In September 2015 the United Nations Office for the Prevention of Genocide held five regional consultations with people of faith and conviction that they might identify indicators of incitement to atrocities, leading to genocide. These consultations eventually led to a Global Plan of Action for Religious Leaders and Actors to Prevent Incitement to Violence that Could Lead to Atrocity Crimes, launched in July of 2017. For the first of these consultations, faith leaders and representatives of faith-based and human rights organisations gathered from across Europe to meet in Treviso, Italy. The two main flashpoints identified were the rise in tensions due to increased migration into Europe by displaced persons, and radicalisation, with concern about young persons, in particular, heading to Syria to join Daesh, and a growth in far right influence.
Much is included under the umbrella of these two issues, and as faith leaders there was concern for a better, more supportive, and humanitarian response to those seeking sanctuary on our shores. It was also considered essential to increase inclusion of women and young people in community and leadership levels, to support their participation in society. Fear over loss of identity, changing demographics, socio-economic strain, and issues around racism and social justice were considered to be drivers behind radicalisation.
We have since continued to witness an influx of the displaced into Europe, though it must be emphasised that Europe has not taken in the significant numbers that other countries in the regions of conflict have provided in the way of sanctuary, countries with far less in the way of resources, infrastructure and expertise. While it must be acknowledged that legislation such as the Dublin Regulation were developed to serve a particular purpose, it is no longer fit for purpose, and is a large contributor to the splitting up of families who are unable to re-unite in any single locality once individual members have been granted asylum status in the nations where they have happened to land. Family reunion is one of the crucial elements for healthy transition from a place of trauma to one of settlement, inclusion, and integration.
From the faith community perspective, we have witnessed an outpouring from pockets of the general public, particularly young people, in caring for those whom they see as distressed and in desperate need. But this is countered by an increase in xenophobia and sadly, post-Brexit rise in hate crime and violence as has been demonstrated in the UK, but also reflected across Europe. And it is because of this, the UN asked participants from the UK, to gather our contacts working in the areas of support for refugees, ending hate crime, and community engagement to hold yet another consultation within the UK. This was held in November of 2016, and a report submitted to UK government ministers – sadly on the day of the terror attack on Westminster Bridge. While poignant in itself to have been so timely presented, it also received little attention.
Despite Home Office research which has indicated that immigration has not had a negative impact on housing, employment, health care or social provision, and in fact has contributed positively in the way of taxes on income, a suspicion of those who have immigrated into the UK continues to grow, particularly fomented by far right groups. And our partners from faith communities in Europe report a similar rise in hate crime. Just a few days ago, Nazi flags were raised in various locations across Sweden. Hate crime is focused particularly on Muslim women. Following the terror events in London, research showed that over 70% of the victims of hate crime were young women of Muslim appearance, while the same percentage, over 70%, of the perpetrators were white men. And patterns indicate that whatever happens to Muslims, also happens to the Jewish community. Because the Jewish community is so much smaller, this receives less attention from media and politicians.
How do we get here, to the point when the that precious right we guard so carefully, the right to freedom of speech, becomes incitement to hatred leading to acts of violence – and even atrocity?
Cumberland Lodge and the Council of Christians and Jews recently re-published the book ‘Darkness Over Germany’ written by Amy Buller during the 1930s and early 40s. Buller tracks the development and rise of national socialism in Germany, speaking with people from all walks of life – from supporters of Hitler to dissenters – and the greater majority of the German populace who remained quiet witness and eventual collaborator in genocide. Buller documents a society of highly educated young people with high unemployment and very little hope for the future, earning less than their parents’ generation, if they were able to earn anything at all. And an older generation was concerned for the future of their children. It was a fairly secular society, with religion, the Church in particular, in steep decline. Amid this mix was a fear of communism – that it would destroy the German state and culture. The Church viewed communism as the final straw that would bring about its’ destruction – and the Jews were viewed both as supporters of communism and the enemy in their midst. National socialism was viewed as bringing hope to the German nation, you could say in our current contexts, national socialism was seeking to make Germany great again.
