(draft, post in progress) More surveillance, more bombs, more border controls, less democracy, less freedom: Europe is reacting hysterically after the deadly terror attacks in Paris one week ago. How to make sense of what is happening?
The deadly terror attack in France has brought, as anthropologist Jeremy Trombley at Struggle forever writes, "the violence that people around the world experience on a daily basis back into our own sheltered and secured lives. They remind us not only that the world is a violent place, but that, perhaps, our lives are peaceful because there is violence elsewhere."
People in Europe have during the recent days got the chance to get an inside view into the struggles of people in less priviledged countries that are regularily bombed by the West.
In theory there is a slight possibility for some kind of solidarity or cosmpolitanism to develop out of this, and a critique of Western policies.
The common discourse in mainstream media is - unsurprisingly - a totally different one.
Heather E. Young-Leslie was right when she two days after the attack wrote:
Sadly, l'horreur of Paris 13 Nov. 2015 will, probably, lead to greater political support for the hawks: the anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, anti-refugee, pro-militaristic, pro-fascist and neo-Nazi elements in France and other parts of the EU. We will hear that it is necessary to relinquish freedoms in order to protect liberté, and solidarité will be purchased with rhetorics of anti-immigration and victim-blaming.
Double standards. Photo: ugocuesta, flickr
This natio-chauvinist "we" against "them" rethoric tends to silence cautious attempts to discuss the wider context of the terrorist attack, including the role of the West in creating terrorism, and the possibility that the operations by Western powers can be viewed as terrorism as well.
"Them", in the official discourse, not only refers to the Daesh/ISIS attackers but increasingly to all muslims and "non-western" refugees (like those who are escaping the madness i Syria) and immigrants and those who speak Arabic.
Several anthropologists, in their immmidiate reactions to the terror attack, insisted to focus on the wider global context of the terror attacks where the Western powers do bear some responsibilities.
Keith Hart, is writing from Paris, in his open letter to his daughter, first published on Facebook:
The fact is that the French killed 1 mn people in the Algerian war of independence, the second genocide they got away with (the other being Vichy). They have now made themselves the US' closest ally in bombing North Africa and the Middle East, invading Mali, Central African Republic etc. In radio discussions here no-one ever questions their right to do this.
Thomas Hylland Eriksen is reacting in a similar way. "The Syrian conflict, the rise of IS/Daesh, the flows of people out of the country and the reactions with which they are being met in Europe, the feeling of disenfranchisement and marginalisation prevalent among youths of North African origin in France, and the Western countries' active destabilisation of Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya cannot be seen independently of each other", he stresses:
[T]he value of human lives varies depending on where you live and who you are. This may be stating the obvious, but there is rarely if ever a major outrage in the rich countries when a drone attack or a missile targeting a terrorist leader instead ends up killing dozens of innocents, including children. Yet this happens routinely and frequently. Not everybody agrees that it is acceptable that the rich countries murder civilians in poor countries, and the Paris terrorist attack can thus be understood as an act of retribution.
Viewed from an subversive anthropological perspective, the distinction between good and bad guys, between terrorists and victims is not as clear as mainstream politicians suggest.
Terrorists or revolutionaries?
Maybe the term terrorist is not a very helpful one at all. Maybe we can get a better understanding of IS/Daesh when we call them - as anthropologist and terror researcher Scott Atram does - for revolutionaries.
In the Guardian he writes that treating Isis as a form of "terrorism" or "violent extremism" would mask the menace. Instead, he describes Isis as being part of a "dynamic, revolutionary countercultural movement of world historic proportions, with the largest and most diverse volunteer fighting force since the second world war".
In a fascinating interview om Russia Today, he explains the revolutionary aspects and even draws lines back to Hitler.
Sophie Shevardnadze, the interviewer,wonders how it can be possible that ISIS's horror brings them even more supporters. "Basically", she says, "what I am asking, is ISIS appealing to sick and disturbed people more than normal people?". The anthropologists answers:
No, it appeals to people in span of normal distribution. I mean, it's like any revolutionary movement, that's why I think even calling it terrorism or just extremism is beyond the pale. (..) It's very much like the French revolution, or even the Bolshevik revolution or even the National Socialist revolution... I mean, look at the French revolution, they were eating one another just like Al-Nusra and ISIS and other groups are eating one another like bloodied sharks, and they were invaded by a coalition of the Great Powers, and yet not only they survived, but they endured, and they introduced the notion of terror itself, as an "extreme measure" as they called it, "for the preservation of democracy", and every revolution since then, every real revolution has done pretty much the same thing, pretty much successfully, so ISIS is no exception.
(...) In any kind of truly revolutionary movement there's a feeling of invincibility once you've fused with your comrades in your cause. The idea is their history is on their side. So, even if they take battlefield losses, they're not going to consider that a loss at all.
