The West Bank Barrier – Security or apartheid?

Written by Selma Aalachi

With a third of the world’s countries constructing barriers along their borders, the promise by Donald Trump to build a wall along the border between US and Mexico isn’t precisely a new idea. As a matter of fact, mankind has from early history to modern times built barriers with the aim to protect and demarcate. When the Berlin wall was demolished in the year of 1989, there were approximately 16 border fences around the world. Today, more than 40 states have built barriers against their neighbouring countries. Some of them are completed, while others are still under construction. One such example is the Israeli West Bank barrier.

As an attempt to prevent Palestinian terrorists from entering Israel, the Israeli government began constructing a barrier in 2002. The barrier divides the West Bank and is a network of concrete walls, fences and closed military roads. In some places, it is as high as 8 meters, making it twice as high as the Berlin Wall (the average height of the Berlin Wall was 3.6 meters). The West Bank barrier is also expected to reach at least 650 kilometers in length, making it not only twice as high as the Berlin Wall, but also four times as long. The Barrier will also be more than twice as long as the internationally recognised Green Line, which was supposed to outline the border between Israel and West Bank.

The Israeli government argues that the Barrier has a pivotal defensive purpose. They indicate that the number of Palestinian attacks have decidedly decreased on their soil since the beginning of its construction, as proof of its effectiveness. To emphasize its association with security, its proponents terms it the “Security-,” or “Anti-Terrorist Fence”. The term “fence” is ostensibly less correlated with dictatorial power, but rather with the belief that “good fences make good neighbours.”

On the other hand, for the opponents of the Barrier it is the “Separation-,” “Colonisation-,” or “Apartheid Wall,” as it infringes Palestinian territory, restricts freedom of movement and demolishes communities. The phrase ‘wall’ evokes negative connotations equated with dictatorial power and perpetual segregation. Additionally, because 85 per cent of the Barrier runs inside the West Bank, many consider it to be an impediment to the desire of establishing a viable state of their own. The international Court of Justice (ICJ) has stated that the wall should be dismantled, because it is constructed on occupied Palestinian territory. According to international law, no country has the right to act outside its sovereign territory. Therefore, in compliance with the fourth Geneva Convention, the Israeli West Bank barrier is illegal. Yet, the wall is expanding, just like the rest of the walls around the world.

Border walls and fences may not be a new phenomenon, but the rate at which they’re coming to being is assuredly anomalous; as it is the fastest rate since the Cold War. But Israel is not only separating themselves from the West Bank, it is also building a concrete wall along the Gaza Strip. The country is additionally planning to wall itself off from the surrounding Arab states, becoming a fortress-like nation. The Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has described the surrounding Arab states as ‘wild beasts’, which Israel needs to protect itself from. Moreover, let us not forget about the Egypt-Gaza barrier or the barbed-wire fence that India is constructing around Bangladesh. Turkey is building a concrete wall along its entire border with Syria. Hungary is planning to construct a second wall on its southern border with Serbia, while the Estonian government has approved the building of a fence along its border with Russia. Europe will shortly have a greater amount of border barriers than what it had during the Cold War.

The perception of boundaries performs a leading role in the conflict of nation building, territory and resources within Middle East. The reasoning behind this view is based on the concept of the nation-state, where every population should have their own territory and where no foreigners are allowed to intervene in their internal affairs. In the opinion of realism, the dominant school of thought in International Relations theory, states are central actors which operate in an anarchic system. Because states desire to guard their sovereignty, the primary motive is state survival. States will endeavour to gain power at the expense of their rivals. If Israel is to become more powerful, that necessarily means the loss of land for Palestine. This explains why the wall has shifted the borders. It can be argued that Israel is building the Barrier with the purpose of offering their people protection from the ravages of an insecure international system; especially being the only country in the world with a Jewish majority.

Nevertheless, there are those who argue that walls and border fences don’t work. Because terrorist groups, for example, have the resources to enter by safer methods, they are not affected by walls. They are able to shoot rockets over the fence or to dig tunnels under it. They also manage to trespass by using fake documents. West Bank Palestinians still manage to enter Israel on a daily basis in hopes of work, to harvest their fields, to visit their families or to attend prayers at the Al-Aqsa Mosque.