Just as it is easier to blame others for our personal failings than it is to consider our own faults and seek to improve ourselves, as is wont in politics it is much easier to blame a scapegoat than to set about the hard work of improving a nation. And indeed that tendency can be, and is, exploited by the powerful to manipulate. I have just come from Bosnia, a visit arranged by the charity Remembering Srebenica. Our guide for the visit was Resad Trbonya, a survivor of the war in Bosnia, who served in the Bosnian army protecting his family in Sarajevo. Much experienced at sharing the events of the war and of the genocide in Srebenica, he made one poignant statement that sums up how easily incitement to hatred can lead to ordinary human beings committing atrocities. He stated that, ‘it is easy to come up with many excuses why it is alright to hate. It is easy to commit hate crimes. The difficult part is why you shouldn’t do it.’
It’s like a playground – the playground bully is easier for others to follow. No one wants to be on the receiving end. But it is much harder to stand up to them, to get people to stop the hate.
Resad was convinced that war proceeded so quickly because of the plethora of propaganda used by politicians seeking power on all sides. The war escalated very quickly from his point of view, with much of the rhetoric heating up in 1991, but by 1992 there was all out war.
Sadly even Resad repeated the rhetoric that the propensity to fight is in the DNA of the people of Bosnia. And this very claim was used by Western politicans as excuse for not getting involved in bringing about peace much sooner. I was sad to hear him say this, as it is part of that racial profiling that places a people as beyond the pale. As much as Bosnia seems at peace at the moment, a country returned to a pre-War multicultural bonhomie, Resad believes the war is still going on – even though the battle has ceased.
There are those who claim, quite rightly in my humble opinion, that the Civil War in the United States is still being fought, though the battle ceased long ago, through the continued shootings of black schoolchildren and youth – in large part by police officers.
Why am I bringing these examples as part of the UN piece of work in Europe? It is to bring home that we are a hairs’ breadth away from further atrocities if we do not remain vigilant and work hard at combating incitement to hate crime. The UN Plan of Action is aimed at leaders of faith-based organisations, but also those with a belief system that seeks to improve the lot of humanity as a whole. It seeks to ask: where do we go from here? There are no easy answers. It’s not about solving a problem and then it is done. It is a journey, it is about consultation, it is about collaboration, it is about having conversations with one another, conversations of respect and reverence for the sanctity of the human being before us, whatever their faith, or their belief, whatever their gender or tradition or culture or language.
Hasan Hasanovic was 19 years old when he survived the siege of Srebencia and the following genocide. He was in a playground playing football as a teenager when a shell exploded around them and killed all of his friends, tearing their bodies apart. He now shares his story with others, and he has this to say: ‘At the end of the war, I had to identify what was in me – I thought it was hatred. But I cannot understand how anyone can kill or hurt anyone – even the killers. They wanted us to be like them, they wanted us to spread hatred. I decided I wanted to tell the truth.’
In each of the survivors I have met, from wars and violent conflicts in various contexts – all anyone wants now is not revenge, they want life. They just want to get on with life, to love their families, to go for picnics, to play with their children, to work and to live. They don’t want to hate any more. Hatred is a luxury for those who have something to lose. When all is lost – it is not that you have nothing else to lose, it is that all that is left is the desire for life and love.
This is exactly why freedom of speech must be preserved – to hold hate speech to account, to record the witness of survivors, to document evidence of hate crime and atrocity, to preserve transparency in governance, and to draw a line between ‘freedom of speech’ and incitement to violence and hate that leads to genocide. This involves more communication not less. Rather than a pessimism about social media, there is also a positive aspect, which enables greater interaction – an ability to receive news immediately from across the globe. This brings its challenges in that the ugly is in our face – but so is the ability to challenge. We remove that transparency to our peril. But the point is, having the courage to challenge – to find the much more difficult reason not to hate.