Dyab Abou Jahjah is an Arab political activist and writer who was active in Europe between 2001 and 2007. He is the founder and former leader of the Arab European League (AEL), a Pan-Arabist movement that supported the interests of Muslim immigrants in Europe. After staying in Lebanon for seven years he is back in Belgium with a new book and a new movement.
Interview by Oriana P.
DAJJ: My name is Dyab Abou Jahjah. I’m a Lebanese-Belgian activist. I mainly work in anti-racist movements but I am also of course interested in other issues such as Third World Issues, international solidarity and so on.
ORP: In 2009, when you were in Lebanon, you started the movement the “People’s Initiative” with people who later became key figures in the Arab Spring. What was that movement about? What were the goals and who did you start it with?
DAJJ: We were a group of people active within the Arab National Movement and in 2008 we started debating if it was the right strategy to stay within the movement or to go and form a different stream. The essential issue was the debate on priorities. Historically, the Arab National Movement was focused on the liberation battle of Palestine, which was a very important battle in the framework of decolonization and still is today, but neglecting the struggle against the Arab regimes. Because it was assumed it would be divisive and consume a lot of energy and we actually need these regimes to liberate Palestine.
In 2008, a group of us started thinking otherwise. We started thinking that maybe we should first take on these regimes and put things in a more constructive dynamic within our own countries. We wanted to give the people more power and liberate the people from oppression of regimes. Only then can we unchain the dynamic that can liberate the land from the colonizer. That was the different approach we started adopting.
In 2009, a group of us thinking this way left the Arab National Movement to start up the People’s Initiative. The People’s Initiative had representatives from several Arab countries: Lebanon, Tunisia, Syria, Egypt, Morocco and a few other countries. Basically, the first declaration and a ten-point program that we had were determining our priority of the struggle against the dictatorships and claiming the power to the people as an opposition to the regimes. Of course when we started working on this platform we were criticized from a lot of angles and by a lot of other groups including the Arab Nationalists but also by the regimes and their political parties and organizations working with them.
When the events started in Tunisia it turned out that one of our main ideologues of the People’s Initiative, Dr. Lamine El Bouazizi, was a family member of Mohamed El Bouazizi, the young man who set himself on fire and unleashed what later became the Tunisian Revolution and by extension the whole Arab Spring. Dr. El Bouazizi organized the first demonstration in Sidi Bouzid. He was there with 200 people and I remember him e-mailing me from day one that this was going to go far. Later on Sidi Bouzid kept rebelling for two weeks before the rest of Tunisia realized that this was more that just a casual uprising against a limited incident.
In Syria, one of our comrades, Deiaa Doghmosh, also organized the first demonstration on the 15th of March (2011) in Damascus. It was in front of the Ministry of Interior Affairs and he was arrested during that demonstration. Three days later Daraa basically exploded on the 18th of March, which was the real beginning of the revolution in Syria.
It’s not that we claim that we unleashed these events but it is a fact that in two countries at least, Tunisia and Syria, people that were involved in the People’s Initiative played a key role in the first days of the revolution. And I believe that political awareness of these people shaped a more politicized uprising in Tunisia and then Tunisia shaped all the rest. That’s the reality. But of course, I think that everybody knew, or at least the people who were active knew, that something was looming in the Arab world. Already in 2006- 2007 we knew that something was coming. We knew that just a small incident would unleash forces of change and we also knew that nothing is guaranteed and that there is a possibility that total chaos will succeed some of these regimes or all of them. So this was also a risk we knew existed but I think all by all, sometimes you have to jump into the unknown because the status quo is unacceptable. Some people might think that that is reckless but I don’t think so. I think it’s a process, a historical process and eventually it will bring a better outcome than what was the case before.
ORP: The Arab Spring was very popular in the West but the Syrian Revolution still isn’t. How come there is so little support for the Syrian Revolution in the West?
DAJJ: First of all, none of the Arab Revolutions were popular in the West if you want to talk about the mainstream. Tunisia was not very popular in the mainstream. I remember the French government saying that they want to send police to help the Ben Ali regime. When Egypt started everybody was worried because of course Mubarak was one of the best friends of the West. I think only when they saw that there was a successful revolution in Tunisia and Egypt and that there is a movement in the rest of the Arab world, they realized that something is happening and I think at that moment the establishment, the governments wanted to recuperate, at least to get on board and they jumped on the occasion in Libya to do that.
ORP: When I said “popular” I meant amongst activists.
