A Tribute to Nasser Zefzafi and the Rif

Officially, Nasser Zefzafi was convicted for separatism; documents of his jailing condemn him for being a terrorist, apparently opposed to Islam and the foundation of the Moroccan state. The protestors in the streets tell a different story. They tell a story of a peaceful protest, led by a man whose primary demand is equality for an oppressed minority confined to the Rif region of northern Morocco.

The following article dwells on the people of the Rif (Riffians) and the recent nomination of Nasser Zefzafi for the European Sakharov Prize. It honours the work of the Sakharov Nasser Workgroup linked to the Hague Peace Projects in lobbying for his nomination, and hopes to spread awareness on the importance of speaking up, especially in current times.

 

When the fisherman Mohcine Fikri was crushed to death by a garbage truck in the Moroccan city of Al-Hoceima while trying to retrieve fish that had been confiscated, the population of the Rif area organized what has come to be known as “Hirak” (“the movement”, in Arabic), the seven-month protests between 2016 and 2017 had long been called for. In the wake of the moment, the leader of the movement, Nasser Zefzafi, raised his voice to the population of Morocco:

“What has happened to Fikri also affects us; if we keep quiet today, it will continue. That is why we must go out to stop this.”

What Zefzafi said has now turned to become essential to his own story, and communities at home as well as abroad are raising their voices to change his fate.

 

What are the issues in the Rif?

For a brief period in history from 1921 to 1926, the Rif exercised sovereignty over its own region – its independence, however, was harshly contested by its neighbouring Morocco as well as the colonial powers France and Spain. Arguably, the problems of the region stem from the conflict that followed: the application of poisonous gas by colonial forces, the remnants of which are by some researchers considered the cause for recurring cancer.

Through its separation from the rest of the country, the Rif is slowly dying out. The somewhat inhabitable nature of the Rif has in the past deterred investments, and hence tourism has focussed majorly on regions such as Casablanca and Marrakesh. As public interest in the Rif decreases, so do state efforts to connect the population to the rest of the country, albeit such connection is urgently needed to provide the population with viable job opportunities, cancer treatment as well as other healthcare facilities and access to state institutions. Currently, even entering or exiting the main city Al-Hoceima involves passing highly militarized checkpoints. Given the Rif is inhabited by native Berbers or Amazigh people, segregation and disparities are justified through ethnic rhetoric.

 

Why are prison sentences being issued against the protestors?

As an economic role model in Northern Africa with a relatively stable political situation, the Moroccan government is under pressure. It is under pressure not just to satisfy demand of economic partners such as the European Union, but also to uphold the image of an Islamic country that does everything to satisfy the needs of its population. Essentially, Morocco is afraid of its population presenting the legitimacy of the government in a bad light – the peaceful nature of the Hirak led by Nasser Zefzafi, however, served as a role model for further movements all around the country. Morocco is facing the same phenomenon that is spreading across the world: while parent generations still favour accepting the world as it is just to get by, youth is increasingly unafraid. To the government, facing the innumerable demands of the people seems an unsurmountable task – therefore, the strategy that has proven viable is framing the protests as a public risk that should not be copied across the country.

Fifty-three activists of the Hirak leaders have been sentenced to prison terms ranging between one and twenty years, with more trials ongoing. As protestors assemble in crowded spaces to voice their frustration, Nasser Zefzafi, as the voice behind Hirak, has appealed his sentence of twenty years, with the prosecution  claiming that taking his case to a higher court level will increase the likelihood of a lighter and more appropriate sentence. The appeal case was bound to launch in September 2018, but has dragged on until November.

 

What will become of Nasser Zefzafi, and what role do the people of Europe play?

In 2017, Kati Piri of the Dutch social democrats (PvdA) rallied to raise awareness for Nasser Zefzafi amidst his arrest and to nominate him for the renowned Sakharov Prize for Human Rights and Freedom of Thought. The Prize is awarded once a year, in the past to nominees such as Nelson Mandela, Denis Mukwege and Kofi Annan. In order to nominate a candidate, at least forty Members of the European Parliament must sign a nomination proposal, following which the nomination will pass through various stages of examination. Unfortunately, this first attempt by Kati Piri failed in its early stages due to little knowledge of Zefzafi’s existence by the most Members of European Parliament. In January 2018, what came to be the Workgroup Sakharov Nasser resumed the task of spreading awareness among Members of the European Parliament to bring him onto the list of nominees, and although the Prize was ultimately awarded to the Ukrainian activist Oleg Sentsov, the nomination itself has already shed light in the darkness.

