The Grey Zone

Mauro Biani ( Manifesto. All rights reserved.

While a few prominent public intellectuals in Europe, like Slavoj Zizek and Bernard-Henry Levy, rather brusquely ask us to ‘get real’ about the Islamic State threat by closing territorial borders and identifying the enemy among us –a narrative that comes dangerously close to what some neoconservative pundits are promoting since some years across the Atlantic- Middle East experts confront the global public with a series of uncomfortable truths. I present three of them here.

  1. Scott Atran, who testified before the US Senate armed service committee and the UN Security Council, warns us not to consider ISIS as a band of mindless or nihilistic extremists, but rather take seriously their moral mission to ‘save the world’…

“… what inspires the most uncompromisingly lethal actors in the world today is not so much the Qur’an or religious teachings. It’s a thrilling cause that promises glory and esteem.”

dabiq-jesuis-2_3503844bA terminology that keeps popping up in this discussion is that of the Grey Zone. Originally referring to an editorial in ISIS’s online magazine Dabiq (and not to Primo Levi’s chapter about camp life in Auschwitz –although some level of comparison would certainly be welcome here), it describes the twilight zone inhabited by Muslims worldwide, in which they are required to make a choice to live between the ‘kufra’ (infidels) or the caliphate –a choice the Paris attacks were meant to intensify. In that sense, the attacks were indeed about sovereign power, though not in the way Bernard-Henry Levy interprets it –but actually as a realm of life and death. Or, as Claudio Minca and Rory Rowan mention in their recent book where they discuss Carl Schmitt’s ideas on sovereignty and space:

“Existential conflict should be understood here to indicate ‘concrete’ life and death struggles involving the potential loss of human life and not as a metaphor for some generalized concept of social conflict… [Carl] Schmitt explicitly stated that, ‘the friend, enemy, and combat concepts receive their real meaning precisely because they refer to the real possibility of physical killing’ (authors’ italics). Thus, the political is a source of meaning more fundamental than that found in other spheres of human life, since it concerns the very question of existence as such.”

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  1. The other uncomfortable truth is that while media indeed does report about terror bombings across the world, people react emotionally to what is dear and close to them. In his in-depth analysis of the Paris-Beirut comparison, which is brought up continuously to evoke disparate global concern (and make people feel guilty about it), Vox journalist Max Fisher quotes tweeter Jamiles Lartley who says, quite succinctly, I think: “people should be permitted to grieve and seek redress for specific violence and suffer without being redirected or corrected.” Instead Fisher presents the more complicated question what causes disproportionate care and concern for one country over another in terms of grief and daily struggles (not in the least in hosting the refugee populations that are driven away exactly by the conflicts Western public intellectuals are avoiding in their analysis: in this context I remember an El Pais cartoon some time back saying ‘we are fleeing the wars that once were yours’…). Clearly ‘the media’ is too easy a villain to accuse the lack of global empathy here…
  1. The most uncomfortable truth of all is presented to us by Nafeez Mossadeq Ahmed on Open Democracy: that of the regional geopolitics that continue to feed ISIS. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE, Kuwait and Turkey –all key Western allies– played lead roles in funnelling support to ISIS precursor Al Qaeda. And Turkey sponsors ISIS both through direct military cooperation and through actively facilitating ISIS black market oil sales.

“ISIS, in other words, is state-sponsored –indeed sponsored by purportedly Western-friendly regimes in the Muslim world who are [also, paradoxically] integral to the anti-ISIS coalition.”

Safeguarding the grey zone, Ahmed -but also Etienne Balibar adds, thus not only requires Western publics to hold their governments accountable for such foreign policy mischiefs but it also means actively rejecting exactly the type of band-wagoning Levy and Zizek appear to propose:

“… safeguarding the “grey zone” means more than bandying about the word ‘solidarity’ – it means enacting citizen-solidarity by firmly rejecting efforts by both ISIS and the far-right to exploit terrorism as a way to transform our societies into militarized police-states where dissent is demonized, the Other is feared, and mutual paranoia is the name of the game. That, in turn, means working together to advance and innovate the institutions, checks and balances, and accountability necessary to maintain and improve the framework of free, open and diverse societies.”



p.s. after days of frenetic searching across hospitals, a friend of a Parisian friend who went missing the nigth of the attacks has finally been found… death. I mourn her loss –not for any particular reason, but because she is a human being. I hope that is still permitted.


