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The organisers have very wisely included the semiotics of this issue in the conference programme. This is a crucial question, as traditionally Western culture has had some difficulty in interpreting, in abstract terms, the physical and material realities of Islam. I should first of all point out that my contribution to this seminar is not that of an expert on Islamic art and architecture, which I am not, but rather that of one who wishes to share with all of you a few ideas and thoughts from the point of view of a humanist and of someone who has studied Islam.

The study of semiotics is always ambiguous and complicated given that the attributes of symbols are not static, but change according to the feeling and attitudes evoked in the observer. However, our day-to-day life is full of symbols, and it is important to learn to unravel these as they are an abstract construct of ways of thinking, ways of life, and essentially embody the product of a civilisation. Cities, harbours, countries and civilisations display their towers with pride.

Every builder, had the capacity been available, would doubtlessly have made them taller, higher.

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In the case of the Islamic civilisation, the architectural shape which best and more clearly indicates the presence of Islam, is the minaret, whatever its current function and whichever may be the social reasons which led to its construction. If there is a feature particular to Islam it is this: that particular capacity, that intelligent attitude of providing a service to the community when a need must overcome.

Islam was born, grew, and evolved with and for the Umma. It adapted instead to circumstance. Accordingly it also became a social centre, a place for prayer and teaching, a court of justice, a space for financial transactions, an area for administrative organisation, etc. The minaret later became the physical location for this purpose.

We note once again how the symbol stands for a multiplicity of principles, a system of values, of knowledge, of tradition. In the same way as Islam struggled and worked to lay down its foundations, like any other expanding civilisation, its architects and builders needed to solve technical problems which forced them to adopt specific shapes. Here I explore diverse assessments of these affective dispositions, the critical place attributed to suffering in forging forms of governmentality, and the significant role played by the State in the unequal distribution of feelings of compassion.

Attacked initially with pepper spray, her car window was smashed, the door wrenched open and she was dragged out of the car by force and hauled off to a police station with other union leaders and activists. No figures from the national government would mention the incident and the national press provided little coverage in contrast to the innumerable pages devoted to the appearance of Ignacio, Grandchild These acts of repression by the State against a recovered granddaughter aroused neither feelings of compassion for her misfortune, nor moral indignation over the infringement of political rights under the rule of law.

How can we explain this uneven distribution of compassion towards victims of State terrorism who objectively share the same condition? What processes allow some victims to acquire titles of nobility in Argentinean politics? Both grandchildren were born in clandestine camps, their parents had been disappeared and both had been raised under a fictitious identity by appropriator families. Yet, despite these similarities, they failed to elicit the same feelings of compassion or share the same public legitimacy.



This article is about the place of family values, kinship relations and feelings of compassion for victims in contemporary politics. As Sarti recognizes in her analysis of the social construction of the category of victim, paying attention to those left in the shadows enables us to comprehend this as a moral rather than legal process Sarti Following her suggestion, my intention here is to explore in depth the establishment of borders among social actors ostensibly sharing the same circumstances.

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As we shall see, these borders and hierarchies involve critical political issues linked to recent transformations in the relationship between the Argentine State and the human rights movement. Setting out from this brief sketch and based on the description of various public episodes, I show the key role played by blood ties and family values in forming a legitimate representation of victims that allows them to participate in contemporary politics.

This aim in mind, I focus on describing: a the attributes that qualify human rights leadership in post-dictatorship politics; b the qualities of grandchildren that enable them to be included within the boundaries of their biological families and, in the process, within the national community; and c the recent transformation in the prominence of victims since the coming to power of Kirchnerism How then can we account for the significance of kinship categories for political action?

What does the language of kinship ties express about the relations between the State and civil society? This article converges with a recent literature that recognizes the increasing amount of space occupied by victims and humanitarian sentiments in contemporary politics and the role that compassion, sentiments and imagination play in shaping forms of governmentality Alexander ; Fassin ; Sarti Its implications for the present case will be covered at length over the course of this article.