DAJJ: If you want to address the activists I think basically the main issue is, from the activists’ point of view, how to assess each regime separate. There wasn’t much discussion on the pro-imperialist nature of Mubarak or Ben Ali but when it came to Gaddafi or Assad I think there is a bigger discussion and a valid discussion as far as I’m concerned on that. That’s the classic divide of the orthodox anti-imperialists line versus the anti-despotism line or the pro-human line, the pro-people’s line. I think this schism has been very dominant in the leftist movement anywhere in the world since the fifties or the sixties. Similar discussions happened during the Spring of Prague and during Tiananmen Square.
To tell you the truth, I think people who are very focused on a macro anti-imperialist line are really losing credit because in reality, we hate imperialism because imperialism kills people and oppresses people and is inhumane. It’s not because we have a theoretical model where we don’t like imperialism because it doesn’t fit into our ideological model. The essence of progressive thinking, of leftist thinking, is humanism. That’s the essence of it. Of course then you can’t endorse a regime that is as oppressive and as murderous as any imperialist power whether you theoretically qualify it as imperialist and part of the capitalist center or not, it doesn’t matter. The essence is the same. It’s an oppressive regime that oppresses human beings. In that sense I think people who are really still operating from that perspective are becoming outdated and they are also wrong.
On the other hand of course we have to be aware that we can support the revolution in Syria and I supported the revolution in Syria from day one, and I still do, but we have to be aware of the fact that Western policy, mainly American policy but also European policy, try to instrumentalize these dynamics for other reasons than the freedom of the people.
I make a difference between a legitimate alert attitude towards the interest of imperialism and on the other hand a very cynical and absurd support of dictatorship and murderous regimes. So I’m with the people and I’m against the regime and I’m against imperialism. I’m also against fascism amongst the people’s ranks because of course when you have a total war and the country becomes chaotic like in Syria, fascism is showing its face and in the case of Syria it’s religious fascism and in other places it can be a different kind of fascism.
They come in the name of nationalism or in the name of religion and they are trying to so called fight-the-fight. They are more performing than democratic powers because they are fanatic and they usually have militarized history so they are the stars of the moment. That’s when people tend to throw away the child with the bath water…”o look, they are fascists”…that’s happening in Ukraine too. They see some fascists who are stealing the show and then suddenly everybody is a fascist and this whole revolution is fascist and all of a sudden Putin is some kind of softy ecological alternative activist. I mean the guy has institutionalized state fascism and nationalism and then because of some crazy skinheads, who are there, who are dangerous and who should be fought and isolated…
I’m more worried about Russian militarism and Russian imperialism in the region, whether it’s in Chechnya or the Ukraine or in Central Asia or Georgia. Russia also has imperialist policy in the Middle East supporting Assad and at the same time it’s contracting with Israel to extract Palestinian gas out of the sea. It’s helping to colonize Palestine and sending its warships to the Middle East not to protect Assad but actually to protect their interest in the Israeli gas field. So this Russia, is this the carrier of some progressive project? Some people still believe this. I mean at the time of the Soviet Union I could understand that there is debate because you could still defend that there’s an ideological project. I mean I didn’t believe there was an ideological project going but you could argue this because at least they were keeping up the appearance. But nowadays there’s no secret about it, it’s just a nationalistic, capitalistic, oligarchic regime and how on earth could you consider that regime more progressive than others? Just because they are opposed to the Americans? I don’t see things that way.
ORP: Since we have big parts of the left supporting regimes like Assad’s or Putin’s, can we still call them left? Because supporting dictators is not exactly a leftist viewpoint or value.
DAJJ: That’s what I think too but I don’t want to claim the authority to define who’s left or who’s not. I will leave that to the assessment of each individual. I just think that such a position is morally indefensible whether you consider yourself left or right or center, this is morally a bankrupt position. I believe that every regime, even democratically elected regimes, even regimes emanating from a revolution, from pure revolution legitimacy,…When you commit crimes you loose that legitimacy. Crimes make you loose legitimacy. I don’t believe mistakes of governments make you loose legitimacy if you have a democratic legitimacy. For example the regime of the Muslim Brotherhood or president Mursi of Egypt did not have a good policy, you know he had a bad policy but as far as I’m concerned he did not commit crimes there. So I don’t believe he lost his legitimacy so I don’t believe there was a revolution against him, I believe there was a military coup against him. So they were bad and I was hoping that if they would keep on having bad policy then they would be crushed in the coming election like it should be. Bad policy gets punished at the ballots. But crimes make you loose your legitimacy and crimes, especially shooting and killing people, …you cannot punish with elections that are non-existent or a farce…
You know, Syrian people tried for six months to demonstrate peacefully and really tried to have a civil answer to military dictatorship and to oppression but this did not work and eventually the people were forced into a militarized conflict and we know that’s what the regime wanted but at a certain moment you just cannot avoid it. You know that it’s not the wisest thing to do to but when there’s blood on the streets people are not going to act 100% strategically. This is the reality, that’s why whatever happened afterwards is the responsibility of that regime. Not because now there’s a fascist enemy dominating the scene that you can say that that regime is all of a sudden a good regime. Whatever happened after the Syrian Revolution started, which was a peaceful revolution, is the responsibility of the party that militarized this by using military weapons or military power against it and that is the regime.
