New publication: The common sense of expert activists

I published a new research article in Dialectical Anthropology as part of a (still forthcoming) special issue on Antonio Gramsci’s concept of “common sense”, co-edited by Jelena Tošić and Andreas Streinzer. The special issue will also feature an afterword by anthropologist Prof. Kate Crehan, an established Gramsci scholar and an important guiding voice during the virtual workshop that Jelena and Andreas organized and afterwards when we circulated our draft papers.

In the article, I follow a group of professionals in their efforts to address the problem of statelessness in Europe. My interlocutors divide the members of their group into “practitioners,” on the one hand, and “scholars” on the other. Relating this emic dichotomization to Antonio Gramsci’s dialectical take on common sense, I argue against a theoretical reductionism that regards expertise and activism as two essentially different and mostly separate endeavors, and put forward the concept of the “expert activist.” Unpacking what I call the “practitioner–scholar dilemma,” I show that in their effort to end statelessness, “practitioners” take a reformist route that aims at realizing citizenship for the stateless, while “scholars” are open to a more revolutionary path that contemplates the denaturalization and even the eradication of the state. By drawing on Gramsci, I suggest that the impasse the group encounters in their work might relate more to the structural constraints imposed by the state within or against which they operate than to the problem of statelessness they are trying to solve.

My article contributes to a body of emergent work in anthropology that explores the intersection of scholarly expertise and activism. It is also the first article that I am writing on the topic of statelessness, drawing on my new fieldwork data that includes written observations, photographs, the recording and subsequent transcription of free-flowing conversations, oral presentations and speeches, journal entries, and textual documents, all obtained from participating in workshops, conferences, and policy briefings in various European settings such as universities in the UK, museums, and event spaces in The Hague and at the European Youth Centre and the Council of Europe in Strasbourg.

My ethnographic research is ongoing and involves in-person and online attendance at thematic webinars on the topic of statelessness, in annual stakeholder meetings, and the launching of new reports and other publications.

I am particularly interested in receiving feedback from the people I have been working with as I continue researching the topic of expert activism and statelessness in Europe.

The article is currently accessible through open access on the journal’s website.

Rethinking Community in Myanmar. New Book out soon!

Announced for November 2022 with NIAS Press:

Rethinking Community in Myanmar. Practices of We-Formation among Muslims and Hindus in Urban Yangon.

This is the first anthropological monograph of Muslim and Hindu lives in contemporary Myanmar. In it, I introduce the concept of “we-formation” as a fundamental yet underexplored capacity of humans to relate to one another outside of and apart from demarcated ethno-religious lines and corporate groups. We-formation complements the established sociological concept of community, which suggests shared origins, beliefs, values, and belonging. Community is not only a key term in academic debates; it is also a hot topic among my interlocutors in urban Yangon, who draw on it to make claims about themselves and others.

Invoking “community” is a conscious and strategic act, even as it asserts and reinforces stereotypes of Hindus and Muslims as minorities. In Myanmar, this understanding of community keeps self-identified members of these groups in a subaltern position vis-à-vis the Buddhist majority population. I demonstrate the concept’s enduring political and legal role since being imposed on “Burmese Indians” under colonial British rule. But individuals are always more than members of groups. I draw on ethnomethodology and existential anthropology to reveal how people’s bodily movements, verbal articulations, and non-verbal expressions in communal spaces are crucial elements in practices of we-formation. Through participant observation in mosques and temples, during rituals and processions, and in private homes I reveal a sensitivity to tacit and intercorporeal phenomena that is still rare in anthropological analysis.

Rethinking Community in Myanmar develops a theoretical and methodological approach that reconciles individuality and intersubjectivity and that is applicable far beyond the Southeast Asian context. Its focus on we-formation also offers insights into the dynamics of resistance to the attempted military coup of 2021. The newly formed civil disobedience movement derives its power not only from having a common enemy, but also from each individual’s determination to live freely in a more just society.

