It’s Not (Only) About Transgender: Bathroom Bills and the Politics of Fear

This week in North Philly Notes, we repost a column by Finn Enke, editor of Transfeminist Perspectives in and beyond Transgender and Gender Studies, that first appeared April 2 on myhusbandbetty.com, about bathroom legislation and the climate of fear these bills produce.

In 2015, 21 different anti-trans bills were put before legislatures in over 12 states. In the first 3 months of 2016, politicians have brought us another 44 bills in still more states. Most of these bills focus on public facilities that are sex segregated; most criminalize transgender and nonbinary people for using public facilities; most suggest that these bills are necessary for the “safety” and “privacy” of “the public;” most include a definition of “sex” as that determined by birth assignment and confirmed by birth certificate, and chromosomes. Many focus on public schools. In their rhetorical conflation of transgender with perversion and predation, and in their legitimation of excessive surveillance, they disproportionately impact people who are already most targeted: trans and queer people of color, trans women generally, and nonbinary people.

Whether or not they pass, these bills produce a climate of fear and suspicion, and they have already contributed to an increase in violence in and around bathrooms.

As a white transgender person who doesn’t “pass” well in either bathroom, I am more nervous than ever every time I need to use a public restroom (roughly 1,500 times a year).

These bills don’t originate from public concern or from any documented problem, and protests against them show that many people aren’t buying it. After all, trans people have been around forever, and there is no record of any trans person harassing anyone in a bathroom, ever. Plus, the bills themselves are staggering in their fantasies that sex could simply be flashed at the door with the wave of a birth certificate. Most people know that these bills don’t make bathrooms safe and only marginalize trans people, even making it impossible for us to use any bathroom.Transfeminist Perpectivessm

We know we are political fodder. The GOP made a sudden “issue” out of our access to public facilities in order to galvanize a crumbling party. It wouldn’t be the first time the GOP has created a political platform around vilifying already-marginal communities. As John Ehrlichman explained in 1994, Nixon advisors designed the war on drugs in order to derail the Civil Rights Movement and the Viet Nam Antiwar Movement. In the midst of the Cold War, the GOP also consolidated itself around anti-abortion platforms. And from the 1990s on, the GOP turned gay marriage into the fuel behind their campaigns rather than addressing economic and environmental crises.

But even more specifically, the rhetoric surrounding these bills relies on a very old trope of white women needing protection against sinister intruders. In Wisconsin during a 9 hour public hearing about its bathroom bill, we heard from quite a few men who didn’t want their daughter or granddaughter to be vulnerable to men preying on girls in the locker room. One said, for example, “we don’t allow exhibitionists and child molesters to hang out outside of school buildings, so how can we even be talking about letting them into girl’s locker rooms?”

North Carolina State Senator David Brock shared a similar concern in response to the state paying $42,000 for an emergency session to pass SB2 which criminalizes trans people for using public facilities: “you know, $42,000 is not going to cover the medical expenses when a pervert walks into a bathroom and my little girls are in there.”

Or we can look at the campaigns against Houston Proposition 1 during 2015. Prop 1 was an Equal Rights Ordinance barring discrimination in housing and employment on the basis of gender identity as well as sex, race, disability and other protected statuses. These are rights that should already be guaranteed under the Civil Rights Act of 1963 and elaborated by Title IX and the American with Disabilities Act. Refusing to affirm these rights, those who opposed the bill claimed that the bill would allow men into women’s bathrooms. They created TV ads depicting large dark men intruding on white girls in bathroom stalls. They rhetorically turned a housing and employment nondiscrimination ordinance into a “bathroom bill,” and they succeeded; Prop One failed to pass.

And let’s not forget that the North Carolina bill also contains unchallenged sections that discriminate against workers and veterans. Against the more graphic iconography of predatory men in women’s bathrooms, the rights and workers and veterans are easily lost from view.

This is not the first time that demands for equality across race, sex and gender have been resisted with the claim that public accommodations will become spaces of unregulated danger against innocence. The face of the intruder may change slightly, but across centuries, the victim is ever and always a young white girl.

It’s also not the first time we have seen white women used in the service of sexist and racist and transphobic violence. Feminist historians have conclusively shown that the 19th and 20th c. trope of protecting young white womanhood was foremost about securing white masculinity, domesticity, and white supremacy.