So if the West Bank barrier doesn’t stop terrorists or undocumented workers, nor outlines a substantial border – then what is it for?

Security theatre could be one explanation. The phrase refers to actions taken by the government with the purpose of making citizens feel safer by seeing something being dealt with; even though that action generates a negligible contribution to the general efforts of truly keeping the population safe. Security theatre provide the sense of security, not actual security. The state, by demonstrating sovereignty, simultaneously reifies authority over that territory and defines the limits of the people that are situated there. This differentiation stimulate more passionate feelings of belonging to the in-group, as well as the separation from the other on the outside. The creation of an ‘us’ can only exist by its separation of a ‘them’. By creating distinct territories, when dividing the two populations, it demonstrates what Israels is and what it is not.

Many argue that the Barrier’s real raison d’être is to create facts on the ground, or what is better known as expansionism. Without delving into the complicated, notwithstanding interesting, past, a vital fact is the close correlation in Israeli history between ideological goals and the advanced practical actions. When the Zionist movement began to promote Jewish resettlement of Palestine in the nineteenth century, the settlement policy had three primary goals: the establishment of conterminous sections of settlement, the purchase of rural land and the expansion of the territory that would help to delineate the future boundaries of the state.

Invariably, border fences and barriers are justified in the language of security. It has long been a toon in regulating, or attempting to regulate, human passage and defending territory by the construction of walls. But wasn’t this supposed to be a new era in global affairs? An era in which the national borders were softened because of international financial interdependence? Globalization was supposed to tear down barriers and bring people of different ethnicity together, not to create new walls.

According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, every human being has the right to life, freedom and legal security. The Berlin Wall became an emblem for state violence, oppression and denial of human rights. Even though the West Bank barrier has made it more difficult for terrorists to reach their target, and Palestinian attacks have almost entirely disappeared since the construction begun, correlation doesn’t necessarily equal causation. Even though a wall offers more security than no wall, they do little to address the roots of insecurity and migration. The West Bank barrier, in its current aggressive route, may severely harm the peace process and stimulate terrorism. It has destroyed Palestinian neighbourhoods, restrained the economy and illegally occupied land. So whether we choose to see the West Bank barrier as simply a security matter or as a symbolism of modern apartheid, the Barrier is sure to play a vital role in the complex process of territorial negotiation related to the Israel-Palestine conflict as a whole.

What’s wrong with our polls?

Up until the last moment, most polls failed to foresee Donald Trump winning the American presidential election. In recent days, polls have also been wrong in predicting the support for right-wing populist parties, Brexit and the Colombian peace deal. Some would say that there’s always a chance of being wrong; polling deals with probabilities, which in themselves are not certain, as anyone who has played any game involving a dice would know (right, Settlers lovers?). But what can explain the recent inaccuracies in major elections and referendums? I argue that the problem lies is our assumption that the past can predict the future.

A poll is an activity in which people are asked questions in order to get information about what they think about something. So, when conducting polls, one might ask “who are you going to vote for in the upcoming election?” and get the reply “Hillary Clinton”. After asking a certain amount of people, we generally assume that we have an accurate picture of what the results would look like if everyone voted. If we could ask everyone in the U.S. (and get them to answer truthfully) there would be little risk of inaccuracy (and no need for an election). But this is neither possible nor necessary. By using the right tools, we can usually get an accurate picture of the entire population by asking a few. The objective is to get as reliable a result as possible with as little effort as possible.

One way to do this is to randomly pick people out of a phone book and call them up to ask whatever it is we want to know. The method may sound erratic but is in fact fairly reliable. The probability of getting systematic errors in the collected answers is quite small, assuming that everyone answers. But people increasingly don’t. Many young people don’t own landlines and don’t reply when an unknown number calls their cell phone, while old people tend to have landlines and answer them. This means that different groups will be over or under represented in the responses, ultimately giving an inaccurate picture.

