeded our ability to recognize that dropping bombs in the Middle East will not resolve the security threats that emanate from within?

Terrorism is an invisible enemy emanating from complex socio-political circumstances, which needs to be tackled in a more subtle and thought-through way. History has shown us that 14 years of “War against Terror” in the Middle East has only contributed to more violence, more terrorism and sadly, more deaths. Isn’t it time we started thinking about different tactics?

Since the attacks, Francois Hollande has proposed changes in the constitution, to make it easier for the state to resort to the use of force when facing terrorism. These changes include an increase in presidential powers, allowing Mr Hollande to enforce security measures without the usual scrutiny of the parliament. The president wants to extent the duration of the state of emergency, limiting freedom of movement and freedom of association, including mass demonstrations, in the name of national security.

The suggested changes could also result in widening the definition of targeted citizens to anyone who is “seriously suspected” of being a threat to public order, opening the door to a worrying reality of aggressive police tactics directed towards poor, disillusioned youth. Furthermore, Hollande wants to withdraw French nationality to any bi-national citizen suspected of terrorism acts.

The president’s reaction is deeply disturbing, and reinforces the skewed vision of a “foreign” enemy, which will inevitable result in discriminatory and racist policies and reactions towards foreigners, or anyone perceived as foreign, in France. More worrying still, is a recent poll in Le Parisien, which shows that 84% of respondents supported the decision to increase the manoeuvring power of the police and the army, while 91% agreed with the idea of withdrawing French nationality to suspected terrorists.

Where are the French values of openness and multiculturalism that we so ardently defend now? We must not let fear and an inaccurate “us” versus “them” discourse justify aggressive policies against our own citizens, or against anyone else for that matter, including refugees fleeing the very terror we claim to fight.

Why did French citizens decide to kill?

The reason why the media has focused on this angle of opposing the French values of liberté, egalité, fraternité, with the fearful and hateful values preached by the IS, is that it gives easy answers to complex questions. Why was Paris attacked? Because, we are told, it represents the heart of freedom, multiculturalism, secularism and joie de vivre. But does it really? France doesn’t always seem to live up to the values it professes.

The real question should be: why did young French (and Belgian) men and boys decide to sacrifice their life to kill members of their own society?

Two answers seem to have emerged. The first, mainly employed by the political elite and the media, is that the killers were “insane”, “brainwashed” and “barbaric”, and could not have acted rationally. This approach refuses proper analysis of the killers’ motives, brushing them aside to favour irrational and extremist religious ideology, and thus justifying a purely violent and heavy-handed response.

The second answer, coming from many left-wing, anti-racist circles, claims that such acts of terrorism are a direct result of France’s foreign and domestic policy. Although both seem radically opposed, they do have one thing in common: they undermine the agency and accountability of the attackers. This second approach, which points out undeniable political considerations, remains flawed in the same way as the first: it forgets that the killers are people who think and act, and not simply passive products of racist and imperialist foreign policy.

It is important to recognize the attackers as human beings, capable of acting and thinking rationally, as it is a first step towards understanding the reasoning behind their actions. Religious fanaticism is simply a vector of violence, as has been the case for many other ideologies in the past, such as nationalism, fascism, or communism. These ideologies are not the root causes of violence. Although this may seem obvious, there is a need to stress that religious extremism is not the reason why a young man would take up a gun and shoot into a crowd, it is simply an instrument to channel their anger.

We must try to look at the very roots of these young men’s discontent. Debates should be opened about the school system, about the ghettoization of urban areas across France, about police violence and domestic anti-terror security measures, about the prison system, about structural racism, about our skewed justice system, about oppressive and strict secularism; and the list goes on.

These questions are complex ones, and ones that are not easy to address. Thus, we prefer to paint the picture in black and white, our values versus their values, rather than to face the internal problems of our broken societies.

The little research that has been conducted on IS fighters, abroad and within Europe, shows that young men don’t necessarily join the extremist group for religious reasons. The Kouachi brothers who carried out the Charlie Hebdo shootings had suffered a difficult childhood in poverty after the suicide of their mother, with little support from social services and surrounded by extreme violence as children.

Anger at injustices they face, alienation, and years of increasing humiliation from the very societies they are meant to be a part of can push young men to express their frustrations through the vehicle of religious extremism. IS just happens to be an organized group, which seriously threatens European societies, and which offers these humiliated and enraged young men a way to defend their dignity and their pride.

As Anne Aly explains: “Religion and ideology serve as vehicles for an ‘us versus them’ mentality and as the justification for violence against those who represent ‘the enemy’, but they are not the drivers of radicalization.”

Radical solutions to radical problems

Radical solutions mean, first and foremost, tackling the problem at its roots.Julien Salingue expressed this idea very eloquently after the Charlie Hebdo shootings: “Deep change, and therefore the questioning of a system that generates structural inequalities and exploitation of violence is necessary”.

Every injustice and every act of humiliation towards a member of society can only cause anger and hatred, which might someday transform into violence. James Gilligan has written extensively about the way the prison system in America serves to intensify the feeling of shame and humiliation that push individuals to violence in the first place. This analysis is useful when looking at European societies, and the processes of discrimination and humiliation that push young men to react violently.

We must condemn all policies, discourses and actions that legitimize and reinforce the politics of hatred. Police violence towards young men of Arab origin, for instance, is frequent in France. Amedy Coulibaly, another actor in the Paris shootings in January 2015, suffered the death of his friend in a police “slipup” when he was 18. This kind of direct aggression perpetrated on a daily basis adds to the structural violence and discrimination young men from underprivileged backgrounds experience in European societies. War for them is not such a distant, disconnected reality, but closer to their every day life.