Though they cause real violences, these bathroom bills are not primarily about transgender people or bathrooms. Nor have lawmakers, for all their concern about young girls being molested in bathrooms, shown similar concern about the most common forms of sexual violence and assault against girls and women (across race) that take place outside of bathrooms.

As mean as these bathroom bills are, something much larger is also at stake.  The North Carolina bill is designed primarily to strip the right of local municipalities to set their own anti-discrimination and protection laws.

We have lost all semblance of constitutional, democratic process.

These anti-trans tactics work because they succeed in directing fear away from the corporate demolition of democracy; they succeed by making people believe that the reason they are struggling and vulnerable is because some other group of people is dangerous and taking away something “we” worked hard to earn.

How, then, can we best address the fact that these bills increase everyone’s vulnerability and directly make the world less safe for people of color, people who are known or perceived to be trans, nonbinary, queer, or gender non-conforming?

While politicians vie for corporate favors at the expense of their constituents, and as more and more people struggle to maintain jobs, health, and life, we can still refuse to perpetuate hatred. Our only hope may be to refuse the rhetoric that pits people against each other. As politicians and corporations dismantle democracy, it is more crucial than ever to organize across race and class and ability, across queer and feminist and trans and straight; and to be brilliant in our resistance to cooptation.

Something to be Proud Of

In this blog entry, Jamie Longazel, author of Undocumented Fearswrites about the pride, shame and legacy of his hometown of Hazleton, PA.

People talk a lot about being proud of where they’re from. Understandably so: It’s nice to feel connected, to be able to associate with a place and call it ‘home.’

I’m proud of where I’m from. I was born and raised in Hazleton – a hardscrabble, former coalmining town in Northeastern Pennsylvania. Like anywhere else, we have our own dialect (we say “youse” instead of “you all”), cuisine (you ought to try the cold pizza!), and ways of doing things that folks from other places probably wouldn’t understand.

Undocumented Fears_smMy book Undocumented Fears is about my hometown. And I can say with confidence now that pride is what drove me to write it. Part of me knew this all along. At first, though, it felt like my pride was either backwards or upside-down. What I now call pride actually felt like the opposite in the beginning. Shame, perhaps.

I was not proud of what my hometown did, you see. Certainly not in the way we traditionally think about pride and place.

Back in 2006, Hazleton was getting national attention when it passed the Illegal Immigration Relief Act. This was a local ordinance meant to punish landlords and businesses who rented to or hired undocumented immigrants. It also made English the official language of the city.

The ordinance came at a time when Hazleton was going through some significant changes. The decent-paying, long-term manufacturing jobs that kept the city afloat for several decades were on their way out. Warehouses, distribution centers, and a meatpacking plant – with lower paying, temporary, and sometimes dangerous jobs – were on their way in.

With these economic changes came demographic changes. Many Latina/o immigrants relocated to Hazleton over a very short period. Ninety-five percent White at the time of the 2000 census, the city was approximately 36% Latina/o by 2006.

Change can be confusing. Sociologists have long known that in moments like this, communities tend to come together and try to make sense of it all. We grasp for explanations. We seek to redefine who we are.

I get it. The poverty appears starker each time I visit, and it breaks my heart to see my city and its people go through that. This is why I have been so committed to figuring out what is actually going on.

When I think of home – especially since learning more about Hazleton’s history – I think of anthracite coal. In its ‘heyday,’ European immigrants toiled in mines in and around Hazleton facing notoriously low pay, disturbingly high rates of disease and death, and mine bosses who mastered the art of pitting ethnic groups against one another. To me this legacy is central to who we are.

In 2006, however, politicians started warning about undocumented immigrants who were committing crime and draining all the resources. Following their lead, people started blaming immigrants for their troubles.

Chalk it up to ignorance if you’d like, but also keep people’s yearning for collective identity in mind. I describe in the book how debates over the ordinance introduced degrading myths about who ‘they’ supposedly were (e.g., illegal, lazy, transient, noisy) – stereotypes that Latina/os troublingly have to endure in their day-to-day lives. At the same time, these myths provided the established, predominately white community with a contrast against which they could articulate a fresh conception of ‘us’ (e.g., law-abiding, hardworking, rooted, quiet).

What prevailed was an image of Hazleton as ‘Small Town, USA’ – which, like the idea that Hazleton is being ‘invaded’ by undocumented immigrants, just plainly is not true.