The nomination is even more valuable in the light of Zefzafi’s appeal trial. As an economic partner of Morocco, the European Union enjoys a significant amount of leverage over the future of Zefzafi and the Rif community. When Moroccans living abroad communicated their outrage over the arrest of Zefzafi to Members of the European Parliament in 2017, the threat of more negative backlash contributed to courts’ decisions to hand out sentences of twenty years at most, when even longer and graver terms could have been possible. Of course, the European Union as an economic institution is neither in a position nor willing to focus all its efforts on Morocco, Zefzafi and the people of the Rif. Nor is it, despite the existence of the Prize, its primary role to engage in the promotion global human rights. In fact, the necessity of keeping Morocco a stable trade partner has led to certain groups of the European Parliament such as the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) and the Liberals (ALDE) viewing Zefzafi’s nomination with a critical eye, warning of the consequences that could arise. However, the success of popular lobby in having Zefzafi listed as a nominee shows that with enough willpower, even sentences abroad can be mitigated – with this knowledge and in the context of the appeals case, the citizens of Europe can not miss the chance to continue rallying, lobbying and working towards the reduction of Zefzafi’s sentence. In the light of tightened security and severe restrictions of liberty in the Rif, the population of the Rif depends on the support.

 

 

Background

The Workgroup Sakharov Nasser is composed of motivated volunteers and is loosely linked with the Hague Peace Projects. Although the Rif is largely shut off from international media, and few researchers or journalists can gain access to the area, the Workgroup through social media and personal contacts has insight into the local chaos. In January 2018, the Workgroup began establishing contacts within the European Parliament and succeeded in gathering enough signatures of Members of Parliament for Nasser Zefzafi to be one of the three finalists for the Sakharov Prize. Apart from lobbying, the Workgroup passes on information about the situation to other members of the Moroccan diaspora community and raises awareness among Dutch society for the cause. For more information on the current protests and a historical perspective, the group recommends the book Popular Hirak in the Rif.

Interview Parvez Part 2: Freedom of Speech in Bangladesh

This is the second part of the interview with Parvez, the coordinator of our Bangladesh project, and organiser of the Freedom Book Fair. Click here for the first part of the interview.

What is the current situation in Bangladesh related to freedom of speech?

The Bangladeshi community blog tradition is in decline for some time now. I would say that the Bangla community blog as we knew it before, is dead now. There are still many Bangla blogging platforms which are well and alive, but they do not have the same kind of priorities on public engagement. So the interactive community nature is lost. Online writers who prefers more public interaction spends more time in the Social Media, especially in Facebook. Most of these bloggers write to their personal audience. However, now there are many other emerging platforms in Bangladesh. They are not exactly blogs. I mean, the original Bangladeshi community blogs were public spheres and many different kinds of people were engaged together. Now there are more specific platforms, like certain bloggers coming together and writing on one single platform and for specific audiences. There is not much engagement between the different groups.  The only form of public debate remaining in the public spheres of Bangladesh are certain discussions. In fact, there is more propaganda than discussion and it is everyone against everyone, because there are radicals in all groups. Even among the free thinkers. I would say the current trend of online engagement provokes more conflicts than solving them.

What is the best that could happen to Bangladesh?

The best that could happen is when the country would go back to a more democratic environment. When this happens democratic values like freedom of expression will get more respect. These two are very related and in my point of view and are necessary to move into a prosperous direction. As well as I think it is important to have space for dialogues for the young people from the different groups where they can discuss freely and solve their problems. I think so, because people of older generations idolizes intolerant politics more than the youth. For example, a leader who is the head of the leading party is hailed for being uncompromising by the older generation, because they consider uncompromising attitude as a political virtue.

