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Europe and the politics of Neo-Obscurantism and violence

Yesterday was a tragic day in Europe. Death and violence have swept the continent in two episodes that might, at first hand, seem unrelated.

In the Belgian city of Liège, a man threw hand grenades and opened fire on the crowd at the city center’s Christmas market, killing four and injuring more than 100 (of which seven are reported to be in serious condition). He then turned the gun to himself and committed suicide. The Guardian reports:

A convicted gun fanatic threw hand grenades and opened fire on a square bustling with Christmas shoppers in the centre of the Belgian city of Liège, killing five people, including himself, and wounding at least 122, some critically.

Hours after failing to show up for police questions about his preoccupation with guns, the 33-year-old unleashed a lunchtime attack on Place Saint Lambert, which was hosting a Christmas market that attracts 1.5 million visitors a year.

Last night, King Albert II and Queen Paola visited Liège, a tough, post-industrial city in the east of the country, which was in a state of shock after the attack.[…]

The gunman was named as Nordine Amrani, a 33-year-old Liègeois who was known to be a “gun freak”, according to the police. He was given a jail term of almost five years after police officers raided his metal workshop three years ago and found a dozen firearms, including an AK-47 machine-gun, and 9,500 gun parts. He was also found guilty of drug dealing after cultivating 2,800 marijuana plants.

Today, police have raided the murderer’s home and found the body of a woman who he had presumably killed prior to the attack. Again, from The Guardian:

Belgian police have found the body of a woman at the home of the gunman who killed four people and injured 122 in an attack in the city of Liège.

Liège prosecutor Daniele Reynders said the body of a woman in her 40s had been discovered during a search of Nordine Amrani’s property.

A few hours after the attack in Liège, in the Italian city of Florence, a man who is described as a “lone gunman with extreme rightwing sympathies” opened fire over a group of African migrants, killing two Senegalese street vendors and wounding a third one. According to reports:

Gianluca Casseri, 50, an accountant, first shot dead two vendors and wounded a third with a .357 Magnum at the crowded Piazza Dalmazia street market on the outskirts of the city on Tuesday morning.

He then fled in a car after threatening to shoot a stall holder who attempted to stop him, reappearing later in the day at the central San Lorenzo market where he fired at two African vendors, wounding both.

Police officers found Casseri back in his car in the car park of the market, where they fired warning shots before he reportedly shot himself dead.[…]

The Italian far-right, anti-immigration organisation Casapound said on Tuesday that Casseri was a “sympathiser” who had frequented one of its centres in Tuscany, holding talks on his book.

Following the attacks in Belgium, a round of speculations started:

Initial fears that a trio of terrorists could be responsible were ruled out by police and prosecutors, as was any speculation that Belgium could be contending with a Norway-copycat killing spree. “It was an isolated act which has sown sorrow in the heart of the city,” said Willy Demeyer, the mayor of Liège, the main city of Belgium’s francophone smaller half, Wallonia.

I am afraid to say that, as comforting as it might be for politicians to claim this was an isolated incident, they are wrong. Both attacks, in Liège and in Florence are neither isolated nor did they happen in a vacuum. Both are borne out of Europe’s increasingly alarming rhetoric of hatred. Both incidents are the result of an ongoing disdain for human life and for the growth of a kind of dehumanizing rhetoric that normalizes acts of violence.

What we are witnessing here is a continent affected by a wave of Neo-Obscurantist values and a political class that is doing little to counteract it. I am not a fan of Friedrich Nietzsche however, he was right when in “Human, all too human”, he said:

“The essential element in the black art of obscurantism is not that it wants to darken individual understanding, but that it wants to blacken our picture of the world, and darken our idea of existence.”