This is not to say that Hazleton and its people are undesirable or unworthy of this designation. The point is that ‘desirability’ as it is presented here relies on demonization and is fed to us from above. We’re pointing our fingers in the wrong direction. We’re being told who we are rather than deciding that for ourselves.

The form of industry changed, but in Hazleton, and across the country, for that matter, there is a wide gulf between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots.’ It is as if the coal barons of yesteryear are still around today. They do not want us to know that, of course, for if we did we might carry on the legacy of our mining ancestors and rally against low pay, brutal working conditions, and unfair treatment.

The ‘pride’ we often see in nostalgic yearnings for the ‘good ol’ days’ in ‘Small Town America’ in this sense isn’t pride at all. It’s detachment. It’s a decoy….It’s a dream.

I learned something about my city while writing this book, and I learned something about pride. Real pride requires authenticity. It requires confrontation. Pride is what keeps you from backing down when someone challenges your identity.

I show off my pride today by choosing the gritty reality of a post-industrial city over idealized and racist myths offered by opportunistic politicians.

Don’t get me wrong: I’d prefer prosperity. But we can’t just close our eyes and imagine a time when it supposedly existed. We ought to see ourselves as poor and working people who are part of an ongoing struggle in which immigrants are allies, not enemies.

If we want our poverty to end, we need to know who is actually perpetuating it. Then we need to rally together across our differences and demand changes in the way we are treated. That would be something to be proud of.

Knowledge Unlatched enables a further 78 books to be Open Access

This week, we highlight the Knowledge Unlatched (KU) program. Round 2 of this open access program “unlatched” three Temple University Press titles:  We Shall Not Be Moved/No Nos Moverán by David Spener,  The Muslim Question in Europe by Peter O’Brien, and The Struggling State, by Jennifer Riggan.  The KU program allows publishers to recover costs while making important current content available openly online.

These Temple University Press titles are among the 78 unlatched* books that have been made open access through the support of both individual libraries and library consortia from across the globe. This round brings the total to more than 100 titles now available as open access since 2014, when the KU Pilot Collection of 28 humanities and social science monographs from 13 publishers was unlatched by nearly 300 libraries worldwide.  Constructing Muslims in France, by Jennifer Fredette, was included in the Pilot Collection.

These 78 new books from 26 publishers (including the original 13 participants) have been successfully unlatched by libraries in 21 countries along with support from a number of library consortia, who together raised over $1 million. The books are being loaded onto the OAPEN and HathiTrust platforms, where they will be available for free as fully downloadable PDFs. The titles cover five humanities and social science subject areas (Anthropology, History, Literature, Media and Communications, and Politics): http://collections.knowledgeunlatched.org/packages/.

The second round of KU allowed libraries to choose from subject packages as well as publisher packages. It also introduced consortium participation into the program. Additional plans for KU expansion will be announced soon.

* ‘Unlatching’ is term for KU’s  collaborative and sustainable way of making content available using Creative Commons licences and fully downloadable by the end user.

Trump, Bullying, and Narcissism

This week in North Philly Notes, we re-post a two part essay by Laura Martocci, author of Bullying from Psychology Today entitled, “Trump, Bullying and Narcissism.”

Has Donald Trump turned bullying into a political art from? If so, how did he do it?
Having built a successful career as a preeminent narcissist, could his recent success be an instance of two negatives equaling a positive?

In order to explore these questions, the relationship between bullying and narcissism requires a bit of explaining.  While even Trump’s supporters would have difficulty dismissing claims that he is a narcissist, or a bully, it seems that it is the combination of narcissism and bullying that has galvanized the Republican electorate, raising the question  how (and why) a society that has fostered anti-bullying campaigns over the past decade is looking to elect a bully.

Both bullies and narcissists share a strong sense of conviction.  And surely, what attracts many to Trump is his certainty.  There is no political ‘double-talk,’ no sense of waffling or political correctness, let alone apology.  He is not Christopher Lasch’s narcissist, depending on others to validate his self-esteem.  While Trump may ultimately be unable to live without an admiring audience, he does, in fact, glory in his individuality.  He has placed himself  beyond shame (in the political arena, at least) and this is precisely what makes him so dangerous.  In this, he more fits the mold of a ‘rugged individualist’ who sees the world as a wilderness to be shaped to his own design—think robber-barons like Rockefeller and Carnegie—than the stereotype of, say, reality show “mactors” whose desperate need of  the spotlight suggests  insecurities beneath the surface.

