16 August 2008

Perhihan Magden

Perihan Magden is one of Turkey’s most widely read young authors. Turkey’s Literature Nobel Price winner Orhan Pamuk called her “one of the most inventive and outspoken writers of our time.” She is also a regular columnist for daily Radikal, criticizing the military’s influence in politics and the militarization of Turkish society.

I visit Perihan Magden in her house in one of the most beautiful villages along the Bosporus.

GK: You wrote once that the relationship of Turks to their military is almost religious and that the basic problem of the Turks is a too strong attachment to the military. Why is this so?

PM: Turkey was founded by a general. Mustafa Kemal was a soldier and he was our saviour. The army is also supposed to be our saviour and protector forever and ever. I always use the term omnipotent for the Turkish army. You cannot question their powers. They have no accountability. No one can ask questions about their budgets. Their status is that of kings in the Middle Ages. The status of the army is a big problem of Turkey. It is our big obstacle on the path to real democracy. In elementary schools kids are brought up with this incredible Mustafa Kemal worship, which extends to worshiping the Turkish army.

GK: Few Turkish columnists discuss the army in the way you do. What motivates you?

PM: If you are a columnist you are critical of your country but you want good things for your country. I really want a good democracy, a European-quality democracy for my country. And what stops us? I use the term “hybrid” democracy because what separates us from a real democracy is the omnipotence of the army.

Just before I went on vacation I wrote an article saying that I do not have a religion. I am not an atheist, because I believe in God, sort of. But it became a scandal because I equalled religious fundamentalists with Kemalists. They are both religious; they are both fundamentalists. Sometimes I call Kemalists state fundamentalists. If you are fanatical, other fanatics disturb you. This is the chemistry of fanaticism.

Though some people would reach the same conclusion, they would not want to write about it because they would feel endangered. They would feel that it is not good for their careers, maybe even for their lives. The army is very strong and no one wants to challenge their power. (laughing) Maybe it comes from my psychological problems. A conflict with father figures.

GK: Why did you write your article about conscientious objection in 2005 and did you, before you wrote it, expect such a reaction?

PM: Not at all. Sometimes I feel like I’m a stupid person living in a fairytale. In fairytales people are so stupid that all sorts of things can happen to them. My situation in Turkey is a bit like that: I really cannot see the dangers in this society. I look at things normally and I see it as my normal right to write about issues. I see it as my perfectly natural right to write about conscientious objection – it is a human right, no one can question that.

Every human has a right not to kill. And if you are doing your military service in Turkey there is a big chance that you might be killing someone, because there is an ongoing war in the Southeast of Turkey since 30 years. Why should you go to that severe experience of murdering someone in your life? Everyone should have a right to say “no” to that. Defending conscientious objection, I thought, is perfectly normal.

Perhihan Magden

So I wrote this article. And the head of the army made a complaint to the prosecution. When the head of the army makes a complaint to a prosecutor in Turkey, of course the prosecutor opens the case. They never say “no”. But that my trial was also raided by fascists was something I did not expect at all. I realised that I was one of the targets in this country.

I saw this theatre of hate – which is an old punk group’s name – being performed for me and all the main actors of that group, which cursed me and threatened me in the court house’s corridor, are now in prison because of the Ergenekon process.

GK: So you suspect that your court case was part of a bigger plot because of all the people who were there in that courtroom?

PM: Of course. After Hrant Dink was murdered [in 2007] I was certain what was going on. They had raided four courts. They went to Orhan Pamuk’s court. They went to Elif Shafak’s court. They went to mine and to Hrant Dink’s. To Hrant Dink’s trail Veli Küçük showed up. Oktay Yildirim showed up at mine. He is the guy at whose house in Umraniye [on the Asian side of Istanbul] the weapons were found [by the police in summer 2007]. All the pieces of the puzzle fitted together after Hrant Dinks murder. Hrant was very down when Veli Küçük showed up at his trial. He said this was an ominous sign, a horrible sign. It was like an omen, like a Stephen King horror story. Everyone knows many things about Veli Kücük but he was always untouchable. No one was able to even interrogate him. These are suspicious facts that we have known for years. This is the funny thing about Turkey: people know things, they talk about things, journalists also know things but they will not write about them. Then why are you a journalist? Be a gossip lady, and sit at home and eat nuts and gossip.

GK: When did you first feel threatened?

