SOAS university director under attack for using the ‘N-Word’

On 11th March 2021, SOAS Director Adam Habib was under attack for using the ‘N-word’ in an online conference call with students. This all began with Habib responding to a series of questions over the lack of funding for African Studies at SOAS and the cancellation of the BA African Studies. The students also spoke about lecturers casually using the N-word in class without any serious consequences and the need more broadly to address race and race related issues throughout the School. In response, Habib, to an uncomfortable degree, expressed racial slurs, specifically the ‘N-word’. Two students in the meeting told Habib they found it unacceptable for him to use the N-word, while another male Black student told Habib that without having lived the experience of a Black person, he cannot use that word. Habib then proceeded to defend himself and explain why it was ‘okay’ for him to use the word, arguing he “comes from a part of the world where we actually do use the word”. 

Habib is South African of Indian descent, which he believes makes him the ‘exception’ arguing that his use of the term should be acceptable because he fought against aparthied and believes this affords him a degree of immunity.  Of course, Habib’s personal origins do nothing to change the history of the term, created and used by colonial masters to subordinate Black people. Habib did apologise once he realised the offence caused in the online meeting but followed that with a 17-tweet thread defending his use of the term in an attempt to justify himself and avoid ‘misinterpretation’, explaining that “the context matters”. Students fired back with responses and criticism of his defence which spread rapidly on social media. 

Following this incident, the same evening the SOAS Student Union Dead Philosophers Society released a statement, calling what happened in the meeting “unacceptable”.The Student Union stated that SOAS must address “institutional racism” as this is not the first time that racist language has been used by staff at SOAS and demanded Habib’s resignation, launching the hashtag #FireHabib. The Art & the African Mind group also released a statement:  “infuriatingly insulting and hurtful, we do not care for or want an apology, we are calling for Adam Habib’s dismissal in 31 days”.  

South Africa’s left wing political party Economic Freedom Fighters then went on to say that Habib’s attempt to ‘normalise’ the N-word by saying ‘where he is from’ people use it every day is, “a blatant and filthy lie”. Meanwhile Helen Zille weighed in supporting Habib using the N-word, commenting that this is a “textbook study of cancel culture”. Habib also claimed that the online footage of the offensive meeting had been cropped so as to misinterpret his comments, going on to say, “the question is that after this apology, some are still politicizing the issue. What is their agenda…?” which others read as an effort in self-victimisation. 

On reflection with friends and colleagues, it seems clear that the racial and historical implications of the N-word make it racist no matter its ‘context’. Of course, Habib can’t exactly be accused of ‘ignorance’; after all, how can an educated Professor, Director of one of the most prestigious Universities with one of the most diverse campuses, be unaware of the word’s history and weight? More shocking was the timing of Habib’s use and defence of the word in light of the Black Lives Matter movement. 

Now it should be made clear that I, being of Bangladeshi descent, am hardly the appropriate candidate to opine on the use and history of that particular term. Still, it remains the case that the use, interpretation and intentions of the term have seen enormous change over the course of history. It would be short-sighted to ignore the possibility that this variation also applies geographically so that how the term is used and what it is understood to mean may vary from one nation to another (to say nothing of the particular racial history of South Africa). Nevertheless, it doesn’t seem too much to ask that Professors have a means of discussing these issues at their disposal that will not offend, insult or harm their students regardless of ‘contextual ambiguities’, even if only to avoid the accusation of ‘closet racism’. Although SOAS has now reacted to the incident, with Habib stepping aside pending further investigations on this matter, the bigger question now is, how will SOAS respond to show that it can satisfactorily navigate this issue and support the Black community and students at SOAS?

The ICC Probe into the Situation in Palestine: A long-awaited inquiry or an attack on Israel?

After years of deliberations over whether the International Criminal Court (ICC) has jurisdiction in the Palestinian Territories, chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda has announced the opening of alleged investigations into war crimes committed in the territories on 3 March 2021. This follows the ruling on 5 February 2021 that the Court’s jurisdiction extends to the territories occupied by Israel since the Six Day War in 1967. With the opening of the investigation, the ICC will now look into alleged crimes committed by both the Israeli Army and armed Palestinian groups such as Hamas since 13 June 2014. This move by the ICC represents a major development in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

What does the ICC investigate?

