Sunday 24 September 2017

Peace in our time? Europe, Fascism & Brexit

In May 1993 I was nearly 17 years old. Two events in 1993-1994 that took place in faraway places profoundly affected the way I saw the world and what I wanted to do when I grew up. One of them were the deaths of Admira Ismic and Bosko Brkic. They were young people who loved each other. But Admira was a Bosnian Muslim while Bosko was a Serb. Yugoslavia was at that time being ripped apart by an ethnically defined and genocidal conflict which dictated that their relationship was not permitted. But they hadn’t read the script. As they ran across a square under sniper fire in a desperate attempt to escape the madness and live a life together shots rang out, killing Bosko instantly and injuring Admira. Instead of seeking to escape Admira crawled over to Bosko, lay down beside him and placed her arm across his chest. Witnesses said she died some 15 minutes later. I remember the images of their bodies lying in the square as snipers refused to agree a ceasefire. It was an image that said so much about tragedy but also something profound about the strength of the human spirit.

I’ve often thought of them in the years since, as I’ve been privileged to see others in conflict build peace, frequently overcoming experiences and hatred with almost unimaginable strength, imagination and commitment. But I think about them more now, and I worry that we are not heeding the warning their story teaches us, especially in Europe.

Recorded human history shows the ease with which populations can be manipulated into identifying themselves against ‘the other’. Elites construct ideals and largely fabricated or airbrushed national stories that either ignore the positive role of others or portray them as somehow malign. Scholars like Benedict Anderson came up with the term “imagined communities” to describe this. And before you start to think that all sounds very far removed, when was the last time we saw a ceremony to mark the role of Polish, Indian, Caribbean or African soldiers who fought for and with Britain in the 1940s?

At a time when we need the highest calibre of political leadership in Europe, we are rewarded with Theresa May, Boris Johnson and Claude van Juncker instead. And in that absence of political leadership and thus an increasingly antagonistic relationship between UK and rest of Europe is the risk of rising division which you can see elsewhere across the continent.

My country Britain succumbed to baser human instincts in last years referendum on membership of the European Union. I don’t blame those who did. They knew they were being forgotten about by a political elite who repeatedly demonstrated their lack of interest. But the tenor, tone, rumour and myth that dominated the campaign was sinister. You have to wonder what underlies a country totally reliant on immigration for its public services and industrial base voting against foreigners, which is how the referendum was presented.

Today's National Socialism
In Germany  the far right has just been elected to the Reichstag for the first time since 1933. They are the third largest party. No surprises that Mr Brexit Nigel Farage recently spoke at one of their rallies. And in Holland Geert Wilders may have lost the election. But he did come second. And if you look behind the euphoria of the elites at Macron’s victory in France it’s worth bearing in mind that that is the second time a neo-Nazi candidate also came second. Donald Trump may be the caricature of alt-right politics, but it’s worth reminding ourselves that much of his own programme centres on fear of foreigners too.

I believe Admira and Bosko were optimists. They ran across that square together because they thought there was a chance, however slim, of a better life. I’ve seen enough of others like them in the years since to be an optimist too, if a little cynical. But I wonder what they would tell us to do now. I think they’d tell us that as our political classes abdicate their responsibilities we can’t sit passively by and allow a similar set of disasters to emerge, fuelled by fear of foreigners and ‘the other’.

Admira and Bosko were buried side by side by their families. Their memory tells us never to be so complacent to imagine we couldn’t get to that stage again, even in Europe. I hope in time we get a calibre of political leadership across Europe, Britain and the wider West that we can trust in. But in the meantime it’s on us. Civic society in all its forms to oppose and challenge intolerance and division while promoting a European Union, a United Kingdom and a West which is open, inclusive and liberal.

The question, which I am rattling my brain about, is how.

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