PM: I felt very threatened at the trial, when I was mobbed. This is my country. I don’t want to feel threatened here. I love my country and I feel at home here, even though I hate it sometimes. I think it is my natural right to hate my country. You know, even in love relations, there is love and hate. It is my country and I would not want to be living feeling like a frightened little mouse. Then Hrant Dink was murdered and the State send me two bodyguards to protect me. Then I said: “Oh my God, I am really threatened.” Many people after Hrant Dink’s murder were so scared that they stopped talking, stopped writing until Ergenekon really blew up. Only then they felt safe to write again.

GK: In the specific case of the conscientious objector article you were not sentenced. There was a mobilisation in your favour – a lot of intellectuals came out for you, including Orhan Pamuk. But you kept being charged with other crimes. Why is that?

PM: I kept on writing. I did not lower my tone, I even increased it. Of course I’m going to write about these issues. It is my natural right as a columnist. In Europe it would be unthinkable to be in trouble for writing the things I write. I did not allow myself to be scared. Then I should have quit my job. That would be the honourable thing to do.

GK: How many cases are now in court against you?

PM: Around ten, eleven cases. And I have actually two imprisonment sentences against me, on probation. Both of these sentences are before the appeals court. So, it will take a while until this is resolved in the appeals court. If I get a third prison sentence, then the court should say that I should be sent to prison. We will see. But it takes so long. So you expect that the laws will change until then. Most of these cases are insult cases, like the case of Ismail Türüt and Ozan Arif, who made a video praising the murderers of Hrant Dink. The video was shown on YouTube. It was scandalous. The lyrics are scandalous. It was praising the murderers.

So, I wrote a harsh article … and they were insulted. They were so insulted that they took me to court. And the prosecutor immediately opened the case. Now it depends to the judge’s opinion. Where does strong criticism end and insult start? Where are the borders? These are metaphysical terms. For insulting someone nowhere else on earth would you be put into prison. Here I’m being threatened with prison for insulting Ismail Türüt’s and Ozan Arif’s sensibilities. And they praise the young murderer of Hrant Dink!

GK: You once wrote that the Turkish judiciary is like a lottery and that it is like torture …

PM: Yes. It is psychological torture.

GK: This has been ongoing for many years, once a month you go to the court: how do you cope?

PM: Sometimes I get very, very upset. I get crazy. I feel like: “Oh my God, they are persecuting me all the time. They are threatening me. They want to put me into prison. What is going to happen to me?” I try to study my cases and I try to find points for my lawyers. Then I hate myself in that state of mind. I do not want to be my own lawyer. It is a horrible thing to be.

I’m not a lawyer and I do not want to be in a position to defend myself against these ridiculous accusations. It is very much a lottery, because there are really nice judges and some decent prosecutors as well but they are exceptional. Sometimes if you are lucky in the gambling casino, you get one of the good ones. If you are unlucky, you get one of the Kemalist psychos. Then, saying for instance “Kemlist psycho”, I can be put into prison for insult if someone reports it to the court. So, it is like an endless thing for me, the more I talk …

Why should I be controlling my mouth? I am saying logical things. This “justice system” has nothing to do with justice anymore. It is a ridiculous lottery. If they feel like prosecuting you, they will prosecute you. If they feel like giving you a prison sentence, they will. If you have a nice and logical prosecutor and judge they will acquit you. It depends. Many are Kemalists who think that they are the owners of this society, that they are the headmasters and I am a naughty child who should be punished and who should shut up.

GK: You did not shut up, you kept on raising taboos, and then, suddenly, in the last few months, the people who have been threatening you were being arrested. What was your reaction when you first learned that Veli Küçük and the others were arrested?

PM: Of course I felt very, very happy. First of all, it is a personal relief to me that the ones who had mobbed my trial are in prison. I was calling them the deep state’s chosen actors and actresses. I was naming them in my articles. Now I feel relief, fairness and justice. I feel like the good will prevail. And I feel good for my country. This is like a detox for Turkey. It is like cleaning our intestines. The problem was killing us; it was wrapped around our neck. It was starting to suffocate us, this fascism and this deep state. Now it is like breathing more comfortably. It’s a nice thing for Turkey.

GK: You have been attacked in the media. How did this happen?