ISIS sings the same tune Hitler did, promising Utopia in the end, the anthropologist says:
Look, George Orwell in his review of Adolf Hitler's "Mein Kampf" back in 1939 have described the essence of the problem. He said: "Mr. Hitler has discovered that human beings don't only want peace and security and comfort and free from want. They want adventure, glory and self-sacrifice, and Mr. Hitler's appealed to that - and while the Oxford student union at that time vowed to never fight again, Mr. Hitler has 80 million people fall down to his feet, in one of the most advanced countries in the world." How did that happen? Again, ISIS is appealing to the same sort of sentiments, that have been appealed to throughout human history... and no, I don't think we've learned much from history about that.
ISIS consists of young poeple, people in transition. ISIS, the interviewer suggests, might be seen as a form of teen rebellion then? The anthropologist agrees. It is - as most revolutionary movements, driven by young - and educated people, he says. But, the interviewer wonders, we're used to think that young people want freedom, but ISIS is forbidding this?
The anthropologist answers:
I got a call from head of Medical School telling me that her best students have just left to set up field hospital for ISIS in Syria, and she was asking me why would they do this; and I said, "because it's a glorious and adventurous mission, where they are creating a Brand New World, and they do it under constraints." I mean, people want to be creative under constraints. A lot of young people just don't want the kind of absolute freedom you're talking about. The choices are too great, there's too much ambiguity and ambivalence. There are too many degrees of freedom and so one can't chart a life path that's at all meaningful, and so these young people are in search of significance, and ISIS is trying to show them a way towards significance.
Again, we have to take it very seriously, that's why I think it's the most dynamic counter-cultural movement since WWII, and it's something I don't think people are taking seriously, just dismissing them as psychopaths and criminals and... this, of course, is something that we have to destroy. I think, we're on the wrong path in terms of the way we're going to destroy it.
So what is they way out of this? The first step is in Atran's view to understand this movement. Current counter-radicalisation approaches lack in his view the mainly positive, empowering appeal and sweep of Isis's story of the world, and the personalised and intimate approach to individuals across the world. What inspires the ISIS-fighters is not so much the Qur'an but "a thrilling cause that promises glory and esteem".
There are not many anthropologists who are conducting fieldwork among extremists like ISIS/Daesh. It's not just because it's dangerous, Atran says in an interview with Scientific American:
It's because human subjects reviews at universities and especially the [US] defence department won't let this work be done. It's not because it puts the researcher in danger, but because human subjects [research ethics] criteria have been set up to defend middle class university students. What are you going do with these kind of protocols when you talk to jihadis? Get them to sign it saying, "I appreciate that the Defense Department has funded this work," and by the way if you have any complaints, call the human subjects secretary? This sounds ridiculous and nothing gets done, literally.
Then you have crazy things [required by US funding bodies] like host country authorization. Suppose you want to do work in Israel and Palestine. So you go to the Israelis, say, "We want to do studies, just like we do in American universities" and say, "We need host country authorization from some government." They say, "Are you crazy?" And in many countries that are in chaos, who's going to give you permission?
PS: Maybe it might be fruiful to take a look at "On Suicide Bombing" by Talal Asad where he - among others - writes:
It seems to me that there is no moral difference between the horror inflicted by state armies (especially if those armies belong to powerful states that are unaccountable to international law) and the horror inflicted by its insurgents. In the case of powerful states, the cruelty is not random but part of an attempt to discipline unruly populations. Today, cruelty is an indispensable technique for maintaining a particular kind of international order, an order in which the lives of some peoples are less valuable than the lives of others and therefore their deaths less disturbing.
They beat children and adults during apprehensions and in custody, they deny people with life-threatening medical conditions treatment, separate family members and confiscate their belongings.
“We were held with another woman who was coughing so badly that she threw up violently, over and over. The others in the cell called for help. An officer came over and said, ‘Que se muera!’ - ‘Let her die!’”
Two months ago anthropologists Rachel Stonecipher & Sarah Willen alerted the public on the Access Denied blog about the abuse of migrants on the U.S–Mexican border.
Now, anthropologist Randall McGuire draws our attention to a recently published report “A Culture of Cruelty” that documents the “systematic abuses of human rights” by U.S. Border Patrol along the U.S.-Mexican border.
McGuire, who is the author of Archaeology as Political Action, writes:
This report demonstrates that the Border Patrol systematically abuses people in short-term custody and that existing policies and standards inadequately address a culture of impunity within the agency. Rather than these abuses being the work of a few rogue agents, the Border Patrol has become a rogue agency. The report draws on interviews with almost 13,000 deportees conducted over 2.5 years. (…)
Despite this fact, inadequate procedures exist within the Border Patrol for identifying and correcting systematic abuse. The abuses continue as part of United States border policy. The border wall forces migrants into perilous deserts and mountains.
Since 2008, the number of migrants crossing the border has fallen precipitously. But, the number of people dying in the desert has remained constant. The systematic abuses of human rights and the culture of cruelty in the Border Patrol directly reflect a border policy designed to maximize the risks to migrants’ health and lives.