In other words, Trump’s  bullying behavior (coupled with his financial independence) allows his vainglory to be writ large, crushing those who stand in the way of refracted grandiosity.  Social aggressions can be re-cast when the narrative is one of a mythic lone rebel taking justice into his own hands, or even as David taking on Goliath (America loves an underdog success story).

This suggests that—contrary to popular belief—a very secure sense of self-worth underlies all Trump’s actions (including his candidacy). And in fact, as Twenge and Campbell argue (in The Narcissism Epidemic) the notion that narcissists are insecure and have low self-esteem is a myth. On the contrary, many narcissists really do consider themselves awesome. Believing that they are wonderful, superior—the best, even—enables these individuals to dominate (aka ‘bully’) others with impunity.  An overblown sense of self is so all-pervasive as to preclude the perspectives of others—or have any concern for the harm one might be doing those who are clearly inferior.

Bullying_smFor what is a man, what has he got
If not himself, then he has naught
To say the things he truly feels
And not the words of one who kneels
The record shows I took the blows
And did it my way
  (Sinatra, My Way).

“My way,” for Trump involves paving an ethnocentric glory-road by fear-mongering, on the one hand, and promising a return to ‘the good ole days’ on the other. Trump’s positions, no less than his style of asserting them (which has been compared to the bigoted scare-tactics  found in Hitler’s early speeches readily play into narcissistic cultural norms that produced—and continue to tacitly support—bullying.  These include 1) an ongoing preoccupation with/valorization of  self-esteem, and 2) the belief that self-expression—often paired with ‘authenticity’—is  a fundamental entitlement.

These Self-centered values are a double-edged sword, as they give rise to  heterogeneity—a tolerance for, if not valuation of, diversity—which quietly  whittled  away any clear-cut sense of cultural identity. Global heterogeneity challenges American exceptionalism; America’s own diversity challenges white Christian male supremacy. The unique (read esteemed, privileged) position from which denizens of a narcissistic culture tacitly appropriate the world has been repeatedly called into question. Trump’s political platform amounts to a rejection of that question / an attempt to restore  a gilded (cultural) mirror, repositioning Americans (you and me) at the center

The point at which the gilding on this mirror overlays its reflective qualities is precisely  the point at which Trump’s narcissism bleeds into bullying. His perspective (on anything from Megyn to Mexicans to the military) is objectified and touted as factual,  allowing his self, and his platform, to be truly synonymous.  Trump does not  bother with other points of view—or even with “disagreeable” facts—because he sincerely believes that his candidacy (which is coeval with both personal and political assessments)  transcends all other considerations.  He denigrates and dismisses detractors no less than the Constitution itself because, as a narcissistic bully, he  is convinced  that the ends—his ends—justify the means.  (And if the ends justify the means, any niggling laws or contradictions can be blustered around, as Trump well knows: “if you tell a big enough lie and tell it frequently enough, it will be believed.”)

The mockery and abuse launched at detractors (anyone “un-American” enough to have alternate points of view) is undergirded by a sense of patriotism that meshes well with the psycho-social elements that conspired to produce the “me generation.”   As the baby-boomers became parents, their preoccupation with self-esteem was translated into child-centered parenting, which, in turn, produced a culture of entitlement.  (the  “me-me generation,” who express themselves/construct their identities on  social ME-dia platforms with their, iphones, ipods, iwatches, and imacs). Those who are invested in this  entitlementespecially the newly disenfranchised, who can no longer afford the American Dream —line up behind Trump in order to  push back against cultural de-differentiation and the de-centering of the “American way of life.”

In short, the public phenomenon that is “Trump” is scaffolded by cultural fears which are tethered to a narcissism writ large—a (privileged) belief in global dominance/respect that we, and our children, are entitled to.

Yet even if we can convince ourselves that this patriotism belies a cultural fact —that “we’re Number One”—we are all, nonetheless, only Trump’s Apprentices.

 

A Slumlord Bent on Displacing tenants and a DC Law that (Sort of) Stands in its Way

This week in North Philly Notes, Carolyn Gallaher, author of The Politics of Staying Put explains how the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA) is operating in Washington, DC. 