PM: I would write a normal article and then I was threatened by this Tercüman newspaper. They wrote “Curse this ugly woman!” and they put a picture of mine. For an article I wrote about benevolent, loving, nationalist Turkish kids in Turkish gymnasium who were putting needles to their fingers and dropping blood, so that from blood they made a flag and could send it to the head of our army, Yasar Büyükanit. And Yasar Büyükanit was very moved. He had tears in his eyes. He called the cameras and television crews. Whenever the military calls them they go, to make commercials for the military. When you watch the news I think one should put the banner “You have watched the military’s commercials”.

So Yasar Büyükanit is very moved and shows this flag made from the blood of Turkish kids in high school. I called this completely nationalistic and wrote that these kids should get treatment. So then this fascist, rightist newspaper decides that I’m a horrible woman and that Turks should threaten me, hate me even.

I think if they quoted it completely they would have seen: it was a beautiful article. It had a logic. Even their readers would have said: “Yes, this woman makes sense.” Instead they take some sentences and play with them. For two days they put me in their headline – they take my picture and say ugly words about me. This is not nice of course, in your own country to be a national target for writing that kids should not be thinking that they are natural born soldiers. But I think now there will be a serious shift with Ergenekon. I hope, hope, hope.

GK: How important is what’s going on now in the Ergenekon trail?

PM: It is not a revolution, I would call it a hopeful evolution – we will evolve to better things. It’s a big, great, beautiful chance of cleaning up our act. Now it is our time to clean our system from all these dark forces trying to run the country for us, killing people, making assassinations, making trouble – trying to control Turkey. So now it is time that we get rid of them.

I think we can never reach the bottom, because I think very important, probably very powerful figures from the army were involved. They made this a mystical thing: Who is the No. 1? And Samil Tayyar, the big Ergenekon reporter, writes: “I know it but I can only give the initials.” It’s hush, hush, hush. But if AKP now puts its act together and says “Now we feel the people deserve a constitution, which is not a military tailored one” our democracy would change. AKP are my only hope for the betterment of this country. This is tragic in a way, because they are religious people and a conservative rightist party, but they are my only hope for the betterment of this country. My biggest wish now is that they should go to referendum and ask the people of Turkey. They should ask: “Are you for a new constitution or not?”

GK: In your books there are many mysterious murders. Is this a reflection of growing up in Turkey?

PM: Probably, they have some political connotations but they have also psychological connotations. It might be that I have always felt unsafe. I think that’s a common denominator with the Turkish psyche – they feel unsafe. The next morning they will wake up and they do not know what might happen. A coup d’état, bombing, party closure… we always have been made to live with incredible unpredictability. We are not like Norwegians – their only worry would be if the milkman brought the milk. We have horrible political worries all the time. I think that makes us tense and insecure. I think that my mysterious murders could be a reflection of that.

GK: Your book “Two girls” describes on the one level a very universal story: a love affair, problems with the families… How is it an Istanbul Story? What makes it a Turkish story?

PM: Because the writer, myself, is from Istanbul it is an Istanbul story. I really mapped Istanbul in this novel. The addresses I gave everyone can find. It’s my Istanbul where I grew up, pieces from my youth.

Whenever I write a book, I want it to be universal because the human issues are the same all over. These teenage problems – when you are a teenager, you are like a snake changing your skin – it’s such a horrible period, everyone threatens you. I think all teenagers are naturally homeless because they live in their parent’s home but they do not belong there anymore. And they cannot move out. All these themes are very, very universal but in a way it is also very Turkish because these girls are living in a society, which is like a ticking bomb. I wanted to reflect that, especially for women, for girls. If you look at it in a Marxist way, women are always one class below men  working class men are above working class women. Women will always be lower. So I also wanted to show that there can be this class-stricken anger in some women, against mankind and against males in society. And Turkey is sometimes very male, a suffocating society for women. When you are a girl you are most vulnerable as a teenager. I just wanted to reflect that and I thought hat some women can really strike back. That’s my wish of course. I want people to strike back.

GK: The girls who appear in your book are, on the one hand, very European, cosmopolitan, listening to European music. But there is always this violence in the background. How Turkish is that? And is there a special frustration among young women in Turkey now?

PM: I think there should be! I say: “In this society you are suppressed for being pure, you are suppressed for being young, you are suppressed for being a woman – how come you are not angry?” So I take a girl, who is able to become angry and it is like my dream. I want this anger.

