War and peace in the Middle East and Europe

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Europe’s history of total war and mass displacement can help create more sympathy for today’s refugees and keep hope alive in the Middle East.

Like today's refugees, Belgians fleeing World War I often took to the sea in overcrowded boats.

Like today’s refugees, Belgians fleeing World War I often took to the sea in overcrowded boats.

Tuesday 28 April 2015

Some 800 refugees lost their lives in the Mediterranean sea last week. While this has prompted calls for the European Union to do more to deal with the refugee crisis created by the current turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa, voices on the far-right have demanded that Europe do less.

Among them was Katie Hopkins, a popular columnist with UK tabloid The Sun, who has over half-a-million followers on Twitter. Shortly before the latest tragedy, she wrote a column in which she described these migrants as “cockroaches” and “feral humans,” suggesting outrageously: “What we need are gunships sending these boats back to their own country.”

On social media, the reactions were even more shocking and disgraceful. Supporters of the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom), or PVV, founded by the anti-immigrant firebrand Geert Wilders, expressed stomach-churning euphoria and ecstasy at the tragedy.

“600 fewer benefits,” one rejoiced.

“Good so. The more who drown, the fewer the problems,” another volunteered.

“Now the seabed is even more polluted,” joked yet another.

Judging by this small sample of comments, what has actually hit rock bottom are the moral compasses of many Dutch people and Europeans

Despite the clear racism of these comments, the European anti-immigrant right wing in general also taps into deep-seated public anxiety towards the violent upheavals and conflicts taking place in the Middle East, which many fear refugees might bring with them.

For some on the far-right, “refugees” and “asylum seekers” have become dirty words, terms of abuse and subjects of hate. While right-wing nationalists may claim to be defending their heritage and tradition, in their attitudes to refugees they are actually betraying it.

Europeans weren’t always so hostile towards those fleeing war and conflict. During World War I, the Netherlands welcomed so many refugees that the Germans saw it necessary to construct a 200-kilometre-long fence along the Belgian-Dutch border in an effort to curb the influx of Belgians pouring from the German occupation into neutral Holland.

The Wire of Death's deadly innovation claimed hundreds of Belgian victims. Source: http://www.dodendraad.org/index.php/wire-of-death

The Wire of Death’s deadly innovation claimed hundreds of Belgian victims.
Source: http://www.dodendraad.org/index.php/wire-of-death

Known as the Wire of Death, it was the world’s first-ever high-voltage electric barrier. Built at a time when Europeans were largely unaware of electricity and its attendant dangers, the fence claimed hundreds of victims who were unaware of how deadly it was or were desperate enough to risk death to cross the border.

In order to shorten the barrier’s distance, German engineers took shortcuts that left large swathes of Belgian territory stuck in the no-man’s land behind the fence. Like in the contemporary West Bank, this meant that a large number of farmers could not reach their land and many families and friends were forced to live in enforced separation. Using a system that would be familiar to modern-day Palestinians, the Germans only allowed those with hard-to-obtain passes, which excluded men aged 16 to 45, to cross the barrier.

This is a far cry from the current situation, where the Benelux countries (Belgium, Netherland and Luxembourg) are tightly integrated and even acted as a precursor and “experimental garden” for the EU. The Middle East, especially the former Ottoman Empire, has gone in the other direction. While the Levant was once largely a borderless economic and cultural area, with many mixed marriages and friendships, today many of its borders are tightly sealed, especially Israel’s borders with Syria and Lebanon.

Many generations on, the vast majority of Belgians, including my wife and myself, are unaware that such a deadly barrier ever existed and almost no physical signs remain. In fact, I still remember clearly the first time I “crossed” between Belgium and Holland and my wife (girlfriend, at the time) challenged me to identify the border. As the two countries flow so seamlessly into each other, I failed.

It was not just the Dutch who gave refuge to their unfortunate Belgian neighbours. Even though Britain is famed for its oft-isolationist island mentality, it was, during World War I, home to a quarter of a million Belgian refugees, many of whom were housed in purpose-built villages.

Unlike today’s image of asylum seekers as being spongers and cheats, these refugees were regarded as heroic and people wanted to help the “plucky Belgians.” It would be welcome if, instead of shirking its responsibilities, Europe rediscovered this spirit and took in more refugees today.

To understand the fundamental shift in attitudes over the ensuing decades, one needs to delve into the nature of contemporary (Western) Europe. It’s not just a matter of selfishness and ill-will but also a question of profound misunderstanding.

It is said that the past is a foreign country, and the Europe of war and near-annihilation has become just that – a distant memory which only the oldest of Europeans has partly experienced first-hand. When viewed from the peaceful, still-largely prosperous and borderless European Union, the madness and mayhem in the Middle East and Africa seems inexplicable and barbaric, and this makes it far easier to blame the victims for the situation they find themselves in.

But the Europe of the First and Second World Wars resembled the contemporary Middle East to a frightening degree – except Europe was deadlier still.

While an estimated 3 million Syrians have fled the war that’s ravaging their country, the situation is not unprecedented. A century ago, there were over 10 million refugees in Europe, while World War II resulted in tens of millions of displaced people.

A century ago, Belgium, like Syria today, was a devastated nation of refugees and internally displaced people. Some 1.5 million Belgians fled to neighboring countries, and possibly as many again sought refuge from the fighting in other parts of the country. And this was in a country of just over 7.5 million inhabitants.

To Europeans, another inexplicable aspect of the contemporary Middle East is the horrendous levels of mindless killing and blood-letting, which leaves the impression that our region has a unique bloodlust.