To accomplish these aims, I draw on authors who link family, kinship and politics Lenoir ; Das ; Anderson ; Bourdieu in order to understand the place of blood relations within the State. Following the inspiration of Veena Das , who based his ethnography of Indian national society on diverse forms of public speeches, here I analyse discourse and imagery as signifying practices and performative acts that contain a series of moral imperatives and emotional and rhetorical resources.

A common memory between victims and the State is established through the latter, while symbolic borders are instituted within this moral community. Setting out from these premises and recognizing that affections are the moralizing self-presentation of State Stoler , I explore the diverse assessments of these affective dispositions, the critical place assigned to the suffering of the victims of State terrorism, and the significant role played by the State in the distribution of sensibilities surrounding victims and their relatives.

The academic literature on the Argentinean dictatorship encompasses many crucial issues such as the reconstruction of the repressive modalities used by the Armed Forces Calveiro , the emergence of the human rights movements Catela , the development of transitional justice mechanisms Teitel and the social construction of emblematic memories Crenzel In this article I shall dialogue with this well-established literature by looking to move beyond such canonical topics and analyse the prominence of the relatives of the victims in the ways of doing and imagining politics in the post-dictatorship period.

By adopting such an approach, I seek to fill a gap in the existing literature, placing victims and their relatives at the heart of the State and shedding new light on the ways in which the human rights cause, its protagonists and the sentiments and values associated with them are intertwined with State practices and shape current politics. My analysis is based on a comprehensive survey of public documentary sources on the restitution of children of the disappeared produced between and , as well as earlier ethnographic field research on a number of different State agencies responsible for dealing with the relatives of victims.

The appearance of Grandchild proved to be an extraordinary event: a unique occurrence that attracted the involvement of many people with no direct connection to the case, turning into an emotional drama shared by wider Argentinean society. This situation became evident at the press conference, a routine event held to celebrate the appearance of each new grandchild. On this occasion, though, the Grandmothers head office was too small to accommodate the large crowd that turned up spontaneously to celebrate the encounter.

Instead, they accompanied the announcement from the streets, cheering, singing and blowing cars horns. After the conference, Estela came out onto the balcony to thank those expressing their solidarity outside.


Media reports emphasized the feelings stirred by the event: surprise, excitement, joy, affection. He is a grandson like the others recovered and the others still missing, but a grandson whose grandmother is a symbol. This is an outcome not only of the disappearance of thousands of people during the last military dictatorship, but also of the powerful confluence between the moral values expressed in family bonds and the collective activism sustained over a forty-year period. Ever since its emergence, the human rights movement has been distinguished by the fact that a large proportion of its activists are publicly identified by their claim of a blood tie with victims.

In the Grandmothers organization, recovered grandchildren have replaced and continued the work of deceased grandmothers Bublik : , enabling the creation of a community of peers based on a non-transferable bond that imbues this shared quality to all relations within this imagined community Das ; Anderson From these primordial maternal bonds derive the strength, courage and resistance demonstrated throughout forty years of activism. Public discourses that arose from the appearance of the grandson of Estela, the main leader of Grandmothers, reveal the effectiveness of this basic principle as a fundamental element in constituting this political community, its legitimacy and the level of sentimentalization of public space.

They expose the centrality of family values and kinship in the shaping of political communities and the humanitarian sentiments mobilized in the production of collective support. Political practices - which claimed the particularity of blood in the creation of exclusive moral communities - acquired a national appeal through emotions and humanitarian sentiments towards victims and their relatives, both recognized as national symbols. Although Estela is widely known as the leader of one of the most prestigious human rights associations, the qualities emphasized in the days that immediately followed her encounter with Ignacio primarily focused on her role as a mother and grandmother.

Estela was a teacher and director of a public school on the outskirts of the city of La Plata. With no vocation for politics, her life was devoted to raising her four children, her husband and the school. This account was repeated incessantly in radio, television and printed reports, and moreover was a reiteration in exactly the same terms, using the same photos and anecdotes, of reports and news items published over previous years by different press outlets, revealing the construction of a stereotyped form of presenting her public biography.