Cities are fashionable again.  After decades of disinvestment, people are coming back.  Washington DC is a case in point.  Between 1950 and 2000 the city’s population shrunk by 29%; however, in the next decade it grew 10%, from 572,059 to 632,323. Although population growth slowed after 2012, the city still added another 23,000 residents in the next two years.  Most economists think the city would have grown even more if not for the rising costs associated with living in the city.

Given these trends, it’s fair to ask why big cities like Washington, DC still have slumlords.  In the era of urban decline (roughly between 1960 and 2000) slumlords typically let their properties deteriorate because they couldn’t make a return on investments in them.  Today, returns on investments in rental accommodations are very likely, if not guaranteed.  Enter the modern slumlord.  No longer an individual or a family, the modern slumlord is often a real estate investment group, and for them disinvestment is a strategy for ensuring a larger return.  Instead of repairing and refurbishing an old building and earning modest returns, you tear it down, replace it with luxury apartments, and charge rents to match.  The only things standing in your way are tenants.  So, you stop making repairs and hope they’ll move out.

The residents in Congress Heights, a complex in the Anacostia neighborhood, know all about this strategy.  They’ve lived it for several years.  Their landlord, Sanford Capital, doesn’t make repairs anymore.  The company’s tenants live with sporadic heat, faulty plumbing, a bedbug infestation, rodents, and a basement with raw sewage and standing water when it rains.  People often pack up and leave when things get this bad, but a number of the tenants in Congress Heights are holding on.  Some of the complex’s longtime residents are elderly and can’t imagine living anywhere else.  Others don’t want to leave their friends and neighbors because they all look out for one another.  And, everyone is poor and worried about finding someplace else as affordable as where they live now.  They are right to worry.  The Congress Heights neighborhood is near a metro (subway) station and is, in developer speak, “ripe for redevelopment.”  A recent study by the DC Fiscal Policy Institute (DCFPI) also suggests there aren’t many affordable apartments left in the city.  Since 2002 the city lost nearly half of its affordable apartment units (defined in the study as units renting for $800 or less).

The District of Columbia has a law, the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA), which should have prevented things from getting so bad at Congress Heights.  The city council introduced TOPA in 1981 in response to a spate of condo conversions in fast-gentrifying neighborhoods near downtown.  The goal of the law was to help tenants stay in place when their landlords decided to sell or convert to condominium.  TOPA states that when a landlord sells a rental apartment building, tenants are allowed to refuse the sale and purchase the building instead for the same price. Tenants are also allowed to purchase their building if a landlord wants to demolish it for redevelopment.  Tenants usually work with a developer (for-profit or non-profit) to purchase their building.  They can then choose whether to convert their building to condo or co-op or keep it rental.

By law landlords are supposed to inform their tenants when they contract a sale or submit formal plans for demolition with the city.  In practice, however, landlords often subvert these guidelines, and at various points in recent history the city agency responsible for regulating the TOPA process has abetted them.

The landlord at Congress Heights, Sanford Capital, applied for and received permission to demolish the buildings in early 2015 and the tenants have still not received a formal TOPA notice.  In the meantime, the city’s Attorney General, Karl Racine, recently sued the landlords and will ask the court to put the building into temporary receivership so a different owner can make repairs.  The city is also considering forcing Sanford Capital to issue its tenants a TOPA notice. In short, the law that didn’t work to protect the people it was supposed to protect may still be their last hope for staying put.

Staying Put_061615.jpgIn my new book The Politics of Staying Put: Condo Conversion and Tenant Right-to-Buy in Washington DC, I assess TOPA’s success at helping tenants stay put.  As the Congress Heights case suggest, the law is imperfect.  Legislators need to specify fuzzy language, close some obvious loopholes, and demand city regulators actually provide oversight of the process.  But, I also found that many tenants have made TOPA work for them.  Most importantly, successful tenants associations have used TOPA to stay put—no mean feat in a fast gentrifying city.  Successful tenants associations have also participated in the benefits of reinvestment, whether as new owners building equity or as renters who can demand building wide improvements and continued low rents from their development partners.

