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The Roma: Someone with a Toothache

15 Oct 2010

■ Mohammadbagher Forough

‘… the great social nomad, who prowls on the confines of a docile frightened order.’ (Foucault)

France has recently been slammed for controversially expelling the Roma. The Roma are nomadic ethnic groups, rooting back to South Asia, who are now dispersed around Europe and the rest of the world. They have faced horrific atrocities in their history. In WWII, they were, along with the Jews, the main targets of the Nazi extermination policies. This fact has to do mainly with their nomadic way of life. They have always been deemed an instance of ‘the Other’. In this piece, I will try to address the question of the Roma in Europe with a focus on France, with some dispersed philosophical inroads into the more general question of ‘the Other’.

‘I think I’ve found a concept of the Other,’ says Gilles Deleuze, the French philosopher, ‘by defining it as neither an object nor a subject but the expression of a possible world. Someone with a toothache, and a Japanese man walking in the road, express possible worlds.’ The Roma, the nomads, remain open to all such worlds; whereas, we, the sedentary, the citizens, have become light years removed from such new forms of expression and space of possibilities, so much so, in fact, that not only do “We” find the Other(s), the Roma, the non-“We” alien to our state of being but oftentimes the very menace to it, hence, the desire to punish them. “We” see them as “criminals” (mind Sarkozy’s “war on crime”), the cause of our downturns, economic and otherwise (mind the rhetoric in Italy and the U.S. against “immigrant workers” and Wilders on Immigrants destroying “the Dutch culture” or Thilo Sarrazin on immigrants destroying “the German culture”). “We” expel them; and all of us (right, center, left) are complicit in this crime: the right for having done it, the majority of the left for neither stopping it nor even post facto protesting against it, and the center for being, as is its custom, cold and confused spectators.

As for the recent French case with the Roma, there are some questions that pop up right away in one’s mind: Why the Roma? Why in France? Why now? As a matter of fact, the Roma have been consistently ousted from France. Last year alone, 10,000 of them were sent back “home” (whatever ‘home’ means to a nomad!). It is unfortunately old and marginalized news. But this time it was a conscious political decision made by the Sarkozy administration to accelerate the pace and incite ubiquitous media hype around it. He wants to ingratiate himself with the populist xenophobic trend that is rampant in the air in France, and generally in Europe nowadays. Viviane Redding, the head of European Commission, called it an ‘outrage’ which is ‘unprecedented in Europe since WWII’. But that is obviously not true; in point of fact, there are too many precedents in Europe only from recent years (see below). As I said before, France has been doing this for years. The Roma are just the latest scapegoats in a series of farcical propaganda scenarios that Sarkozy‘s administration has resorted to to detract attention from its real problems: Sarkozy’s all-time record-low popularity, the wide-ranging opposition to the austerity measures his administration is trying to implement (such as raising the retirement age), the nationwide demonstrations and strikes that are going on these days in France, the recent financial scandals that his party has been involved in, the economic stagnation, etc.

The Roma are just the latest scapegoats in a series of farcical propaganda of Sarkozy‘s administration

But how long, if at all, such strategies can keep on hiding the obvious? Won’t they backfire? I would argue that this policy has indeed redounded to Sarkozy’s discredit. Many European heads of state and top officials reprimanded it (although most of their states quietly do the same with the Roma). It was the first time in the history of EU that a high-ranking European commissioner, such as Viviane Redding, lambasted France, one of the major founders of the EU, in such harsh terms. The most important European ally of France, Germany, condemned Sarkozy, when he, under severe criticism and in order to create some space to breathe in, said at a press conference that ‘Madame Merkel indicated to me her desire to proceed with the evacuation of camps in Germany.’ Germany categorically denied the existence of such camps, but did not obviously mention that this year they had put into effect a plan to oust 14,000 Roma and some other ethnic minorities from Germany, and send them back to Kosovo. The socialist opposition in France went amuck and hoped to gain some political ground from this story. Even some of Sarkozy’s long-time allies and fellow party members voiced discord and condemned the policy. These strategies are simply too superficial, not to mention outrageous, to hide what is happening on the ground in France. There are some surveys according to Spiegel which point to the problematic times Sarkozy is facing: two-thirds of the French population are determined that Sarkozy should not stay in the Elysee Palace for a second term. 55% of the French population, again according to Spiegel, want the center-left Socialist Party back in the saddle again.

But unfortunately this is not limited to France alone. Germany, as was mentioned above, is sending the Roma back to Kosovo where they risk facing severe persecution and discrimination. Berlusconi cracked down on the Roma in 2008. Belgium was found guilty of violating key provisions of the European Convention of Human Rights when it collectively expelled the Roma in 1999. Finland has already removed the Roma camps. Sweden deported the Roma and was accused of discrimination by Thomas Hammarberg, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights. Denmark had a more severe scenario with the collective deportation of the “criminal Roma,” as some top Danish officials used the expression (mind the similarity in the choice of words to Sarkozy’s “war on crime”). In Hungary and Romania, discriminating against and attacking the Roma appear to be old news. Discrimination in the Czech educational system against Roma children is widespread: ‘Romani children are regularly segregated,’ according to Amnesty International, ‘in schools and classes as pupils with “mild mental disabilities”, where they receive an inferior education based on a limited curriculum’. And so forth and so on, with some other European countries.

The discrimination against the Roma should be addressed with immediate urgency

The discrimination against the Roma and such-like minorities is certainly a serious European human rights problem, and one that should be addressed with immediate urgency. And this is not only at the governmental level. People should wake up too. The very fact that there have been so few voices raised in opposition (and even those voices are nowhere near consistent) to the incessant discrimination against the Roma in Europe is yet another proof to the sad fact that Europe is experiencing yet once more a strong tide of xenophobia. The epidemic rise of far-right populist political parties in Europe (e.g., The Netherlands, Belgium, France, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Hungary, Italy, England,…) which are glidingly surfing this xenophobic tide is only explicable, and indeed possible¬, at a time when such outrageous acts go almost unnoticed.

Our “We-ness” and “one-ness” are founded on a negativity: ‘I am whatever you are not;’ ‘I am French’ [a sedentary citizen with very healthy teeth, etc.], ergo, the Roma [who are homeless and who probably have toothaches] are to be expelled. Frenchness, Dutchness, or whateverness is this and that; whoever does not fall in the procrustean strata between this and that, is the Alien, the Enemy, the Punishable! In fact, with very few sparse and sporadic exceptions, the overwhelming majority of Western thought and philosophy (and more intensely so after the Enlightenment era) has been formed on and informed by the myths of ‘order’, ‘stability’, ‘eternity’, ‘reason’, etc. Whatever does not conform to the rigid requirements of these congealed mythological constructs is deemed ‘insane,’ ‘instable’, ‘transient’, ‘deviant’, etc. It follows, those with the latter attributes are to be expelled or scapegoated for not being ‘Us’, hence, the phenomena of ‘nationalism’, ‘esprit de corps,’ ‘racism’, ‘Apartheid,’ ‘Lebensraum,’ etc. which account for myriad horrendous crimes in human history.

We do need to wake up and remain open to other beings (human and otherwise) and new possibilities of becoming.

 
Tehran Review
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