ORP: A lot of young people in Belgium are going off to fight in Syria but then they go and fight with the extremists. Are these reports correct or is this sensationalism and if they are correct then why do they choose to go fight with extremists like ISIS rather than with more moderate forces like the Free Syrian Army?
DAJJ: I think most of these reports are correct. There’s a group of European youth, not a lot, the estimation is 2,000 people from all over Europe, who went to Syria to fight. The fact that they mainly joined ISIS or Al-Nusra, which is Al-Qaeda, is due to ideological reasons. They usually are indoctrinated by ideology here before leaving and then they go join these organizations. Also these organizations have the most field credibility in the sense that they are the most efficient, they have the most sophisticated communication strategies while nobody really would know where to start if they want to join the Free Syrian Army for starters.
Second, the Free Syrian Army is not open to foreign volunteers. It’s not encouraging that, except for some Islamist groups within its ranks or linked to it that are also kind of double in the sense that they also adhere to Salafi ideology and so on. It’s a complicated thing, there’s not a lot of clarity in Syria as to the brigades that are there and so on but I think anyway it is obvious that people who are already Salafists here and ideological radicalized here will go join the most radical groups there. That’s often the case.
And on the other hand, I think it also reflects the fact that the FSA has a problem. It has a problem on the level of leadership and on the level of communication and cannot really attract and does not want to attract that. It is resisting against interference of foreign fighters in Syria whether on the side of the regime or on the side of ISIS and these kinds of organizations.
ORP: How does the Belgian government handle the situation?
DAJJ: I don’t think they are doing much. The thing is they are trying to handle it on a micro-level. They try to have a list of youth in every municipality that are under the influence of such ideologies and so on. But I don’t think this is where the Belgian government is going wrong. I think the Belgian government is going wrong on a different level, on a more structural level, where it is actually failing to…because you know, one of the motivations of this youth, apart from ideological motivations, is the fact that they feel humiliated here. They feel marginalized and such a move is for them a symbol of rebellion against that humiliation. They want to retrieve their pride, which they consider as a goal in life.
I think where the government is failing is by keeping this exclusion and this marginalization and discrimination mechanism in place. They are creating some sort of vacuum, which these extremist groups can tap into and recruit people who are desperate because of poverty and discrimination. I believe if there were better policies on that level there would be fewer people falling victim to extremist thinking. I think there is a link between poverty and discrimination and humiliation on one hand and some people belonging to groups that are marginalized making wrong choices on the other hand.
ORP: And this connects to the book you wrote called “ The City Belongs to Us”. What was your motivation for writing this book and who did you write it for? What was your target audience?
DAJJ: I don’t think I wrote that book for a particular audience. I think I wrote it for all citizens because this is the message that I want to pass to everybody, mainly that we have a problem together. Not only that we have a problem with each other but that we are all in the same boat and it is sinking and if it does sink, we will sink all together.
The problem is the fact that we now have what you could call super diverse cities in Europe. We have cities with people from all over the world. This is in the way of the boomerang of colonialism. It’s in the way of all the policies that Europe has been conducting for centuries now. Europe was everywhere in the world and now the whole world is in Europe.
On the one hand, for a lot of Europeans this is a shock and they are feeling estranged in their own country. That’s how they are feeling and that’s how they are experiencing it. On the other hand, I believe this is mainly an opportunity for Europe to position itself in a different way on the world scale but also in terms of solving some issues that are imminent like the aging issue in Europe and the lack of innovation right now economically.
Europe is doing really bad on all levels. In comparison to the US or China, Europe is really in trouble and I believe that this diversity that we have now is the opportunity to come with a new story. That I think is the key word. We need a new story that is able to connect people, which is a myth of course because all connection stories are myths, but I believe we do need myths and we do need stories. It’s constructive. But that story should be a new kind of story. In a way it’s a decolonizing story because it’s linked to diversity.