The bigger battle, though, isn’t fixing TOPA. The law was never designed to be a stand-alone solution.  TOPA cannot, for example, ensure an adequate supply of affordable housing, police slumlords, or reign in the city’s pay-to-play approach with developers.  In fact, the city’s Zoning Commission approved Sanford’s plans for redeveloping the land where the Congress Heights apartment complex sits even after the city’s Department of Human Services and its Department of Housing and Community Development received hundreds of complaints about significant code violations in Sanford owned properties.  In these neoliberal times, cities don’t want to assume responsibilities for their low income residents (or increasingly, their middle income ones), but they will have to if they want to ensure their cities don’t become exclusive enclaves for the wealthy.  Otherwise, cities risk becoming a version of the 1980s era suburbs they long bemoaned.

 

A Q&A with Peter O’Brien about The Muslim Question in Europe

This week, we repost an interview with Peter O’Brien, author of The Muslim Question in Europethat appeared on the website, ISLAMiCommentary

by JOSEPH RICHARD PREVILLE and JULIE POUCHER HARBIN  for ISLAMiCommentary on FEBRUARY 8, 2016: 

Are Muslims embraced as part of the mosaic of Europe?  Or, are they considered and treated as outsiders, foreigners, and invaders?  Political Scientist Peter O’Brien deconstructs this issue in his new book, The Muslim Question in Europe: Political Controversies and Public Philosophies (Temple University Press, 2016).

“There exists,” he writes, “no great, let alone unbridgeable, gulf in outlook or lifestyle forever separating ‘Islamic’ from ‘Western’ civilization.”  He argues that there is not a “clash of civilizations,” but “clashes within Western civilization.”

O’Brien dissects the hotly-debated and contentious topics of headscarves, terrorism, and secularism (mosque-state relations) within the broad historical and political contexts of “intra-European tensions.” He argues that European Muslims should not be viewed “as a distinct group of political actors.” Rather, he states that European Muslims and non-Muslims both inhabit “a normative landscape in Europe dominated by the vying public philosophies of liberalism, nationalism, and postmodernism.”

O’Brien is Professor of Political Science at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas.  He was educated at Kalamazoo College and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  He has served as a Social Science Research Council Fellow at the Free University in Berlin and as a Fulbright Professor at Bogazici University in Istanbul and the Humboldt University in Berlin.  O’Brien is the author of Beyond the Swastika (Routledge, 1996) andEuropean Perceptions of Islam and America from Saladin to George W. Bush (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).

The Muslim Question_sm.jpgPeter O’Brien discusses his new book in this interview.

The Pew Research Center projects that Muslims will make up 8% of Europe’s population by 2030. How are Muslims changing the social and political fabric of Europe, especially considering the declining birthrate in Europe, which is much lower than other regions throughout the world?

Many reliable studies have found that Europeans of Muslim heritage think and live very much like their non-Muslim counterparts. However, a conspicuous minority of Islamist Europeans do resist and challenge in word and deed so-called “common” European norms and values. A minority (Islamists) of a small minority (Muslims) in terms of the entire population of Europe should not be able to affect much change in the social and political fabric of Europe. However, a growing number of Islamophobic politicians, parties and movements that exaggerate the influence of Islamists could, if empowered by voters, transform Europe into a considerably less welcoming place for Muslims than it has been thus far in the postwar era.

What are the major political controversies surrounding European Muslims?

My book devotes a chapter to each of the major controversies: the requirements for citizenship (or long-term residency); the headscarf debate; mosque-state relations (the level of state subsidies and support for Islam/Muslims); and countering the alleged threat of Islamist terrorism.

The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that the wearing of the headscarf is akin to proselytization, if I’m not mistaken. And France seems to have the toughest restrictions on the hijab. Do you see French laws and interpretation of laïcité — seemingly at odds with freedom of religious expression —  changing at all?

Yes. The central thesis of my book is that because there exists no firm ethical consensus on such matters as the headscarf controversy, ultimately political contestation (in the courts, parliaments, streets) will decide the matter. Contestation means that current decisions will be challenged and likely (someday) altered. Keep in mind that before the ban was legislated in 2004, the Conseil d’Etat regularly nullified individual school bans on grounds that they constituted an infringement of religious freedom. Or consider Germany. In 2003 the Constitutional Court allowed a ban for teachers in public schools but reversed its decision in 2015. It would not surprise me if the hijab were highly in vogue in Europe among Muslim and non-Muslim women by 2025. I mean that somewhat facetiously, but the situation is that fluid.

How did your life and work in Germany and Turkey shape the perspective of your research?

