How giving genocide denier Peter Handke the Nobel Prize embodies the global mainstreaming of Islamophobia

How giving genocide denier Peter Handke the Nobel Prize embodies the global mainstreaming of Islamophobia
Comment: Awarding the Nobel prize for literature to 'genocide denier' Peter Handke reflects the Islamophobia and fascism of our times, from Europe to China, writes Sam Hamad.
6 min read
13 Dec, 2019
A protestor holds up a "Genocide denier" sign as author Peter Handke arrives [AFP/Getty]

The decision by the Swedish Academy to award Peter Handke the Nobel prize for literature is only baffling if you've been living on Pluto for the last decade. For those unfamiliar with the political obsessions of the Austrian novelist, he is rather kindly referred to as a "genocide denier" regarding the genocide of Bosnian Muslims by the Serbian regime of Slobodan Milosevic. 

I say 'kindly' only because Handke's true stance is much worse than mere hapless denial. This is a man whose support for Milosevic occurred at the time the genocide was unfolding in Srebrenica.

In his 1996 travelogue "A Journey to the Rivers: Justice for Serbia", Handke, as all "deniers" inevitably do, simultaneously refutes and justifies the murderous crimes of Serbian nationalists against Muslims – everything from the Siege of Bihac to the mass graves of Srebrenica.  

To those who have followed events in Syria over the past 9 years, Handke's justification of Milosevic's crimes as arising from a will to protect what he considers to be the secular, anti-nationalist utopia of Yugoslavia against primitive divisive impulses such as religion and "nationalism" will seem eerily familiar.

Genocidal murderers know that voices of support among perceived progressive political and cultural elites – witless or not – can be hugely beneficial to their cause. Though in recent times the perpetrators of genocide have managed to prosper partially due to the successful cultivation of a vanguard of 'sympathetic' western journalists, intellectuals, writers and politicians, Handke was one of Milosevic's few champions in the west. 

The Swedish Academy, whether they like it or not, are rewarding someone who tried his very best to justify crimes against humanity

Even when Milosevic found himself on trial for crimes against humanity in the Hague, Handke had essentially suspended his literary career to campaign for the mass murderer. It was thus of little surprise that after Milosevic kicked the bucket, Handke not only attended the funeral of "his friend", but even delivered a eulogy to the murderous tyrant.

A few days ago the New York Times carried a piece on Handke entitle "Genius, Genocide Denier or Both?".  And this gets to the crux of the matter. I can't write personally of the qualities of Handke's literary output, but his peers seem to find great worth in his works and it may be that he is responsible for great pieces of literature, but there is no doubt that by rewarding Handke, the Swedish Academy, whether they like it or not, are rewarding someone who tried his very best to justify crimes against humanity.  

This is why Peter Englund, the former permanent secretary and current member of the Swedish Academy, decided that he wouldn't participate in this year's awards or any associated events, telling a Swedish newspaper that "to celebrate Peter Handke's Nobel prize would be gross hypocrisy on my part".  

The "hypocrisy" Englund speaks of his own commitment to antiracism and antifascism – he understands that as much as we might like it to be otherwise, one cannot completely separate an author from their political opinions. Handke devoted much of his life to openly and loudly supporting the actually occurring genocide of Muslims - to accept him in such a prestigious manner as the Nobel prize is to normalise and elevate these opinions.

By lauding an apologist Handke, the Swedish Academy is erasing the voices of the survivors of the Bosnian genocide and violating the memory of the victims.  And this is not a retroactive process buried in history  – it's not only that the genocide occurred in living memory, but the power relations of genocide denialism and justification have a very active relevance in the present.

Around the globe, including in Europe and Sweden, political extremism with an Islamophobic core is on the rise. But, relatedly, and even more troubling, genocide against Muslims, or genocide that utilises Islamophobic narratives of justification, has returned to the world stage with a vengeance, such as in Myanmar and Syria.

Read more: 9 times the UK's Conservative Party were shockingly Islamophobic and got away with it

In fact, writing for Al Jazeera, the ex-deputy defence minister of Bosnia and survivor of the Serbian genocide Emir Suljagic aptly warns that "With the decision to award Handke its prize for literature … Nobel excluded Bosniaks from the European moral universe …  and this decision was no accident … [it] is indicative of a shift in European attitudes towards Bosnia and, I daresay, towards Muslims in general".

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Regarding the Islamophobia that fuelled the genocide, Suljagic goes on to say: "The talking points have not changed … in fact, the entire discourse constructed in the 1990s for this purpose is still the same. One need only look at the recent rhetoric coming from the highest echelons of the French political establishment, describing "Muslim Bosnia" as a "ticking time bomb" of jihadist extremism to see the alarming parallels to the language used by the architects of Bosnian genocide in the early 1990s."

Milosevic tried desperately to justify the genocide of Muslims by appealing to the idea of Serbia as the great defender of European culture and religion against inherently anti-European and backwards Islam.  

These notions were recently repeated during the trials of his henchmen Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic, the latter of which described his crimes as "just and holy" and claimed they were necessary to stop Bosnian Muslims establishing a European foothold for an "Islamic caliphate" that would span from China to the Adriatic.

It's a creepy coincidence, but entirely befitting of the current era, that as Handke receives his Nobel prize, another Nobel laureate, namely Myanmar's State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, is currently engaging in genocide denial.

The victims are once again Muslims, while the justifications and denials are ominously similar to those offered by Serbian fascists and their apologists regarding Bosnian Muslims.

The crimes of the Myanmar regime against the Rohingya Muslim minority in Rahkine state have been well documented, including mass murder, rape and vast ethnic cleansing. But while defending the Buddhist-majority country at the UN International Court of Justice, Suu Kyi justified all of this as essentially necessary evils in a fight against Islamic "extremism".  

Now Aung San Suu Kyi occupies the same genocidal gutter as Slobodan Milosevic.

According to her, far from being a genocide, the military assault on Rohingya is actually an "internal armed conflict" caused by Islamic extremists, with support from "Afghan and Pakistani militants", attacking security posts.

One of Suu Kyi's British lawyers even claimed that the main driving force behind the attempt to hold Myanmar to some form of legal account at the UN is the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, for what we can only surmise amounts to some evil nefarious Islamist plot against the progressive liberal Myanmar that Suu Kyi once represented. Now she occupies the same genocidal gutter as Slobodan Milosevic.  

All around the world we see the interconnection of actually occurring Islamophobia, totalitarianism, fascism and genocide with the apologism, denial and justification of those things.  

Read more: China's Uighurs: A genocide in the making

This is the world where China's "anti-extremist" concentration camps for Uighur Muslims are ignored due to the economic power of that state. Or where Assad and Russia's genocide in Syria, again waged in the name of "counter-terrorism", continues uninterrupted as apologists for both prosper around the world. Where a US president influenced by "white nationalism" can use the spectre of "terrorism" to implement a Muslim immigration ban.

The ideology and methodology of Peter Handke has never been more popular. It makes sense that he is celebrated.

Sam Hamad is an independent Scottish-Egyptian activist and writer.

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.