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Cities of refuge
6 min read

Refuge in resistance to terror

Credits Text: Ola Larsmo Translation from Swedish: Christina Cullhed Illustration: Kajsa Nilsson March 09 2016

Already in 1997 Jacques Derrida held a prophetic lecture. This was during the International Parliament of Writers’ conference in Strasbourg on the topic of creating shelters for writers. The IPW had been formed on the initiative of Vaclav Havel and it campaigned the issue of sanctuaries for threatened and persecuted writers—a movement that followed on the fatwa against Salman Rushdie in 1989. But as the IPW and PEN had claimed, the threat against Rushdie threw light also on the large group of writers who had either been killed or who were being persecuted but who had hitherto gone unnoticed—writers who were in need of protection to be able to continue to write and spread their or others’ ideas. Today in many places authors, journalists, and other cultural workers are being ever more harassed precisely because they put into words those things that totalitarian regimes and terrorist groups have forbidden in discourse.

The refuge network is a response to this silencing. Already in 1996 Stockholm provided a few refuges and two years later Gothenburg followed suit; in the entire world there are now approximately fifty such refuges—refuges that cooperate with ICORN in Stavanger, Norway. In 2006, when the IPW had monetary problems ICORN became the financial guarantor of the network. Besides ICORN there are also a few private shelters that offer protection and peace to work for those who are writing about controversial or forbidden topics.

But let us go back to Strasbourg in 1997. Derrida was also one of the initiators of the refuge network, and in his lecture he aimed to build a philosophical foundation for the enterprise and argue for its necessity. As witnesses to this necessity he lists several well-known persons who needed shelter such as Dante Alighieri, Immanuel Kant, and Hannah Arendt, but there are two strains in particular in Derrida’s reasoning that are important to highlight.

First and foremost Derrida mentions the unquestionable need of giving the persecuted writers physical protection. He says that this is at the core of all ethics—one cannot talk about morals without acknowledging this basic need. Alongside this immutable demand he sets, as does Kant, the restricted resources in society. He does so not in order to show that the one makes the other impossible, but rather to suggest that these two basic elements need to be harmonized and taken into account in order to reach a viable solution. It is typical of Derrida to not shirk the complexity of a problem nor to resort to a half measure when the equation does not balance out. Instead he points to the two parts of the problem and says: this is the challenge—do not cheat.

The other part is just as interesting. In the 90s Derrida thought that all too many nation states evaded their humanitarian responsibilities. Cities can today, perhaps, take more responsibility than nation states either can or want to take. And he points to the tradition of shelters with roots in the time of the Old Testament—fortified during the Middle Ages—that a persecuted person should be able to find refuge within the city walls. His prime example is Dante who fled from political enemies in Florence and found refuge in Ravenna where he could finish writing The Divine Comedy.

Derrida’s view of the city is interesting. He regards the local community—small or urban and teeming with life—as the place where people actually meet one another and together try to get their everyday lives to work. On this local level principles are more concrete than on a national or international level where people’s direct needs can be overshadowed by more abstract principles. It is not among the high flown international organisations operating far from our own lives, but rather the city itself, the arena for people’s many encounters, that is the real testing ground of democracy. And the refuge is an embodiment of the democratic freedom potential that the city represents. This might be a romantic idea, but these refuges do exist, they function, and there are more of them than ever.

Derrida died more than twelve years ago and did not live to see the first of these refuges in place and he of course could not follow their fantastic growth rate over time. (His speech has been published as “On Cosmopolitanism” or in the French original: “Cosmopolites de tous les pays, encore un effort!”).

In a world where the freedom of speech is being ever more curtailed (even in democratic countries) the system of sanctuaries, supported by local politicians, enthusiasts, and the writers themselves, is one of the very few inspiring examples of the possibility of organizing resistance to terror. It is possible to use peaceful and constructive means in order to strengthen and empower the free word, which is the fixed point from which, according to Archimedes, the world can be shifted. It is satisfying to be able to devote this issue of PEN/Opp to those writers who are currently benefiting from the system of sanctuaries and to those who have made this possible.

Sadly, this issue of PEN/Opp—the twentieth—might be the last one. Today we have more than 300 000 readers worldwide, and we certainly have faith in this concept. Nevertheless, it has become harder to convince those who support us financially that PEN/Opp really fills a need. This autumn we will know whether the blog has a future or not. Until then, on behalf of our readers and myself, I would like to thank Elnaz Baghlanian who has been invaluable in making this blog the success it is; Elnaz is moving on to other important tasks in the world of publication. Thank you Elnaz!

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