Following Bensouda’s announcement, the ICC can now exercise its jurisdiction in the “Situation in Palestine”, which encompasses Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The priorities of the investigations are still to be announced due to the ICC’s limited resources and operational challenges during the Covid-19 pandemic. The investigations will include the 2014 Gaza War, the 2018 Gaza border clashes, as well as the illegal settlement-building by the Israeli government in the West Bank (the latter is described by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as “build[ing] a house in [Israel’s] eternal capital of Jerusalem”). The investigations promise to contribute to ending “a long cycle of violence and insecurity” for victims of crimes on all sides.

Controversies about the ICC jurisdiction

While the ICC will not limit its investigations to either party to the conflict, Bensouda’s decision has been subject to harsh criticism. Given that Israel is not party to the ICC, some commentators have argued, the ICC does not have jurisdiction to investigate alleged crimes. Israel and its close ally, the US, – neither signatories to the ICC Statute – oppose the ICC probe. However, the Palestinian Authority has been accepted as an ICC signatory in 2015, a decision that implied recognising that the Palestinian Territories fulfill all functions of a state. On this basis, the ICC has jurisdiction over war crimes committed in the territories occupied by Israel. Both the Palestinian Authority and the Hamas government in the Gaza Strip welcome the investigations. 

ICC probe as an “act of antisemitism”?

Much of the current discourse about the ICC investigations in Palestine is influenced by Israel’s reaction. Not only did Israeli Foreign Minister, Gabi Ashekanzi, call the ICC’s move “morally and legally bankrupt”, but Prime Minister Netanyahu also condemned the probe as an attack on Israel. Referring to the origins of the International Criminal Court, established to prevent a repeat of the Holocaust, Netanyahu claims that the institution has now turned against the Jewish state, calling the opening of the investigations “undiluted antisemitism”. This allegation ignores the fact that the ICC will not only probe war crimes committed by the Israeli Army and implies equating the Israeli government with Judaism.

Netanyahu’s claim sparked further media discussions around victims becoming perpetrators”, referring to Jewish victims of the Holocaust who now might become perpetrators of war crimes. This discussion is again based on a dangerous misconception. Putting in context victims of the extermination of Jewish people during the Holocaust and perpetrators of the Israeli Army is not only inappropriate, but also wrong. 

Will the ICC’s investigations have an impact?

Despite these dangerous discussions around the ICC’s investigations, let us consider the possible impact of the probe. One major difficulty Bensouda will face is getting access to the territory to pursue her investigations. It seems unlikely that Israel will cooperate and give free access to the territory. In June 2021, however, Bensouda’s successor as ICC Prosecutor Karim Khan will continue the investigation but will not be beholden to Bensouda’s decisions. His stance will bring Israel’s cooperation up to debate again, depending on which crimes he will lie the focus on. 

If, in any case, the ICC Prosecution identifies suspects responsible for war crimes, the judges can issue sealed international arrest warrants to help the authorities arrest those who are charged.

While critics say that the ICC’s involvement will lead to further polarisation around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, supporters see this as a vital new ingredient in addressing the longstanding conflict and as a chance to bring justice to those who have been denied for too long.

World’s most populous Democracy now only ‘partly free’

As the world is trying to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic, democracy is facing a worldwide recession and the international balance is shifting “in favour of tyranny”. Less than 20% of the world now lives in ‘free’ countries, according to the annual Freedom in the World report published a week ago by the US government-funded non-profit organisation Freedom House. India, the world’s most populous democracy, has lost its status as a ‘free’ country and has transitioned to a new category recognising the state as ‘partly free’. The report warns that India’s change of status could have further damaging effects on democratic standards worldwide.

Why has India’s status changed?

Since Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power in 2014, the country has faced a decline of civil liberties and political rights, which is only continuing since Modi’s re-election in 2019. Furthermore, discrimination against minority groups, pressure on human rights organisations, and the rise of Hindu nationalism have increased. In particular, the enactment of the Citizenship Amendment Act in 2019, which made religion a criterion for Indian citizenship, exacerbated Islamophobia in India and led to protests which have been cracked down by the government. The amendment offers illegal migrants from three neighbouring countries eligibility for Indian citizenship, but not Muslim migrants. 