The European Union was supposedly funded on certain values that are no longer upheld and that have given way to alienation and a rule of the financial industry in detriment of people’s quality of life. The Danish Institute for Human Rights, under the title banner of “EUROPE, ENLIGHTENMENT AND RIGHTS” succinctly explains this funding principles:

Europe, democracy and human rights have been linked for many hundreds of years. Both before and after modern political science began in the 16th century and until today. 21st century Europe has institutionalized human rights by setting up fora like the Council of Europe, the EU and the OSCE. The Council of Europe has also created the European Convention on Human Rights and the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, both of which are directly related to UN human rights instruments.

Enlightenment was an 18th century European cultural movement that sought to advance and reform society through knowledge. Contemporary philosophers like Jurgen Habermas have laid down the basis of Enlightenment, its effects and what it meant for European societies. Mostly, Habermas concerned himself with the transformation of the European Public Sphere and the original implications of the values of Enlightenment in European social developments. He mentions that, the European Public Sphere that came to be as a result of Enlightenment was:

it discussed the domain of “common concern”;
its main argument was founded on reason.

In 18th century Europe, the movement that opposed Enlightenment was dubbed “Obscurantism”. Proponents of Obscurantism sought to limit knowledge to the ruling classes and proposed restricting rights only to a few, mostly members of the ruling elite. Those adept at restrictive dissemination of knowledge and rights claimed that this position was for the “greater good” of all society.

Europe, as a utopia, as a unity based on the principles of Enlightenment should abandon all pretension. What we currently have is a continent that elects leaders who promote racial hatred and who actively seek to violate the rights of minorities. A continent that has accepted the rule of financial institutions that create wealth for a few while a vast number of people struggle to make ends meet. A continent that no longer vocally opposes racist violence which, week after week, affects the most vulnerable:

  • Norway: Jessica Kiil, a Congolese mother of three and active participant in local community debate viciously beaten by far right thugs (Norway, while technically not a EU member, is part of the Schengen Agreement)
  • Ireland: Racist attacks on special needs boy on school grounds
  • Greece: Two men and one woman to go on trial charged with attacking a 24-year-old Afghan asylum seeker
  • UK: A new inquiry has found that a wealthy former director of a London City investment fund is giving financial sponsorship to the racist and fascist English Defence League
  • Czech Republic: Two racists try to murder Romani family, victims charged for defending themselves
  • London: woman captured on video attacking a Black young man in a bus.  And two weeks ago, a similar case in a tram.
  • French far right group likens Muslim immigrants to invaders threatening the identity of the French heartland and menacing European civilization. The movement — with a wild pig as its logo — is gaining traction through its blend of Islam-bashing and romanticizing of French rural culture.
  • Spain: people who do not “look Spanish” can be stopped by police as often as four times a day.

And these are just a few of the incidents I have read this week. This is the widespread, unaddressed violence that certain groups of people have to endure on a daily basis. Nothing is left of the funding values of inclusivity and egalitarianism that preceded the idea of a united Europe. Instead, we are witnessing a form of Neo-Obscurantism with a complacent ruling class that remains moot for fear of losing votes. This ruling class, either purposefully ignoring this hatred or inciting it through inflammatory speech.

These days, media is full of stories about “saving the European Union” and rescuing those nations in financial distress. Talks of “unity” and “shared values” abound. As a European resident, moreover, a very angry European resident that is all too aware of the violence the member States of the EU allow to happen on their watch, I must ask: which Europe is worth saving? The Europe of the values of inclusion or this Europe some of us suffer on a daily basis? The Europe of violence, exclusion and racism? Because the incidents in Liège and Florence, together with the endless list of non deadly aggressions that happen on a daily basis are part of this continent, even though many would prefer to remain silent about them or claim that they are “isolated”. If anyone needs to be disavowed of the notion of “isolated” incidents, all they need is read the list above. Sadly, these are the values that Europe currently stands for.


  1. Biscia wrote:

    “Both attacks, in Liège and in Florence are neither isolated nor did they happen in a vacuum.”

