Emma Bonino: “Secular people of the world, unite against intolerance”

Secularism is the only weapon – against the Taliban, and against the seeds of hatred being planted in Europe right now.

This article was originally published on L'Espresso on 8 January.

“This conversation will be dedicated to Razan Zaitouneh,” said Emma Bonino, even before the spiral notebook was opened, and the recorder turned on. L'Espresso asked the former Italian Foreign Minister and former Commissioner of the European Union, a veteran of every struggle against fanaticism and of all human and civil rights battles, for her opinion about intolerance, a sentiment that is gaining ground all over the world. Bonino, who lived four years in Cairo after moving there to study Arabic, and to get a better grasp of the Southern and Eastern Mediterranean region, accepted to answer our questions, however, only if the interview started with Zaitouneh’s words, “because intolerance often results in violence and unspeakable crimes.”

Zaitouneh, a 37 year-old Syrian woman lawyer, committed and devoted her time since 2001 to defending prisoners jailed for political reasons in Bashar el Assad’s prisons. In 2011, right after the beginning of the revolt against his regime, she set up a center to monitor and document all crimes perpetrated by government troops with the aim of gathering evidence to bringthe dictator to an internationalcourt. She then worked with the Association No Peace without Justice. Her work expanded after that to gathering testimonies on the misdeeds of Islamist militias. Over a year ago, a group of armed men broke into the headquarters of the documentation center, in Duma, a few kilometers out of Damascus, and seized Zaitouneh and three of her co-workers.

Ms. Bonino, what is intolerance?

The philosopher Karl Popper said that intolerant is someone who considers his or her own tribe’s taboos as absolute, but has not yet discovered that other tribes have other taboos. This definition combines tribes and taboo, hence an inability to accept the Other. Enacting intolerance can shape up to forms so extreme to be bedazzling, bedazzling to the point of blinding one’s mind. ” German historian Wolfgang Benz wrote that the Holocaust is like the sun, you cannot stare at it if you do not want to go blind… Before we get to that stage, however, you have an array of intolerant attitudes. Hannah Arendt described them in the “Banality of Evil”: minor single gestures which do not scare as such, but that put together show how intolerance grows and mounts to tragic and catastrophic outcomes. At that point, it is too late. Nowadays, the theme goes that intolerance concerns mainly the Muslim family: it is among them that intolerance is practiced with unprecedented cruelty. Also in Italy, however, we record phenomena that worry me. I fear that the path we entered will have us backslide into an abyss. I think of hatred against Roma people, also of those who say that they do not want refugees here, not in their backyard. A creeping racism is expanding throughout Europe. Racism is by now apparent and legitimated as anti-Semitism was before Auschwitz. Just replace the word Jew with the word Roma.”

What are the consequences?

That we lock Roma people up in camps violating European laws and directives, and even reaping unlawful profits from assisting them. Of course, these camps are different from concentration camps, but it is not hard to imagine how all this can end badly.

Let us talk about the Muslim tribe. Why are intolerants so powerful in the Islamic world?

Because at some point an ideological power struggle occurred within the Sunni family. It is a hegemonic war between two groups: the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafi. The Islamic and Quranic foundation plays a role as well: we should not forget hatred between Sunnis and Shiites.

How important is the issue of women's rights in Islam?

Very important, because it is emblematic, in a negative way. Conservatives view women’s emancipation as destabilizing. Nevertheless, let us keep in mind that the taboo of women's bodies is as old as humanity all across all monotheistic religions.

Is the war being fought over women's bodies?

That was always the case. Women's sexuality needed to be controlled because it is dangerous and subversive.

Pious Jews are forbidden to listen to women singing to avoid impure thoughts.

The Taliban banned in the first period white socks, which were considered erotic.

Also in the West, many males find it hard to watch a group of women laughing, and talking about sex. What is the difference between this uneasiness and imposing the burqa?

In the West, and all across the world, males continue to kill females. That said the difference is a cultural one. In the West, we learned, to a certain degree, to manage diversity and ourselves. The female difference is at any rate a conquest obtained by women. It was forced upon males. That said, even in the Islamic world there have always been differences and contamination. Just think of the Tunisian President Bourguiba and of Ataturk, albeit they were not democratic. “

One could also recall, perhaps, Egyptian president Nasser. Some feature film posted on the Internet shows Nasser in the late fifties, telling the story of how the Muslim Brotherhood demanded him in 1953 to pass a law to impose wearing the veil on all women. You can hear the audience laughing aloud. Over fifty years ago, imposing the veil on women, at least in cities, was ludicrous. What changed?

I think external factors weighted in. In many countries, the issue of the veil does not involve religion but identity. The point is to counter the West. I would like though to touch upon a thought that I believe is important. There are many secularpeople in the Muslim world, who consider religion a private matter. They are the bearers of any discourse on tolerance. We seriously do not want to believe peace and tolerance to be Western export goods, or do we? Peace and tolerance are not events, but a process. “

Can you elaborate on this?

There is a hype around interreligious dialogue these days. I would rather start an inter-secular dialogue. I am sure that many secular people in the Muslim world would agree with me.

You mentioned the veil as an element of identity, not just a religious one. Building up an identity requires always excluding the Other?

Yes, if antibodies are not available. Antibodies – that is, secular Muslims – are to be found everywhere in the region. First of all there the women, also those that wear the veil. Male or female, everyone is afraid. In addition, I would like to clarify that I do not consider wearing the veil to be a scandal, I would forbid only the burqa, which cancels your face, and hence the person. However, Italy too is missing some antibodies. '

Let us talk about intolerance at the domestic level.

That can partly be explained with social unrest. The problem is that politicians do not respond as firmly as is needed. I mean also culturally firm. Indeed, racism seems to induce a degree of shyness among the political class. They say that opposing racists is unpopular. I answer that the bad guys are there, because the good ones do not speak out. What I mean by this is that often the response to racists is just as racist, only a little bit more polite. Moreover, the majority of politicians does not dare to say that by 2050 Europe will need about 50 million new immigrants. Such an obvious truth is taboo. We are ever more absorbed by the present, by the economic crisis. If you looked at Europe from Mars, you would say that this is the richest and more educated and cultivated region on planet Earth. You could therefore be bold thinking of the future, making imaginative and daring plans. Nonetheless, even the meetings of the Council of the European Union recall those of the board of a bank. The ruling class, politicians and the media evoke principles not for these to guide actions and life, but merely to keep them far up there, in a sort of Pantheon.

Read the full interview at L'Espresso

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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