There was an anti-colonization struggle in the Third World. It got decolonized but Europe never got decolonized. Europe is still colonial in its way of thinking and it is applying that colonialism internally on its own population but also on non-native citizens. I believe these dynamics will decolonize Europe and if Europe really gets decolonized then it can have a different kind of role on this planet because now all Europe does is talk about its mission of civilization but that is still colonial discourse. It’s a discourse of the White Man’s Burden. They give it a different flavor and a different package but it’s the same essence. I believe these changes and what I am actually pleading for in my book is to decolonize the story. To make a new anti-colonial Europe that has a different role and that is inclusive.
Therefore we also need new identities. We cannot function with current identities we have now. The identity stories that people are telling each other are also old and outdated, from the 19th century and beyond. Like for example the resurgence of nationalism and Flanders in Belgium, or in the Netherlands. These are old stories, these are dying stories you know and when things die they tend to be heavy just before becoming lifeless. I think what we are witnessing now, like the resurgence of nationalism here and there, are these moments before death. But the death of these stories doesn’t mean the death of Europe. It means the birth of a new Europe and a much more inclusive, much more progressive Europe.
Of course that’s a bit Utopic and in my book I am also depicting a different picture and I am saying it could also go in a different direction. The direction of ethnic conflict, of deterioration, of the dismantling of everything the European working class has struggled for, like the welfare state, the social rights….
This can also go down the drain if people don’t find the right balance. If people don’t choose to struggle together for something new I believe we are all going to sink. Change is coming and it’s going to happen whether we like it or not. It’s actually happening already. The question is, how are we going to deal with it? Are we going to deal with it in a way that is very defensive and very negative, which will lead us to a conflict, a social-ethnic conflict? And that conflict will be destructive. Or are we going to deal with it in a way that is daring and that is thinking out of the box and positive, optimistic and create something new?
ORP: Racism is obviously a big subject in the book but what’s the deal with this reverse racism people are talking about?
DAJJ: Reverse racism is what people see as racism when victims of racism express racist communication or prejudice against what they conceive as their oppressor. For example when black people use racist stereotypes against white people or when women use sexist stereotypes against men.
First of all there’s an essential problem with what people consider to be reverse racism because I believe discrimination is part of a power game. It’s part of a power structure. I don’t think you can separate the reaction of people towards each other from the positioning of people with each other and the power structure of the balanced power. You cannot say women are oppressing men just because a woman reacts negatively to men or generalizes men because men have more power than women and in that relationship a woman cannot really discriminate men. You can find an individual case where there is a woman who rejects a man from employment and takes a woman instead. I mean that might happen. But that is still not something that breaks the rule and the rule is that women are marginalized by men so you cannot talk about reverse sexism there. You can call it something else, it can be stereotyping or negative communication but it’s not the same.
The same goes for racism. You can have hatred from the oppressed to the oppressor but that is kind of a normal reaction. It’s not always the most constructive but it’s human. I give an example, during WWII in Europe and in the US nobody spoke about Nazis. Maybe sometimes they did but overall they were talking about the Germans. When people in France were bombed they were saying: “well, we are bombed by the Germans. The bloody Germans did this, the Germans did that”. Nobody was really objecting to this and saying oh, you shouldn’t be saying the Germans, you should only say the Nazis because some Germans are against the Nazis so ..Nazis hijacked Germany blablabla…
Of course we all know this is true but you cannot blame somebody who is being bombed for saying the Germans because that’s what these bombers are too, they are also Germans.
Nowadays it seems that people are very keen that that should be avoided. I understand that we should communicate in a more positive way if you are an intellectual or you are an activist or you hold a political office. In these cases I don’t think you should indulge yourself in this kind of communication and generalize your enemy. I give another example, people in Palestine when they are bombed by the Israeli army they usually call them the Jews. “The Jews bombed us”. Why? Because they are Jews and they are claiming that and they are affirming that. They are claiming that Israel is a Jewish state and that it should be exclusively a Jewish state, so it is not really weird of the Palestinians to call them the Jews right? When the Palestinians that are being bombed say “ oh the bloody Jews”, this is not anti-semitism. It is just like saying the bloody Germans or these macho men or racist white people. It’s this kind of generalization that oppressed people usually make and I believe the oppressed people have the right to make. But if you are an intellectual Palestinian or an intellectual black activist and you use that same terminology in an ideological structural way then it becomes problematic. Or if you say by nature a man will always oppress a woman. That is also problematic. Or you say by nature a Jew will always kill a Palestinian or by nature a German will always kill a French person and so on. That’s problematic.