Another difficulty is getting people to stay on the line and answer the questions sincerely. The difference between polls and the actual outcome on election day has been dubbed the “Brexit effect”, however, similar effects such as ‘The Shy Tory Factor’ and ‘The Bradley Effect’ have been known for some time. People tend to lie in polling situations if they feel cornered or feel that their self-image is threatened. As a result, there can be systematic errors in the responses, as it becomes uncertain who’s lying and who’s telling the truth.

Another method, often used together with the one described above, is to create quotas and try to fill them. If you, for example, know that 50% of the population are women, 30% are Hispanic and 15% are unemployed, this should be reflected in your quotas. So out of the people who answered your poll, you would have to check how many were from each “quota” and adjust the results accordingly. Therefore, if only 5% of those who answered your poll were Hispanic, you would enlarge the sample and make their views represent the views of all Hispanics in the general population. The problem here is obviously that those 5% might very well not represent the views of the other 25%, creating an inaccurate depiction. This has been reported to have happened in some polls prior to the U.S. election.

But even if you manage to get everyone you call to answer, and do so truthfully, and if you correct any mishaps by “weighing” certain groups (filling out the quotas), how do you know who is actually going to turn out on election day and vote? Come election day, will the people that answered your poll find themselves in the voting booth, and will they vote in the same way that they stated they would in the poll? Like with the quotas, this can be accounted for to a certain extent by looking at people’s voting tendencies in the past. Less educated and affluent people tend to vote to a lesser extent in most countries, and women are slightly more likely to vote than men. By adjusting the people who answered the poll to the expected participation in different groups, we assume that we can get a relatively clear picture of what’s going to happen on election day.

The bottom line is that we assume that things will progress in the same way they have in the past, that some trends will persist long into the future. We assume that social groups will vote similarly and that individuals in these groups therefore can be weighted to represent each other. We assume that the groups that didn’t vote last time will not do so this time either, and that they therefore can be removed from the equation.

But it is possible that the current state of affairs is different from that of the past, and that the future therefore cannot be predicted by relying on old data. While it is tempting to see events such as right-wing populism as a fad (“their support will disappear when the economy picks up”) and Brexit as an accident (“some didn’t understand that it was the actual referendum they voted in”) the reality is that many of us seem to stand at an ambiguous crossroad between the old and the new. If this is true, and Trump, Brexit and right-wing populism today represent something “new” when it comes to political behaviour (even if the message is old), then the methods we’ve used so far risk becoming inadequate in predicting what’s next.

Intervju med Alice Teodorescu

I juni månad beslutade det brittiska folket att Storbritannien kommer att lämna den Europeiska Unionen (EU). I folkomröstningens efterdyningar har det spekulerats flitigt kring vilka konsekvenser skilsmässan kan komma att få, och hur dessa konsekvenser kommer att påverka unionens framtid. Hur som helst är Brexit inte EUs enda orosmoment – president Erdogans och president Putins allt närmare relation, auktoritära medlemsländer som inte följer stadgarna, exploatering av den fria rörligheten och ett växande missnöje, särskilt i Västeuropa, är andra orsaker till varför institutionens framtid är osäker. Utblick har samtalat med Alice Teodorescu, politisk redaktör på Göteborgsposten, för att få en klarare bild av det känsliga läget i Europa.

Den 23 juni röstade Storbritannien för att lämna den Europeiska unionen, hur ser du på det beslutet?
– Jag är inte förvånad. Både i Storbritannien, och i övriga EU, har ett missnöje växt fram gällande hur samarbetets utveckling har sett ut. Det är förstås tråkigt, med tanke på hur framgångsrik unionen har varit som fredsprojekt. Men jag tror att EU har expanderat med fel fokus. Man har detaljstyrt mycket, samtidigt som man har misslyckats med hanteringen av de stora frågorna, exempelvis migration.