The report was produced by the organisation No More Deaths. One of its members is anthropology student “Corbett” who on his/her (really good!) blog “The Wild Anthropologist” gives us a summary of the findings.
The whole report can be downloaded from the website http://www.cultureofcruelty.org
It hasn’t received much attention from mainstream media. And when Reuters writes about the report, they use the authorities’ perspective and describe the victims of abuse as “illegal migrants”, as criminals. The difference to the coverage in the independent media publication In These Times is striking.
The term “Illegal” serves to dehumanize people who, even though they are within the country without the approval of the US, are guaranteed human rights by the 14th Amendment: “…nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law”.
(preliminary notes, still in progress, last updated 16.10., 00:30 ) As everybody else, I am trying to make sense of Sunday night’s outbreak of violence in Cairo. While I was - unsuspectingly - walking through the streets of Cairo, trying to find the pasta stand I stumbled upon a week ago, the military was massacring protesters less than ten minutes by foot away from me at the Maspero State-TV building. At least 27 people were killed, more than 300 were wounded during a protest against religious discrimination and a recent destruction of a church in Upper Egypt.Army vehicles run over protesters
It is both interesting and disturbing to see how the event has been covered by international mainstream media in comparison to local and social media.
International media has framed the clashes mainly as a religious conflict while they also could have chosen a totally different perspective: instead of “Muslims against Christians”, they could have chosen “the army against the people”. They could have described the clashes as conflict between forces who support the pro-democracy revolution (the people) and those that rather oppose it (the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, SCAF), as a conflict more of power than of religion.
UPDATE:“The atrocious killings in Maspero are not so much sectarian as a staging point in a full-scale counterrevolution“, writes sociologist Mona Abaza in Ahram Online
UPDATE: This sectarian language in Western media is, as Paul Sedra explains on Jadaliyya, not only inappropriate but dangerous.
As several local commentators stated, the protesters who were attacked by the military were not exclusively Christians.
Many Muslims joined the clashes, and fought against the army and police. At one point a Muslim cleric carried a cross over the 6 October Bridge, leading Coptic protesters in marching on Maspero [the TV-building].
The demonstrators chanted repeatedly: “Muslims, Christians.. One hand!” and denounced Mubarak’s minister of defence, who is controlling the country now - Field Marshal Tantawi.
El-Hamalawy sees the current attacks on the Copts as an “attempt by the ruling military generals to split the ranks of the Egyptian poor and pit them against one another”. The presence of Muslim protesters alongside Copts are according to him “a hopeful sign”.
Al-Jazeera’s Sherine Tadros has made similar observations:
“There were people on the streets from all different sectors of society. Copts, Muslims, other Christians, secularists, even Salafists. ”What united them was not anything to do with sectarian issues or demands but actually a frustration directed at the army for what they feel is the army’s betrayel of the revolution."
Social justice for all, including religious minorities, was one of the demands of the january revolution.
Omar Tarek, an activist and journalist, was one of the Muslim protesters. Around 300 Muslim and Coptic protesters were gathered at state TV-building Maspero, holding candles, chanting and calling for unity according to Daily News Egypt .
Omar Tarek told the newspaper that the Coptic cause is the same as the Muslim cause.
You can’t demolish a house of worship. (…) I am here as an Egyptian, supporting an Egyptian cause.
Headlines like BBC’s Copts mourn victims of Cairo unrest suggest that Muslims or secularists don’t care which is not true. Many muslims joined the Copts at funerals.
Amira Abdel Hamid was one them. He said to Daily News Egypt:
I am here supporting the families of the martyrs and I was hoping that a lot of Muslims would make it to show the whole world that it is not sectarian strife, but an army against its people.
During their march from the Coptic Hospital to the largest Coptic cathedral in Cairo, protesters chant, “Muslims and Christians are one hand!”, reports newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm. And: “Down with military rule!” “This is not a sectarian conflict, this is a military massacre.”
Ahram Online writes about the funeral for Mina Daniel, a young Christian revolutionary “who never forgot the importance of Muslim-Christian unity”:
A Muslim girl who came to support her Christian friend after her brother was killed during the battles Sunday night. Photo: Lilian Wagdy, flickr
Hundreds of Egyptians who had never met Mina Daniel – or, in many cases, had even heard of him before his death – attended the young man’s funeral, chanting, “We are all Mina Daniel.” (…)
Following the funeral, hundreds of mourners, including both Christians and Muslims, solemnly headed to Tahrir Square bearing Mina’s coffin.
There is no doubt that Reuters and others are right when they write that Copts are discriminated. Even tourists like me are realising that the Muslim-Christian relationship is a sensitive issue. But the news agencies neglect to mention that many conflicts have been initiated and provoked by the regimes in power (“Divide and rule”).
Tom Heneghan, Religion Editor at Reuters, for example went so far to claim the following:
The clashes, in which Christians say they were fired on and charged down by armored vehicles, highlighted an irony of the Arab Spring that the region’s dictatorships may have been better guardians of minorities than budding democracies.