So I believe we always have to make a difference between how people react to oppression and the anger they express and the generalizations they make, which is their right, whether they are black or women or Palestinians and so on. And on the other hand, how intellectuals communicate and how activists communicate and people who are more politicized communicate. They should be more careful in their communication.
ORP: In your book you talk about a leftist form of racism or a more docile form of racism. Can you elaborate on that?
DAJJ: Sure. Racism is not just a right wing ideology. Racism is an ideology across the board. For example, here in Belgium in the framework of what they call “the integration debate” or “the integration policy”, which is the policy that was prescribed in order to so called “include” the non-native citizens or the descendants of immigrants. However, ultimately it is a policy that is actually aiming at assimilation and aiming at eliminating diversity and in reality is managing it.
This is the same objective as the far right. The far right also wants to get rid if diversity but the far right uses different means. The far right says: “ok, let’s kick them out”. Leftist racists will say: “no, no, we’re human, we’re civilized, we don’t kick people out. Let’s just assimilate them so that they are no longer different from us. They will exactly think like us, act like us, believe like us, dress like us and so on. The problem with this is that you also problematize diversity and why do you do that? Because you consider your way of life superior and that is a form of racism as well. And that kind of racism is often leftwing.
Racism is not just hating people because of their color. You can love the color of people and be racist because of that. You can have a taste for exotic things and be very racist. These are things people usually use to claim they are not racist, “oh, I like black people”,…well yeah, that’s a different story.
On the other hand there’s also forms of racism that are linked to social class. These days they manifest themselves in the process of gentrification in the cities. Middle class or upper class people, who are mainly white people, move into neighborhoods, which are originally inhabited by working class or even under class and these people are usually immigrants or people of immigrant descent. They take over the neighborhood by investing in it and then the prices go up and people have to move out.
The governments and the municipalities like that process. They feel it’s refurbishing the neighborhoods and making things look better. “It’s the city coming alive again”. However basically what it is it’s just kicking people out of their homes and out of their neighborhoods in order to move other people to take their place. It is turning the city into some kind of fort or some kind of protected castle for the middle- and upper class and kicking all the other people out of the city. That process is a racist process as well.
I believe if you want to fight against poverty you shouldn’t fight poor people. If you want to fight poverty you have to invest in poor people and poor neighborhoods. You have to invest in education, you have to invest in unemployment and in housing and when you do that you lift people out of poverty. This way the neighborhood will also look better and the city will be more alive. But nowadays they fight against poor people instead of fighting against poverty and that is a form of racism as well even if it is socio-economic. The danger is that it is now a class discrimination along with an ethnic discrimination. These two processes go together.
ORP: You describe two doom-and-gloom scenarios and both of them are situated in Antwerp. And then you have a more Utopian scenario and that one is situated in Brussels. Is it a coincidence you picked those particular cities or did you have a motivation for it?
DAJJ: No, it’s not a coincidence. I have a motivation and that is that on one hand in Antwerp the political power there is very right wing and nationalistic, namely the N-VA. On the other hand there’s still a dominant ethnic group in Antwerp that is claiming the city as their own and expressing it in a very straight and direct way. They say we are boss in our own city and everybody seems to think that that is a normal statement. Nobody seems to realize that this is not the kind of statement you can still make in the 21st Century. In this era of globalization, in this era of diversification everywhere you still think you’re going to be boss? As an ethnic group and a place?
While in Brussels there’s already super diversity in the sense that there is no majority anymore. There’s no ethnic group that has the majority anymore in Brussels and therefore there are also no minorities in the ethnic identity sense of the word. You have social classes that are more marginalized and so on but you don’t have ethnic groups feeling like a minority and another ethnic group feeling the majority. This creates an opportunity for coming together and identifying with the city itself, which Brussels people do. They identify with their city whether they are from Moroccan origin or Flemish or French speaking or even expats coming from Italy or Spain to work here for the European institutions. They identify with the city and it’s a real identification, it’s not fake, it’s not a story that has been promoted from the establishment somewhere. It’s real. It’s alive in the streets.
This does not mean that all the problems have been solved. Brussels has a lot of problems on social and economic levels but at least this common identification trait creates an environment that is conducive for solutions and less conducive to conflict. Because when you identify with one another that is already a step in the right direction.