Who gets to be ‘Myanmar’ at the ICJ?

The Myanmar military will appear at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague on 21 February 2022. I argue that their main interest does not lie in defending the country against genocide allegations. Read the full post at Allegra Lab.

In the case of The Gambia vs Myanmar currently pending at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), Myanmar has been accused of having violated the UN Genocide Convention of 1948 by committing serious crimes against the Rohingya, a predominantly Muslim ethnic group. In 2017, 800.000 Rohingya fled Myanmar to neighbouring Bangladesh in an effort to escape the military’s atrocities.

The army’s attempted military coup of February 202

The case did not proceed after the Myanmar military attempted a coup on 1 February 2021. That night, Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint were arrested and have since been accused of corruption, violations of the telecoms law, a state secrets act as well as covid-19 regulations. They are currently facing several years of imprisonment. The generals declared the November 2020 parliamentary elections as fraudulent and put a state of emergency in place. Senior General Min Aung Hlaing is now heading the country. But not only the State Counsellor and the President, but the entire population of Myanmar has been held hostage: since February 2021, over 1.500 people have been murdered, thousands have been arrested and 450.000 people have become internally displaced, adding to the already high numbers of IDPs.

The National Unity Government

Members of the parliament elected in November 2020 formed the National Unity Government (NUG) while in hiding, now operating from undisclosed locations. They have established working relations with many states and international organizations, including the UN, where Ambassador U Kyaw Moe Tun supports the NUG and has been able to continue representing his country even though the military fired and charged him with high treason. While the military regime has received backing from China and Russia, most other countries have cut diplomatic and also economic ties with Myanmar under the current leadership. The question of who is representing Myanmar in the international community is a contested one which needs to be kept in mind when the case in The Hague continues on 21 February 2022.

Trying to benefit from a genocide accusation

Historically, the army has shown no interest in complying with international legal norms. The “rule of law”-paradigm has been a particular red rag for the Generals. Still, the Myanmar military will likely send delegates to attend the upcoming proceedings in The Hague. At the same time, the National Unity Government (NUG) has declared that United Nations Ambassador U Kyaw Moe Tun is the only person authorised to represent the country in The Hague.

However, for the generals, defending the country against the genocide accusation is largely a means to an end: they will use this opportunity to conduct themselves as the legitimate representatives of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar on a global stage. One should not fall for this trick, or not again: Already in April 2021 the military managed the feat that a general participated in an online-event of the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND), thereby bypassing the UN Secretary General’s own advice not to cooperate with the junta.

The ICJ is one of the principal legal organs for investigating violations of the 1948 UN Genocide Convention, to which Myanmar is a signatory. To invite the junta to represent the country means to offer them the chance to use the court as a platform for strategic litigation where no longer the crime, but the performance of legitimacy will be key: When the ICJ reopens the case against Myanmar, the Rohingya genocide is not a primary concern of the generals. Rather, it is to be ‘Myanmar’. The ICJ has a historical opportunity to avoid such an ethical, political and legal failure.

Read the full post at Allegra Lab.

Neue Publikation: Nationalismus oder Terrorismus?

Für die Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung (BPB) habe ich einen kurzen Artikel zum buddhistischen Mönch Wirathu geschrieben, der in Myanmar und weit darüber hinaus durch seine Hassreden gegen die muslimische Minderheit des Landes in Verruf geriet.

herausgegeben von Jana Kärgel. Bonn: BPB (2021).

In dem Artikel “Nationalismus oder Terrorismus? Das Beispiel des burmesischen Mönchs Wirathu” argumentiere ich, dass entgegen der öffentlichen Darstellung, Wirathu kein Terrorist, sondern Ethnonationalist ist, da er ethno-religiöse Identitätsmarker instrumentalisiert. Das Beispiel Wirathus zeigt, dass auch im Namen des Buddhismus Gewalttaten begangen werden und sich sogar buddhistische Mönche radikalisieren können wie es auch aus anderen Ländern bekannt ist. Die Ursachen dafür sind weniger in den Quellentexten der jeweiligen Religionen oder in den Biografien von Individuen zu finden, sondern in den historischen und aktuellen politischen Kontexten, in denen Religion und Ethnizitat als Argumente von Akteuren ins Feld geführt werden, um Gewalttaten gegen Minderheiten zu rechtfertigen.