What do you like the most about the Netherlands in general terms?

Well, one thing I like that it is also a river delta, similarly to my home country and this country is also very green. I am also from a green country and my hometown Dhaka is also surrounded by rivers.

Is there something you do not like about the Netherlands?

I come from a place, where it rains a lot too but it is too much here.

The European countries, populations and leaders are afraid of Islamic terrorists, for example in The Netherlands, France and Germany. And there are also right wing movements in rise in all these countries. What do you think, how severe is the danger posed by terrorists and right wing movements for the population of Europe?

Islamic terrorism is dangerous obviously and there are some terrorism problems in Europe, but they are not comparable to what is going on in Syria or other Muslim countries, for example. If we talk about the terrorism threat, the western countries are the least endangered. This is proved by numbers and statistics as well. Moreover, the western airplanes are bombing different parts of the world as well. Luckily that kind of atrocity is not happening here. In comparison to the deaths and killings around the world, Europe is a very peaceful place. It is an important topic to worry about, but the western politicians made it look like more intense than it actually is here in Europe. We are living in a world which is considered globalized. It is foolish to think that the war that is raging in the middle east would not affect other parts of the world at all. Especially if the other parts are somehow engaged to these conflicts in the middle east, then it’s very likely. You are not safe even if you don’t have a stake in this war. Think about Bangladesh, we have no oil business in the middle east, Yet I would say we are more affected by this war than European countries, both economically and by the terrorism threat.

Right Wing movements are often accompanied by hate speech and Islamophobic behaviour. With the recent rise of terrorism, many common people are afraid of Muslims and the western right wing groups are feeding their fear and anger. Any comment about this phenomena?

First of all, Radical Islamism is also part of the right wing movements. Islamists are the right wings in the Muslim world. Rather not forget about that. Anyway, The main thing I want to focus in connection with the far right populism in Europe, is that it’s not a new thing here. It was not considered mainstream since the 2nd world war. But it never vanished from Europe. They were simply side-lined by the mainstream politics. Now they are back. If you look at the current world situation, there are many totalitarian, populist, right wing governments coming to power and the movements are getting more and more popular. The whole world is facing it and the whole world is also moving towards a right wing direction. For example, in Europe with the Brexit, Trump in the USA and now western Europe is afraid. So nowadays we have a global crisis, the neo capitalistic global world order is in crisis. And if you look at the history, whenever capitalism is in crisis, right wing politics emerges to mix up capitalism and right wing ideals to divert people’s angers towards imaginary enemies such as ‘jew’, ‘muslim’(which is the new jew in europe), ‘communist’, ‘atheist’, ‘infidel’, ‘crusedar’(a popular enemy invented by the extremist islamists). And they turn the state more powerful, in to a totalitarian machine that fights the crisis of capitalism using hatred and brute force. Right wing populism does not focus on the real problems. Why are people losing jobs? Why is recession? Why are people afraid? How can economic inequality be solved? They tell that minorities are taking their jobs, for example. That is what right wing populism does, it names the wrong reasons and problems. It diverts people´s anger to something else. It also protects the unequal economic structure we have to the benefit of certain people. In Bangladesh, the Islamists also have this kind of populist discourses against other minorities, like Hindus.

I think that the liberal democratic values in politics and the liberal economy are not interdependent. Even if we feel that they are interdependent, they are not. In fact, you can have a brutal regime of medieval proportion with successful capitalistic economy, like Saudi-Arabia. We can see it in the recent development in Bangladesh too. The rise of Islamists and the economic development goes together as well.

Because of the worsening situation of writers and freedom of speech in Bangladesh you organised the Freedom Book Fair. Any news about the next edition?

We have organised two Book Fairs in The Hague, but in 2018 we want to expand it more. We would like to have a book fair for seven days from the 21st February until the 27th February to cover the national mother language day and the death of Avijit Roy at the 26th February 2015. The international mother language day at the 21th February was introduced from the mother language movement in Bangladesh. We just want a bigger international book fair with more publishers of different languages bringing their books to the event. It is important to continue some discussions we started this year, for example on the situation in Turkey. In the future we also want to include more countries in the discussion.

