Turkey’s downing of a Russian jet and the danger of world war


25 November 2015
 The downing of a Russian fighter-bomber by Turkish fighter jets yesterday on the Turkish-Syrian border is a flagrant act of war. Turkish authorities have seized on the alleged Russian violation of their airspace to launch a monumental escalation of the proxy war in Syria between Islamist opposition fighters supported by NATO and the Russian-backed regime of President Bashar al-Assad. It threatens to provoke all-out war between Russia on the one hand, and Turkey and the rest of the NATO alliance on the other.

Turkish officials claimed that the Russian SU-24 had violated Turkish air space for one minute, while Russian officials said that it never left Syrian air space at all. The Turkish air force did not scramble jets to warn the Russian fighter or escort it back to Syrian air space, but, after allegedly warning the Russian jet for five minutes, shot it down.

It is unthinkable that Turkey would have taken a decision against a powerful neighbor, fraught with incalculable consequences, without direct prior approval from the US government.

US officials supported the Turkish downing of the Russian plane, making clear that they are willing to accept a direct military clash with Russia, a nuclear-armed power, in order to crush its intervention in Syria to defend the Assad regime.

At a press conference yesterday with French President François Hollande in Washington, Obama endorsed the downing of the Russian jet, claiming that Turkey “has a right to defend its territory and its airspace.” This amounts to a blank check to Turkish forces to attack Russian fighter jets again, should similar circumstances arise.

Obama then bluntly warned Russia not to attack Islamist opposition militias in western Syria that are supported by NATO: “I do think that this points to an ongoing problem with the Russian operations in the sense that they are operating very close to a Turkish border, and they are going after a moderate opposition that are supported by not only Turkey but a wide range of countries. And if Russia is directing its energies towards Daesh and ISIL, some of those conflicts, or potentials for mistakes or escalation, are less likely to occur.”

After Obama spoke, former US Ambassador to NATO Nicholas Burns again made clear that the Turkish government had acted as a proxy for Washington by shooting down the Russian plane. He told PBS News that US officials were considering declaring a no-fly-zone in the Syrian-Turkish border area. This would mean shooting down Russian fighters overflying the area in order to protect the Islamist opposition forces—that is, doing precisely what Turkey did.

The comments of Obama and Burns underscore the fraud of Washington’s claims to be waging a “war on terror” aimed at the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militia. While claiming to oppose Islamist terrorism, Washington is in fact protecting Islamist militias in the Lattakia mountain areas that include the Al Qaeda-linked Al Nusra Front, as well as Chechen Islamist fighters. On the pretext of fighting ISIS, Washington is in fact recklessly pursuing its geopolitical ambitions, which in the Middle East currently center on removing Assad from power.

This is only one step in a further confrontation with any powers posing a military obstacle to the ambitions of US imperialism, including Assad’s key allies, Russia and Iran, as well as China. Even as he was preparing to escalate the conflict in the Middle East, Obama exploited top-level summits in Asia over the past week to ramp up the US confrontation with China over its territorial claims in the South China Sea.

It is becoming ever clearer that ISIS itself emerged and was presented in the international media primarily in line with the shifting needs of the imperialist powers as a pretext for their wars. After the Obama administration sought to justify the pullout from Afghanistan by assassinating Osama bin Laden in 2011—when he was hiding in Pakistan, a key US ally—there was no clear target for the “war on terror.” Washington and the other NATO powers worked directly with Islamist militias as proxies, in the 2011 Libyan war and the beginning of the Syrian conflict.

The situation changed, however, when Washington and Paris were forced to pull back from a planned war in Syria in 2013, due to its unpopularity and deep divisions in the foreign policy establishment. As the NATO powers sought to find a way to justify a war, the claim that they were fighting against Islamist terrorism—though completely belied by their actual record of relying on these forces—again became attractive to them as a way of marketing the war.

Though its operations were little different than the bombings and atrocities carried out by other Islamist militias in Syria, ISIS was selected for attack in the media, while other similar Islamist groups continued to enjoy tacit and even explicit US support.

Yesterday’s events further darken the cloud of suspicion that hangs over the November 13 attacks in Paris, and the terrorists’ astonishing ability to pull off an operation under the noses of the intelligence services. In fact, close connections exist between Islamist terror groups and the NATO powers. The security panic whipped up by ruling circles in Europe after the attacks, along with confusion sown over the phantom war with ISIS, helps these powers create the political climate for the pursuit of their ambitions through catastrophic global wars.