Living in Turkey for the academic year 1995-1996 helped me to reject the neo-Orientalist stereotypes with which I was educated. Repeatedly residing in Germany for long durations over the last 35 years has prompted greater appreciation for the complexity of immigration as well as increased skepticism toward and even irritation with simplistic explanations and interpretations (some of which were my own).

Have you been to Germany and Turkey since the Syrian refugee crisis?  What have you observed?

I resided in Germany for five months in 2015. I witnessed much admirable generosity and goodwill on the part of Germans and non-Germans toward arriving refugees. Unfortunately, many politicians have been more interested in fomenting anger and resentment toward the newcomers.

German PM Angela Merkel is under increasing political pressure at home – especially since the attacks in Cologne – to revisit the country’s “open door” policy toward refugees. To many German citizens the danger to their society is very real. Do they have reason to be worried or are their fears overblown? Is it possible to put the “crisis” in perspective based on what you know of history and of Germany?

Based on separate figures compiled by Peter Katzenstein and Doug Saunders, I write in my book that a resident of Europe is 33 times likelier to die from meningitis, 822 times likelier to be murdered for nonpolitical reasons, and 1,833 times likelier to perish in a car accident than to fall victim to terrorist attacks, of which only one percent are committed by persons invoking Islam.

An estimated 13 percent of women in Germany experience physical assault at some time in their life. The problem of violence against women neither originated on New Year’s Eve 2015 in Cologne nor is perpetrated by (Muslim) refugees only. Needless to say, this sobering fact in no way minimizes or justifies the crimes against women committed in Cologne on that occasion.

Germany took in as many as 14 million refugees after WWII under conditions far less favorable than today. In 1990 the Federal Republic of Germany annexed a country of 16 million East Germans that had been extensively ruined by two generations of communist rule. With regard to the current wave of refugees, the Chancellor couldn’t be more correct when she insists “We can do this” (Wir schaffen das).

It seems that the ‘clash of civilizations’ thesis originated by Samuel Huntington (1996) is back in vogue?  Should we be wary of this?

Yes. Because it is reductionist it is highly misleading. It fosters the erroneous and politically dangerous view that all Muslims think and act alike and, moreover, in ways that “clash” with the purportedly central values of Western societies, such as rationality, civil liberty, democracy and the rule of law.

How can an understanding of the political philosophies of liberalism, nationalism, and postmodernism help us to look at the Muslim question and immigration in Europe?

My book shows that the most politically consequential ideological clashes in Europe are those between the public philosophies of liberalism (all should enjoy equal rights and freedoms), nationalism (the rights and needs of natives should have priority over non-natives) and postmodernism (what passes for right and wrong is always the result of political contestation). Two advantages stem from applying this conceptual lens. First, we can understand how these vying public philosophies contribute to highly contradictory, even self-defeating policies regarding immigration across Europe. Second, we see that the three ideologies divide Muslim as much as non-Muslim Europeans. The two groups do not represent differing monolithic blocs locked in a clash with one another.

British journalist Mehdi Hasan has written that “in some respects, Muslims are the new Jews of Europe.” (Huffington Post UK, May 29, 2014).  Are there strong historical parallels between what European Jews experienced in the 20th century to current conditions for European Muslims?

This commonly drawn parallel is more misleading than illuminating. Nowhere in Europe are virtually all Muslims —asylum-seekers, resident aliens and citizens — being disenfranchised, dispossessed and sequestered the way Jews were in Nazi Germany. More importantly, the systematic extermination of the European Muslim community is not taking place. Although there are some credible parallels between the everyday discrimination in many walks of life against Jews before the Nuremberg Laws of 1935 and against European Muslims today, the latter have far superior recourse to national and international courts to challenge violations of human rights.

Joseph Richard Preville is Assistant Professor of English at Alfaisal University/Prince Sultan College for Business in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.  His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, San Francisco Chronicle, Harvard Divinity Bulletin, Tikkun, The Jerusalem Post, Muscat Daily, Saudi Gazette, and World Religion News.  He is also a regular contributor to ISLAMiCommentary.

Julie Poucher Harbin is Editor of ISLAMiCommentary.

Understanding the Struggles of Citizens and State in Eritrea

In this blog entry, Jennifer Riggan, author of The Struggling State,  sheds light on life in Eritrea, a highly militarized, authoritarian country where educational institutions were directly implicated in the making of soldiers.