Der Sammelband umfasst 488 Seiten und kann für nur 7.00EUR direkt bei der Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung bestellt werden.

Illustration: Anika Takagi, Leitwerk, Büro für Kommunikation (2021)

Judith Beyer (2021). Nationalismus oder Terrorismus? Das Beispiel des burmesischen Mönchs Wirathu. In: Terrorismus im 21. Jahrhundert. Perspektiven, Kontroversen, blinde Flecken, herausgegeben von Jana Kärgel. S. 332-333. Bonn: Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung.

Myanmar 10 Monate nach dem Putsch und die Situation der Rohingya – für ARD alpha

Mit Tilman Seiler habe ich mich nun schon zum zweiten Mal über die Widerstandsbewegung in Myanmar unterhalten, die sich nach dem Militärputsch vom 1. Februar 2021 im ganzen Land gebildet hat. Er fragte, wie erfolgreich diese sei, wie fest im Sattel die “Putschregierung” sitzen würde und auch, was von der Ankündigung des Militärs zu halten sei, es werde Neuwahlen geben nachdem Min Aung Hlaing die im November 2020 stattgefundenen Parlamentswahlen für ungültig erklärt hatte. Meine Prognosen sind realistisch, also recht düster.

Ein zweites Thema betraf die Situation der Rohingya im weltgrößten Flüchtlingscamp in Bangladesh. Hier wollte Herr Seiler wissen, wie die Regierung des angrenzenden Nachbarstaats mit den Geflüchteten umgehen würde und auch, was die internationale Weltgemeinschaft tun könne, um die mittlerweile 1,5 Millionen Rohingya zu unterstützen. Ich berichtete von den laufenden Plänen Bangladeshs, circa 100.000 Rohingya auf die eine vorgelagerte künstliche Insel in der Bengalischen See zu verlagern und sagte auch, dass dies im großen Fall gegen den Willen der Menschen dort geschehe.

Darüber hinaus erinnerte ich daran, dass vor allem im Fall staatenloser Geflüchteter wir “bei uns vor der Haustür” mit der Unterstützung beginnen können, nämlich indem man das eigene Asylsystem reformiert, welches bei Staatenlosen in den meisten Fällen immer noch unzureichend greift: Menschen, die keine offiziellen Dokumente zu ihrer Identifikation vorweisen können, haben es hier besonders schwer.

Das zehnminütige Gespräch ist in der ARD alpha-Mediathek zu finden.

Stellenausschreibung akad. MitarbeiterIn/ Research Position

Zum 01. April 2022 ist eine Stelle als Akademische:r Mitarbeiter:in (w/m/d) für 3,5 Jahre bei mir in der Arbeitsgruppe „Ethnologie mit Schwerpunkt politische Anthropologie“ an der Universität Konstanz ausgeschrieben.

I am offering a research position at my Working Group “Social and Political Anthropology,” at the University of Konstanz for a period of three and a half years, starting April 01, 2022.

Alle Informationen / more information.

Ich freue mich auf Eure / Ihre Bewerbungen / I am looking forward to your applications!

New publication: The state of custom

Together with Felix Girke I published an article in the German Journal of Law and Society / Zeitschrift für Rechtssoziologie as part of a special issue on the occasion of the journal’s 40-year anniversary.

Our article is a re-reading of the German anthropologist Gerd Spittler’s article “Dispute settlement in the shadow of Leviathan” (Streitschlichtung im Schatten des Leviathan) which was published in the journal in 1980 as part of the inaugural issue. In this article, Gerd Spittler strives to integrate the existence of state courts (the eponymous Leviathan’s shadow) in (post-)colonial Africa into the analysis on non-state court legal practices.