While in Antwerp, this is not the case. It’s very dense and it’s very polarized and even though Antwerp has more social-economic possibilities than Brussels and there’s more money in Antwerp, or at least that’s what they claim. I don’t believe it but this is the myth that has been told. Still, on this ethnic identity level Antwerp is very very polarized. If there’s going to be a doom scenario it will get played out in cities like Antwerp and not just Antwerp. There’s a lot of cities in Europe like that. While in Brussels you think there might be a possibility of a solution.
ORP: Especially your doom scenarios were very extreme. You designed them with the help of game theory. What is that?
DAJJ: Game theory is actually quite old. It’s not new. I studied game theory during my studies at university. I studied Political Science and we had a seminar on game theory where we tried to create models, simulate them and project them to the future and see how they would evolve. For example if you have a conflict between two ethnic groups that is on minimum escalation level and you combine it with other ingredients of conflict like socio-economical problems and then you project them on time, the growth of these groups, the growth of the other economical problems, then you come into a situation that is quite explosive.
If you see the problems today you might think it’s not a big deal but what will happen in twenty years? I give an example, who would have thought in 1982 the Soviet Union would collapse? But a few years later it was gone. Back then something like that would also have sounded crazy. But in security agencies and so on, they already had simulated models of possible doom scenarios for the Soviet Union, for the US, doom scenarios for nuclear war and so on.
So it is a discipline that is mainly used in security studies. For me I used it in my book as a wake up call. It’s a thinking exercise, to project things, to make people aware about the conflict situation today. That situation is still being kept under control but I wanted to project how it could escalate in a very normal way over a period of 20-30 years. Of course combined with other things that are also changing, economically, demographically and so on it can really escalate in a way that you cannot imagine.
It had an effect because a lot of people were shocked but then a lot of people started thinking like oh, maybe we should really start do something about this. This is the effect you want to create with such scenarios.
ORP: When I see initiatives like Ringland or Occupy I notice only white people. And when I talk to the organizers they say, no but we’re open to everybody and some people even claim that non-native Belgians are not that interested in environmental issues. What’s the deal here? How come there’s no more diversity with these initiatives?
DAJJ: It’s a combination of things and it’s not just in protest movements but with everything in society. On one hand you can say you are open for diversity and do nothing about it effectively and then you are not really open to it because the access to these kinds of groups should also be stimulated and should also be pro-actively searched for. In order to do that you have to communicate adequately with these groups. Diversity is something you also have to manage on a communication level. Even in an activist group. Just like you would do this in a political organization or a company or a newspaper. If that is not done then groups who are systematically excluded from society will not tend to come and knock on your door because on different levels they are used to receive negativity and rejection. They have pride just the same and they will say, ok, to hell with you, I am not going to come to your place. They tend to spare themselves the humiliation by not being entrepreneurial in terms of looking for contact. So people should realize that. You cannot include people just by waiting for them. That’s one thing.
On the other hand, it is true that not just immigrants or people from immigrant descent but poor people in general are not very open towards what some people consider post-materialistic issues, whether it’s the environment or animal rights. A lot of these causes are not very popular among poor people because poor people are busy with their basic rights. They are still fighting to eat and to have a house and to have an education for the children so they couldn’t care less about the environment or about animal rights. This is reality. It’s a matter of priority.
It’s not because all of a sudden a big group of middle class and upper middle class white people have decided they want to save the animals or the environment, it necessarily means people who are really in dire straits are going support them. These people have to save themselves first and they are really facing existential problems.
I think it’s a combination of these things and I think people should show understanding for that. You cannot induce people into a struggle they don’t identify with. What you can do is you can connect struggles. You can struggle with them on their issue, show an anti-racist attitude and go fight with people against discrimination on the employment market, against housing discrimination and education and so on and be in an anti-racist movement explicitly and then you can inspire people to come in solidarity as well. Then you can have contact between people and people can explain the issues to each other. Then they can explain, ok the air we breathe is also important to us. So engaging each other in the common struggle is the only way to include people to get solidarity.
And where is the responsibility? I think the responsibility is always with the people who are closer to the mainstream or to the establishment than the others. I don’t think it is the marginalized minority that should go and seek connection with part of the “progressive” middle class of the majority group. I think it is the other way around.
ORP: And this is your aim with the new movement that you are starting, Movement X?