But in Egypt, many believe the recent clashes are a result of ousted president Hosni Mubarak’s policies, which nurtured sectarian strife, writes Heba Fahmy in Daily News Egypt.
As Omnia Al Desoukie stresses in another Daily News Egypt article::
While many are quick to point out the marginalization of Egypt’s Copts, less are inclined to label the country as a sectarian state.
Many observers have said that these underlying issues are often manipulated by authorities seeking to cling to power, an accusation often leveled against the Mubarak regime. Incidents such as Sunday night’s events are usually followed by widespread calls for national unity and shows of solidarity between Muslims and Christians.
“We now know a previous massacre, the bombing of the Church of the Two Martyrs in Alexandria in December, in which 21 were killed, was the work of Mubarak’s ministry of the interior”, explains Egyptian short story writer Ahdaf Soueif in the Guardian.
It was beyond sickening that a government would kill its citizens in an attempt to turn them against each other – and Muslims flocked to stand with their Christian friends at Christmas mass.
The attack on Egyptian Christians last Sunday “was not sectarian”, she writes, “this was the army murdering citizens.”
So instead of accompanying their articles with background information about Christians in the Middle East (BBC) or Christians under siege in post-revolution Egypt (AP / ABC News), international media could have chosen to highlight the role of the military generals in Egypt as for example CBS’ 60 minutes did. As bonus track one could add a feature about the role of the West, especially the U.S. as sponsor.
Here, the media, especially state media, seems to play a crucial role.
Zeinab El Gundy writes in Ahram Online:
A number of critics say that Egyptian state television not only failed to help resolve the crisis, but actually played a role in aggravating the already-tense situation.
In an unprecedented move, broadcasters on state television at one point called on the Egyptian public to head to Maspero en masse to defend Egyptian soldiers from angry Christian protesters, thereby further fuelling the sectarian flare-up.
On top of this, Issandr El Amrani writes at the Arabist, the military cut off the live TV feeds of several satellite TV stations, including Al Jazeera.
Some more observations at the end
Foreign media relied largely on accounts by the large international news agencies like Reuters and ap. Few journalists bothered to launche their web browser and do some research on their own. Egypt has an impressively large English language blogger og twitter scene, but only few of their accounts make it into mainstream news. One of them who took a look - Robert Mackey from the New York Times had to conclude “Social Media Accounts of Violence in Cairo Challenge Official Narrative“
International media treated Egyptian state and military officials as trustworthy sources. Manar Ammar from the Egyptian news site BikyaMasr had to conclude that "international media outlets largely reported on Sunday night Cairo what state television was reporting.
At the end of this already too long post, I’d especially like to recommend the analysis The Last Choice by Mahmoud Salem aka Sandmonkey, one of Egypts best English language bloggers I’ve read so far. He not only analyses the massacre but also discusses possible local and global consequences. Sandmonkey is ending optimistically with an account from the Sunday night clashes:
After engaging in a street brawl where not a single person could tell who is with who or against who, they stopped a started chanting. One team started chanting “The People and the Army are one hand” and the others started chanting “Muslims and Christians are one hand”, thus providing us with the choices that we as Egyptians were told to make yesterday.
And then, strangely, both sides at the same time changed their chants to “One hand”, and both sides started chanting that fiercely, stopped fighting each other, and joined each other into one big marsh chanting “One hand, One hand”, and thus showing us that they made the right choice. They were presented with the choice between the Army and National Unity, and they refused to make that choice and collectively and organically made the only correct choice: Each Other. Egypt.
In the midst of the battle, they realized on a very basic level that they can’t chose one over the other, and that, even if they have prejudices, they really do not want to fight each other. There is a lesson in that incident for all of us, and it may just hold the key to our salvation.
“What was schemed as sectarian vandalism and a plot against the unity of Egyptians", writes Nermeen Edrees on Global Voices, has turned out to be “a unifying force and a concrete wall to prove that what happened on the night of Black Sunday in Egypt is a Governor versus People clash rather than Christian versus Muslim one.” She quotes Sandmonkey’s tweet: “Don’t say the army killed Christians. Say the army killed Egyptians.”
Hanna Yousef posted a picture with two grieving mothers, one Christian, the other Muslim, supporting each other and writes:
I am so angry. I can’t get over it. How dare they? I mean the shooting, the snipers, the crushing by tanks, the torture and the horrible ugly abject poverty are already too much to handle, and now I am supposed to hate Copts? Now, I am supposed to define them as the other. the other who is different than me, the other I should protect myself against? Well, I won’t. I refuse. (…) The God I believe in doesn’t like fascists.
Today, Friday, people chant for Christian-Muslim unit at Tahrir Square and after the Friday prayers, a march is taking place from Al-Azhar Mosque to the Abbassiya Cathedral where the funerals for Sunday’s victims were held.