Storbritanniens nya premiärminister, Theresa May, valde Brexit-förespråkaren Boris Johnson som utrikesminister. Varför?
– Jag tror att det handlar om trovärdighet. Theresa May blev premiärminister, trots att hon var emot Brexit. Boris Johnson var en av huvudfigurerna i lämna-rörelsen. Han åtnjuter stort förtroende bland medborgare som röstade för att lämna unionen, och av den anledningen är det ett naturligt val. Det är också viktigt att poängtera att katastrofen som målades upp i samband med folkomröstningen, (ännu) inte har inträffat.

EUs förhandlingsposition är förstås väldigt känslig, eftersom ett gynnsamt avtal för Storbritannien kan få övriga EU-länder att vilja omförhandla sina respektive avtal. Med vilken attityd borde EU förhandla, tycker du?
– Storbritannien har varit tydligt med att man vill lämna samarbetet, och det måste man stå för. EU bör gå in i förhandlingarna med en tuff attityd, men det handlar inte bara om Brexit. Det är en större fråga, som i grund och botten handlar om att EU inte lever upp till förväntningarna i de frågor som medlemsländerna bedömer vara viktigast. Brexit är förstås en kris, men också en möjlighet i och med att de brister som idag finns i systemet uppmärksammas.

Ungern och Polen, med flera, verkar driva alltmer åt ett auktoritärt styre, och har dessutom inte tagit sitt ansvar i flyktingkrisen. Relationen mellan sådana regeringsformer och EUs grundläggande principer är knepig. Vad har EU för alternativ, bör man utesluta länder som inte tar ansvar?
– Det här är demokratins dilemma. Både regeringen i Ungern och regeringen i Polen är demokratisk valda, och det kommer alltid finnas länder som är missnöjda med andra befolkningars demokratiska beslut. Man kan uttrycka kritik, men jag anser inte att man bör utesluta vissa stater, utan istället att man bör skrota länders egna asylsystem, och ersätta dem med ett kvotsystem där EU fördelar ansvar mellan länderna. Härifrån blir det förstås en fråga om suveränitet, men faktum är att dagens system inte fungerar. EU är ett samarbete, och ett samarbete har för- och nackdelar. Det fungerar inte om medlemsländer väljer vilka ansvar de vill ta och inte ta. Vissa medlemsländer är generösa, andra inte, och det finns en oförmåga till koordination. Länderna är inte överens om EUs kärnuppdrag, och det är där man måste börja.

Turkiet har, de senaste åren, varit aktuellt för EU-medlemskap. I dagsläget går knappast att hävda att Turkiet är en demokrati. Kan du berätta lite om den här situationen?
– Erdogan har använt sig av hot för att försöka tvinga EU att inkludera Turkiet, vilket inte är acceptabelt. Men han har också varit smart. Han har använt flyktingkrisen som utpressning, vilket har försatt Europa i en situation som är svår att hantera. EU har hamnat i ett spel som inte går att vinna, och Erdogan sitter på ett trumfkort som vi gett honom genom att inte agera tidigare. Turkiet kommer fortsätta närma sig Ryssland om unionen fortsätter hålla dem utanför samarbetet. EU betalar för sina misstag.

Flera länder utnyttjar fördelarna med att vara med i EU, utan att ta det ansvar som medlemskap innebär. Anser du att EU borde anta en hårdare förhandlingsattityd?
– Nej, det skulle få negativa konsekvenser. Om beslut upplevs komma ovanifrån lär det göra opinionen mer kritisk. Det är viktigt att komma överens om vilka områden som tillhör EU. Självklart är det en pedagogiskt svår uppgift, men det är det enda sättet att enas. Medlemsländer måste känna ansvar, men de måste också känna att deras invändningar tas på allvar.