GK: Were you surprised by the big success of “Two girls” in Turkey?

PM: I was praying and wishing that it would become a bestseller because I wrote it for Turkish youth. I said: “I wish they read it so that they would be influenced.” If they read what Behiye reads – you know, her favourite authors are Herman Melville, Kafka – or l isten to the music she listens to. I wanted the young to read it very much

GK: Your characters are very unconventional…

PM: The girls?

GK: Yes. They are challenging conservatism. They fall in love. Is there also a reflection here of a more modern attitude in Turkey towards sex?

PM: Yes, definitely. But the girls are not unconventional. Most Turkish youth – especially in this huge, metropolitan, giant Istanbul – live like this. I got letters from girls in Anatolia who were lesbians. They sent me their pictures. This is a very gay society. But the book is not about a gay love affair, because what I wanted to say is that when you are a teenager, everyone is much, much more bisexual. You are open to everything. You are open to big passions; it can come from your sex or the opposite sex. I think this is very realistic and I think they are very typical Turkish girls.

GK: Speaking openly about this kind of relationship seems to be new. Were you attacked?

PM: No, not for this. The fascists don’t read novels. I was not attacked for that.

GK: When will you write your next novel?

PM: Soon. I want to start like at the beginning of the new year. In January I’ll clean my system and start writing a much, much more fun book, which won’t make me suffer.

Filed under: Turkey — Gerald @ 11:18 pm
14 August 2008

In last night’s BBC World Today programme, the Italian and Polish Foreign Ministers, Franco Frattini and Radek Sikorski, and I were interviewed on the recent crisis in Georgia and how it affects EU-Russian relations and EU foreign policy. You can listen to the full interview here:

Get the Flash Player to see the wordTube Media Player.
Gerald Knaus on the Georgian crisis. © 2008 BBC World Today. All rights reserved.

I also wrote a commentary (in German) in the Austrian Falter magazine, it’s called “Russen und Rosen” (“Russians and Roses”)

Franco FrattiniRadek Sikorski
Franco Frattini – Radek Sikorski

Filed under: Georgia,Russia — Gerald @ 1:10 pm
10 August 2008

Toledo
Toledo – a story of translation

What does it take to sustain a “culture of tolerance” in a society marked by genuine differences? It is a question central to the issues discussed on this blog: from Kosovo to Kakheti, from Timisoara to Thessaloniki. Let me share impressions of one particularly interesting effort to answer it: Maria Rosa Menocal’s book The Ornament of the World – How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain.

Menocal is an expert on the multireligious and multilinguistic world of medieval Spain. She decided to write her book after delivering presentations on “Medieval Europe and Authentic Multiculturalism” and noticing that her research had produced a “treasure trove of mostly unknown and unheared stories and characters.” This explains why her book is a very good read. But it is its relevance to current debates that makes it particularly gripping. As the author asks herself:

“Can Muslims be successfully integrated into contemporary and secular European nations? Should fundamentalist Christians have to expose their children to the teachings of reason as well as those of faith, to evolutionary theories as well as scriptural truth? Can Catholic Croatians, Orthodox Serbs, and Muslim Bosnians coexist in the Balkans? How can tolerance and intolerance coexist?”

Menocal describes a medieval society where “Muslims, Christians and Jews did not have separate cultures based on religious differences but rather were part of a broad and expansive culture that had incorporated elements of all their traditions, a culture that all could and did participate in regardless of their religion.”

In fact, despite its title – The Ornament of the World – the story Menocal tells is, in the end, one of defeat as much as triumph. The enemies of tolerance and cultural coexistence are always present and ultimately they triumph. There is the regent of the dying Kalifate of Cordoba, al-Mansur, leading a deadly and destructive raid into Santiago de Compostela in 997; there is the complete destruction, perpetrated by fundamentalist Berber fighters from North Africa, of the palace of Madinat-Al-Zahra outside of Cordoba in 1009, ending the golden age of Cordoba; there are the attacks on Jews by Muslims (the massacre of Jews in Muslim Granada in 1066) and Christians (their expulsion from Christian Toledo in 1391). Later, in 1492, all Jews were made to leave Spain following an order by Spains’ Catholic Kings, many resettling in the Ottoman Empire, in particular in Thessaloniki. Spanish Muslims met the same fate before long.