Like Estela, she was a teacher and director of a public school and devoted herself to raising her family.

But unlike the maternal grandmother, Hortensia received little public attention and few newspaper reports were dedicated to portraying the paternal side of the family. This difference reveals a hierarchy founded not on biological relationships with the victims but on the possibility of reconverting personal suffering into political engagement. Hortensia lives in a small Patagonian town more than km from Buenos Aires. Even though she asked for the disappeared son, Hortensia had never engaged in human rights activism and remained in a distant small village.

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Estela, by contrast, had started to take part in what was then called the Association of Argentinean Grandmothers with Disappeared Grandchildren Abuelas Argentinas con nietitos desaparecidos immediately after the disappearance of her daughter, a political engagement that she would maintain over a span of forty years, chairing the association since The existence of relatives who do not belong to human rights associations indicates that being the bearer of this bond of maximal proximity to the victims is a property socially constructed and objectified by a group of people who identify themselves in the public space through the use of kinship categories.

Human rights activism by itself is not enough to occupy the highest positions in the hierarchy of prestige. In the days that followed the encounter with Ignacio, other qualities were highlighted to distinguish Estela from other human rights leaders, qualified by contrast, as violent and fanatic. Estela too always distinguishes herself from Bonafini in every public intervention, appealing not to rational arguments but to the language of feelings:. My language is not aggressive, it is conciliatory, it opens doors, it does not close them [ Far from wishing to further cement this distinction by assessing the accuracy of each description, or by reducing these differences to basic psychological traits, my intention here is to make them sociologically comprehensible and, in so doing, reveal the moral economy that organizes human rights activism, allowing us to understand the collective emotions aroused by some of their leaders.

In other words, the qualities performed by Estela explain her consecration at the top of a moral hierarchy. The expressions described here show the emotional logic that connects the moral status of this kind of activism, one based on family values and biological ties, to the way in which sentiments are expressed in political practice.

The sentiments revealed in demanding recognition for victims informs the legitimacy of this political practice. Hatred, vengeance, resentment and violence are deemed to be illegitimate properties for engagement in human rights. Instead, love, serenity, solidarity and affection - all of which Estela encapsulated - locate this engagement to idealistic political expectations concerning our collective life. Relatives thus became significant players in political life so long as they conform to these moral expectations.

Contrasting personal characteristics render visible the tensions within this universe, as well as the pretentions to demarcate the symbolic boundaries within the community of victims. As Stoler points out, moral condition is crucial as it serves as the basis of citizenship Stoler When Ignacio learned of his adopted status in , he approached the Grandmothers with his suspicion that he might be a disappeared child. Public surprise not only stemmed from the relatively short geographic distance that had separated grandson and grandmother. These similarities are not limited to the biological.

In a happy coincidence with his father, Oscar, Ignacio is a fan of River Plate Football Club and a musician too - in fact a composer and the director of the municipal school of music. That question had always been left unanswered, like an outstanding debt: why did you become a professional musician? More surprising still, Ignacio was an ardent supporter of the human rights movement. In his own words, what struck him was not just the physical resemblance but:. It is worth emphasizing that this focus on the strength of blood ties is not unique to this particular case.

The same also appears as a recurring element in many of the restitutions. Why do I go on protests […]? I wondered why I dedicated eight years of my life every Saturday to visiting a poor village or the homes of orphaned children to provide recreational activities. This left me wondering. Given the context in which I was raised, how did I end up doing that? Where did I get it all from? Blood ties and filiation are represented as the legitimate bonds par excellence, evoking a worldview that transcends political and social positions, as well as any objective differences that may exist among the recovered children.

Deployed by social movements, the State and the victims themselves, these narratives are structured around consecrated values and representations of the family, linked to the rhetoric of blood, origins, truth and genetics Gatti While DNA tests provide the genetic evidence that enables the grandchildren to be returned to their biological families, it is their behaviour in response to the DNA findings that provides the proof needed for them to be returned to the warm embrace of their families, conceived now as a moral space. It becomes clear how, in the cosmology of the victims, concepts of the family as an institution founded on biological ties coexist with ideas of the family as a moral space.