DAJJ: Well, in our case it’s a bit different because we already had the identity politics struggle 10-15 years ago and we already positioned ourselves on the political map and we created a large group of activists that are very politicized, that was the Arab-European League experience. This will allow us now to take an initiative where we can attract other people as well. So we come from a minority group but we are strong enough, we are emancipated enough because of our own struggle to actually take an initiative now that is open to everybody.
That wasn’t the case 10-15 years ago. We had to have our own group, affirm our own identity first to have an exclusive struggle. Our characteristics were the reason for our exclusion and we had to depart from them first. But now we are strong enough to have an inclusive movement and this is the new movement we are starting. It’s not that we are in a position where we have to prove ourselves in that movement. I think its quite balanced. The people that are starting the movement come from diverse backgrounds on all levels whether it is ethnic or gender or ideological even and that will be one of the strengths of that movement.
ORP: What kind of actions will you be doing?
DAJJ: We want to be a grass roots organization but we also want to work on different policy and communication levels. So we will combine grassroots with lobbying and communication.
On the grassroots level we want to be present in all the neighborhoods and all the cities and towns where we can. Start the chapters there and then we want to develop things from the grassroots. We’re not already going to decide how we want to do this or that. We want to organize the people and we want the people to take initiative and organize things and then we can move altogether in these directions.
The struggles that we put as priority are obviously the anti-racist struggle, anti-colonialism, gender issues and struggle against poverty. So these are the main points of our struggle. Of course everybody will associate us more with an anti-racist platform and personally I don’t have a problem with that but the movement is quite diverse, also on priorities. I think there is strong anti-racist hardcore in the movement. That is the essence of it. But I think within the movement there are also people that have other priorities like the struggle against poverty, gender and so on. So it’s quite diverse.
ORP: Will you connect with the anti-capitalist narrative of big Western movements such as Occupy and the Indignados and will you connect with those movements themselves?
DAJJ: Personally I would like to. If it is up to me I would like to because personally I am part of that ideological school. But I have to admit that the movement itself is more diverse ideologically. I don’t know if I can characterize our movement as a leftwing movement, possibly yes, possibly no. What I know is that it is a very consistent, very radical anti-colonial anti-racist movement and it is a renewing movement. It’s quite progressive. It is thinking differently in terms of identity, in terms of defining the power relations within this continent and beyond. It’s a new kind of movement that is not really classical in terms of left-right. You have some elements in it that are more ecological and left but then you have other elements that are more focused on cultural diversity.
Personally I consider myself leftwing. I’m anti-capitalist and I would like to connect with other forces that are actually like that too.
ORP: You warned the politicians that if they don’t listen to you, you will start a political party. Aren’t you afraid of the danger of the system absorbing this movement and render it ineffective?
DAJJ: I don’ believe that the movement will ever become a political party. Our first strategy is to put pressure on political parties and on other institutions because not only political parties have power. There’s the government itself, the business world is also discriminating against immigrants for example, but also all the cultural structures and so on. We want to stay a grass roots movement and I think it’s more important to have movements than to have political parties.
On the other hand what I said is, if you don’t take us seriously we might come and hurt you on the level of elections. So what we can do is we can start lists, but lists are not a party. You can start a list and participate in an election. We already did that before and when you do that you take votes from these parties. It doesn’t matter if you succeed or not. You take votes from them away and that hurts. So it’s a pressure card that we have but it’s not our intention. We don’t want to be a political party. Like I said, we’re not even homogenous ideologically. It would be very though for us to be a political party. It is more constructive for us to be a movement and to stay a movement.
ORP: What do you think of parties like Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece?
DAJJ: I don’t think it’s a bad thing that more of these parties are coming up. On the other side you have all these far right parties that are becoming increasingly popular, so I think it’s good that there’s a leftwing narrative that is breaking out of isolation, that is breaking out of the dogmatic lines and coming out with a more humane and more accessible discourse. I think it’s a good thing. I think we need these kinds of parties everywhere. I believe in voting too. I go and vote so I want to have parties like that to be able to vote on.
Nowadays I don’t have the feeling that…well, I mean there is a party here that is also going in that direction but I still have some issues with it…but in general I don’t believe the solution will be coming from these parties. I believe they are part of the solution but not the solution. I think the solution must go deeper, much deeper than this but it’s part of the solution to have a political narrative that is also open and anti-capitalist, open for change and diversity so it’s a good thing.
ORP: Many of the right wing and conservative parties gained a lot of votes in the recent European elections. What is the explanation for this trend?