And yet, it was not religiously defined crusaders but intense exchange and interaction between Christian, Jews and Muslims that defined – and made great – medieval Spain. It was a tradition of exchange, of translation, of trying to reconcile reason and religion, of poetry. To grasp this it is probably easiest to do what Menocal does so well: to introduce some of the leading protagonists.

There is Hasdai ibn Shaprut, the Jewish foreign secretary of the Muslim caliphate called al-Andalus in Arabic and Sefarad in Hebrew. He was born in Cordoba in 915 and became a leader of the Jewish community in Cordoba as well as vizier of caliph Abd al-Rahman. He was proficient in the many languages of his native city – Latin, Arabic, Hebrew and Mozarabic. He remained a devout Jew and was also thoroughly educated in Arab culture. In 949 he headed a delegation in delicate talks with a delegation from Greek speaking Byzantium, to discuss a possible alliance against the Abbasids in Bagdad.

One of the gifts the Byzantines brought was a book by Discorides, On Medecine. Hasdai immediately set out to put together a team of experts to have it translated into Arabic. Books mattered in the Cordoba of his time. The caliphal library had some four hundred thousand volumes “at a time when the largest libraries in Christian Europe probably held no more than four hundred manuscripts. Cordoba’s caliphal library was itself one of seventy libraries in the city.

Books also played a central role in the life of Arab poet Ibm Hazm, raised in a Cordoba harem in the last years of the first millenium, According to Menocal he produced some 400 of them, from law to philosophy, from religious studies to the sciences. His most famous work, though, was a handbook on love – The Neck-Ring of the Dove – whose 30 small chapters cover topics such as “on the Signs Given by the Eyes” and “On Those Who Fall in Love at First Sight.” It is a tribute to a courtly society, laying out the ways in which love can be an all-consuming illness that wastes the lover away, robs him of sleep, appetite, and tranquility – the sum of which creates and incomparable ecstasy and is also the very source of great poetry.” Poetry which appears as modern as this:

“I’ve a sickness doctors can’t cure,

Inexorably pulling me to the well of my destruction.

Consented to be a sacrifice, killed for her love,

Eager, like the drunk gulping wine mixed with poison

Shameless were those nights,

Yet my soul loved them beyond all passion.”

But these sensibilities would travel beyond Southern Spain. Menocal notes how Anadalusian Arabic “ring songs” of love poems made their way into France in the 11th century, together with new instruments that would rehape European music: guitars, drums, tambourines. In the siege of the Northern Spanish town of Barbastro in 1064 “the greatest treasure” taken back by Christian conquerors were Andalusian singers. Medieval French culture owed an obvious and visible debt to the poets of Andalus.

Or take Michael Scot, born in Scotoland, then living in Sicily. He travels to Toledo when that city is at the heart of European culture in the 13th century. One of the main activities in Toledo was the translation of texts into Latin from Arabic. When the Castilian king Alfonso VI took over Toledo from its Arab rulers, Menocal writes, he

“simultaneously aquired an immense wealth of books and, the greatest gift of all, whole communities of multilingual Toledans – Mozarabs and Jews prominent among them, who could serve as translators.”

And as more and more Arab-speaking Christians and Jews fled from increasingly intolerant cities in the South of Spain and settled in Toledo, the city became the European centre of translation:

“It was at this time that the translation of thousands of Arabic volumes into Latin began in earnest, and within fifty years, Latin readers throughout Christendom had at their displosal such once-unimagined wonders as the full body of Aristotle’s works, accompanied by extensive Muslim and Jewish commentaries … Michael Scot and many others went to Toledo to learn Arabic and to train in the special process of collaborative translation developed there. The common model was for a Jew to translate the Arabic text aloud into the shared Romance vernacular, Castilian, whereupon a Christian would take that oral version and write it out in Latin.”

In this way the translators of the Toledo school were not translating individual texts: they were “translating a culture”. They, like the scholars in Cordoba or poets like Ibn Hazm, were the avantguard of the intellectual revival of medieval Europe: its first true renaissance, belying the image of the “dark ages”.

So read this fascinating book! I have thought of its characters many times in recent months, in particular while working on two documentary films – one on Thessaloniki and one on Istanbul (more on these later). In both of these two great European cities one encounters a similar story of traditions of multiethnic, multireligious coexistence lasting for centuries, only to be destroyed in the end by forces of ferocious intolerance, by insistence on purity, by the will to “simplify” society.