- Wonderful story by Marwa Nasser: Cairo marches for unity: “Christians, Muslims. Hand in hand!” (Emaj Magazine 11.10.)
- Great presentation by the Guardian: Egypt’s deadly night: what really happened - a collection of testimonies have been translated from Arabic from the website Maspero Testimonies (Arabic/English),
SEE ALSO:The dubious behaviour of Western researchers sightseeing the “Arab Spring”
(UPDATE:) David Graeber: Occupy Wall Street rediscovers the radical imagination (Guardian 25.9.2011)
While the Guardian is sending an anthropologist on fieldwork among bankers to give us insight in the destructive culture of finance, thousands of people in New York are occupying the Wall Street, “the financial Gomorrah of America” and “greatest corrupter of our democracy”.
Inspired by the massive public protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and Madrid’s Puerta del Sol Square, hundreds have slept outside near Wall Street for the past three nights. The campaign “Occupy Wall Street” began on Saturday when thousands gathered in New York City’s Financial District.
As Egyptian researcher Maha Abdelrahman said a few months ago, we might be witness to a global revolutionary movement against neoliberalism.
Most protesters are under 30, and “over-educated and under-employed” according to the Guardian.
“We have a president who tells us to do the right thing, to go to school, to get a better life, but I’m not getting a better life. I am a new college graduate and I have $50,000 of college debt built up while studying business management at Berkeley. I can’t find a job to pay it off”, says one of them, 26 year old Romeo.
“Who is here? Young people and students with college debts. They want to talk to the people who took away their future”, explains anthropologist David Graeber who is one of the protesters.
Graeber has just a few weeks ago published his new book Debt: The First 5,000 Years where he highlights the exploitative nature of debts and “virtual credits”. According to a review in the Financial Times by anthropologist Gilian Tett:
Graeber insists that debt is intrinsically linked to power, since credit can be used to exploit or control people. And the power is doubly effective, he adds, because debt is so overlaid with moral context. There is no better way to justify unequal power relations than “by reframing them in the language of debt … because it immediately makes it seem that it’s the victim which is doing something wrong”
The austerity regimes that are being imposed now on Europe and on America are remarkably similar to what happened—you know, what used to be called the Third World debt crisis. First you declare a financial debt—a financial crisis. You bring in these people who are supposedly neutral technocrats, who are in fact enforcing this extreme neoliberal ideology. You bypass all democratic accountability and impose things that no one ever possibly have agreed to. It’s the same thing.
And one reason it’s happening to us now is that there was really successful mobilization around the world against those policies. In a lot of ways, the global justice movement was successful. The IMF was kicked out of East Asia. It was kicked out of Latin America. And now it’s come home to us.
So we have to turn to Russia Today: Occupy Wall Street – America’s own Arab Spring? or the Guardian: Wall Street protesters: over-educated, under-employed and angry and The call to occupy Wall Street resonates around the world.
Or of course to alternative media and the official website of the campaign https://occupywallst.org/
For more information on Graebers new book see his essay Debt: The first five thousand years (Mute/Eurozine) or an interview with David graeber: Debt’s history, implications, and critical perspective (No Borders) and Debt Came Before Money: An Interview with Economic Anthropologist David Graeber (Naked Capitalism)
UPDATE: EGYPT SUPPORTS PLANNED US-PROTEST
“Egyptian activists are lending their support to a planned protest in Washington, DC, which US activists hope will become an open-ended sit in modeled on the Tahrir Square protests that helped bring down former President Hosni Mubarak", according to the newpaper Al-Masry Al_Youm:
The demonstration, which is being organized under the banner “human needs not corporate greed,” will be held on 6 October, on the eve of the 10th anniversary of the start of the US occupation of Afghanistan and as the recently passed US budget takes effect.
Egyptian activists plan to hold a concurrent protest in Tahrir Square.
Can you make a complex subject like the world of finance accessible to outsiders? What about sending an anthropologist into the world of bankers in London’s financial district and let him blog his findings?
That’s the new project of the Guardian. They have engaged Dutch anthropologist Joris Luyendijk who has also a background as a journalist (perfect combination) to start an anthropological banking blog.
It’s a project in the spirit of public anthropology and anthropology 2.0 - at least in theory.
The anthropologist explains in his introductory post:
When I started interviewing financial workers this summer, I knew as little as the average Guardian reader. So I plan to start at the beginning. Every interview will be posted on the web, with comment threads open to let other outsiders to ask questions and, who knows, to let insiders to elaborate on the material. Over time I hope to build an intellectual candy shop full of interesting stuff about the world of finance, stuff that will then help you as a reader make better sense of the news.
It is important for outsiders to learn more about this sector, he stresses:
Finance directly affects everyone’s interests, but many have a hard time maintaining their interest in it. But as the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the following three years have shown, the financial world is too important to leave to the bankers – in fact in some countries democracy is beginning to look like the system by which electorates decide which politician gets to implement what the markets dictate.