DAJJ: I think it’s a phenomenon that will repeat itself in the coming 10-20 years. We will see it more and more. But I don’t think this is anything but a desperate attempt to resist the change that is happening. It is not going to stop that change, which is the shift in Europe on its identity, on diversity. I think it’s a defensive reflex, it’s a conservative reflex, xenophobic in a sense and chauvinistic and I think we will see an even bigger increase of these kinds of movements. The danger is not if these parties score a couple of percentages more or less. The danger is that if we do not find that new story that can connect us, we will have a double radicalization, on two sides. On one hand you have the ethnic fascists and on the other hand you have the salafist fascists and together they will be the perfect parties to tango. Because it takes two to tango and they can go at each other and unleash a kind of ethnic war.
I think this is the danger and if you have these two extremist movements growing I think we can end up there in twenty years or so. How to avoid that is to try to find the common ground, at least on the left of these movements and to show that yes, the struggle is there, there is a struggle to fight, but it’s not between two ethnic groups, it’s not between native and non-native. The struggle is between on the one hand people who choose to embrace the changes and make a positive story out of them. They want to take from racism and colonialism but also from extremely conservative and religious forms and fanaticism and build a new future together and on the other hand there’s people who want to hang on to archaic identities and chauvinism and want to stay separated and discriminate each other.
I think that is the main contradiction and this is what we should encourage. We should really work on that that this becomes the contradiction. That it is not the ethnic contradiction but that it is about choices that people make. What future do we really want?
ORP: How does you ideal society look like?
DAJJ: My ideal society? I have utopian dreams too just like everybody but I don’t have the illusion it will ever be possible to achieve. I think Utopias are useful like the North Star. You will never reach the star but it can show you the way. You can head in the right direction because of it.
I’m a socialist. I believe in a social society where capital is actually not a factor. So it’s not a society where there are no rich people. But it’s a society where there are no poor people and where there is nobody who is too rich. You can keep some dynamic in society by creating a very limited market that has indeed measures such as, you cannot go above $3-4 million in capital concentration. That will not create structural poverty but it will encourage people to work. It will keep that so-called mythical dynamism that the capitalists use as an argument, that the people want to make the maximum. In the mean time nobody in their life goes above a million dollars except a statistical negligent. But if you tell the majority, the 99%, listen you can work hard and you can become a small bourgeois with $3 million it’s ok, it’s fine. But what’s forbidden, what should be structurally banned, is poverty.
I’m not one of those leftists who hate the word “middle class”. I believe eventually our goal is to reach the middle class. The middle class should be the generalization of everybody. Everybody should be middle class. The poor people should be middle class and the rich people should come down to the middle class. This the reality and that middle class can vary from lower middle class to upper middle class. On that level you can play that game but nobody should fall under and nobody should go above.
Is that possible? I don’t know but I think keeping it as an orientation and struggle for it will make a better society whether this is a light form of capitalism or something I don’t know, but we have to go in that direction. We cannot really accept that we are in the 21st Century and we believe that we don’t have the resources to at least feed the planet and to send everybody to a decent school. This is unacceptable. We all know that it is possible. If you see the budget that countries spend on ridiculous things, not to mention weapons, and the budgets needed for example to eradicate certain disease. It is a scandal that it is not being done. And the only explanation that I have why it is not being done is that people do not want to eradicate poverty. That is the only reason. It might sound cynical but I think that’s the only reason because it is possible but people don’t want that. There’s a lot of theory on why they don’t want that but ultimately I have a strong suspicion there is no political will on this planet to solve its most structural problems.
ORP: How are we going to fight it? With your movement.
DAJJ: Not with my movement. That is just a drop in a river that hopefully will grow and grow and grow and eventually will sweep things over. I think everybody should do their bit and we should connect. I also think there’s some things we should learn. First of all, learning on how to work together without always agreeing on everything. I think that is very essential. We have to learn that diversity is not only a diversity of color but also a diversity of ideas. If you want to have people of color in your movement it’s not enough to say we are diverse, we can accept a different color. You have to also be able to accept a different point of view. I think we have to accept each other’s shortcomings. We don’t even have to like each other to work together.
We have to have a platform. We have to come with our own mainstream, define a new mainstream and say this is the mainstream. And that platform shouldn’t be too difficult to reach. It is never going to be the platform that is used for each and every one of the chapters of our movement. We all, in our own corners, will go further. We will go deeper in our issues, the issues that are more important to us. But we have to agree on agreeing on a minimum and then you can build up a movement that can shake things up structurally.
ORP: Thank you!