Global cultural moments, as captured by ORB readers .
A Burning Qur’an
Saturday afternoons are usually quiet in Sandefjord, a small city 90 kilometers south of Oslo, Norway. But on 23 April 2022, hundreds of protesters packed the streets of the coastal town. They gathered for a demonstration by the anti-Muslim group SIAN (‘stop the Islamisation of Norway’). As a handful of SIAN members lit a Qur’an on fire, counter-protesters chanted ‘no racists in our streets’. Riot police looked on, protecting the anti-Islamic protesters from a barrage of eggs, rocks and bottles.
While burning the Qur’an is legal in Norway, the act dances on the edge of free speech protections. In 2015, the country’s blasphemy laws were repealed and virulent Islamophobes quickly realized what this meant: as long as SIAN does not denounce specific Muslims and only critiques the religion more broadly, they are legally allowed to attack Islam and burn the Qur’an.
Even with these allowances, the anti-Islamic group does not easily stay on the ‘right’ side of the law. Its leader Lars Thorsen has been convicted of hate crimes for describing Muslims as ‘sexual predators’ and ‘murder-zombies’. As with other far-right movements, SIAN largely has the media to thank for the spread of its message. Research shows that very few members first heard about the group from friends or acquaintances. Rather, social media and traditional news platforms have been the sources of its growth; since SIAN
was founded in 2008, its vitriolic protests have consistently invited press attention.
Even so, members of SIAN tend to be outnumbered at their own events, and are often forced to retreat
by the sheer number of counter-protesters. Anti- racists of every age come equipped with pots and
pans to drown out the Islamophobia.
On 22 April, another Qur’an burning occurred outside the offices of Islam Net, a Muslim charity organization. After the protest, Islam Net posted a video of the SIAN stunt along with an appeal to donate. Within a few days, they had raised 2.7 million Norwegian Kroner. As Islam Net leader
Fahad Qureshi put it, ‘let us use the racists as useful idiots’.
- Mathias Gjesdal Hammer
A final tripy to Pripyat
There was a disquieting peace on the road leading to Pripyat. Desolate and austere, the surrounding marshes stretched as far as the eye could see. The rhythmic beeping of the Geiger counter, sharp and intimidating at first, soon dissolved in the hum of the engine. Entering the city, the first apartment blocks began to emerge
from the dense mass of trees which had once neatly lined the boulevards. Their ashen facades melted
into the lead sky. It was a surreal scene. Even so, something felt familiar. You find the same buildings in every corner of the former Soviet Union.
But these were different – outside of human time, reclaimed by nature. I imagine this is how the
Strugatsky brothers must have pictured the ‘Zone’ in Roadside Picnic. Everywhere, you could see, and almost hear, the echoes of a distant past – of hopes and dreams, of lives made and of lives lost. People
swam in the Olympic pool, but families never laughed on the Ferris wheel, due to be opened the
day after the disaster.
The air was laden with an untranslatable toska, a mix of anguish and melancholy. The guide, slipping out of her routine professionalism, would tell anecdotes about her husband’s childhood in Pripyat: cherished memories which seemed irreconcilable with their surroundings. Rationally planned and unblighted by the economic dislocation of the 1980s, the city was once a scientific utopia. Pripyat’s fate is therefore that of the Soviet project itself: erstwhile hope, vast ambition and ultimate tragedy.
Some weeks after I visited, Russian troops brutally seized control of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant and Pripyat. For a brief moment, the world looked on breathlessly as Ukranian politicians reported that the plant was damaged and had lost power. I fear that much like Chernobyl’s irradiated ground it seems our history too is poisoned with these decaying radionuclides. There is perhaps no symbol as apt for the tragic absurdity of this war.
As I look back on my trip, I hope that my tour guide, Irina, as well as my friends in Ukraine are safe. ‘Politics’, they said, ‘it’s all politics’. War was unimaginable to them.
Like many who grew up in a different country from the one they live in now, I find myself unsure where to call ‘home’, ‘too Bulgarian’ to see myself as British but ‘too English’ to feel connected to my homeland. In such uncertainty, even jarring discomfort, I find belonging in an unlikely and comical place: the benches of my mother’s hometown, Shabla.
No guidebook will tell you about the gossiping babushkas perched on the many public park benches. Sitting next to my grandmother and the friends she worked, raised children and grew old alongside, I can most genuinely say I feel at home.
This charming babushka gossip – overheard, foraged, transmitted – grounds me within an unusual awareness of the issues many Bulgarians face. While my grandmother might not be able to tell me about the corrupt celebrity-politicians running the country, she knows whose aunt’s friend’s cousin named Evgenia paid for blood pressure medicine yesterday and how much it jumped in cost compared with last month. (‘Another month and she’ll struggle to cover it with her pension – it’s terrible, nobody cares about us anymore.’)
She thinks I study law, and she doesn’t quite remember at which university, but she’s ensured the entire town knows the version of my life that she recollects through a maze of unknown English words. (‘She’s the spitting image of my Silviya, you’ll see how much she’s grown in June – she can make us those muffins they have over there.’)
Walking down the main street for the first time in a year, we see people who knew me as a child but whom I now struggle recognise. My grandma explains who they are and the connections they have to me – how they knew my mother or uncle, how I used to play with their grandchildren. Hearing each story, joining this network of transmitted knowledge, I adopt the language and location of the babushka gossip. Even far away, I find myself unable to imagine that I ever left my grandma, her town and the characters who inhabit it.
- Bianka Petrova
The End of Sedition?
On July 5 2021, 83-year-old Jesuit Priest Father Stan Swamy died in a Mumbai jail. He had been arrested by Indian authorities on the charge of sedition a year earlier. Despite his failing health, he was denied bail. Indian authorities provided no evidence of their claims that he was a ‘Maoist sympathizer’ and he was never even interrogated. His death in custody drew unprecedented attention to the Indian sedition law. It emerged that he had not been allowed basic health treatment or even a straw or sipper to consume his food (as
he suffered from Parkinson’s disease, he was unable to eat and drink without these).
The sedition law has become notorious as a means to prosecute dissidents. The government has used the law to arrest students celebrating Pakistan’s victory over India in a cricket match, high-school teachers who staged a school play about the controversial new citizenship law, and a young student who refused to stand up for the national anthem. Notoriously, one Muslim comic was jailed for jokes he didn’t make but allegedly had practiced off stage.
Since Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power in 2014, the government has charged 7,136 individuals with sedition. Even so, these cases rarely lead to convictions. But they allow the government to lock up political opponents for years at a time as bail is rarely granted. On 11 May 2022, the Supreme Court put the sedition law on hold. Yet, for people like Father Stan Swamy, this remains a case of too little too late. Moreover, the Supreme Court cannot legislate new law. It remains to be seen how the government responds, but at the very least, the sedition law is likely to be toned down.
- Asang Wankhede
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Artwork by Izzy Fergusson