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This Croatian Group Has Had Enough of Bob Dylan's Racism

Bob Dylan may be an icon of the American civil rights movement, but that hasn't stopped a Croatian community group in France from suing the folk singer over allegedly racist comments he made last year. 

With songs like "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll," "Oxford Town," and "Hurricane," Dylan established himself as an eloquent chronicler of issues of race in America. The same probably can't be said about the internecine conflicts of the Balkans. In an interview with the French edition of Rolling Stone, Dylan waded into a conflict he would probably have been better advised to stay out of. "[The United States] is just too fucked up about [skin] color," Dylan said. "... If you got a slave master or Klan in your blood, blacks can sense that ... Just like Jews can sense Nazi blood and the Serbs can sense Croatian blood."

That throwaway line about Serbs being able to sense Croat blood has landed the singer-songwriter in some hot water and has infuriated a group of Croats who aren't too happy about being lumped with slave masters, the Ku Klux Klan, and Nazis. 

In the words of Vlatko Maric, the secretary general of the Council of Croats in France (CRICCF), Dylan managed to "equate Croatian [war] criminals with all Croats." But there seems to be some confusion as to what alleged crimes the songwriter was referring to. Slate's French edition points out that Dylan is most likely referring to one of two dark periods in Balkan history. He may have been referring to the period between 1940 and 1945, when the Ustasha regime in Croatia, which was then a satellite state of the Nazi Third Reich, built 24 concentration camps for hundreds of thousands of deported Serbs. He could also have been referring to the Balkan wars and genocide of the 1990s, one starting shot of which came in May 1991 when Croatia and Slovenia declared independence from the Serbian-dominated Yugoslav government,  unleashing a brutal ethnic conflict.

The legal action taken in response to the comments highlights the strictness of hate speech laws in France, where the right to freedom of expression is often trumped by concerns about protecting minorities from racial slurs and other discriminatory speech. In France, denying the Holocaust is strictly prohibited, and France's criminalization of "hate speech" -- and the unclear definitions of hate speech itself -- has long been a point of contention for staunch free speech advocates. Journalist Glenn Greenwald, for instance, sees it as a free pass for governments to criminalize "ideas they dislike." Regardless of the criticism, punishment for using such speech is taken seriously. In 1997, there were 88 convictions of racist speech with prison sentences averaging two months. In a high-profile 2008 case, the actress and animal rights activist Brigitte Bardot was fined $23,000 for criticizing a Muslim ceremony involving the slaughter of sheep. Jean-Marie Le Pen, a right-wing French politician, has been convicted and fined multiple times for hate speech.

Of course, these qualities of French hate speech laws stand in stark contrast to those of the United States, where the government has been unable to stop marches by American Nazi groups and where courts generally invoke the First Amendment to protect the rights of groups like the Ku Klux Klan to spew racist rhetoric as long as it does not directly incite violence. It seems that Bob Dylan, a singer-songwriter whose musical ethos is rooted so deeply in American culture, was unprepared for the possibility of legal action in response to his comments. Peppered with casual swear words, they seem to have been delivered rather off-the-cuff.

Now, in a simple twist of fate, the tables look to have been turned on the man who performed at the 1963 March on Washington and became a symbol of resistance against a range of injustices in the United States.

PIERRE GUILLAUD/AFP/Getty Images

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Meet the Most Powerful Man in Pakistan

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif might be officially calling the shots in Islamabad, but as of Friday, the most powerful man in Pakistan is someone else: Lt. General Raheel Sharif.

Sharif, who despite the shared surname is not related to the current prime minister, assumed control of the Pakistani armed forces with his installation as army chief of staff on Friday. He takes the reins from Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, who enters retirement after six years in the position.

The appointment of Sharif was somewhat unexpected. One of four names submitted for consideration by Kayani to the prime minister, Sharif was chosen ahead of Lt. General Haroon Aslam, the second-most senior army official, and Lt. Rashad Mehmood, the candidate thought to be the favorite of Kayani. Sharif has strong credentials, and comes from a distinguished military family, but in a country where the army has ousted the civilian government on three separate occasions, perhaps his most important qualification is that he is considered a safe pick.

Prime Minister Sharif does not have the best track record in choosing his generals. The prime minister was ousted in 1999 when his hand-picked appointee, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, led a military coup. According to Touqir Hussain, a former Pakistani diplomat and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University, Sharif's expected stance toward Islamabad played a critical role in his appointment. "In Pakistan the question uppermost on the prime minister's mind will be the civil-military relations in which the personality and ambitions of the man you choose becomes a critical factor," he told Foreign Policy.

Pakistan has seen three periods of military rule in its 66-year history, but in recent years, General Kayani was careful to avoid the appearance of interfering in Islamabad. His hands off approach saw the country's first successful transition between democratically elected governments. While the new army chief is beholden to his own military constituency and is therefore unlikely to dismantle the army's control over security decisions, Sharif, a reported moderate, is unlikely to waver from his predecessor's hands-off approach to politics. "The army no longer wants to appear to directly intervene in politics but it still wants to set the course of Pakistan's policy," Husain Haqqani, a former Pakistani ambassador to the United States, told FP. "General Kayani charted that path well and General Sharif will likely continue along that path." For the prime minister, Sharif's ability to maintain the tenuous détente between the military and civilian leaders was his chief qualification.

Sharif assumes power during a critical time. With the United States set to reduce its troop presence in Afghanistan in 2014, the new army chief will be a vital powerbroker in shaping the complexion of post-war Afghanistan. With militants often launching raids from Pakistan's restive border areas, the Pakistani borderlands have become a key theater in the Afghan war. But American military commanders have been less than successful in recruiting the Pakistani army to their cause. Pakistan has long been hesitant to crackdown on Afghan militants whom they view as potentially valuable allies in promoting Pakistani interests across the border once the United States pulls out. Kayani rebuffed Washington's repeated demands for an aggressive military force to squeeze Taliban insurgents in the North Waziristan tribal areas and that calculus is unlikely to change under Sharif.

The flipside, of course, is the emergence of a violent Taliban insurgency at home. The blowback from Pakistan's reliance on militants to fight proxy wars in the region has been significant -- thousands of civilians and security forces have died in recent years. Sharif's familiarity with the army's counter-insurgency operations was likely a factor in his appointment. "Raheel has been active in developing Pakistan's [counter-insurgency] strategy both in his present position and as Commadant of the Pakistan Military Academy," Touqir Hussain said. "And he is known to be concerned about Pakistan's internal security challenges."

While some Pakistani politicians are eager to negotiate with the insurgents, the army has so far resisted sitting down with domestic militant groups. Rather, the generals have walked a fine line between pursuing military action (with a heavy dose of U.S. drone strikes) and nurturing a force that can still be valuable in projecting power in Afghanistan and Kashmir.

How Sharif negotiates this complex set of priorities amid a U.S withdrawal will not only dictate domestic and regional security, but also his country's relationship with the west. And while his positions with regard to politics, counterinsurgency, and Afghanistan remain unclear, most analysts expect Sharif to stick to the Kayani script. It is why he was chosen.

But then again, this is Pakistan, and when it comes to the army chief, nothing is certain.

AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images