The people in this very powerful sector are worth learning more about. And the good news is, when you listen to them in their own words, that can actually be pretty entertaining. And humanising.
But how anthropological are portraits of bankers? And does “humanising” mean depoliticising or even legitimizing their actions? Do we get a better understanding of the political economy of finance?
So far he has posted around ten portraits of financial workers, no analysis so far. The project has just started.
What I find striking: The financial workers don’t reflect about the consequences of their work. They seem to be obsessed with pleasing their clients, in making their clients more successful and richer.
You’ll find critical reflections in the comment sections only - like here
..and to generate wealth you have to generate poverty. Success?
It might sound as if anthropological studies of bankers are something extraordinary. No longer. There has been surprisingly much interest among anthropologists for the world of finance. Karen Ho for example has been on fieldwork in the Wall Street: Anthropologist Explores Wall Street Culture. Another anthropologist, Gillian Tett, who works in the Financial Times, explained three years ago that she used anthropology to predict the financial crisis and that it’s important to understand the tribal nature of banking culture.
See also How anthropologists should react to the financial crisis and – Use Anthropology to Build A Human Economy. Check also David Graeber’s comments on the current Occupy Wall Street Protests
More and more people are living in slums. What can be done about it?
A few weeks ago I blogged about Safaa Marafi’s thesis about neoliberal policies, urban segregation and the Egyptian revolution. Now she has published a newspaper article that is a good example of public anthropology: Living in Slums … A Historic Dilemma that Needs to be Resolved!.
Here she explains one of the most important anthropological insights. If you work with people, you need to understand their point of view. In order to solve the problems of slum life one needs to listen to the voices of the people who live there.
Efforts to develop Egypt’s slums have been going on for several years, yet without tangible change. The key aspect that is missing in these projects is getting close to these people, understanding their priorities and way of life and meeting their expectations, she writes:
Understanding their culture, needs and way of life is essential to help provide them with the necessary resources they need, whether proper education, job, medical assistance. Moreover, do they need small shops, kiosks, or commercial areas?
From this stand point, I stress on the need to conduct serious research by social scientists to understand the culture of these people through one-to-one interviews and giving them the chance to express their needs and voice their concerns. Thus, this will assist in tackling the slumization phenomenon from its grass-roots.
Anthropologists have stressed the importance of the “native’s point of view” in development projects for many years. Nevertheless, not only in Egypt, but also in Europe, people living in poorer neighborhoods are often stigmatized. Politicians and mainstream media tend to portray them as lazy and often criminal people that have to be “civilized”. So therefore, the poor are in policymakers’ view not worth to be listened to?
Marafi’s piece reminded me of some articles about slum life that have been published recently. All of them attack these misrepresentations.
One of them is the fascinating but sad story The life and death of Khanoufa: A personal account of Cairo’s “most dangerous thug”, written by Mohamed Elmeshad.
Egyptian police claim to have captured a man they called “Cairo’s most dangerous criminal”. Elmeshad questions these and gives us the perspective from his neighborhood where some of them see him as a victim of the system he was born into. A system where being associated with a slum area limits your opportunities in life.
“He turned out how he did because the police left him no other path in life,” Khaled, one of Khanoufa’s neighbors, said. At the age of 14, after participating in a neighborhood brawl, Khanoufa spent the first of a series of six-month stints in juvenile hall for youth misdemeanors. He became “marked” by police as someone they could pin crimes on or extort for money with the threat of imprisonment.
When his father, Abdel Shakour, passed away, Khanoufa’s family could no longer afford to pay-off the police, and he began spending more and more desperate nights in prison.
“That is when he turned to a life of crime. When he realized that he would be treated as a criminal for the rest of his life, no matter what. He reached a level of despair and said, ‘They’d take me in and put me in prison, regardless,’” Khaled said. He ended up spending half of his life in prison, from his teenage years until his death.
Mohamed Elmeshad has written another article from the same neighborhood (Ezbet Abu Qarn): Cairo’s poorest residents help the less fortunate in Somalia – a powerful story about cosmopolitanism from below.
A group of young men were moved by the images they saw in the media, and decided that the famine in Somalia must become a priority during Ramadan. Within four days, they were able to gather a large sum money among the poor people to the relief effort in Somalia.
“There are old widows who rely solely on charity to stay alive, who donated what I know is a really large amount for them,” said Sayed Kamal, one of the organizers.
“We don’t have people dying from hunger in our parts, but we do know poverty better than anyone else in Egypt, and we know about the fear of going hungry,” said Gamal Abdel Maqsood, a scrap metal dealer.
People in poor areas are no passive victims but do fight for their rights. In her story Popular committees bring true spirit of democracy to the streets, political scientist Rana Khazbak describes a campaign in another poor area in Cairo, Imbaba. Ehab Ali, a member in the popular committee in Imbaba, sounds like an anthropologist when he explains their campaign:
“We wanted to do field work in the streets among people. The piece of bread we eat every day is politics, the traffic congestion is politics, and the garbage in the streets is politics. That’s why in order to solve these problems and for Egypt to become a better place, we have to start from the bottom at the grassroots level.”