Vilka brister/fördelar ser du med EU i allmänhet?
– EU har varit, och är fortfarande, ett väldigt framgångsrikt fredsprojekt som har gynnat, och fortsätter gynna Europa. Dessutom är det viktigt att betona den ekonomiska faktorn; fri rörlighet av både människor och varor har spelat en otroligt viktig roll i Europas tillväxt. EU tillför mycket av godo, och det vore förödande om samarbetet luckrades upp. Men det behöver reformeras. Det kan inte fortsätta vara en elitklubb som utvidgar det glapp som redan finns mellan etablissemanget och människan på gatan. Detta är en farlig utveckling, eftersom den leder till att genomsnittsmedborgarens förtroende för systemet undermineras. Det är viktigt att komma ihåg att EU faktiskt inte är mer än medlemsländerna. Man behöver tänka om, man måste prata, stater emellan. Det är svårt, men absolut nödvändigt. Europa befinner sig i en existentiell identitetskris som skadar ett samarbete som har tjänat kontinenten väldigt väl under lång tid.

Läs hela numret här.

New Issue of Utblick: Exit

In the aftermath of Great Britain’s surprising decision to leave the European Union, there has been no shortage of speculations about the consequences that such a departure will have. Emerging Euro-sceptical forces throughout Europe have unanimously approved of the result of the referendum, and have attempted to reinforce anti-EU sentiment in their respective countries, calling for their own referenda. It remains unclear, however, if Brexit will ignite a trend that leads to the demise of the union, or if it instead marks the turn of that very same trend.

Peoples and governments receding to the nation state is by no means exclusive for the European continent. It’s happening in every part of the world, and even if the different movements distinguish significantly from one another, there is at least one reoccurring critique – the denunciation of globalization. On the other side of the Atlantic, Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, and even Hillary Clinton, have all taken a critical stance against both the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Transatlantic Trade- and Investment Partnership (TTIP). In South America, market liberalization has been said to lead to exploitation of the continent’s underdevelopment, effectively cementing many countries in their current, underdeveloped state. In Asia, China has benefited greatly, and is currently breathing down the US’ neck as the world’s only superpower. And in the Middle East, Turkey is picking the raisins out of the globalization cake, utilizing the global market while attempting to steer clear of cultural change. Everything in the middle of the worst refugee crisis in decades, and an existential environmental crisis that requires intergovernmental cooperation more than anything.

This issue of Utblick offers discussions on the future of the European Union, in depth analyses on specific countries, and debates, both on the origin and progression of different forms of criticism against globalization, and on the character and effects of the process itself.

We wish you a pleasant read!

You can look for this issue of Utblick at coffee shops, libraries, museums, movie theatres and university faculties all across Göteborg, or read it online here.

The enigma of a black beard in the West

This text could simply begin by nagging upon all the strange looks and comments one with long black beard might receive in the West. In fact, it even does not need to be long. Although this has been partly a lived experience of mine over the past six months that I’ve grown my beard, I decided to do the exact opposite.

In the next few lines, I try to list some of the possible motivations behind growing a beard which might trigger us to pause for a while, next time we encounter a bearded man and buy some time before rushing into any hasty judgment; a moment of wonder. Here I am discussing Black beards since, to my experience, beards of other colors are not subject of such an ambiguity in the West.
Black Beard as:

– A trendy fashion
Growing a beard might be a trendy fashion. Well, let me rephrase that: growing a beard, of any color, might be a trendy fashion; as simple as that.

– An ebullition
Emotional outbursts might come in different forms. Growing a beard might be sign of an emotional outburst; an ebullition. In a societal context, minorities of different sorts might experience several ebullition periods due to their submissive position vis-à-vis dominant position of the majority. Such an experience may occur in very ordinary contexts, and herein you might bear the feeling more frequently if you are easy to spot. Let’s take a Middle-Eastern with black hair in a mix of white Swedes. This would put the person on display and potentially more subjected to the submissive status. Appearance has an identity touch. The way we look is deeply intertwined with our inner identity. Growing a beard might be a way to surface this feeling, a way to oppose the unreceptive ambience, a way to not dilute the basal identity elements i.e. appearance: “Yes, this is me. I am different.”

– A religious identity-element
Some followers of many religions grow beard, namely Jews, Christians, Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims. This practice might be underpinned by different reasons e.g. sign of a pious living, endorsed by a Prophet, etc. At the end of the day, growing a beard might count as an identity element for some followers, especially if they reside outside their society of origin. Therefore, growing a beard might become a practice to emphasize their identity. Humans languish without identity.