Brussels 2012 (co Timothy Raeymaekers)

Global ban-lieu?

The many predictions. The fear. The waiting. And then, the blast.


It is ironic that among the victims of the Paris Attacks last Friday, there was a volunteer of the humanitarian aid organization Emergency, whose members operate in Syria and Afghanistan to assist victims of war. Commenting her death, Gino Strada, the founder of Emergency, summarized this irony by paraphrasing the German poet Bertold Brecht:


“The war that comes is not the first one. Before there have been other wars. At the end of the previous one there were winners and losers. Among the losers the poor people were hungry. Among the winners the poor people were equally hungry.”


Years of destruction and “strategic foreign policy blunders” –starting with the ill-conceived transition of post-Saddam Iraq and continuing with a series of haphazardly planned interventions in North Africa and the Middle East led by an axis of French, British and US forces, are presenting their bloody bill to populations in Syria, in Iraq, in Turkey, in Libya and Lebanon…

–and now, also, in Europe.






Even more so than the previous one in January, the Paris attack of 13 November shows that there can be no more far-away wars for Europeans. After 50 years of relative ‘peace’, which was, in hindsight, no less hard-lived than it was illusory and fragile, the Old Continent is once more caught in the eye of the storm. That in itself may already be a rather hard lesson to swallow for some of its inhabitants: as intelligence services across the Atlantic are warning more attacks may be coming ahead soon, we might actually be seeing the first war refugees moving across Europe as a result of persistent terror threats in some countries (one friend of mine, who lives at 200 meters from one of the attack sites, admitted she had wanted to leave France for some time: ‘you can literally feel the tension in the streets,’ she said. I imagine she is not the only one).


A second fundamental insight, I think, is that Europe is increasingly waging a war on itself. By this I mean not only the eroding rights of secondary and aspiring citizens who are living their increasing_86684278_bataclan_and_petit_cambodge_624_v3ly secluded lives. But also the very idea of unity in diversity –one of the fundamental values the European project and the ‘no-more-war’ credo it once pretended to stand for, is falling flat on its face. In that sense, the contrast between the mixture of nationals sipping their drinks before gracelessly being gunned to the ground by ISIS attackers at the Carillon and Petit Cambodge bar and restaurant last Friday, and the recruiting grounds of ISIS/ISIL/Daesh a few miles away from there in the Parisian banlieus (‘banned spaces’) and in the Belgian communes of Molenbeek and Verviers could not have been more telling. Has ‘the problem of the banlieu’ –as one bourgeois gallery owner loathingly uttered in the movie La Haine after the 2005 riots gone global? Ironically, 2005 was the second time France declared a state of emergency after the Algerian war of independence, but not on a national-wide scale. After the Paris attacks, President Francois Hollande felt the need to do so once more.


la Borne ‘labyrinth’


We must not forget that what are now derogatively called the continent’s seething ghetto’s and hotbeds of criminal marginality have grown to be like that as a result of decades of conscious neglect, marginalization and erosive welfare politics –which at once hardened marginalization while sidestepping the much more difficult task of proper integration -and not just in run-down city neighbourhoods (on this note, see Mustafa Dikec‘s Badlands of the Republic but also, in slight contrast, this paper on Sharia4Belgium by Belgian politologist Rik Coolsaet). The social background of European fundamentalist militants may be another clear sign that at bottom’s length, this war has very little to do with religious values a priori and more with ways to avenge broken dignity: from Nizar Trabelsi to Ibrahim Abdeslam, most European radical Muslim fighters have followed a trepid path of petty crime only to become radicalized after conscious brainwashing and training by a carefully managed collective of military / ideological instigators. Reason why, according to some authors, it might actually be better to compare the organization’s culture to a mafia or organized crime group –a form of de facto power governing a segment of the globe’s borderlands -according to Loretta Napoleoni.

Whatever ISIS/ISIL/Daesh’s future terror strategy might become in terms of instrumentalizing that contrasting reality between Europe’s ‘infidels’ & ‘liberators’, the ‘free’ and ‘unfree’ world, the effects of this attack will likely have an incisive role in the life of European citizens and their rights for years to come. As the fear sets in, harnesses are put on, and knives are being sharpened –needless to say who the losers of that struggle will once more be.


