KAMPALA – The question I am struggling with is how to deal with radicalised violent extremists like Mr. Omar El-Hussein, and what the appropriate reaction of Civil Society, the Government, and the general population should be. I argued that although atrocities like the double homicide of two people in Copenhagen are horrible and we should condemn them for what they are, the radicalisation of young and angry people is directly related to the appalling behaviour of Western, modernised countries in those places that are neither Western nor modernised. We should not be so surprised that our foreign policies, those that institutionalise unequal power relations, Orientalism, and neo-colonialism, have as a consequence the disenfranchisement of people who identify with -politically, religiously, or otherwise- the suffering that is a direct consequence of these Western hegemonic strategies.
Besides this point, there is the question of how to react as a regular citizen when something like this happens in your city, or in your country. Rally to the defense of free speech and other human rights? We have seen the massive and viral support for freedom of speech after the murders in Paris. Je suis Charlie. Ironically, the attacks in France were followed by several incidents of violence against Muslims and immigrants. So much for rallying behind freedom. The march of the world leaders walking hand in hand made great television, I am sure. The question remains whether this was the appropriate reaction to these acts of violence.
Right after Charlie Hebdo, critical articles started popping up in my newsfeed that questioned the limitless mandate of satire that freedom of speech affords it. The cartoonist that was fired from Charlie Hebdo for exactly arguing what everyone was arguing initially after the murders: freedom of speech should not be limited by religion, was brought up as an example of hypocrisy. This cartoonist depicted Sarkozy’s son converting to Judaism for financial reasons, refused to apologize afterwards, and got sacked as a result.
The pictures of the march in Copenhagen are touching, to be sure. This many people mobilising themselves to peacefully condemn murder, -political participation in the form of a statement like this seldomly happens in Western Europe without someone getting killed. Condemnation is understandable, and necessary. It is also easy. Because what exactly are we upholding by condemning Omar with marches, demonstrations and Facebook posts? Our own humanist and democratic values? We can be so damn proud of our freedoms in Western-Europe, it borders on a superiority complex. Yet with these freedoms come obligations and civic duties.
Rights are never for free. They are not just *out* there, they are a reflexive concept that demands constant re-evaluation of our own behaviour. They require sacrifice, and we cannot take them for granted. Although recent events have made us very glad we have these rights in the first place as opposed to the many places on this planet where people do not have any, the majority of the citizens in the modernised world do not realise that you cannot just sit on your ass and expect to have rights.
Our human rights are mostly specified in our constitutions and in our laws, so in a way we get to expect to be protected by them. In numerous African countries, these rights are also provided for legally, however, reality has shown us that implementation is problematic. And that is a vast understatement.
So, we need to be on the watch for our rights. We need to make sure we deserve them by fulfilling the civic duties and obligations that are on the other side of the coin. Yet, our reaction is limited to moral outrage when someone is killed, or when violence is commited. When someone else completely ignores our rights and shoots a bunch of people, we rally behind a collective cause for a while, only to go back and continue to tacitly expect protection from these rights.
What are these civic duties and obligations I keep mentioning, then? Well, if you are so damn proud of your democracy, your open society and your freedoms (of speech, information, or religion, to name a few), then engage with said society. If you are offered political participation enabled with these rights, take that opportunity. I am not even talking about just voting, – participatory democracy is much more than that. We tend to focus exclusively on elections as a way to let your voice get heard, however, there are a multitude of other ways to engage with your own society politically. There are a million ways for you to speak up. Perhaps more importantly, in information society, there are even more ways to inform yourself before you decide to speak up.
However, percentages of votes cast has been steadily decreasing in Western Europe. People have stopped caring about politics, vote with their gut-feeling (if they vote at all), and are almost proud of their own ignorance concerning political, economic, social, or cultural matters. Populist politics rule Europe now, or at least a major part of it. They completely dominate civic space, and in the meanwhile our precious rights are cast aside.
Luckily, we do not find ourselves in the situation countries like the U.S. find themselves in. Our rights are relatively well-protected and are not yet completely stripped of their content for the sake of national security or some other political excuse. No, we are just lazy. And it takes murder to get us off our asses for a while, to be morally outraged on Twitter for a week. After a cooling-down period, and maybe some news features on what exactly happened, we’ll wait for the next one. We won’t have to wait for very long, I am afraid. Because there will be a next shooting, or bombing. And the entire media circus starts all over again. Concluding from this tragic drama, I’d say our civic concern about our rights consists mostly of crisis management and beyond that, not much more.
However, reality is not this bleak. Read part III soon.