Every racist insult, act of police brutality, unfair trial, or discriminatory treatment brings them one step closer to carry out tragedies as the massacre in Paris. We must therefore question the very system we live in and the way of life we defend so defiantly after the attacks, for the problem may be closer to us than we imagine.

Claire Veale is a graduate from the SOAS, University of London, in Violence, Conflict & Development. Having lived and worked in several continents, she is particularly interested in writing about social movements, Latin American politics, gender rights and international development issues.

Hillary Clinton calls for escalation of US war in Syria, Iraq


By Bill Van Auken
20 November 2015

In a major foreign policy address Thursday, Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton advocated a sharp escalation of the US military intervention in the Middle East in the name of destroying the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Speaking before the Council on Foreign Relations, an influential New York-based think tank led by ex-State Department and military-intelligence officials, Clinton, who served as President Barack Obama’s secretary of state from 2009 to 2013, cast herself as significantly more belligerent than Obama in pursuing the aims of American imperialism in the region.

She advocated the imposition of a no-fly zone—an act of war—over northern Syria, saying that Washington must “clear the air of the bombing attacks carried out by the Syrian military, now supplemented by the Russians.”

The call for the no-fly zone represented Clinton’s clearest opposition to the policies of the incumbent Democratic president. At a press conference on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Antalya, Turkey on Monday, Obama described any attempt to create such a zone as “counterproductive,” adding that such a zone could be set up only by means of US “ground operations.”

Clinton called for the immediate deployment of US special forces troops in Syria and preparations for augmenting the limited numbers of these forces approved by the Obama administration. She also stated her support for a major escalation of the ongoing airstrikes in Syria.

Declaring that the aftermath of the Paris terrorist attacks was “no time to be scoring political points,” Clinton set out to do just that, employing the political tactic of “triangulation” made famous by her husband, adopting a more aggressive militarist posture than Obama while criticizing Republicans for their demands that Syrian refugees be barred from the US, or that only Christians be admitted.

The speech was the second major foreign policy address delivered by Clinton in the last two months. In September, at the Brookings Institution in Washington, she made an equally bellicose pledge to prepare for the use of military force against Iran should the nuclear deal concluded by the Obama administration fail to achieve US strategic objectives in the region.

Clinton’s remarks Thursday came in the context of a lurch to the right by the entire US ruling establishment, which is exploiting the Paris attacks to further the escalation of militarism abroad and police state measures at home.

As she spoke on Thursday, the US House of Representatives passed legislation requiring a vetting process that would include individual approval by the FBI, Department of Homeland Security and Director of National Intelligence for every Syrian refugee admitted to the US, a procedure that would effectively halt the trickle of refugees presently being admitted. Nearly 50 Democrats joined Republicans in approving the measure, which Obama has vowed to veto.

Obama, meanwhile, invoked the Paris attacks as a reason why his long-delayed promise to close down the US detention camp at the Guantanamo naval base in Cuba would now become harder than ever to fulfill.

In a question and answer period following her speech, Clinton described her policy as “an intensification and acceleration” of the policies currently pursued by the Obama administration.

“We should be sending more special operators, we should be empowering our trainers in Iraq, we should be…leading an air coalition, using both fighter planes and drones” against a “broader target set.”

She added that the 3,500 troops that Obama has deployed to Iraq should be given “greater freedom of movement and flexibility,” i.e., they should be sent into combat with Iraqi government units.

Clinton also advocated stepped-up arming of Sunni and Kurdish forces in Iraq to fight ISIS, with or without the consent of the Shiite-dominated central government, warning, “if Baghdad won’t do that, the coalition should do so directly.”

She also proposed a policy to “retool and ramp up our efforts to equip viable Syrian opposition efforts,” while virtually in the same breath declaring, “There is not going to be a successful military effort at this point to overturn Assad,” and that regime change now could only be effected through a “political process.”

In the question and answer period, Clinton said that she disagreed with Obama on Syria, believing that the administration could have done “more earlier to try and identify indigenous Syrian fighters, and adding, “We could have done more to help them in their fight against Assad.”

In reality, Clinton at the time was warning Congress that US arms sent into Syria could end up in the hands of Al Qaeda. Massive amounts of arms were funneled into these forces by Washington’s principal regional allies—Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar—under the supervision of the CIA.

In a brief moment of discomfort for the Democratic candidate, she was asked to respond to a statement by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump that US regime change operations in Iraq and Libya had only created disasters. Her response: “It’s too soon to tell.”

More than 13 years after then-Senator Hillary Clinton voted for a US war of aggression against Iraq based upon lies about weapons of mass destruction, presidential candidate Clinton insists that the jury is still out on this criminal war, which slaughtered hundreds of thousands and turned millions into refugees.

She attempted to put a positive spin on Libya, where she played a leading role in promoting the US-NATO war for regime change, using Al Qaeda-linked militias as a proxy ground force, and then obscenely gloated over the lynch mob murder of Muammar Gaddafi: “We came, we saw, he died.”

The Libyan people, she said, “ voted twice in free and fair elections for the kind of leadership they want.”

What nonsense! Libya now has two rival governments, neither of them legitimate and neither of them in full control even of the provinces where they are based, to say nothing of the rest of the country. The economy and every social institution are in ruins, civil war rages between well-armed rival militias, and ISIS has expanded its grip from the city of Sirte to surrounding areas.

Clinton bears substantial guilt for the horrors that US imperialism has inflicted upon the Middle East over the past decade and a half. Her appearance Thursday made it clear that, if elected, she will only seek to “intensify and accelerate” this murderous operation.


The author also recommends:

Clinton pledges to outdo Obama in militarism
[12 September 2015]

Hillary Clinton and Middle East war crimes
[3 March 2012]