The popular committees were formed during the Januar revolution to protect neighborhoods when police withdrew from the streets in the midst of nationwide protests that toppled former President Mubarak.
Born out of a moment of chaos and fear, [the popular committes] proved themselves to be capable of self-organization in the days that followed. But most importantly, they proved to people that the end of “government” did not mean the end of the world.
In this surge of grassroots activism lie potential forms for popular governance. The committees not only teach us about the specific issues facing each neighborhood, but together they can teach us something about how political representation, accountability and local governance work on the ground.
Finally, just one week ago, Amnesty International has released a report about Egypt’s slums: ‘We are not dirt’: Forced evictions in Egypt’s informal settlements.
A multi-dimensional public health crisis is unfolding on the U.S.-Mexico border that few seem ready to acknowledge, anthropologists Rachel Stonecipher & Sarah Willen write on the Access Denied blog.
The complexity of this crisis came to light during a recent study tour to Tucson, Arizona, in which Rachel Stonecipher took part.
Dehydration and heat-related illness claim hundreds of lives annually, and many of these deaths go unrecorded. No uniform system exists to count or repatriate remains. “We can only imagine the impact of these missed opportunities for identification on family members searching for their loved ones”, Stonecipher and Willen write.
For migrants who do reach their destination but face subsequent arrest, “interception” itself can involve serious health risks:
What happens to migrants after they are arrested and detained often remains shrouded from both the public eye and, to a great extent, the eyes of the human rights community. This is a particularly grave concern when arrested individuals already are sick or injured. (…) One especially serious concern involves the deportation of injured individuals who have not yet been medically stabilized. (…)
Detainees are also at risk of abuse – physical and mental – at the hands of police and Border Patrol officers. Despite official denials, No More Deaths, the Border Action Network, and other NGOs have collected and responded to numerous reports of abuse.
Through water stations, humanitarian aid camps, and desert patrols, a handful of NGOs provide assistance to migrants in need. But this cross-border health crisis is “far too vast for activists to address alone”, the anthropologists note:
Both human rights principles and contemporary realities demand that we hold countries with porous borders – including but not only the U.S. – accountable. Not only must such countries recognize migration as an enduring global phenomenon with complex causes and share accountability for both lives and deaths, but they must also engage in transnational public health efforts to develop the kind of multi-layered interventions needed to protect human life in border regions. (…)
Like the humanitarian organizations that work along the border, we all must insist on an expansive understanding of “public health” that recognizes people in transit as members of a common moral community: as people who are connected to us, and whose lives matter. Whether or not we understand or agree with the choice to migrate, activists along the U.S.-Mexico border remind us that border crossers are human beings who – like all other members of our moral community – are deserving of health-related attention, investment, and care.
The notion that there is democracy in the West, while there is none in the “rest” might be one of the most powerful and dangerous myths of our time. In reality, democracy is a contested concept everywhere in the world, not only in Egypt or Tunesia, but also in Britain.
from Rap responds to the riots: ‘They have to take us seriously’ (Guardian 12.8.11)
– What I think is happening is that people from Egypt, Tunesia, Russia, Greece, UK and many other countries are discovering that they are natural allies, engaged in a common purpose.
– We’re not in the middle of a revolution, but we might be in the midth of an important phase where revolutionary development on a global scale is taking place and the limits of the global neoliberal capitalism are being brought to light.
– I don’t call it rioting. I call it an insurrection of the masses of the people. It is happening in Syria, it is happening in Clapham, it’s happening in Liverpool, it’s happening in Port-au-Spain, Trinidad, and that is the nature of the historical moment.
Much is said and written about the riots in England. The discourse itself is highly interesting. The political establishment and its allies in mainstream media quickly dismissed the riots in England as a brainless, unpolitical, and criminal act by a “partly mentally disturbed underclass”. They treated the rioters and activists in an strikingly arrogant, patronizing and classist way. The BBC interview with rights activist Darcus Howe is a good example:
The BBC sounded in their coverage of the riots like Mubarak’s state television during the Egyptian revolution, says Egyptian blogger and activist Mostafa Hussein:
“BBC is making it sound like young people have a single aim and that’s to loot and vandalise. Nothing or very little on why they are doing so.”
These reactions show clearly what’s at stake in Britain, Joe Hoover and Meera Sabaratnam write in their post Reading violence- what’s political about the London riots. The reactions confirm the fact, that Britain is a hierarchical society where the rich oppress the poor:
This is a solid, deep form of alienation built up not overnight, or over the last two years in response to cuts (shame on you Ken Livingstone) but one which is built into the fabric of the broad political settlement of the last decades and reflected in the city’s divisions between rich and poor, between black, brown and white, between young and old.