So Avijit Roy is a very important person in connection with the event?

Yes, he is. He was a popular writer, also a popular thinker, who encouraged many young people in Bangladesh. He also encouraged me when I was younger. Also his project ‘Muktomona’ (free thinkers) encouraged many young Bangladeshi people to have a critical mind.

In connection with the book fair I want to ask what can you tell about the Bangladeshi working group of HPP?

It is still in a developed process. We are connecting to more Bangladeshi people. Moreover, the book fair helped to make connections that might lead to a South Asia working group.

To finalize this interview, lets come back to your person. What are your personal future perspectives?

I want to continue and grow as a writer. Also as an activist by being involved in organisations like HPP. I am a political animal. That’s why I like to be engaged in peace building. Politics is not always about being ready to go to war, as some would say. But the opposite, I think. Human are political animals. It’s natural for human to be political, as Aristotle would put it. Politics is a matter of living in a family, in a tribe or a city. It’s about living with others in peace. Peace building and politics are the same thing for me. And that’s why I am with the HPP.

If you want to learn more about Parvez, checkout part 1 of the interview.

Miriam Reinhardt

19.08.2017, Den Haag

 

 

Interview with Parvez Alam – Part 1

Dear Parvez, could you first introduce yourself to the audience?

Photo credit Baki Billah

Photo credit Baki Billah

I am from Bangladesh. I am a writer and activist. In Bangladesh, I have been writing regularly in different blogs, newspapers, magazines and I wrote a few books. Most of them are about history of knowledge and more specifically about the intellectual history of Islam and also the political history of Islam. I have been working with several non-governmental organisations and activist groups in Bangladesh. We had a community library there, where I worked for 9 years. As well I was working with several human right groups focussing on minority rights mostly. I came to the Netherlands during 2015.; I had to flee my country because I was seriously threatened because of my writings, like many other critical thinkers from Bangladesh.

How did you get involved in The Hague Peace Projects?

When I came here I came into a project of the NGO Justice and Peace. A friend of mine worked for the NGO and for HPP at this time and we have spent a lot of time together because she was really interested in Bangladeshi bloggers in exile in Europe. So, I connect her with some Bangladeshi bloggers and together we developed the idea of the book fair for HPP and I was involved for the first time in a HPP project in February 2016 when the first book fair took place. In Bangladesh, there is an annual book fair in February as well, but many writers and publishers can´t be there as now they are in exile. In 2016 there was the chance that Avijit Roy’s (who was murdered a year before in front of the book fair) book so we wanted to do a symbolic book fair in The Hague. It was kind of a protest against the attacks, censorship, book bans and exile of publishers or writers. Another intention was to bring the exile writers of Bangladesh together. And from September 2016 I am working more intensively together with the HPP.

How would you describe the development from the first book fair in 2016 to the second in 2017?

When I look back I can say that the development was enormous. In 2016 we have had a half day of book fair without selling any books. Only couple of publishing house was officially involved, and we just displayed some banned books and also books written by Avijit. We had one panel discussion. It was a start and this year we planned everything for months. The result was a book fair with several publishers being present, from and for different countries like Bangladesh, Somalia, Turkey and Netherlands. Moreover, we had several events, books were sold and it lasted for 4 days.

Did you promote the opening for other countries where writers are banned as well?

Yes, I did. The expansion was one of the first things we decided during the planning process, because the situation in Bangladesh is not unique. It is connected to developments in other countries as well. The rise of censorship and the decline of freedom of expression are similar to many other parts of the world. We thought we should bring more countries, more publishers together and have discussions about freedom of expression. Maybe this can be the foundation concept for future book fairs in The Hague, city of Peace and Justice.

The Interview is continued in Part 2 with some more information about the coming book fair and Parvez´s political opinions.

Parvez was interviewed by Miriam Reinhardt.

Meet journalist Iffet Subasi

Iffet Subasi is 27 years old, Turkish and lives in Rotterdam. She joined us since last november, here’s what you should know about her!

Can you tell us something about your background?

I am born in the Netherlands and study journalism. My parents were born in Turkey but my mother came to the Netherlands for the first time, when she was 4. That was in the 70´s. Later she married my father in Turkey and came back here.