– A flag of fanaticism?
There exist fanatic figures that have beard. However neither all bearded men are fanatics nor are all fanatics bearded. Indeed, fanatics come in all sorts of color, shape and race. The term fanatic might easily be attributed to a thought or behavior but it is difficult to depict a fanatic appearance. However, black beard as a flag of fanaticism is perhaps the perception many in the West have; a perception full of prejudices lurked beneath the surface and rarely challenged. A perception which West-centric media, among several contributing factors, has perhaps played a role in shaping through selective projection of others.


New Issue of Utblick: The Divided States of America

13499504_10154284687969161_1884910041_oThe Divided States of America

On November 8th this year, the United States will elect its 45th president. The two main parties, the Republicans and the Democrats, both seem to have decided on a nominee. Donald Trump, a billionaire businessman from Brooklyn, will stand as the republican candidate. His adversary will, with the greatest certainty, be Hillary Clinton, even if Bernie Sanders has vowed to keep fighting until the convention on July 25th.

Compared to other years, this campaigning process stands out. Less than a year ago, Jeb Bush, the son and brother of the two former Bush presidents, was generally conceived to be the presumptive republican nominee. However, just like the rest of the establishment republicans, he got caught in a maelstrom of right wing populism, and was forced to drop out quite early.

On the other side, Hillary Clinton lead the polls by enormous margins when the race started. While she’s still the candidate with the most votes, her lead has shrunk from insurmountable to minimal. Bernie Sanders, the man responsible for Hillary’s declining numbers, was ruled out for his socialist sympathies when he launched his campaign. He now holds sway over young voters, and dominates the internet in an impressive fashion.

But why is it that streams of populism, both to the left and right, have gained such strength? This issue of Utblick will attempt to pinpoint some of the reasons behind this election’s ideological irregularities, as well as offer candidate related debate and information about the US and its electoral system.

We sincerely hope that you will find the issue informative, interesting, diverse and enlightening, and that you will enjoy reading it is as much as we’ve enjoyed making it.

You can look for this issue of Utblick at coffee shops, libraries, museums, movie theatres and university faculties all across Göteborg, or read it online here.

New issue of Utblick: Democracy – Out of Fashion?

Democracy out of Fashion?utblick116

Democracy is often spoken of as the best form of governance that exists. While this may be true, democracy is by no means a flawless alternative. We’ve seen time and time again how democratic countries fall into ruin as a result of the people’s right to determine the form of state. The same people who are supposedly guided by egoistic incentives and discontent. It happened in Germany in the 1920s and 30s, then again in Serbia in the 1990s, and it’s happening again all across the democratic world. On the other hand, no constitution has ever proven as successful in so many instances as democracy has, begging the question ‘is there even a better alternative, or is democracy the best we’re ever going to have?
“Democracy – Out of Fashion?” offers a series of diverse analyses of countries where democracy is being challenged or is inefficient, as well as discussions regarding the very idea of what democracy is.

You can look for this issue of Utblick at coffee shops, libraries, museums, movie theatres and university faculties all across Göteborg, or read it online here.

New issue of Utblick: Africa?, out now!


Africa, this big continent on the rise, is home to more than a billion people in over 50 countries with diverse cultural and political structures. Many African countries today are said to be at the forefront of economic and social development, making the continent a potential challenger to the world order of today and tomorrow. But still, these glimpses of progress seem to cover a very small part of what media in general reports. In this last issue of 2015 we dwelve into the past and present of the continent. Join our discussion by reading our latest articles, essays and interviews, aiming to give an alternative point of view than the mainstream media!

You can look for this issue of Utblick at coffee shops, libraries, museums, movie theatres and university faculties all across Göteborg, or read it online here!

