15 januari 2015

How not to react to the Charlie Hebdo tragedy: VU's censorship

'Free and open communication of ideas' is what VU promises. This week it has failed to keep this promise, once again, writes Efe Kerem Sözeri, phd candidate at the department of sociology.

A pro-Palestine organisation of VU students scheduled a forum, the Palestine Forum, on 12 January here at the university and it was cancelled by the VU Executive Board at the last minute.

The Board reasons their decision to cancel as "in the light of the social unrest caused by the events of last week, the debate evokes feelings of exclusion and insecurity within the university community."

This is exactly how an institution should not react to attacks on freedom of expression.

What does the attack on Charlie Hebdo mean exactly?

The terrorists, who killed 12 people during the armed attack to the satirical French newspaper Charlie Hebdo, are associated with the Al Qaeda in Yemen, and in their own words, they did this to avenge Islam's prophet Muhammad. 

These are extremely radical (violent) people performing a terrorist act on the reasons of being offended by the Muhammad cartoons and aiming to deter any future satire by using fear. In its essence, a terrorist act is the ultimate hindrance on conversation, since it restraints expression of ideas that might be offending.

What did VU Board do actually?

The VU Executive Board censored a conversation, alleging the Charlie Hebdo attack as a pretext, but in fact hinting at the limits of academic freedoms at VU. The official statement reads that SRV (Studenten voor Rechtvaardigheid in Palestina - Students for Justice in Palestine) argues for boycotting the Israeli universities and ending official relationships between VU and them.

This is an idea that you as a board member may not agree with. This might be an idea that you as student from Israel find offending. But this is just an idea and it has been censored at the highest institutional level at VU.

The moral high ground of being offended: "Jews versus Muslims" in the Netherlands

The following will be harder to read. But if you are open to hear something offending, please keep on.

My opinions can be "offending" to many, because being offended is often related to being identified with a group. As the likelihood of you being in the same minority with me decreases, chances that my opinion is offending to your majority group increases. See the very politicised power relations of being offended which also depends on contexts.

At the moment, the apologists in Turkey are trying hard to explain and excuse the Charlie Hebdo attackers. You can encounter with ordinary Turkish people posting tweets to praise the attackers as martyrs, and more moderate ones who put the blame on the cartoonists. The government's official position seems to be more concerned that it will boost the Islamophobia in Europe.

In contrast, the VU Board's official statement at the VU website hints that it is the Israeli students at VU, or the Jews in general perhaps, who feel "excluded and insecure" after the attack.

VU's statement interprets the issue as a civilisation conflict, just as Turkish authorities do. Instead of condemning the attack for its essence, they point new victims for their own use.

Chairperson Jaap Winter further misguides the reader by portraying the debate as an anti-Semitic venue, and promotes the VU's official position to be seeking dialogue and balance. Yet he fails to give a balanced opinion as to why same standards does not apply in pro-Israel events, as SRV's reaction documents in detail.

I am not a member of SRV, but the Student Forum for Peace was at the very same position when we invited Dries van Agt, former Prime Minister to give a speech at VU in 2011, on the breaches of international law at the Israel-Palestine conflict. After the pressure by various pro-Israeli groups, VU Board asked us to invite a pro-Israeli speaker or to cancel. We did not bow down but had to accept police officers in the hall. In 2012, a symposium on Muslim scholars in the West was cancelled after the "commotion among politicians" about one of the debaters, British scholar Haitham al-Haddad was associated with anti-Semitic remarks.

Apparently, the "Free" university was not so free after all.

People in Europe, especially the Dutch, are feeling ashamed about their assistance to the Holocaust. This creates a biased reading of the contemporary events, such as the Israeli-Palestine conflict, or the threat of radical Islam and the Islamophobia in Europe.

While it is easier to say criticising ISIS is not the same as criticising Islam, it is not so easy to say here in Netherlands that criticising Israel does not mean criticising Judaism.

If you are offended enough, see how the groups above reacted: VU invited only acceptable partners, among them the Israeli Haifa University which has a track record of "institutional racism" against Palestinian Arabs. While SRV reorganised the forum at the Turkish-Dutch migrant workers union which has nothing to the with academia.

Let everyone be segregated according to ethnic, religious and political lines, and ensure there is no conversation between groups.

How to react, then?

The Far Right in Europe is an old problem. Let's apply how we handle them.

European far right's anti-immigrant and at times racist discourse is well known, because it is easily distributed by the populist media. However, even after the 2011 Norway attack ("deadliest attack since the Second World War") no one claimed PvdA youth organisation would feel "insecure and excluded" if Geert Wilders makes a speech.

There are far right political parties and organisations all over Europe; they organise forums, distribute manifestos, and when they are angry, they demonstrate. Simply put, they do not need to get violent to be heard, because the platform is open to them as well.

After Charlie Hebdo, many people will mistake those who are already radicalised with those who can be, and their choice of action will be to prevent spreading of radical ideas.

Stopping radical terrorists should be left to the police, that may include closing the borders to the returning Jihadists. But in order to prevent minorities' radicalisation we should instead open the channels of communication. Because, only through conversation we can understand the opponent's argument and lift the element of fear.

The VU's requirement on SRV -that the forum should include both pro-Israel and pro-Palestine speakers- is impractical; sides of such historical conflicts seldom sit together, and equality is not always justice. Would it be fair to ask VU to have equal number of institutional partnerships with Palestine universities?

Besides, with the biases I described above, it is the Palestinian voice that Europe needs to hear in this conflict, and it is the European Muslims that we should listen after Charlie Hebdo if we are to understand what we fear.

"Free and open communication of ideas" is what VU promises. This week, it has failed to keep this promise, once again.

Efe Kerem Sözeri


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