Swiss artist Brenar warns of intolerance of dissent

Swiss artist Brenar is concerned about the increasing influence of the extreme right in Switzerland. In November 2009, the Swiss voted in favor of a general prohibition of the construction of minarets. The ban violates the right of Muslims in Switzerland to practice their religion, according to Amnesty International’s director of the Europe and Central Asia Programme, Nicola Duckworth.

Brenar told me: “In my opinion, the vote to ban the construction of minarets is a shame for every Swiss. It is almost a stain on our honor. Moreover, it reveals our Islamophobia. Deep down, we are a xenophobic people, and we hide this behind certain aspects, certain values, of an old established democracy.”

In the painting ‘Work in progress’, “I wanted to show a mirror to the spectators, of these ‘ideal’ and ‘clean’ Swiss,” said Brenard. “It is a mirror of the present, of these right wing extremists and what is behind them.”

I asked Brenar why he had painted a portrait of Hitler. He said, “It is not a portrait. I portrayed a contemporary man in jeans and basketball shoes. For me, this is a symbol of being afraid to oppose or to express a different or unique opinion. After 9/11, the attack on the World Trade Center in New York, the climate changed. At that moment, George Bush said, ‘you‘re either with us, or against us.’ When you are critical, it is as if you do not deserve to exist. My painting is a warning.”

Brenar expressed his concerns about the intolerance of dissent in Switzerland. However, this phenomenon is not unique to Switzerland. Professor John Dugard spoke about stifling dissent in Israel when he commented on the increasing oppression of human rights defenders and boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) activists in Israel. Dugard is a former UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. He told The Electronic Intifada in October 2010:

It is unfortunate. Israel has been relatively tolerant of dissent in its society. It indicates a new repressive tendency of Israeli society. The effect will be stifled dissent in Israeli society.

Another example of stifling dissent is the criminalization of eleven Muslim students from UC Irvine and UC Riverside in the United States. They were involved in a non-violent protest during a speech by an Israeli official in February 2010. The students were convicted of “conspiracy to disrupt a public meeting” and “disruption of a public meeting.” Following the sentencing, Khalid Akari, one of the students, said at a press conference on 24 September 2011:

On February 8, 2010, I stood up against the face of oppression. I stood up for the children of Palestine; children who have no voice. That day, I stood up for a purpose. I stood up for conscience. I had a message that day, a peaceful message.

Nora Barrows-Friedman reported for The Electronic Intifada:

Taher Herzallah [one of the students] said that he was concerned that if they took a plea bargain at the beginning, and did not fight this in court, that it may not have inspired such outcry from students and the community at large. “We shouldn’t be scared,” he told The Electronic Intifada. “We should be encouraged to do these things. I hope this whole process encourages people do stand up, not discourage them.

The attorneys will file an appeal to overturn the decision in order to protect legitimate protest and free speech in the United States. In an open letter two lawyers with the Irvine 11 defense team characterized the legal action against the Irvine 11 as “criminalization of dissent based on its content and engaged in a racist and selective prosecution of students.”

The painting of Brenar is a mirror, for Switzerland and the world.



Adri Nieuwhof

Adri Nieuwhof's picture

Adri Nieuwhof is a human rights advocate based in the Netherlands and former anti-apartheid activist at the Holland Committee on Southern Africa. Twitter: @steketeh