Europe’s “migrant crisis”—the historically unprecedented flight of refugees—has recently taken center stage. Those from Eritrea, a country of six million people, comprise 8 percent of all migrants entering Europe and represent Europe’s third largest immigrant group. The large number of Eritrean refugees is stunning considering that, unlike Syria and Afghanistan, Eritrea is currently not at war. Also striking is the fact that Eritrean refugees are disproportionately young men and increasingly unaccompanied children. Why are these particular populations of refugees fleeing?

Struggling State_smMy new book,  The Struggling State, sheds light on life inside Eritrea, a country governed by what is often regarded as one of the world’s most repressive regimes. Conditions in Eritrea are more complex than we might expect. Human rights violations and a lack of civil liberties in Eritrea explain why so many leave, but this peculiar pattern of refugee flight is also caused by the evolution of state-society relations in the country.

Eritrea is a highly militarized authoritarian dictatorship. The government shut down independent media in 2001. Independent civil society organizations are not allowed. Any attempt to protest has been brutally cracked down on. Detentions without cause are common. All but four religions are banned. Most controversial is Eritrea’s national service program. National/ military service by law consists of 6 months of military training and 12 months of unpaid service, most often in the military. However, very few people have been released from military service since a border war with Ethiopia broke out in 1998. Many have been serving for close to two decades even though there has been no fighting since 2000. “Service,” which has been equated with forced labor and slavery, has become endless. Eritreans are not allowed to leave the country legally while in national/ military service.

Eritrea is known for its thirty-year-long, tenacious, military “struggle” which resulted in independence from Ethiopia, effectively in 1991 and officially in 1993. The Struggle, however, was not just a military one, but a revolutionary process to build a nation based on principles of ethnic, gender and class equality and unity among Eritrea’s nine ethnic groups and two major religions. In fall 2003, when embarked on a two-year period of ethnographic fieldwork, I initially planned to study teachers’ reactions to and interpretations of Eritrea’s nation-building project. However, new educational policies were introduced which radically changed not only the education system, but the relationship between citizens and the state and, ultimately, my research project. The 2003 policies merged national/military service with secondary education by mandating that all students, male and female, complete their final year of high school at a boarding facility located in the nation’s main military training center, Sawa.

Teachers and students were disillusioned by this repurposing of education—schooling no longer embodied their hopes and dreams, but became a conduit to the military. My research focuses on how teachers, as state employees, responded to these changes, placing teacher and student reactions against the backdrop of broader experiences living under an increasingly coercive government. Secondary school students, previously disciplined and diligent, began cutting class and misbehaving in unprecedented numbers. Teachers responded, paradoxically, by joining students in their indiscipline but also cracking down on students with increased coercion, and, at times, violence.  Today, many young people flee the country before they enter into the educational-military conduit. Many teachers have fled as well.

Eritreans’ encounter with the state is characterized by experiences of coercion, being punished and feeling imprisoned. There is no reliably applied rule of law, meaning that Eritreans are not only susceptible to coercive and punishing policies set in place by the country’s leaders, but are also susceptible to the will and whims of an array of state employees—supervisors, military commanders, police and even teachers. However, these state employees are also susceptible to the will and whims of more powerful state actors. One of my central arguments is that this “punishing state” is the result of a vicious cycle in which state employees are themselves “punished” and they, in turn, punish others and/or evade being punished, often by fleeing the country.

The Struggling State raises a number of questions about the nature of the state, particularly authoritarian states such as Eritrea. The book complicates our understanding of Eritrea, neither depicting it as benevolent but misunderstood, as the ruling party’s nationalist narratives would have us do, nor maligning it, as international media and human rights narratives tend to. Instead I show how the experience of government coercion leads Eritreans to think of their state as punishing. Eritreans imagining the state, not as promising, but as punishing, has unraveled the ruling party’s national project, separating the nation from the state. Strong feelings of nationalism are intact among Eritreans, but are no longer affixed solely to the ruling part and its revolutionary struggle. Teachers have been central to this process. Schooling, in general, and teachers in particular, are often thought to reproduce state power.  In contrast, The Struggling State shows that teachers play a much more ambivalent role as they struggle to instill in students a sense of national belonging and hope for the future of the nation even when they themselves have so little hope given the strictures of life under the current regime.

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