The riots rest on a conviction not just that the barriers are there, but that they are solid walls, through which none will pass. The reactions to them as ‘mindless violence’ simply confirm this fact. It is not that people are rioting because they don’t have jobs, but because they must believe, ultimately, gloomily, grimly, that there is nothing for them in their future.
While the mass protests in Egypt and the rioting in England cannot be equated ("Egyptians and Tunisians took revenge for Khaled Said and Bouazizi by peacefully toppling their murdering regimes, not stealing DVD players.“not by stealing DVDs”, Mosa’ab Elshamy comments), the contexts in which they occurred are similar: growing inequalities due to neoliberal policies and an inceasingly oppressive state that does not care for its citizens.
SocProf from the Global Sociology blog writes:
So, whatever the initial reason for the uprising in Tottenham, it is clear that many of the countries where austerity policies are being imposed from above on the general population are facing socially explosive situations.(…)
SocProf lists examples from Israel, Chile, Greece, Spain and the “Arab Spring":
What we see is the global civil society rising up against what is clearly exposed as the alliance of the corporate sector (…) and Western governments (…).
In this process, the governments turn repressive against oppositional voices. Several examples (including from the UK) are provided that show how dissent is criminalised
The message is clear: dissent will not be tolerated as the whole anti-terror apparatus is used not against terrorists but against cyber-dissenters and protesters.
Why the riots are political - a good summary
As reaction to the riots, Cameron considers – in similar way as his friend Mubarak (source) earlier this year - to shut down social network sites like Facebook and Twitter and sms services as well for “those suspected of planning criminal acts”.
He talked like a dictator when he replied to criticism from rights groups: He will not let “phony concerns about human rights” get in the way of the “fight back” against the riots, he said. In the macrumors forum, he was called David “Mubarak” Cameron. It is no longer uncommon to equate the UK with (former) Middle East dicatorships. The story San Francisco Cops Jam Cell Phones to Prevent Protest is introduced this way: “It’s not just the London police and Middle East dictators who try to curb unrest by clamping down on communications networks.”
Suddenly, criminals would become legitimate protestors fighting against an oppressive state who have turned democracy into a puppet show.
Anthropologist Sean Carey criticizes the reactions of the politicians as well:
Mindlessness would create randomness, but the events unfolding are far from being random. Instead, I would argue that what we are witnessing is a significant symbolic statement about the way power – the power of life and death exercised by police officers as well as the power to consume – is arranged in British society.
The riots are said to have started with a protest against the controversial killing of Mark Duggan by the English police during an anti-gun crime operation. Yet no commentator links the incredible number of riots in different cities to that particular incident, notes anthropologist Gabriel Marranci.
And when somebody, as Darcus Howe in the mentioned BBC interview is trying to address this issue, he is cut off and silenced. “We cannot talk about this now. We don’t know what has happened. We have to wait for the police inquiry", the BBC news anchor said.
Al Jazeera gives an account of the events:
On Saturday, hundreds of people gathered outside the Tottenham police station, peacefully calling for “justice” for Mark Duggan, a man killed by officers three days prior. Police stood in formation, separating the community members from the station they were guarding, until a 16-year-old woman reportedly approached an officer to find out what was going on.
According to a witness account, some officers pushed the young woman and drew their batons. “And that’s when the people started to retaliate. Now I think in all circumstances, having seen that, most people retaliate,” said the witness.
“When the rioters themselves are asked, they will say that they are abused by police, harassed by them, and nobody’s done a thing about it”, says Richard Seymour PhD candidate at the London School of Economics to Al Jazeera. There have been 333 deaths in police custody between 1998 and 2010 in Britain. Large, peaceful protests in response to these killings were more or less ignored, he said. Not a single officer has been prosecuted.
As a result, Duggan’s killing crossed a threshold for young people, angry with the systems that have left them behind, and tired of non-violent protest that goes without much response.
By the way, in an article in the Danish newspaper Information, Rune Lykkeberg reminds us on a book that was reviewed in all major English media only two months ago: Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class by Owen Jones. This book “exposes class hatred in modern Britain”, the reviewer in the Independent explains. “In the public domain of news and culture, within the arc of some 30 years, a once-proud working class has been residualised into a violent, degenerate, workless mob.”
Class and classism are under-researched topics in mainstream anthropology.
Mapping the riots with poverty (Map by the Guardian 10.8.11)
From the Arab Spring to Liverpool? (Al Jazeera, 11.8.11)
London rioters resent media image of hooded teen thug (Reuters - Ahram Online 11.8.11)
Some thoughts on the London “riots”: Foucault’s genealogy of neoliberalism and “police as a public service” (Anthropoliteia: the anthropology of policing, 12.8.11)
Martha Nussbaum: Democracy at risk from emphasis on ‘useful machines (The Australian, 12.8.11)
Maia Green: News from the UK (Savage Minds, 10.8.11)
What’s Worse? Looting or Invading? (Robin Beste, Consortium News / Stop The War Coalition 15.8.11)