    This is perhaps especially noticeable in Italy because in Turin, on Saturday, a Roma camp was attacked and burned by a mob after a teenage girl falsely claimed that she’d been raped by two Roma men (she was afraid her parents would find out she was sexually active because they forced her to undergo periodic gynecological exams to make sure she was “saving herself for marriage”, as she’d promised).

    The next day, the first four people to call in on a decidedly leftist radio talk show I was listening to managed to blame the Roma in one way or another. I was a little surprised, given the context, but not overly so: I’ve simply heard too many shockingly racist remarks from unexpected quarters where Roma and Sinti are concerned. But after the shootings in Florence I really thought that outside of Neo-Fascist forums, no one would be making vile comments, since white Italians who want to prove they’re not racist will generally cite the Senegalese as being a “good”, “likeable”, “hardworking” immigrant community. Plus, by some miracle no one was physically hurt in Turin, whereas in Florence two people were murdered and three seriously injured, one of whom may not make it.

    But then I made the mistake of reading comments from citizens on the Facebook wall posts by Matteo Renzi, mayor of Florence. The same hideous stuff: “of course I don’t condone violence, but Italians are fed up,” “no one declared a day of mourning for that Italian worker killed on the job the other day,” “we’re not racist, we’re just tired of seeing foreigners get all the jobs and housing when Italians are hurting,” etc., etc., etc. No, these things don’t happen in a vacuum, and much as I hate Casa Pound, they’re not the ones I blame for preparing the terrain: the same center-left politicians who have enthusiastically aped the right in working to criminalize and dehumanize vulnerable communities in the public imagination are now pulling sad faces and condemning racism, but give it a week and they’ll be back to bulldozing Roma camps, rounding up Senegalese vendors, and using the local press to beat the drum of “legality”.

    I think racism in Italy will only get worse as the political and economic crisis deepens. It might help if they introduced jus soli, as Napolitano has been urging, and might help even more if documented immigrants were allowed to vote in local elections. But even so, to paraphrase “The Fixer”, it’s hard to foresee any future in the future.

    Wednesday, December 14, 2011 at 12:28 pm | Permalink
  2. @Biscia, Eli, I just came across this piece at the International Financial Times that does a great job at explaining the ideological links of all these right wing fanatics across Europe. It’s well worth the read.

    Wednesday, December 14, 2011 at 3:36 pm | Permalink
  3. Eli wrote:

    Thank you for this. The first article I read about Casseri’s attack on the Senegalese community in Florence yesterday, in national daily Corriere della sera, contained the sentence (translation mine): “It’s not clear what drove Casseri to arm himself: perhaps racial hatred, perhaps-but there is no confirmation by investigators on this point-a disagreement with a co-national of one of his victims.”

    Yes, *perhaps* a man who targeted only Senegalese men, killing two and wounding three others, *may* have been motivated by racial hatred, but we would hate to jump to conclusions. It’s also entirely possible that a disagreement with a Senegalese person drove him to indiscriminately kill other members of that community–and what could be racist about that?

    Mere hours after the attacks, and we’re already seeing the groundwork laid for the inevitable victim blaming. Next week we’ll have editorials which pay lip service to condemning the murders, while noting that migrants are criminals/stealing Italian jobs/destroying Italian culture and identity. Casseri’s actions have already been described as “madness,” I fear at the end of the day he will be cast as someone who responded inappropriately to “legitimate” dangers presented by Italy’s minority populations.

    Wednesday, December 14, 2011 at 2:35 pm | Permalink
  4. Cluisanna wrote:

    In Germany it’s the same. Sure, everybody is condemning the streak of murders on second-generation immigrants that only gained publicity after the murderers committed suicide, although they had killed ten people over the last decade, but neo-nazis are more visible than ever – from the famous politician who first cut programs that helped children of immigrants learn better German and then claimed that there was a correlation between skin colour and IQ; over the boulevard press that called said streak of murders “kebab murders” because most of the victims were of Turkish origin; to the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution that has so thoroughly infiltrated the largest far-right party that this party could not be outlawed – racist ideas are en vouge.