As Menocal puts it, the challenge is for a culture to sustain “contradictions.” She never idealises the world she celebrates: there simply are too many accounts of exil, massacres, intolerance and warfare in her story. Her conclusion is that all three monotheistic faiths “have powerful strains of ferocity within them”. Her story concludes with the Spanish inquisition being set up to “cure the perceived ills created by five hundred years of a society that did tolerate contradictions of all sorts.” Thus the medieval world gives way to a new world, embracing the ideal of single-religion and single-language nations: an ideal which in some parts of the world is still with us today.

Menocal herself ends her scholarly meditation in the Balkans, with the Sarajevo Haggadah, a Jewish book of prayers and stories that survived the shelling of the Sarajevo library in August 1992. The book had made it out of Spain in the exodus of 1492, taken to the Ottoman Empire by Sephardic Jews. It was rescued a second time during the second world war, when a Muslim curator in Sarajevo managed to hide it from the Nazis. And many decades later, a woman fleeing Kosovo, attacked by Serb forces in 1999, held among her possessions a paper her father had received from the Israeli government for saving not only the Sarajevo Haggadah but also Yugoslav Jews from the Nazis. Cordoba – Toledo – Thessaloniki – Sarajevo – Istanbul … How many more such chapters will European history write?

One last thought: the multicultural society Menocal describes lasted “for several hundreds of years – that’s a very long time for a good thing to last”. Indeed. But certainly not long enough.


Thessaloniki synagogue


Istanbul’s formerly Christian Pera area


Sarajevo’s National Library, shelled in 1992

Filed under: Bosnia,Europe,Spain — Tags: , , , — Gerald @ 12:06 pm
3 August 2008

Mostar bridge

I am currently reading a thought-provoking and entertaining book with a serious conclusion: Wild Europe – the Balkans in the Gaze of Western Travellers by Bozidar Jezernik, published by Saqi and the Bosnian Institute.

It is a book about continuities in approaches to the Balkans. As anthropologist Joel Martin Halpern writes in the foreword:

“In the early twenty-first century, a large portion of the Balkan lands where Muslims live, our principal area of concern, are occupied by NATO troops with UN participation … in exploring Jezernik’s collection of the views of observers of times past, we can easily see how they provide a necessary prologue to the present.”

Halpern notes that in recent centuries outsiders coming to the Balkans would often hesitate to consider anything admirable in the work of the people of the region. He gives the example of the bridge in Mostar:

“… by the mid nineteenth century, when Turkish power had notably declined, travellers no longer attributed the bridge to the Turks, but gave it classical origins. … A nineteenth century account of the bridge at Mostar by an Austrian noblewoman is illustrative. She had the insight to observe of the bridge that ‘history mislabels it as Roman’. But her husband, who oversaw the publication of her book, added in his notes that the bridge was obviously classical, built by Trajan or Hadrian.”

Another Balkan explorer, Sir Arthur Evans, travelling through Bosnia in 1875, noted about the Mostar bridge that “the grandeur of the work … attests to its Roman origin.” The mindset of these travelers, so Halpern, was to ask “how could something unique and of value come directly from the infidel Turks and be located in the Balkan back of beyond.”

The rest of the book gives many more examples of an outlook which views the Balkans as a region of “primitive quarrels and ancient ways of resolving them.” There is the Englishman who describes the eastern coast of the Adriatic as “one of those ill-fated portions of the earth which, though placed in immediate contact with civilisation, have remained perpetually barbarian.” There are the travel reports written for a “broad and enthusiastic public who found nothing more boring than plain facts.” In these writings hyperbole was encouraged. As Jezernik writes:

“In a book on the inhabitants of Bosnia, written by the French consul in Travnik at the beginning of the nineteenth century, readers would frequently come across terms such as wild, ruthless and cannibalistic. In this light, the civilising role of France might have seemed indispensable and could have been used as a pretext for the occupation of Bosnia. The author repeats several times in different words that this country and its inhabitants might change ‘under some other rule’.”

Some time ago my friend Felix Martin and I have written a provocative little article about the colonial gaze of modern day foreigners in the Balkans and the practical consequences of this for Bosnia (Travails of the European Raj – we then put a short picture story on liberal imperialism on the internet, stretching from Mill and Machiavelli to Michael Ignatieff and Sebastian Mallaby).

