Monday, August 10, 2015

Ruminations 58: And Speaking of Bloggers--On the Beating Death of Rasim Aliyev

(Pix © Larry Catá Backer 2015)

I have been suggesting the way in which state protection of religion against insult or incitement can contribute significantly to societal norms in which offenses against religion might itself be viewed as enough to insulate people from the legal effects of killing (Ruminations 57: On Hacking Bloggers to Death in Bangladesh and the Price of Insulting Religion). I have posited that while the state, through its law, might have little effect on the structures and belief systems expressed through societal norms, especially those rooted in old religions institutionally supported and elaborated through autonomous rule structures, the state can, through its laws, signal that it might turn a blind eye toward the substitution of societal norms for those of formal law, even constitutional law.  Thus law can activate societal norms (including norms condoning the killing of heretics and those giving offense to religion), "its centrality for individuals and their willingness to give it expression vary with social and political conditions." (Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (NY Vintage Books 1997), p. 45).

But the effects of legal structures grounded in insult and offense might amplify societal norm structures in other areas as well.  This is especially the case where either the state apparatus, its governmental structures, or its societal structures tend toward authoritarianism. In those instances offense serves as a proxy for a direct attack on the legitimacy of the governmental, religious or societal structures, rules, privileges or organization that is protected by rules against offense.  In effect, offense and incitement serves as an approximation of sedition, or at its extreme, of treason--both traditionally capital offenses. 

We speak not just to the protections of religion against treasonous speech to speech acts.  This pattern extends to all aspects of importance to a society's life and self understanding.  One of the most important is sport.  Sport provides one of the few venues where people can congregate and where emotions may be manifested.  It is not surprising, then, that the passions that is poured into sport may well be directed toward a more overtly political agenda.  It comes as no surprise, then, that a blogger was recently beaten to death in Azerbaijan for insulting a popular Azerbaijani footballer (Azerbaijan journalist dies after beating by football fans, BBC News, Aug. 10, 2015).

This from the BBC:
* * *

Rasim Aliyev had said on Facebook that Javid Huseynov should be banned from European football for allegedly making a rude gesture at a Cypriot journalist.

The reporter asked why he had waved a Turkish flag at a Cypriot team's fans.

Mr Aliyev was then beaten up after being lured to a meeting by somebody who said they were a relative of the player, local media report.

He later died from internal bleeding.

In his Facebook post, Mr Aliyev, who worked for the news website, accused Mr Huseynov of being "immoral and ill-bred" for making the gesture after a Europa League qualifying tie between his club, Gabala FK, and Apollon Limassol.

Turan news agency reported that a cousin of Mr Huseynov had been detained, but Azeri security services could not confirm this to the BBC.

Azerbaijan's President, Ilham Aliyev, said he was "seriously concerned" by the incident, calling it a "threat to freedom of speech", according to Baku-based APA news agency.

Meanwhile, the Gabala club issued a statement saying that Mr Huseynov had been suspended from the team.

Saying that it was "shocked" by the journalist's death, the club said nobody had the "right to threaten anyone or use violence".

* * *

The head of Azerbaijan's Press Council, Aflatun Amasov, said that Mr Aliyev's death "must not be politicised".

"The investigation is not finished yet," APA quoted Mr Amasov as saying.

"Therefore, it is not right to explain the incident from the point of view of freedom of speech and the media."

He added that the Press Council was also "concerned" about unethical postings on social networking websites.

Freedom of expression is a thorny issue in Azerbaijan, with the country rated 162nd out of 180 countries in the Reporters Without Borders press freedom index.

Freedom House says the Azeri authorities imprison journalists and bloggers who express dissenting opinions, while violence against journalists continues with impunity.

This is an old pattern.  Procopias, in his Secret History,  describes the way that sport sometimes serves as a proxy for politics in authoritarian states, in this case in the 6th century Byzantine Empire. He relates the political function of the clubs of supporters for Hippodrome One can follow its lines here.  events.  The Nika rebellion that almost overthrew Justianian was in part orchestrated by the action of these clubs, and both Emperor and his enemies were careful to patronize these clubs.

One can follow its lines here. A footballer with a large fan base, Javid Huseynov, waves a Turkish flag  at Cypriot fans and made a rude gesture at a Cypriot journalist.  Cyprus is a politically volatile place since the Turkish occupation of part of the island and its recent accession into the European Union. "Cyprus joined the EU as a de facto divided island but the whole of Cyprus is EU territory. Turkish Cypriots are EU citizens as they are citizens of an EU country - the Republic of Cyprus - even if they live in a part of Cyprus not under government control." (European Union--Cyprus). Azeris are a Turkish speaking ethnic group that makes up a majority of the populaiton fo Azerbaijan and are a large ethnic minority in Iran.

Rasim Aliyev, a Azerbaijani journalist criticized these actions and suggested that the footballer be banned from European football for his conduct.  This was done on social media--on Mr. Aliyev's facebook site.  For this he was lured out of his house and beaten to death.  So far, this sounds like a very sad and needlessly cruel act by fans out of control--something common among football fans throughout Europe. And, indeed, the authorities detained a member of Javid Huseynov's family. But it was what happened after that suggests the larger implications.

First, the football club suspended Mr. Huseynov.  It appears that Mr. Aliyev's complaints produced results, in the wake of his killing. At the same time, and most tellingly, the Azerbaijani Press Club called for restraint--lest the political implications of the killing be emphasized.  It feared that the killing would be interpreted as a further erosion of the speech rights of citizens, and especially journalists.  It perhaps hoped that the killing could be framed as one of passion rather than of politics.  More importantly, it then turned the argument around suggesting, in a way that mirrors the line taken by Bangladeshi authorities in the wake of the butchering of Bangladeshi bloggers, that the problem might be with the social media expression itself.  In the Bangladeshi case because it insulted religion and incited passion--unethical postings could inflame political passion.  In the Azerbaijani case perhaps because it incited political passion by insulting Azerbaijani's ethnic ties to Turkey. But these stances are taken in a context in which Azerbaijan  appears to stand with those states in which violence against journalists and bloggers appears to be possible with impunity.

A journalist criticizes an Azerbaijani footballer  for a political gesture at a football match involving Cypriot teams.  He is killed for his trouble.  A societal analysis suggests that, irrespective of the legal framework in Azerbaijan, societal rules  views such criticism, especially when directed in favor of Greeks, as a capital offense, a suggestion, perhaps, of ethno treason.  And that might permit societal members to kill with impunity.  Why impunity?  Because the state  may not have the power to overcome the power of societal norms in this case.  It is likely here that if the perpetrators are ever caught and tried, they might be punished--or at least appear to be punished.  That will happen not because of any enthusiasm for this  result among strong supporters of mass societal norms in Azerbaijan.  Rather, it will be on account of the application of the will of stronger societal norms, norms of importance to Azerbaijan--perhaps projected form out of the European Union, that will enable Azerbaijan to apply laws s to trump the societal norms that made this killing something that could be executed.

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