The outbreak of COVID-19 has not stopped these developments. Millions of migrant workers in India have been displaced due to India’s “ham-fisted lockdown”, which was introduced suddenly in March 2020, to the immediate disadvantage of already vulnerable populations. At the same time, the government encouraged the “scapegoating of Muslims”, accused of being responsible for the spread of the virus. Through the Twitter campaign #coronajihad, anti-Muslim sentiment had been expressed to further polarise public opinion (Check out Nishaan Sengupta’s article Rise of Islamophobia in India for more insights). 

Why does it matter?

During a year marked by a pandemic and various restrictions worldwide, it might seem obvious that the global trend of freedom is on a decline. However, 2020 has rather highlighted existing weaknesses of democracies and made it even more pressing to reconsider our label for states as democracies. Freedom House’s change of India’s status to ‘partly free’ sheds light on the on-going discrimination and human rights violations, which too often have been obscured by the country’s title of the ‘largest democracy in the world’. At the same time, the global downward trend towards authoritarian norms calls for more democratic advocates with allies around the world. By changing India’s title to ‘partly free’, it becomes more obvious that one important ally might be lost, since political freedom as a fundamental norm of democracy is not guaranteed anymore in the country. With China’s increasing “malign influence” in promoting disinformation and censorship and the US’s democratic decline during the Trump Administration, the global negative trend of political freedom for 15 consecutive years is no surprise – nor is India’s new status as ‘partly-free’. However, it should be regarded as a wake-up call to acknowledge that democracy is neither given nor predictable. In a period where political freedom has been downgraded in 73 countries, representing 75% of the world’s population, the need to safeguard democracy is more pressing than ever. Ultimately, it must be recognised that India’s new status could not only have further damaging effects on democratic standards worldwide but that it is representing an already on-going global trend.

Policy Brief Issue 1: March 2021

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The Myth of the “Eco-Terrorist”

“Eco-terrorists  and animal rights extremists are one of the most serious domestic terrorism threats in the U.S. today”. These words are found in a 2008 FBI report on environmental extremism. Specifically, groups such as the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) and the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) were identified as the main culprits in a new kind of domestic terrorism: eco-terrorism. 

‘Eco-terrorism’ has been conceptualised as acts of violence carried out with the intent to disrupt or prevent activities considered harmful to the environment. The ALF, ELF and various small and loosely organised environmentalist groups were responsible for a string of arson attacks in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Today, the perceived threat from environmental extremists is once again occupying the minds of those in power. 

How is it that these so-called ‘terrorists’ came to be thought of as one of the most serious domestic threats in the US, given that to this day these groups have never killed anyone? Homeland security agencies in the US and Europe were immensely concerned with any potential threats after 9/11 and saw these arson attacks as the beginning of a broader and far deadlier eco-terrorism campaign. The term ‘green scare’ was coined by environmentalist groups to describe this hysteria over eco-warriors. The phrase was used to draw a parallel with the ‘red scare’ of the 1950s in which the threat of communist infiltration was radically exaggerated and led to mass arrests. During this green scare, dozens of ALF/ELF members were arrested, and millions of dollars were spent on surveillance and prosecution. Eventually, these ‘eco-terrorists’ faded from the headlines, the attacks on property decreased, and homeland security agencies turned their attention elsewhere. 

But there has been renewed focus on these ‘eco-terrorists’. In 2018 a new group grabbed the headlines in the UK for their use of disruptive and headline-grabbing protest tactics: Extinction Rebellion (XR). XR and Youth Strike for Climate protests sprang up across the country, demanding that the climate crisis be taken seriously by those in power. This rattled the UK government. In 2020, the British counter-terrorism police branded XR as “an extremist ideology”. For a short time official police counter-terrorism documents listed XR next to neo-Nazi organisations such as the National Front. Addressing a police conference in September 2020, Home Secretary Priti Patel claimed that “XR poses a threat to the UK’s way of life”. Such rhetoric is redolent of the language used to discuss groups such as al-Qaeda, Islamic State or George Bush’s ‘Axis of Evil’. The British government is clearly interested in framing XR and other environmentalist organisations as ideological extremists with the capacity for violence. But is this accurate? Is there a genuine possibility that the new terrorist threat will be from eco-terrorism?

