So-called ‘terrorists’ finally receive a democratic platform – as an art project

The setting for the New World Summit in Berlin’s Sophiensaele. The flags are all of organizations on the ‘designated terrorist lists’. Showing one of them might be a crime, but as a whole they qualify as an artwork. All photos courtesy of Jonas Staal and his team

I chaired a summit and helped curate a project designed by the Dutch artist Jonas Staal in Berlin on 4 and 5 May, as part of the Berlin Biennial.

The New World Summit is the latest step in the artist’s decade-long research into art and politics, and particularly the true nature of democracy. He invited senior representatives of organizations on the so called ‘designated terrorist lists’ to participate in a 2-day long open forum with the audience, thereby questioning the logic of democratic exclusion. Put simply: how can a democratic system systematically exclude population groups from democratic participation, if the principle of democracy is precisely to include all sectors of society in a public debate? What does this say about the political system currently called democracy?

The artist Jonas Staal opening Day 2 of the New World Summit

The project was also guided by simple curiosity about those organizations that are excluded. It turns out to be difficult to hear their own voice; when googling the organizations one only finds the voices of those that oppose and exclude these so called ‘terrorist’ organizations. Therefore both the website and day 1 of the proceedings were dedicated to letting these organizations speak freely, without interruption, about their organization, their struggle, and the consequences of being excluded from peaceful political participation through the mechanism of ‘terrorist’ designation.
Participants included

Moussa Ag Assarid, EU representative of the MNLA (Mouvement National pour la Liberation de l’Azawad)

Fadile Yildirim (on the right) from the Kurdish Women’s Movement, spent ten years in a Turkish prison

Luis Jalandoni, chief negatiator for the National Democratic Front of the Philippines, including the Communist Party and the New People’s Army

Victor Koppe, lawyer of among others the LTTE (Tamil Tigers) about his efforts to get them removed from the EU list of terrorist organizations

Linda Moreno, lawyer for among others Sami al Arian, accused of terrorism under the US Patriot Act

Other participants were Nancy Hollander, who defends several Guantanamo Bay prisoners and Jon Andoni Lekue, now negotiating for the Basque Peace Process which includes the banned groups ETA and Batasuna. Note that the MNLA is not (yet) placed on the terrorist list, but it seems to be heading there.

Interestingly, attempts to engage ‘terrorist organizations’ in dialogue by think-tanks, academic institutions and political organizations have all failed up to date. The sponsors of the Berlin Biennial also threatened with withdrawing their support but were ultimately convinced that the project was not ‘pro-terrorist’. There were difficult negotations between the artist and the sponsors but ultimately, it appears that art can go where politics and academia cannot go; art is a realm where fundamental political discussions can still take place.

This, I think, is an extremely interesting first conclusion. The question arises why such politics cannot be discussed freely in the political realm? We know the answer: because ‘speaking to terrorists’ is a form of legitimation and that is a moral no-go area in current politics. But of course that is an insufficient argumentation, especially because the exclusion from the political debate, invariably accompanied by repressive measures using the state’s military and juridical apparatus, pushes organizations to clandestinity and propitiates violence.

From the accounts of the speakers one tendency became clear: when armed organizations agree to stop violence in order to engage the state in a dialogue the state often uses the recourse to designing them as terrorist organizations in order to force them to capitulate (or to return to the armed struggle). This happened to the Filipino communists and their New People’s Army, to the Tamil Tigers, to the Basques and to other organizations that were not present.

One may tentatively conclude that in these cases the state rather faces a violent adversary than a democratic one, which can publicly and freely challenge the state. Maybe the current democratic deficit of the international community of states can only be masked by keeping alive the ‘terrorist’ nemesis. In any case we have all been witness to how civil liberties and democratic principles have been rolled back since 2001 in order to allow the ‘democratic’ states of the world to engage freely in the ‘War on Terror’.

On day 2 the audience, which included lawyers, political analysts, journalists, artists and activists could freely engage the political and legal representatives of the ‘terrorist’ organizations in debate. The high level of the discussions and the originality of many of the statements put forward by the speakers and the audience – some of which can be found here – were testimony to the need to continue such a democratic engagement in open dialogue with organizations currently excluded from democracy.

This experiment needs to be continued – and eventually be brought back to the sphere of democratic politics. As long as that’s impossible artists will have to fill the gap. What a strange situation.

Me chairing the summit. All photos courtesy of Jonas Staal and his team

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