“Je Suis Raif” – Meanwhile in Saudi-Arabia

Free Raif


Paris, January 11, 2015. The streets fill with hundreds of thousands of protestors in a huge outpouring of support for Charlie Hebdo and the principle of free speech. It is a dreary, gray day and the crowd’s somber clothing reflect the general atmosphere in the capital mere days after the fatal shootings. Over 40 world leaders walk arm-in-arm in what appears to be a moving act of solidarity, among them Saudi-Arabian ambassador Dr. Mohammed Ismail Al-Sheikh. Nothing in his appearance betrays that just two days previously, 4500 kilometers away on a hot public square in Jeddah, a crowd was also forming, yet not with the purpose of protesting anything. They had come to witness the flogging of Raif Badawi, 31-year-old Saudi citizen who was sentenced to 10 years in jail and 1000 lashes simply for openly criticizing his country’s regime.

Badawi is, along with numerous other Saudi activists and writers, suffering the effects of a relentlessly strict application of Wahhabism, an ultraconservative form of Sunni Islam. One of few nations to have abstained from signing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Saudi-Arabia is a very precarious home for those with deviant political or religious ideas, something Raif Badawi knows only too well. As a young activist, he founded the website Free Saudi Liberals, a forum for public debate to which he also contributed articles. In 2012 Badawi was arrested for insulting Islam through electronic channels. Though he was initially charged with apostasy which carries the death sentence, his verdict was altered to 10 years in prison, 50 lashes every Friday for 20 weeks, as well as a fine of 1 million riyal (equal to about €234,000). His wife and three children have fled to Canada where they have gained political asylum. Looking back at the Paris rally, the fact that the Saudi ambassador was sent to march for freedom when his country cannot even grant its citizens basic rights makes the whole act ambiguous to say the least.

Let’s take a closer look at what it was about Badawi’s texts that was so offensive to the Saudi government.  The Guardian has made available translations of his main pieces, and it is striking how eloquent and wonderfully unequivocal they are. One of Badawi’s main concerns is the lack of freedom in a country where a narrow interpretation of Islam penetrates all spheres of life including politics, science, education, culture, and social relations. Here are some of Badawi’s thoughts on the need to separate state and religion:

No religion at all has any connection to mankind’s civic progress. This is not a failing on the part of religion but rather that all religions represent a particular, precise spiritual relationship between the individual and the Creator. …However, positive law is an unavoidable human and social need because traffic regulations, employment law and the codes governing the administration of State can hardly be derived from religion.

States based on religious ideology … have nothing except the fear of God and an inability to face up to life. Look at what had happened after the European peoples succeeded in removing the clergy from public life and restricting them to their churches. They built up human beings and (promoted) enlightenment, creativity and rebellion. States which are based on religion confine their people in the circle of faith and fear.

In another piece Badawi ridiculed the event where a TV preacher denounced astronomers, claiming their research undermined the beliefs of Sharia:

Actually, this venerable preacher has drawn my attention to a truth that had been hidden from me and my dear readers – namely, the existence of the so-called “Sharia astronomer”. What a wonderful appellation! In my humble experience and in the course of my not inconsiderable research into the universe, its origins and the stars, I have never once come across this term. I advise NASA to abandon its telescopes and, instead, turn to our Sharia astronomers, whose keen vision and insight surpass the agency’s obsolete telescopes.

The Free Saudi Liberals website was shut down permanently following Badawi’s arrest. He received his first set of 50 lashes on the 9th of January for his writings and has a further 950 to endure.

The coinciding of the Charlie Hebdo rally and Raif Badawi’s flogging has led activists to adopt the phrase “Je suis Raif”. Besides campaigning directly for Badawi’s release, it carries the message that we must not forget all the other Charlies whose voices are currently being silenced. Just another example close to Badawi is his lawyer, Waleed Abulkhair, who is currently serving 15 years in prison for his human rights work.

Recent developments in Badawi’s case do allow some space for optimism. Although he has received his first set of lashes, further flogging has been postponed several times, reportedly due to medical reasons. It is to be hoped that this is an underlying sign that international pressure is starting to affect the Saudi government. For example, on February 10, Prince Charles raised the plight of Raif Badawi with the Saudi king during a six-day tour of the Middle-East. King Salman, who acceded to the throne, as recently as January this year, has the power to free prisoners by granting a royal pardon. Meanwhile Nobel laureates, politicians from several countries and a long-standing campaign by Amnesty International have all called for Badawi’s immediate release.

