From Iceland — Racist? You Misunderstand

Racist? You Misunderstand

Racist? You Misunderstand

Published May 31, 2011

Since May 8, when 53-year-old Iranian Medhi Kavyanpoor attempted self-immolation in the Icelandic Red Cross offices, intending to give up his own life to draw attention to the inhumane treatment of asylum seekers, the racism and xenophobia inherent to this republic has been on my mind. On my blog I have pulled together some examples and anecdotes, the first of which was the public response to Medhi’s act. RÚV’s first headline read: “Asylum seeker caused risk of explosion”—and described at length the threat caused to the Icelandic Red Cross staff by the gasoline fumes, while making no mention of the seven years Mehdi Kavyanpoor has waited for an answer to his asylum request. Even after taking this desperate measure, Iceland refused to acknowledge his existence. Interior minister Ögmundur Jónasson’s initial response, at least the first quoted one, claimed the whole thing must be based on ‘a misunderstanding.’ Media and public officials thus seemed to do their best to collectively minimise any potential meaning the act might have.
I went back to 1936 and dug up the story of when Iceland decided not to join the League of Nations, the forerunner of what is now the United Nations, in order not to upset one Benito Mussolini, whose taste for cod was highly appreciated. The League of Nations put fascist Italy under embargo after the latter’s invasion in Ethiopia, where mustard gas was amongst Italy’s weapons of choice. Iceland chose rather to partake in the riches secured with said mustard gas and the eventual 30 thousand dead, who all served the Icelandic króna well. Mussolini showed his gratitude for Iceland’s declared ‘neutrality’ by personally signing a new contract about fish imports from Iceland.
Somewhere I mentioned that what you English-speaking lot know as the Directorate of Immigration, for which the Icelandic name is ‘the Foreigners’ institute’, was originally founded as ‘the Foreigners’ surveillance’ and to begin with headed by one Agnar Kofoed-Hansen. He was put in charge of the matters after a crash course organised by the German SS, at Heinrich Himmler’s personal invitation, in the summer of 1939. That was some years after the Icelandic socialist writer Þórbergur Þórðarson was prosecuted at Germany’s request, and convicted in Icelandic courts, for libel against Adolf Hitler, whom he had described as a sadistic mass murderer.
I mentioned the Jews who sought asylum from German persecution, also in the late 1930s, whom Iceland turned away without a second thought, it seems. I proposed that their eviction should be seen in the context of 300 German workers invited to work on Iceland’s farms soon after the war, people ‘preferably of north-west-German stock’ as demanded in the contract they would sign. The farmers’ union had already explained that the proposed stock ‘would cause little danger in terms of “national nature.”‘
I mentioned the dozen or so Romanian Roma musicians who appeared on the streets of Reykjavík in the summer of 2007, with their instruments, and were removed by police authorities faster than you can say ‘racism’. Or almost—the officials gave their time quite generously to the media, distributing slander about “this sort of people” who, according to police intelligence, always bring trouble. They were evicted without being evicted, simply thrown out of the country without any appeal to the rule of law. That was necessary since the people had every right to be here, as any other citizen of the EU.
You see, I went back and forth through these bits of history in a few blog posts to provide a sense of continuity. To do such history any justice, a book is obviously needed, one that remains unwritten. In my mind, the current unwritten state of any such book bears witness to this society’s reluctance to face its faults, let alone bloody ones. In 2005, when documents revealed the above-mentioned eviction of Jews to Denmark and Germany in the advent of WWII, the Progressive Party’s then-Prime Minister, Halldór Ásgrímsson, responded that one should be very careful about apologizing for ancient events, dating from times when handing Jews over to Nazis was considered normal …
Right on. Let us be careful. Now, after this briefing, this minor attempt to give some context to the strange response to an exhausted man’s attempted self-immolation, to reflect upon this republic’s systematic lack of compassion, as one might put it mildly, systematic racism as I phrased it publicly, the local intelligentsia makes itself heard: Illugi Jökulsson, a public intellectual I’ve known of and looked up to since my childhood, and a member of the constitutional committee currently drafting a new post-2008 constitution, makes public his and his fellows’ ideas on the rights chapter.
The rights chapter—it’s chapter 7—comes right after the chapter on the Church, right after Parliament and taxation. The changes proposed regard article 65, which constitutes equality under the law, also known as the pillar of political modernity. Chapter 7, article 65 currently reads, in a rough translation: “All shall be equal before the law and enjoy human rights, without distinction of sex, religion, opinions, national origin, race, colour, economic means, kin or any other status.” It broadly resembles the classic Article 2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The constitutional committee will now propose a change of this text. According to Illugi, the committee will propose that the word ‘race’ be eliminated from this enumeration. Why? Because they have found out that the racists were wrong all along: there are no races. “It has now fortunately been scientifically refuted that the races exist at all—they are make-believe, a myth, and people’s different appearances and cultures are not caused by their ‘racial’ differences”. Well, excuse me, but: duh.
This was a few days ago, and I’m still stunned. Instead of race, the clause shall now specifically mention ‘genotype’. I refuse to cite the supposedly good intentions involved. Iceland just might, it just might outdo its own, as of yet unexamined, history of wilful ignorance of other people by explaining racial discrimination away as, to use the phrase employed by our interior minister above: a misunderstanding. Meanwhile, Mehdi Kavyanpoor is in custody, facing charges for the attempted self-immolation. His biggest chance of escaping charges and his biggest chance of finally reaching something akin to an asylum in Iceland is supposedly to cite mental illness. Which would of course explain his intense, prolonged misunderstanding of the locals’ generous hospitality.

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