How did you join the HPP?

I have got a Facebook message from Tayfun, the Turkish-Kurdish working group coordinator. He asked me if I wanted to speak on the second Turkish Kurdish dialogue at the 12th November 2016. I participated and told my story in Rotterdam. I was also a speaker during the last working group meeting with a session on the Turkish referendum (watch the live stream).

What are you going to speak about?
As a journalist I follow the debates among the Turkish community as well as in the Dutch context. In these debates, I observe sentiments and how people treat each other. Because of polarization, people do not listen to other speakers and opinions very often.

What do you think about the Turkish Kurdish Dialogue in general?

It is a really good initiative because every participant can get a whole picture of the other side. It is not like medias, that often spread a negative, incomplete image of ‘the other’. I think it is very important to facilitate and promote exchange and dialogue because people live more and more in their own bubble.

What is your opinion about emancipation and the role of women in Turkey?

I see myself as liberal because I live individually. The women in Turkey are going to school, they study, work, even in politics or become teachers so I think Turkey is leading on this issue among Islamic countries. The government really enforces emancipation.

Do you have an important message to spread?

As already mentioned: We have to keep investing in dialogue. That is why I am joining the events of The Hague Peace Projects!

 

Interview with Varduhi Balyan

This interview was made after the panel discussion “Freedom of Expression in Turkey. Challenges for dialogue & peace” during the Freedom Book Fair 2017.

Varduhi Balyan is a writer for Agos bilingual weekly newspaper based in Istanbul. She is also a MA candidate at the Instanbul Bilgi University in the department of Civil Society Studies. She writes about many topics including human rights, freedom of speech, democracy, civil society, Armenian-Turkish reconciliation and conflict regions. (Speaker description of the program booklet of the Freedom Book Fair 2017)

Could you tell us a little more about your background and your family?

I was born in Armenia and grew up there. At the end of 2013 I moved to Turkey. My family is from Muş, that is a part of Turkey today. They had to leave the region before the Armenian Genocide because of the political pressure and went to Shamkhor, which is part of Azerbaijan today. In the end of 1980’s they had to migrate to nowadays Armenia because of the tensions. Therefore, my family has a kind of migration history. This might be the historical background of how I am connected to Turkey and the reason I am involved in the dialogue process between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Is it the reason to work for the Armenian newspaper “Agos”?

No and to be honest it is not even about the newspaper being an Armenian newspaper. But I like the line it is following and the work it does. It is not a traditional newspaper. I like its views and I share them mostly.

Actually, do you study and write a Master thesis?

Yes, that is right. I am doing my masters, currently working on my thesis on the civil society involvement in Turkey-Armenia reconciliation process.

How did you get involved in the Freedom Book Fair?

I met Tayfun and Bedel in Switzerland on a conference about peace and justice. Then they invited me to be part of this project and share my experiences for which I am very happy. 

What does the event Freedom Book Fair and the panel discussion mean to you?

You do not have a lot of opportunities to speak about peace so every time there is a space with people who work on peace and a space where you can share your thoughts and ideas, you should be happy to be part of it. As, unfortunately, in our days there are not many platforms to speak about peace. That is why it is really important for me to be here.

During the panel discussion, you have mentioned that it is important to create space of dialogue and peace. Which kind of methods would you use to achieve this?

First of all, we should change the language we use. We need to clean up the language of hate speech. The role of media in this is big. It can create peace atmosphere by simply using dialogue language, changing the language of hate. We need to bring people together and they need to have more personal contacts. That is the thing that really works. It is not the fastest way to resolve a conflict but it does work. I believe person to person contact is really important for peace building.

What are your future perspectives?

I never set up clear plans and just go with the flow mostly and then I decide what I want to do. I hope to continue working on these topics either in academia or journalism, or both.

What gives hope to you?

All events like this one by the Hague peace project and the idea that there are others who struggle for the same values, for peace.

What is your message for the world?

Even if we do not agree in the political views, we should leave space for others to speak out and to build a space for dialogue.

Interview: Miriam Reinhardt