We walk the reader through his text (which has only been published in German) and then ask how has the situation he describes for (post-)colonial Africa in the early 1980s has changed in the last four decades. We relate his findings to contemporary debates in legal anthropology that investigate the relationship between disputing, law and the state. We also show through our own work in Africa and Asia, particularly in Southern Ethiopia and Kyrgyzstan in what ways Spittler’s by now classical contribution to the field of legal anthropology in 1980 can be made fruitful for a contemporary anthropology of the state at a time when not only (legal) anthropology has changed, but especially the way states deal with putatively “customary” forms of dispute settlement.

The article is currently accessible through open access on the journal’s website.

Teaching Hannah Arendt in 2021

Hannah Arendt is one of the best-known political theorists of the 20th century. Her books and her theoretical arguments emerged in dialogue with ancient philosophers (Socrates, Plato, Aristotle) ​​and modern German thinkers (Kant, Hegel), as well as with her own university teachers (Heidegger, Husserl, Jaspers). Arendt never saw herself as a philosopher, but as a theoretician of the political. The topics she dealt with are today more topical than ever before and her books are being read across disciplines.

Hannah Arendt wrote on totalitarianism, statelessness, human community, and freedom and responsibility. In her work she processed her own experience as a Jew in Germany, as a stateless person in World War II, as a migrant in the USA, as a woman in male-dominated academia and as an attentive observer of an increasingly globalized post-war world.

This semester I am teaching some of her main theoretical themes to a group of BA students at the University of Kontsanz. We will not only embed Arendt’s texts in their historical context, but also to think through and with her arguments using current examples — ranging from the covid pandemic to state terror in Myanmar. Hannah Arendt was interested in the basic conditions of human existence: whenever these are questioned or radically transformed, her work offers a fruitful starting point.

“Why read Hannah Arendt now?” (2018) asks the author Richard Bernstein in his recent book. Answer: because she is “the thinker of the hour” (according to the German translation of the book).

Here is the Syllabus to my course (in German).

Staatsterror in Myanmar. Neuer Artikel für “Blätter”

Zusammen mit Felix Girke habe ich einen neuen Artikel zum Thema “Staatsterror in Myanmar” für Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik verfasst.

Darin diskutieren wir wer die zivile Widerstandsbewegung Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) trägt, was deren Ziele sind und warum sie auch angesichts des zunehmenen Terrors seitens des Militärs nicht aufgibt.

Wir setzen die aktuelle soziale Bewegung in Bezug zu früheren Protest- und Widerstandsbewegungen und gehen bis in die Kolonialzeit des Landes zurück. Neben der zentralen Bedeutung von Aung San für die Unabhängigkeitsbewegung der 1920ger und 1930ger Jahre machen wir deutlich, dass in allen Jahrzehnten die Bewegungen vor allem von Studierenden getragen wurden.

Der Verfassung von 2008 widmen wir besondere Aufmerksamkeit, denn nur über sie konnte das Militär auch in den vergangenen Jahren in einer zunehmend demokratischen und offenen Gesellschaft weiterhin die Macht auf sich zentrieren und letztendlich durch ein Uminterpretieren einer Ausnahmeklausel, wieder an sich reissen.

Wir sehen die gesetzten Ziele der CDM als Herkulesaufgabe an, die vor allem von den Menschen im Land zu stemmen sein wird, da die internationalen Organe wie die Vereinten Nationen zunehmend lethargisch reagieren, vor allem mit China und Russland als Vetomächten. Angesichts des zunehmenden Terrors, der sich nicht nur gegen Demonstrierende, sondern auch Unbeteiligte wie Frauen und Kinder richtet, werden die Rufe der Bevölkerung nach Intervention aus dem Ausland immer lauter.