All these categories and uses of language need to be understood in the context of the efforts made by other abducted grandchildren to prevent their identity from being recovered, to avoid becoming linked to their biological families or, at the very least, to minimize its symbolic effects, given that they still consider their appropriators to be their real parents. These conflicts include refusals to take DNA tests or to use the name of their biological family, leading in some cases to court litigations. The compulsory nature of the DNA test used to prove filiation has become controversial from the viewpoint of some kidnapped grandchildren since the knowledge of their true biological identity entails a the immediate detention of their abductors for their responsibility in the crime of identity suppression, and b the restitution of their original family names.

He too disappeared. This association campaigns for the end of trials for crimes against humanity and proposes a national reconciliation policy. Today they would be imprisoned for terrorist acts […] I wish for my uncle to be released. In other cases, complaints have focused on the use of the biological family name. After nine years of legal disputes the courts allowed him to continue using the name given by his adoptive parents.

These grandchildren remain morally excluded from the community of legitimate victims until they accept the truth of their identity.

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Photos, names, tastes and so on co-produce ways of reckoning personal identity and family ties Fonseca In the cases described here, acquiring the status of a legitimate victim as a grandchild of someone disappeared depends on displaying the required proofs: not just the DNA test, but the cultivation of moral and political virtues Fassin Since the returned to democracy , all the devices developed by the State to manage the suffering of victims have demonstrated a recognition of its responsibility for past human rights violations, as well as b the legitimacy granted under democracy to the demands of relatives of the disappeared.

State policies have covered a wide spectrum of actions, ranging from the creation of a truth commission CONADEP to a civil criminal trial against the perpetrators of State terrorism , the creation of a National Genetic Database , a National Human Rights Secretariat and a National Commission for the Right to Identity Conadi , along with the adoption of international treaties in defence of human rights as part of domestic law , among many other actions Sutton In this process, the State has insisted on the need to specify the criteria used to identify those subjects wishing to be considered beneficiaries of these different policies, the victims.

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  • Since the beginning, the official category of victim was inseparably linked to recognition of another specific group: their relatives. We must repair the damage caused. Through these laws, guided by feelings of empathy and compassion, the family was recreated as a new victim. These families were defined by the moral damage experienced with the disappearance of one of its members, and the situation of economic helplessness in which they were left without the support of the disappeared provider. This appeal to the family is based on a belief shared by the State and by members of human rights associations concerning the positive value of kinship and the place that family is considered to occupy within the nation.

    Paraphrasing Benedict Anderson , kinship creates an imagined community, but not a fictitious one since its terms are intelligible to all its members. In the process of giving social existence to the disappeared, the State helped turn those claiming to be relatives into new victims. These laws are effectively acts of institution Bourdieu through which the identities of the Argentinean nation were redefined.

    Those who succeeded in being recognized as a target of these policies - and thus included within the nation - were those who received a politically neutral but morally powerful identity: the victims and their families. These devices played a fundamental role in the crystallization and sacralisation of a way of imagining the nation as a family of victims Vecchioli ; Filc Over the years, any sign of proximity between human rights associations and the State was condemned as a threat to the purity of such activism and its place of moral significance.

    A significant number of recovered grandchildren entered the electoral lists of the Coalition for Victory, aiming to promote the human rights cause. The very same afternoon that the courts informed Estela that her grandson had appeared, Cristina Kirchner, president at the time, phoned to congratulate her. Likewise, the informal reunion in the presidential residence a few days later - described as an intimate meeting - was compared to a snapshot of a family gathering of three generations: the children recovered and the children of the president; the parents and comrades from the s generation represented by Cristina and other high-ranking public officials; and the grandmother, Estela.

    The president herself used her Twitter account to circulate the photo, showing her dinner with Ignacio and Estela at the presidential residence.



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