Cemetery of souls

Lots of news on asylum in Europe these days…


While European and African leaders are trying to hammer home an agreement in Malta, including a €1.8bn “trust fund” in an attempt to cajole African governments into taking migrants back and stopping them from leaving the continent in the first place, Europe’s individual states are toughening their stance. Sweden, once considered the haven of social democratic welfare and migrant rights, has announced the introduction of temporary border checks. The controls will come into effect from midday local time on Thursday and will last initially for 10 days, the BBC writes.

In the meantime, German chancellor Angela Merkel feels increasingly battered at home and abroad for lack of vision, and for her unwillingness to apply tougher measures. With Schengen in shatters, the European dream has clearly vanished, the European commissioner for immigration, Dimitris Avramopoulos, said. In the meantime, a report from the Brussels based Migration Policy Institute lays bare the huge discrepancies between national immigration procedures. Reception conditions vary greatly from country to country, with some offering the minimum standard of shelter, food and clothes (like Italy and Greece) and others offering services for active integration, including schooling and work permits -which causes migrants to ‘shop around’ for better benefits.


The biggest obstacle, however, appears to be working permits: because European directives only designate the right to work, but not the actual possibility to exercise this right, migrants are sometimes actively pushed back into illegality. Similar perplexities surround the right to housing, on which I’ve written before here: without actual residence permits, migrants are regularly excluded from fundamental rights to health care and other social services, regardless of their paperwork. As long as these rights are not properly defined within a revised Dublin system -which has in any case become ‘obsolete‘ according to Angela Merkel, the European right to asylum will remain largely death letter.

While the European asylum system is disintegrating, photographer Giles Duley reports back from Lesbos as part of his work with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). He introduces a new series of images documenting the plight of the world’s displaced people: cemetery of souls indeed…




Hide and Seek

After Austria announced its border closures two weeks ago, Slovenia has started building several fences alongside its border with Croatia -thus forcing migrants to choose alternative routes. Though Reuters has no news on where and when the fence building would start, the Frankfurer Allgemeine (FAZ) mentions several border ‘obstacles‘ at Bregana/Rajec, Gornji Macelj, and Rupa, the main crossings from Zagreb towards Slovenia (respectively to the North, Northwest and East, towards Maribor, Ljubljana and Trieste, in Italy). This means migrants coming from Croatia practically have no alternative then to go straight to Italy -possibly facing another dangerous sea route.


The Slovenian government says these obstacles are not meant to completely seal of the border but just to “divert” migrants. Already on Monday evening, it took several emergency measures to protect the Schengen area in preparation of the arrival of up to 30.000 refugees to Slovenia this week. The small country has become one of the main transit countries on the so-called Balkan route.

The constant migrant flows across the Balkan route are triggering an intriguing sequence of openings and closures towards the EU, as this interesting map from Reuters (September 2015) shows. In the meantime, an interactive Refugee Volunteer map has been introduced on google, which indicates changing camp sites and possible border crossings.


Slovenia and Croatia (which does not belong to the Schengen area) have agreed now to allow a maximum of 1000 migrants to cross the border every three hours, the FAZ writes. On Monday Croatia sent more then 5000 people onwards to Slovenia, which caused the Alpine country to seal off its borders. While the border between Croatia and Hungary is closed, and Hungary has built a border fence with Serbia, the latter allows migrants to cross the country after registration at its border checkpoints with Macedonia. Croatia continues to channel its migrants through several, mobile camp sites -amongst others in Opatovac (which has apparently been closed), and Slavonski Brod, situated on the Sava River.  Ironically, Slavonski Brod served as a refugee camp during the war in ex-Yugoslavia. It was subject to serious shelling by Serbian forces stationed in Bosnia at the time, as this book on war crimes in ex-Yugoslavia indicates. For now, it appears to suit Croatian authorities, who are managing the camp together with IOM, UNICEF and the Red Cross, best because it has its independent railway station to channel migrants in and out of the camp swiftly.

Besides these overlapping borderscapes, European leaders face serious difficulties diffusing the tensions these constant migrant flows to the Schengen area generate. While Balkan leaders continue to scream for emergency measures (Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov was quoted as using U.S. independence hero Benjamin Franklin’s saying: “If we don’t stick together we will hang separately” two weeks ago), EU Commission Chief Jean-Claude Juncker increasingly attaches assistance to ‘effective border management’ and wants EU-directed migration to be recognised as a global issue. At its upcoming top, he wants the G20 to declare a step up of funding for international organizations dealing with migration crises. Some major battles around the issue of migration are surely ahead of us.

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Association for Borderlands Studies

UnknownThe Association for Border Studies (ABS) has just opened its membership renewal for 2016.