    Wednesday, December 14, 2011 at 3:27 pm | Permalink
  5. Caitiecat wrote:

    Appalling. Thanks for the post, the information about Obscurantism is immensely useful to me in something I’m working on right now, and I think it’s good to spread the news outside Europe.

    Wednesday, December 14, 2011 at 3:32 pm | Permalink
  6. ShaunCG wrote:

    An excellent post, thanks very much. I’ll pass the link around and do what I can to get it more widely read.

    Thursday, December 15, 2011 at 9:16 am | Permalink
  7. lizzie wrote:

    it’s also ironic in a deeply upsetting way that some of these neo-obscurantist co-opt europe’s enlightenment legacy and history as proof of some kind of european superiority in order to promote a racist agenda that directly undermines and contradicts that legacy. what a cluster%*&$

    Thursday, December 15, 2011 at 6:44 pm | Permalink
  8. lizzie wrote:

    **just to clarify, i’m referring to the idealized enlightenment legacy embodied in, say, international human rights treaties, rather than necessarily what people were saying during the actual enlightenment (which included some seriously nasty pseudo-scientific race theory)

    Thursday, December 15, 2011 at 6:46 pm | Permalink
  9. kare wrote:

    I guess this article is an attempt to turn the rhetoric of racists who claim to be defending enlightened Europe against the obscuantism of Islam But tbf it is a fact, racism is certainly a product of the enlightenment. I would say racism is an essential enlightenment value. it came from colonialism and their mania for categorising eveything in ‘natural’ ‘scientific’ categories. My people were categorised as ‘native fauna’ by the enlightened Europeans and sadly destined for extinction by science. In fact racism is one of the foundations of Europe, the main thing different European countries have in common is skin colour. In fact the quote from The Danish Institute for Human Rights is an example, was Europe really associated with human rights in the C16?? Really, Europe? Ok to be fair they didn’t categorise their victims as fully human.. but Europens also hold up the enlightenment as proof of ther own superiority as if they were the first people in the world to invent science or secularism, in reality these things were invented 1000s of years ago by the victims of enlightened European colonialism.

    So I agree this is a problem but I don’t think adopting “the enlightenment” rhetoric is the solution.

    Thursday, December 15, 2011 at 9:17 pm | Permalink
  10. @Kare, my point is that in paper, the EU has erased all of these very problematic aspects and, instead, now both media and governing bodies, pretend that it is all about inclusion and “equal opportunities”, etc. In practice, none of this is true. As a matter of fact, it is the opposite of inclusion and equality. Meanwhile, people die or are seriously injured and all over the continent, media talks about “saving the EU”. What exactly does that mean? (I know, rhetorical question in any case). As it is now, obviously, it means more deaths, more exclusion, etc, while everyone continues parroting this supposed values we are upholding. It’s almost like a parody. If it wasn’t for the all too real consequences for people’s lives, of course.

    Friday, December 16, 2011 at 4:35 am | Permalink
  11. kare wrote:

    The idealized enlightenment legacy is not the only thing embodied in international human rights treaties, the reality of the enightenment is embodied as well. For one thing the glorification of bourgeois rights over human needs which are denied by the same powers who claim authority to uphold rights. The whole system of international law is a legacy of imperialism designed to uphold and benefit enlightened west and punish everybody else. I guess my point is I’m not too keen on reclaiming enlightenment rhetoric, I can’t get over the racist foundations of the very idea of Europeans bringing enlightenment to the world.