For more information on what you can do to help, visit Amnesty International‘s website.

Text: Margit De Boer
Photo: Flickr – Amnesty Finland

La belle province: an ugly side of Québec

2014-04-19 15.12.19 (1)

In Québec, the issue of national identity and the system known as reasonable accommodation, adjustments made in society to accommodate certain rights based on e.g religion or disability, have for a long time been issues for controversial debate. This was especially apparent between September 2013 and april 2014, when the Canadian province of Québec carried out a heated debate on the issue of one controversial bill. A frenchspeaking province of 8.2 million with a Catholic heritage, Québec is part of a country that is often seen as liberal and a friend of progressive values. To this, an openness to multiculturalism should follow and, in many ways, Québec measures up. For example, Montréal is the world’s largest bilingual city and a large part of Québec immigrants settle there, which suggests acceptance and flexibility. But the unifying project that Bill 60 was said to be was in fact a shift towards intolerance rather than a society in harmony.

Bill 60, known as the Québec Charter of Values, was proposed by the Parti Québécois (PQ), the separatist party that ruled the province in a minority government in the fall of 2013. The bill promoted secularism, a society in which state and religion was fully separated, and consisted of different elements affirming religious neutrality. The bill suggested public institutions should remove all religious symbols, and the focal point of the public debate quickly became about the article forbidding government employees from wearing objects with religious connotations. This included conspicuous headgear, clothing, jewelry or other adornments which indicate a religious affliction. The rule would apply to all public servants, such as doctors, nurses, teachers, police and administrators.

However, symbols of cultural significance (in this case Catholic), were protected by the charter. For example, the crucifix hanging over the speaker’s chair in the Québec National Assembly, or a cross worn by a government personnel could still be displayed (as long as it is not ”larger-than-average”), while the kippah or turban would be banned. The attire under the most scrutiny during the debate was the hijab, a veil worn by some muslim women. The debate was most heated around this particular symbol, both religious and/or cultural, and pro-bill advocates often used the muslim veil and headscarf in the rhetoric promoting the bill. Hostility towards muslim women escalated during the final months before the election and charges of verbal and physical abuse increased by 300% in Québec compared to the months before, according to the Quebec Collective Against Islamophobia.

The backdrop for Québec secularism comes from a movement in the 1960’s, when the political role of the Catholic Church was taken away, and church was separated from state. By supporters, the Charter of Values was seen as an extension to the movement of the 60’s, merely reaffirming these values. This time, emphasis is put on culture. Québec culture is filled with Catholic symbolism, and Catholicism and Catholic cultural identity is clearly favored in this quest for secularism. Therefore, it is a distorted secularism. Supporting the bill is not supporting state secularism or religious neutrality. It is to support one cultural identity: the idea of common Québec values connected to a homogenous francophone secular Catholic community. In other words, it is marginalizing all people who are committed to a religion different than the one Québec was founded upon.

In light of all this, with the PQ being a separatist party as well as a promoter of discriminatory values, the separatist movement and the idea of a sovereign Québec is somewhat stained. With the two being connected, and with the nationalist, identity-driven campaigns by the PQ, the independence movement has lost a lot of appeal. Comparing it to recent events in Scotland, Québec is a whole other beast to tame. The idea of Scottish sovereignty is more connected to political and economic independence and unlike many other parts of the world, including Québec, the campaign was free from the issue of culture, language and traditions.

In the beginning, the bill had a great deal of support, and as public debate went on it divided the province in half. Finally, the Liberal party defeated the PQ in the April elections and with this, the charter was rejected. Nevertheless, the debate still lingers. Of course the question about the place of religion and multiculturalism in society is not limited to this part of the world. Nevertheless, concern of state targeting certain values and beliefs is very real. Especially, since the current liberal provincial government is now apparently working on a ’moderate’ version of the original Charter of Values.