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Uncivil Society project’s closing conference in Brussels
A Solidarity-Based Safety Net against Uncivil Society

Serpil Temiz Unvar
Serpil Temiz Unvar, „Bildungsinitiative Ferhat Unvar“ | © Goethe-Institut Brussels

The Uncivil Society conference in Brussels made it clear that racist violence and right-wing terror are global phenomena that call for collective answers.

By Martín Steinhagen

“On 19 February 2020 a racist robbed me of my child.” With these words, Serpil Temiz Unvar from Hanau, Germany, standing on the big, almost empty stage of the Théâtre National Wallonie-Bruxelles, began her closing address. “At two different locations he murdered nine people – people he categorized as non-Germans on the basis of their appearance, people who had to die because of the way they looked.” Lit up on the screen behind her was a portrait, sketched in rough black lines, of a young man in a flat cap: her son Ferhat, who only lived to be 23.
On that fateful February night, her son may have been murdered by only one man, “But that man is part of a system,” Unvar insists, “part of a society steeped in racist and völkisch ideology through and through.”

Her vivid speech on 27 November closed the “Uncivil Society: Racist Violence and Right-Wing Terror in Europe” conference, which, in turn, marked the conclusion of the Goethe-Institut’s Uncivil Society project in Brussels, Budapest, Milan and Oslo. Ten years after the National Socialist Underground (NSU) was uncovered and after the Utøya and Oslo attacks, summed up Elke Kaschl Mohni, director of the Goethe-Institut Brussels, the exhibitions and events held during the conference deliberately shifted the focus from the perpetrators to the victims, providing a forum for their families to express their grief and their views. And they addressed this pressing issue as a “pan-European, if not global. phenomenon”.

The “Nationalist International”

Three researchers who spoke at the conference delved into what might be termed the “Nationalist International”. It has always been a transnational movement, said Tore Bjørgo, a University of Oslo professor and director of the Center for Research on Extremism. But thanks to the Internet, he pointed out, ideological content and subcultural codes and strategies spread much faster now than a few decades ago. Again and again, these “transnational social networks” encourage lone perpetrators to act, but they are much harder for the authorities to identify in good time than traditional terrorist organizations.
Tore Bjørgo
© Goethe-Institut Brussels
Tore Bjørgo, University of Oslo professor and director of the Center for Research on Extremism

Hamburg historian Volker Weiss has also observed an “internationalization of right-wing buzzwords at an accelerated pace thanks to the web. Witness the same hackneyed fragments of racist, anti-feminist and anti-Semitic ideology to be found in the “copy-paste confessions” posted by right-wing terrorists everywhere from Christchurch to Halle and Hanau. Weiss warns against a form of “stochastic terrorism”, i.e. a strategy of persistently inflaming public sentiment and marking targets, mostly online, with the result that someone somewhere ends up turning words into deeds.

Posing as persecuted victims

Many of those fomenting this very dynamic pose as victims persecuted by the majority, Weiss pointed out: “The far right are internationally very successful at self-victimization.” The strategy of the so-called New Right, in particular, is to reference ostensibly untainted thinkers from before the Nazi era an approach that has worked in Germany, partly owing to inadequate knowledge of history.

“Some radical right-wing actors are called ‘populists’,” bemoans Manuela Caiana, an Italian political science professor at the Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa. This is a dangerous development, she warns, because it could help further normalize such positions. Declaring your support for the Lega or even the Fratelli d’Italia, both of which can be classified as neo-fascist, is no longer stigmatized in Italy. One common misconception in the past was to imagine the people voting for these parties as being socially marginalized segments of the population. On the contrary, the right needs to be taken seriously as a social movement that offers its supporters a collective identity.

Racist clowns and resentment

French sociologist and philosopher Didier Eribon opened the conference with a talk about this offer of collective identity and the mobilization of radical right-wing resentment and affect. He traces an arc from the “conservative restoration” since the 1980s, which seeks to turn back the clock on the achievements of anti-racist, feminist and environmental movements, to the upcoming French presidential elections in the spring. Eribon argues that because the Social Democratic left have given up any reference to social classes, which, however, have not disappeared, “new collective identities have formed”. And this is what the far right offer the working class.
Sociologist and philosopher Didier Eribon
© Goethe-Institut Brussels
Sociologist and philosopher Didier Eribon

Eribon is convinced that the outsize media presence of right-wing extremists helps to normalize their positions. He denounces “bourgeois complicity in an increasingly fascistic age”: when presidential candidate Éric Zemmour, as a “pathetic fascist clown, spews his racism, misogyny and homophobia into the microphone”, that may still elicit outrage, but the novelist Michel Houellebecq is still praised for his books, despite the fact that he writes exactly the same things and intentionally pushes the boundaries.

Fascism mobilizes “passion and anxiety”, says Eribon, a strategy that works in many places around the world. So rational arguments alone won’t suffice to get at politicized “gut feelings”. Hence his call to revive the spirit of May 1968 as a “permanent May ’68” political movement of “extraordinary diversity”, but also in the sense of critical liberating thought. This, he says, is the only way to counter the reactionary “permanent 30 June ’68” project.

“No one’s born a racist”

After the murder of her son, Serpil Temiz Unvar “immediately took up the fight”, as she put it in an interview with journalist Matthias Dell, the moderator of the conference. She founded the “Ferhat Unvar Educational Initiative” in Hanau on what would have been his 24th birthday, nine months after his death.

Unvar raised a number of unanswered questions about the attack, pointed out failures by the authorities and recalled her own experiences of racism before that. “For a long time, I myself regarded racism in society as something normal,” she said, based on her experiences as a Kurd in Turkey and as an immigrant in Germany. She is firmly convinced that “no one is born a racist,” but that every person who thinks in racist terms is one racist too many. “I cannot and will not accept that,” she insists. “I don’t want to mix my anger with hate, but I want to change this system.”

Serpil Temiz Unvar also knows about racist discrimination in the school system from her own children’s experience. So her educational initiative, which is currently funded mostly by donations, is about doing outreach work at schools to sensitize and encourage young people, though it’s also about strengthening mothers. We need to join forces to create a “democracy- and solidarity-based safety net” that will “be there for us all”, she says. And her initiative is to help achieve that end. It’s going to be a long and rocky road, she’s well aware of that, but she’s intent on going it – together with others. “I’ve lost Ferhat, what else have I got to lose?”