The timing of the shoot-down is highly significant, coming also against the backdrop of conflicts between Washington and imperialist powers in Europe, particularly Germany and France, over the degree of Russian involvement in a planned neo-colonial settlement of the Syrian war. Washington has moved to decisively scuttle European attempts to negotiate a deal with Russia.

After the ISIS attacks in Paris and November 14 talks in Vienna, Hollande announced plans to forge a united coalition of the United States, Russia, and the European powers to fight ISIS in Syria and negotiate the ouster of Assad on terms acceptable to all the major powers.

As Hollande arrived for talks with Obama in Washington, however, the downing of the Russian jet presented him with a fait accompli, cutting off his diplomatic overtures towards Russia. The attack, USA Today noted, “badly damaged France’s drive to build an alliance with the United States and Russia to defeat the Islamic State in retaliation for the Paris attacks.”

Since the US- and German-backed coup in Ukraine last year, the International Committee of the Fourth International (ICFI) has repeatedly warned of the danger of world war. These warnings are being realized with extraordinary speed.

Today, the danger of war between nuclear-armed Russia and the nuclear powers of the NATO alliance is openly referred to in the media and by leading politicians. This danger does not, however, give pause to the reckless assertion of imperialist interests, above all by the United States. Instead, they are stepping up the war drive.

The Russian and Chinese regimes offer no counterweight to the ever more unhinged policies of the imperialist powers.

Events in Syria again point to the catastrophic geopolitical consequences of the dissolution of the USSR a quarter century ago. Moscow is desperate to defend its residual influence in the Middle East and to stop Islamist fighters from Chechnya and other regions of Russia from toppling Assad and returning to fight in Russia, where they can easily exploit the anger caused by disastrous social conditions and by the Russian-chauvinist policies of the Kremlin.

The warning made by Trotsky, that the restoration of capitalism in Russia would be followed by its transformation into a semi-colony, is being fulfilled. Putin’s delusion that the offensive of imperialism can be answered by using Russia’s military might is not only hopeless, it leads to catastrophic consequences. The policy of the Kremlin oscillates between surrender to imperialism and reckless military measures posing the danger of world war with the imperialist powers.

A world war is not only possible, it is inevitable, unless it is stopped by the emergence of a revolutionary movement in the international working class.

The war in Syria emerged and grew into an explosive proxy war, devastating the lives of millions and drawing in all the major powers in the region, as the imperialist powers sought to crush the Egyptian revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak. The next political offensive of the international working class must base itself on the struggle for socialism against the looming danger of imperialist world war.

World Socialist Web Site Editorial Board



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.



Pope Francis: Christmas Festivities a ‘Charade’ in World Filled With ‘War and Hate’

“God weeps, Jesus weeps” for those who suffer from war and hate, says the Argentine pontiff.

Photo Credit: Giulio Napolitano/Shutterstock.com

Christmas festivities will seem empty in a world which has chosen “war and hate,” Pope Francis said Thursday.

“Christmas is approaching: there will be lights, parties, Christmas trees and nativity scenes … it’s all a charade. The world continues to go to war. The world has not chosen a peaceful path,” he said in a sermon.

“There are wars today everywhere, and hate,” he said after the worst terror attack in French history, the bombing of a Russian airliner, a double suicide bombing in Lebanon, and a series of other deadly strikes.

“We should ask for the grace to weep for this world, which does not recognize the path to peace. To weep for those who live for war and have the cynicism to deny it,” the Argentine pontiff said, adding: “God weeps, Jesus weeps.”

The sermon threw a shadow over the start of the festive season at the Vatican, where a giant Christmas tree was unveiled.

The 82-foot- high pine hails from former Pope Benedict XVI’s homeland, the German state of Bavaria. The tree, which will be decorated in time for the start of the Vatican’s Holy Year on December 8, will be festooned with ornaments made by children from cancer wards in hospitals across Italy. This year’s nativity scene will be made up of 24 life-size figures, sculpted from wood and handpainted.

In a nod to Pope Francis’ humble style, alongside the figures from the story of Jesus’ birth will be sculptures of ordinary people, including a man supporting an elderly person in need.



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.