We noted that in the modern Balkans – as in the past – liberal imperialists emphasied both wild behaviour and helplessness. It is because the Balkans are wild that they need to be contained and it is because they are helpless that they need to be helped. Achievements by the peoples of the Balkans upset this perspective, which is why it is better not to underline them too much.

This is very visible today in Bosnia. While it is admitted that the Mostar bridge is an Ottoman and not a Roman marvel, the approach that every post-war achievement (peace, reconstruction, return, basic reconciliation) is assumed to be the result of international coercion or assistance but rarely or never the product of local effort, remains very much alive. This is obvious also from two provocative articles published in the Guardian and by USIP. The authors – the former High Representative to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Lord Ashdown, and two American Balkan experts with long experience in Bosnia, Bruce Hitchner and Ed Joseph – argue that Bosnia and Herzegovina is today facing a tremendous crisis, and that the only way to save it from itself is through more assertive outside intervention, including maintaining (and using) international intervention powers.

There can be no doubt that all three authors feel genuine concern about and commitment to Bosnia. At the same time their views appear to be shared by many (among the dwindling group of) policy makers who focus on Bosnia today in Washington DC in particular. Theirs is thus a serious perspective that deserves a thorough discussion. And yet, at another level the two articles are also good illustrations of the persistance of the colonial gaze: a gaze which can see no salvation for the wild peoples of Bosnia except by outsiders ruling them directly.

Take a look first at the article by Ed Joseph and Bruce Hitchner. Here is the central argument: 1. “ownership” has been tried and does not work. 2. Without plenipotentiary powers in the hands of an international agency there can be no progress in Bosnia. and 3. the best model for Bosnia’s future is the supervisory regime established in the Brcko district in North Bosnia. In this regime a foreign supervisor retains the power to remove elected and appointed officials from power:

“The vast majority of progress in Bosnia has been the result of international prodding. Experiments with “local ownership”. most notably during the regime of High Representative Christian Schwarz-Schilling, resulted in severe gridlock and left the international community’s credibility in tatters …

“There are no plans for the successor EUSR to retain the plenipotentiary Bonn Powers of the High Representative that have been the international community’s primary tool to overcome obstruction. However, recent history suggests that it is expecting far too much of the Bosnian parties to operate together as a typical aspirant country … an empowered EUSR will still be needed at the helm to steer the parties toward agreement and overcoming the inevitable recalcitrant party or parties.”

“A viable model for Bosnia’s EUSR is not only the predecessor OHR, but also the successful Brcko Supervisory regime. Brcko has been the exceptional success story in the country due in part to the knowledge that an empowered outside actor could step in to avoid and break deadlocks. … The EUSR should be expressely required to state which party or parties have been responsible for failure to achieve progress and to make recommendations about corrective action, including removal from power or blacklisting them from traveling within the EU.”

These are very strong claims, about the recent past as well as about the possible futures of Bosnia: Bosnians among themselves are held to be unable to govern themselves without a strong supervisory regime (as exists in Brcko district). This is also unlikely ever to change. After all, there are no constitutional problems for governance inside Brcko District (which was designed completely by foreigners), and the only complication there appears to be the fact that there are indeed Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs living together: and yet, until today this “exceptional success story” continues to require the corrective powers of a foreign supervisor! The implication is that as long as Bosnia/Brcko are multiethnic societies the only way to make elected representatives reach compromises is to threaten them with the sanction of imposition or removal. Brcko is, after all, not a model for multiethnic democracy!

The article by Ashdown also refers to Brcko as a model, calling it a “multi-ethnic markedly successful sub-entity.” Ashdown evokes the threat of war in Bosnia to draw attention to his call for more assertive international action, noting that what would change people’s “calculation in favour of blood” in Bosnia would be continued efforts to divide the country. And such efforts, he underlines in the same article, are continuing and will most likely continue without stronger international engagement. As he writes: “You do not need imagination to know what happens when things go wrong in Bosnia – a memory ought to be enough.”

But is the evidence from recent years truly that a multi-ethnic Bosnian democracy remains an impossible dream? That the only way to improve things in the country is by international imposition? And that Bosnians might soon make a “calculcation in favour of blood”? Let me return to this question in my next blog. In the meantime, I am looking forward to any comments or suggestions.

Filed under: Balkans,Bosnia,The Raj — Tags: , , , , — Gerald @ 12:57 am
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