What are the roots of hate? Why do some people threaten to kill, rape, kidnap or hurt someone whose existence or ideology they don’t approve of? How far can feelings of abhorrence go? These were some of the questions that came to my mind on Saturday January 26th, when I attended The Big Conversation On Safety and Freedom at Beurschouwbourg in Brussels, an event organized by the Goethe Institute Brussels, the Panoptykon Foundation and Beurschouwbourg.
Hasnain Kazim is a writer and journalist of manners. Cross-legged he sits on the armchair with a book in his lap, pushing the bridge to his glasses, waiting for the microphone to come to his hands. “This book collects mails and mails of hate speech,” he says in a soft, paused voice. “And it also includes my responses to them.”
Kazim was born and raised in Germany (Oldenburg, 1974), yet he receives scathing emails where he’s called a “Paki who understands nothing about Germany.” He won the 2009 CNN Journalist Award, and worked as a Der Spiegel correspondent in Islamabad, and later in Turkey.
“I’m often confronted with the criticism, ‘You’re not building bridges with your book,’” he says. “And I can see their point, but when you receive this kind of emails I find it very difficult to try to build a bridge with the people who write these things to me.”
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Anti-migrant protesters filled the streets in Chemnitz, Germany, on Thursday. The fatal stabbing of a 35-year-old German man on Sunday has sparked far-right demonstrations, with some participants chanting neo-Nazi slogans. Two men, an Iraqi and a Syrian, have been arrested in connection with the stabbing. (📸: Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty Images)
Tensions over the topic of immigration are multiplying across Germany, and in many parts of the world. A recent article published in the New Yorker described the corrosive state of finger-pointing and ideological polarization, even in the Bundestag. When Claudia Roth, acting speaker of the Bundestag in the spring of 2018, took to task Thomas Seitz, an AfD politician who departed from the established protocol calling for a minute of silence after the killing of a teenage girl by an asylum seeker, Roth was inundated with messages threatening her with rape, assault, even murder. And that seems to be only the tip of the iceberg. A visit to eastern German cities such as Chemnitz would show that the battle between liberal activists and those rejecting the idea of a multi-ethnic Germany has only begun.
The Big Conversation On Safety And Freedom was part of Freiraum, a project designed by the Goethe Institute in Europe with 53 actors from culture, science and civil society that explores the core questions of, What is freedom in Europe today? Where is it endangered? How could we strengthen it? Out of 40 European cities, Brussels was randomly paired with Warsaw (a tandem) – a similar process was done with the other 40 cities. The next Big Conversation event will take place in Warsaw on the 23rd of February at the Polin Museum.
At Beurschouwbourg there were twelve discussion tables and at first I joined the one led by Human Rights’ lawyer, Alexis Deswaef, chairman of the Plateforme Citoyenne, an organization that offers support to refugees and migrants.
“In the current state of affairs in Europe and in Belgium it is very easy to be dismissed as a ‘lefty’,” Mr. Deswaef said. “When you try to look carefully at the way the legislation is being reshaped these days under the pretense of ‘securing our country against terrorism,’ it is frightening what some politicians would have been able to do hadn’t some organizations resisted it.”
He spoke of the project for legislation informally known as home visits (visites domiciliares) that the Belgian Government presented to Parliament in 2018. The law pretended to authorize home visits by the police whenever someone with an irregular residence status lived in Belgium, if a transfer or repatriation order had been issued, for instance. The authorization would apply to the home of any third party that offered lodging to the person or persons being targeted by such law.
Early this year, after consultations with different parties and civil society organizations, the project has since been abandoned. “You can imagine the sort of slurs we’ve had to face when we fought that project,” continued Mr. Deswaef. “The most typical being, ‘Oh, it’s clear where your loyalties are. You are defending terrorists.’”
To finish his talk he pointed out that certain political parties in Belgium, specially in Flanders, try to instigate fear among the population. A fear that is seldom founded. “They say, ‘These migrants are going to destroy our welfare system’. Prove it, we say. There are no solid economical foundations to what they claim, and they know it. The state doesn’t just give out benefits to the first person that comes knock on the door. There are tons of regulations that control the process.”
I also joined the discussion table led by Katarzyna Szymielewicz who spoke about the monitoring of data and the communication infrastructure as a pre-condition of security. To her, there is a growing trend in which corporations collect information to potentially manipulate internet users. “With this asymmetry of information, corporations are having too much power over us. They track what I do, where I am, collect information about my tastes, and then use it, so they say, to cater to my needs. Well, I want to see the profile that they have created of me, and I want to be able to change it. Choose the kind of information I will be exposed to.”
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What does safety mean to you? And how does it affect (your) freedom? Get the #bigconversation started on 26.01 with – Katarzyna Szymielewicz about online privacy (EN) – Aru Lee about safe spaces / community (EN) – Eva De Baerdemaeker about (un)safe & playful environments for children (NL/EN/FR) – Rachida Lamrabet about clothes as shelter (NL) – Dietmar Kammerer about surveillance (EN) – Pé Verhoeven about safe neighbourhoods (NL/FR/EN) – Yasmien Naciri about hate speech and verbal harassment (NL) – Merry-Lène Laballe about defence & security policies EU (EN/FR) – Kritikos Pandelis Mwansa about ethnic profiling (EN) – Nathalie Van Raemdonck about security in a connected world (NL/EN) – Nozizwe Dube about university, a safe space? (NL) – Béa Ercolini about sexual harassment in public space (FR)
The last conversation was with Aru Lee, who spoke about safe spaces and safe communities: do some spaces cause more harm than good? In particular, she spoke about her experience working as a bartender at a bar for lesbians called, Mothers and Daughters. “Yes, I can say it was meant to be a safe place, and for me it was safe enough to be a queer person. Just not safe enough to be a queer black person.”
The evening ended with a performance by Globe Aroma, a group of people that transformed the 30 articles of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights into 30 poems.