In reality, environmentalism has been mainstreamed. The Youth Strike for Climate are mostly children, and while XR’s tactics are disruptive the average XR activist is hardly radical in their approach to environmentalism. In fact, XR has expended considerable energy in “depoliticising” environmentalism, by rejecting ideology, and framing the climate crisis as something “beyond politics”

It’s true that recently there has been something of a ‘call to arms’ for environmentalists to escalate their tactics. In his recent book How to Blow up a Pipeline, Andreas Malm believes now is the time to do precisely what his book title implies; turn to violence – specifically the destruction of private property. However, scholars working on extremism broadly agree that causing bodily harm or murder is fundamentally at odds with the ethics of environmentalism and that we’re unlikely to see this change in approach. 

It’s impossible to know what the future holds for environmental activism. Perhaps the violent elements of the environmentalist movement will remain on the fringe. Perhaps as the climate crisis becomes more desperate, so too will the tactics of those seeking to defend the natural world. For now, the ‘eco-terrorist’ remains a myth which authorities around the world deliberately propagate to avoid responding systematically to the climate crisis.

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What’s behind Israel’s success story.

For several days now, it has been all over the news that Israel has succeeded in vaccinating more than half of its population against Covid-19. Numbers show that 50% of Israelis have received the first shot of the vaccine and 30% have also taken the second dose. However, what these numbers do not tell is that an Israeli has 60 times more chance of receiving the vaccine than a Palestinian. Isn’t it ironic to call it a success story when so many people are excluded from the Israeli vaccine rollout? 

Israel’s highest rate of Covid-19 vaccination in the world also does not tell the difference in Covid-related fatalities between a Palestinian and an Israeli, which is respectively 1.1% against only 0.7%. This difference in fatalities is particularly linked to the different access and quality of healthcare Palestinians have in comparison to Israelis. One could ask why should it be Israel’s obligation to vaccinate Palestinians. In response, one could refer to the recent UN statement declaring that Israel was responsible for providing equal access to vaccination for Israelis and Palestinians of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Citing the Fourth Geneva Convention, the UN declared that it is Israel’s moral and legal duty as the occupying power to provide healthcare to the population under its control. Not doing so is a violation of international law. 

It is only as Israel eases its restrictions that Gaza is starting its vaccination programme. Shops, libraries and museums are opening and some other facilities such as gyms, hotels and synagogues are meant to open upon the presentation of a green passport. This procedure consists of a proof of vaccination, which will now be obligatory to access certain facilities. How promising the ease of Covid related restrictions might seem to the world, it also shows the inherent inequalities of such measures. If some facilities are meant to open only for people provided with the vaccine, it inherently excludes those who were denied it. This exclusion reflects a broader Israeli political agenda that pursues constant persecution of the Palestinian population. Indeed, the Israeli government blocked the vaccination campaign for some days before allowing it to enter the Gaza Strip. Some 2000 doses finally arrived from Russia, intended for 1000 people, a fraction of the overall Palestinian population and minuscule compared to the level of vaccination available in Israel. Additionally, some Israeli settlers in the West bank were vaccinated while the Palestinians living next to them were not able to have access to the vaccine, another proof of their different treatments. 

This situation is representative of the broader Israeli occupation of Palestine. A recent report has shown how difficult it is for Palestinians to comply with Covid-related restrictions. Some were for instance unable to self-isolate, making it easier for the disease to propagate but is also due to the scarcity of resources available to treat ill-patients that the numbers of cases rise quickly. Moreover, Covid has devastated the Palestinian economy and the pandemic has left many Palestinians with no ways of providing for their families, increasing precarity for many. The international media coverage of Israel’s vaccination success portrays the state of Israel as a heroic victor against the Covid disease. In reality, the territories that Israel occupies are suffering more than ever, creating an important contrast between this success and the Palestinians precarious health care system. Statistics are easy to manipulate, as shown by the narrative based on numbers of doses, speed of the vaccination and percentage of immune people. In this case, this success story has clearly a dark side, highlighting the continuing and flagrant discrimination against Palestinians.

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