    Thursday, December 15, 2011 at 9:33 pm | Permalink
  12. holly wrote:

    Thank you for writing about this. It’s very important to be aware of the real conditions of peoples lives, which always requires looking beyond political rhetoric, and hearing the voices of the oppressed.
    I think that Enlightenment ideas and the liberalism which arose from them have always been explicitly about maintaining ruling class power structures. John Locke’s liberalism, for example, grants individual rights and freedom only to propertied men, with private property being the most sacred right of all. old school Liberalism grants freedom, equality, and the rights to knowledge only to deserving ‘rational individuals’ which of course immediately excludes women, poor people, and anyone who isn’t white. Considering Europe’s appalling colonial history, which liberal ideas helped to justify (disseminating European culture and Reason to ‘the savages’) I think its fair to say that Europe, despite the rhetoric of inclusion and equality, has never been about anything but maintaining and augmenting the power and profit of its white male ruling classes. Liberal ideas about equality even today always serve the dominant: by making people who are unequal in real life (for example, a white male and an immigrant woman) equal under law, liberalism erases the and obscures existing power dynamics, which almost always results in the dominant person retaining their dominance.

    Thursday, December 15, 2011 at 10:52 pm | Permalink
  13. anarres wrote:

    Here in the UK our arse of a Prime Minister just dropped us out of the EU, for reasons that, when you strip away the rhetoric, basically amount to xenophobia and nationalism. That decision is being widely criticized, but mainly because it means the UK will have less of a say in negotiations on trade and monetary policies. It seems like at the moment the real meaning and purpose of the EU is to prevent the euro currency from collapsing, by creating a joint policy of transferring wealth from individuals and governments, to European banks.

    Friday, December 16, 2011 at 11:32 am | Permalink
  14. Linds wrote:

    Wow, Flavia, you’re on fire lately. Thank you for this. It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot, but couldn’t put into words.

    Friday, December 16, 2011 at 9:59 pm | Permalink
  15. kare wrote:

    @Flavia Dzodan: Oh true, sorry, I see what you mean. Definitely it is true the situation is disturbing! I’m not suprised because hypocrisy is the fundamental part of the tradition, it always was a parody from my point of view. I hear ‘the enlightenment’ rhetoric everywhere these days, it always seems sinister to me, like they mean it as a threat. Christopher Hitchens or the burqa bans in some countries are good examples of the enlightenment, the official doctrine of rights and civilization are used by the state against part of the population excluded from the enlightened.

    If this is emerging fascism I don’t know what the solution might be. Samir Amin wrote about the future of Europe but meanwhile the EU better find a better alternative to racist nationalist movements than empty rhetoric!

    Sunday, December 18, 2011 at 4:37 am | Permalink
  16. Kat wrote:

    Flavia, once again thank you. And thanks to the other commenters here who are dissecting Enlightenment values as well. Connecting the dots like this is so important – it’s easy to dismiss everything as an “isolated incident” unless someone puts it in the larger context.

    Sunday, December 18, 2011 at 2:02 pm | Permalink
  17. Douglas wrote:

    The interesting thing is that it was an article from Slate looking at Zwarte Piet that made me realize that it had been some time since I last read Tigerbeatdown. As an American it is impossible for me to not view such a custom through a very particular lens – which is to say, I can’t see what looks to my mind exactly like blackface as anything but. More telling however was not any point in the article, but rather the responses in defense of Zwarte Piet. Any threat to the ‘traditional’ view that the custom is utterly harmless is dismissed or met with ad hominem attacks rather than even taking even the most cursory examination of the custom.

    The far more frightening aspect of such intolerance on a cultural level (than personal attacks on a comment section of an article) is the artist mentioned in the piece who was attacked for wearing a ‘Zwarte Piet is racist’ shirt by the police.

    Monday, December 19, 2011 at 3:35 am | Permalink
  18. Douglas wrote:

    *not for posting* – and I REALLY realized it was too long since I last visited as I worked my way back in the blog, and saw your post about the Foxnewsification and trolling and saw that you had ALREADY made a post about Zwarte Peit. Clearly, Johnny on the Spot with my comments is not me…… Sorry. and cheers.

    Monday, December 19, 2011 at 3:56 am | Permalink