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Böhmermann affair: 'unsuitable foreigners' and 'noble ideas'

Jan Böhmermann

Shortly after the Böhmermann affair broke out in March 2016, the standard clichés once again reemerged in the Western media, with many authors stressing the contrast between enlightened Europeans with the sense for arts and freedoms, and Oriental despots with the medieval mindset incapable of understanding such values. This is only partially true, since the difference really exists, as well as cultural misunderstanding from the former side. Regarding Böhmermann's poem itself, one needs to be a real expert to recognize that its content, beside including a Van Gogh's slur inspired by the Judensau tradition and the Pahlavist forgeries, also contained the medieval Christian stereotypes of Asian hypersexuality, the outdated Orientalist stereotypes about Middle Eastern misogyny, the historical inaccuracies about child marriages promoted by Englishman David Samuel Margoliouth, and the PKK propaganda of victimhood. Basically, it's a compilation of the various distasteful slurs and prejudices that have been used over centuries, and they have no equivalents in Occidentalist stereotypes about the West. That's where the real contrast lies.

These differences may explain to us why there is often misunderstanding and objections to the 'freedom of expression' which involves harsh ethnic slurs and allegations. Without any doubt, the Jews during the Middle Ages also could not understand why they were the target of such a crude Judensau representations, typical only in Europe. One may freely say that, in a given historical context, they weren't 'theologically suitable' to understand it. If some of them attempted to destroy such sculptures, it would be seen as a multiple crime: barbaric destruction of art, desecration of place of worship, and undermining its holy message against moral corruption. Someone could probably go so far to call offender a 'pig,' arguing that he destroyed exactly what represents him, to hide his exposed nature. Such argument today appears every time when some 'terrorist' overreact against those who labeled his ethnic or religious group as 'terrorist.'

However, we should not blame the majority of medieval Europeans, ancestors of contemporary free speech activists, because their 'noble ideas' were in line with the then-existing laws, norms and values. It took around 775 years, since the first known 'Jewish pig' motif had been carved on the Cathedral of St. Peter and Paul in Brandenburg an der Havel, until in 2008 Germany started to persecute all types of Judensau-related insults under Article 185 of the Criminal Code. The same offences have been criminalized in Austria under Article 115, and in Switzerland under Article 261 of their respective Criminal Codes. It also took 426 years, since a Judensau bas-relief had been made on the wall of a pharmacy in Kelheim, until 1945 when it was demolished as a result of awareness of antisemitic effects. In the meanwhile, efforts to remove some of the remaining sculptures created an ethical dilemma, as some favor preservation of the artistic heritage. The Judensau artwork in Bayreuth has been removed in 2004 and replaced with a memorial plaque, but those in Bad Wimpfen, Cologne, Lutherstadt Wittenberg and Nuremberg have been restored and preserved.

Another ethical dilemma revolves around the death and legacy of Theo van Gogh. The Dutch society widely celebrate him as a free speech martyr, while numerous scholars, including Anna Korteweg, Raymond Taras and Evelien Gans, have pointed out that his work had a significant impact on spreading xenophobic attitudes. His demagogy about 'Muslim misogyny' has influenced radical right-wing populist parties that become part of mainstream politics, his mythologies of a 'Jewish-Muslim conspiracy against the West' became a popular subject on the Neo-Nazi websites and forums, and his Holocaust jokes have inspired football hooligans to chant similar antisemitic slogans. In 2005 the Dutch word 'geitenneuker,' as a racist slur for Moroccans or Muslims, has been included in the 14th edition of "Van Dale," the leading dictionary of the Dutch language. Two years later it also appeared in Marc De Coster's "Groot Scheldwoordenboek," which contains a similar description and credits Van Gogh for its popularization. Still, Dutch politicians are moving in opposite direction, they announced to abolish the punishment for insulting foreign leaders, as a reaction to the Böhmermann affair.

Many free speech advocates tend to hide Van Gogh's racist past, and above-mentioned facts are largely absent (in other words: censored) in biographies that appeared in the aftermath of his death. In fact, it's the hagiographical material compiled for the purpose of strengthening modern 'noble ideas,' i.e. the Western myths of moral superiority and bastion of freedom. By condemning Van Gogh, we should not get trapped in a false dilemma 'Van Gogh vs. Bouyeri,' it by no means implies support for the latter. Murder is never justified, and Van Gogh himself didn't murder anyone. Nevertheless, neither did Goebbels, but both hate preachers influenced millions of people and caused far-reaching consequences. The irony of contemporary unlimited liberties, encompassing both free speech and academic freedom, is that one tweet with a racist slur has a stronger societal impact then a thousand peer-reviewed articles addressing racism, 'hidden' in libraries and under online subscriptions.

Interestingly, the murder of Van Gogh was not the first case when young immigrant of Middle Eastern origin assassinated a European gentleman, sparking outrage and protests. It already happened in Paris in November of 1938. A teenage assassin was Herschel Grynszpan, a Jewish refugee from Poland, and his victim was Ernst vom Rath, a German aristocrat and diplomat. The following protests are today known as the 'Kristallnacht.' This soft-hearted German gentleman once expressed regret that the German Jews had to suffer, but argued that the antisemitic laws were necessary to allow the German nation to flourish. He couldn't know what will happen in the next few years, and in his times, these were certainly 'noble ideas.' Once again, a Middle Easterner was not 'racially suitable' to understand them. Scholars today perfectly understand that a Judensau has emerged merely as an artistic expression during the Middle Ages, it gradually evolved into harsh satire in the 19th century, and only a century later the dehumanizing effect was so strong that an average German didn't see much difference between extermination camps and pig slaughterhouses. Times and ideologies are changing, as well as 'unsuitable foreigners,' but only one thing remains constant – the European elitist mentality and the presumption of their 'noble ideas.'

Robert Novak

Robert Novak is a social anthropologist and human rights defender with more than five years of experience in the Open Society Institute (OSF), an organization campaigning for human rights and reconciliation in the former Yugoslavia. His research interests include law and religion, human rights, comparative ethics, and international relations. Born in Osijek, he lives and works in Zagreb.