ABS memberships benefits include access to the latest research through the Journal of Borderlands Studies; unlimited access to the Journal’s online database of archived volumes; access to participation at the Annual Conference, the ABS newsletter “La Frontera”, important networking and other professional opportunities. Click here for subscriptions.


Watch The Med

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Check out the weekly Alarm Phone report at Watch the Med -the online mapping platform to monitor the deaths and violations of migrants’ rights at the maritime borders of the EU, which reports an unprecedented death rate in the Aegean Sea.

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The sharp rise of alerts to the Alarm Phone also reflects the enormous increase of border crossings in the Aegean. More than 210.000 travellers have entered the European Union through this route within the last month alone – about as many as in the entire year of 2014, the Guardian writes.

Post at IBRU

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IBRU, Durham University’s Centre for Borders Research, will be hiring a new research associate, beginning 4 January 2016. The researcher will be expected to initiate her or his own research that broadly aligns with IBRU’s research mission, while also contributing to projects initiated by other academic staff associated with the Centre.

The application deadline is 4 December 2015.

For a full job description and link to the online application, see here .

Art and Geopolitical Borders

The Manchester School of Arts is organising a conference on Art and Geopolitical Borders this 20th November.


“In recent years there has been a growth in interest in the ways that art practice can both acknowledge and articulate the issues around geopolitical borders,” the flyer says. “Borders have long functioned as a vital component of state-formation and nation building, a role that continues within the shifting politics of globalisation… Recently there has been an upsurge in art practices that visualise the tensions and contradictions arising from contemporary borders. However art can also function as a means of disruption and intervention within the established operations and normative meanings of border technologies, and as a site of reparation, where traumatic histories can be negotiated in turn.” This one day symposium attempts to address these and related issues.

For the full programme and registration go here.

Silent Storm

So this is how the season of migrant occupations in Bologna finally ends: in utter silence.

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After the spectacular evictions of ex-TELECOM and Via Solferino over the last two weeks, which -together with Atlandide‘s- was already considered a serious blow to the city’s autonomous movements, occupants have silently started leaving their rooms in via XXI Aprile, in the former dental clinic Beretta -fearing an imminent attack by the police. This means literally hundreds of migrants from Africa (Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia, Ghana, Marocco) and Europe’s new member states are left out in the streets.

In the heath of the moment, the Bologna city council -through the voice of its social councillor, Amelia Frascaroli– promised temporary accommodation for the 280 inhabitants of ex-TELECOM. But the transfer to Galaxy, a temporary outlet that costs the city council over 200.000 euro a year, has already caused rising protest by inhabitants who say it will bring criminality to the neighbourhood. In the midst of this chaotic transition, other migrants have preferred to travel on, testing their chances within the closing web of European asylum quotas. They organise their journey among the so-called transitanti, onward travelling migrants whose movement is tolerated -even facilitated- by some of Europe’s more lenient border police -a movement against which the Bologna city government says it cannot and does not want to agitate.

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Bologna is of course not the only city that has had to deal with evictions over the last year. Similar actions have been taken in Milan, Turin and Rome in particular (some of them are reported on in this extensive blog). Even Churches don’t open their gates as easily any more, as this new report by Fabrizio Gatti reveals. The change of attitude in Bologna is intriguing because it appears to come primarily from the new head of police in town and his refusal to communicate with the city council on presumed security matters. Ignazio Coccia, who has a background in intelligence, special operations and anti-terrorism, already preordained his plans when taking position in April this year. He said Bologna is certainly a “complex city but I like tough challenges.”

When meeting Frascaroli in front of police headquarters last week, she told me “something has been broken.” Yesterday during a longer interview she explained that these broken ties simultaneously involve her relationship with police and Bologna’s social movements, where she herself emerged. Today’s situation in Bologna is exceptional in the sense that the national government and police are trying to show their muscle with respect to a model of negotiation that was to some extent unique, because it tried to implement coercion within a logic of the overall protection of individuals, she said. So in this sense the evictions have brought about a fracture at an institutional level, too. Rather than an open battle between political forces though -besides the attempt to create a grand coalition on the Left during the last few days in another social centre threatened with eviction, LABAS– it appears for now that the major blow has been suffered by the hundreds of migrants who have increasing difficulties getting a place to sleep, eat and make a living. With the winter knocking at the door, their lack of residency will certainly become one of the major problems ahead.