Though comparative carnage is a rather macabre undertaking, it is nonetheless a useful exercise to highlight, both to Europeans and Middle Easterners, that the current situation is not unique and, hence, can eventually be overcome.

The first day of the Battle of the Somme, one of the deadliest clashes in human history.

The first day of the Battle of the Somme, one of the deadliest clashes in human history.

While the carnage and destruction in Syria and the wider region today is horrendous and troubling, it pales in comparison with the butchery that took place on the Western Front, where the average trench soldier held onto life for just six weeks. The Battle of the Somme alone claimed over a million dead and wounded.

Despite the tens of millions of Europeans who perished in the two world wars, Europe was able to turn over a new leaf in its history and herald in an extraordinary era of peace and coexistence.

It is inevitable that the fire engulfing our region will eventually die down. I only hope that it happens sooner than it did in Europe, and that, out of the rubble of conflict, we draw similar lessons to those of the architects of the European Union, and construct a frontierless Middle Eastern Union.


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which first appeared in Haaretz on 23 April 2015.


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Promised lands and chosen peoples

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By Khaled Diab

Protestants are the chosen people and Western Europe and America their Promised Lands, according to Israelism and Christian Zionism.

The Garden of Eden by Jan Brueghel.

The Garden of Eden by Jan Brueghel.

Thursday 3 July 2014

Israelis and Jews have it all wrong, apparently. The Promised Land is not where they think. It’s actually a few thousand kilometres to the northwest in the Netherlands and Belgium.

In fact, the Low Countries have the dual honour of being both paradise on Earth and the place where many of the Bible’s most prominent celebrities did their thing, at least according to Johannes Goropius Becanus (1519-1572).

This Renaissance polymath was not only a physician to the royals, he was also an amateur linguist. According to his bizarre theories, the Garden of Eden was actually located in Antwerp, and Adam and Eve spoke the Antwerp dialect of Dutch.

His proof? The etymology of their names. According to Becanus, Adam apparently derived from the Dutch compound Haat-Dam (Dam-Against-Hate) and Eve is Eeuw-Vat (The-Eternal-Barrel). He similarly “discovered” origins for Cane, Abel, Noah and other biblical figures. Becanus believed that these etymologies were self-evident; after all, he was convinced that Dutch was the oldest language in the world (Duits, i.e. De Oudst, or The Oldest).

He also theorised that Antwerp was founded by the descendants of Noah, though how they located this low-lying town – only 7.5 meters above sea level – after the reported deluge is unclear.

Though he did have admirers, Becanus and his theories were ridiculed even during his lifetime. His contemporary, Dutch religious leader and historian Joseph Scaliger (1540-1609) scoffed: “I have never read such nonsense.” He derided Becanus as the man who “was not ashamed to criticise Moses for drawing etymologies from Hebrew rather than Dutch.”

The lost tribe of… the Dutch

While creating his alternative mythology, Becanus is also credited with debunking the popular myth at the time that Hebrew was the mother of all languages.

He is also recognised as having taken the first steps on the road to discovering the Indo-European roots of many languages. “Both with respect to his methods and ideas … Becanus can be considered a pioneer of comparative language studies,” says Kees Dekker, a professor at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands.

Besides, Becanus’ ideas didn’t sound as absurd back in his own time as they do today. Adriaan van der Schrieck (1560-1621), another Flemish language researcher, reportedly claimed that “the Netherlanders with the Gauls and Germans together in the earliest times were called Celts, who are come out of the Hebrews.”

According to Dutch Israelites, the Dutch were one of the lost tribes of Israel, namely the Zebulun. After all, one of the children of Zebulun was called Helon, who gave his name to Holland.

Some outlying Dutch fundamentalists still believe this, as this video purports to prove.


Biblical megalomania

Not to be outdone, across the North Sea the British soon developed their own variation, called British Israelism. The first to espouse a link between the British and the Israelites was an English Puritan by the name of John Sadler (1615-1674), Oliver Cromwell’s private secretary.

The ideas he set in motion proved amazingly enduring, enjoying their heyday in the late 19th and early 20th century, when the “sun never set” on the British empire. A sign of its cult popularity was the creation of the British-Israel World Federation in 1919, whose members included royalty, nobility and leading politicians.

In the interbellum years between the two world wars, the jingoism that British-Israelism promoted set alarm bells ringing among advocates of a more peaceful world order. “It must be said quite clearly that British-Israel turns the Bible into a handbook of national megalomania,” wrote theologian and scholar CT Dimont in 1933, “and that it is a determined foe to the League of Nations and all efforts for world peace.”

It wasn’t just nationalism, but colonialism too. In both Britain and the Netherlands, the rise of Israelism and the myth of descent from the lost tribes coincided with the construction of the two countries’ vast empires. This was no coincidence, some historians assert.

“This myth is a vital feature of colonial discourse throughout the long period of European overseas empires,” wrote the British historian Tudor Parfitt in The Lost Tribes of Israel: The History of a Myth.

This link is perhaps most apparent in the conquest and settlement of what became the United States. “From the first landing of the Pilgrim Fathers in Massachusetts, they called it the New Jerusalem and the City Upon the Hill,” says Arnon Gutfeld, professor of American history at Israel’s Max Stern Academic College. “So the theme of America being the world’s last and best hope was from the first settlement.”

The very imagery of these religious refugees and colonists as “pilgrims” is connected with the imagery of the New Testament, namely the Book of Hebrews’ reference to the “strangers and pilgrims on the Earth”.

Moreover, the Puritans may not have regarded themselves as a lost tribe, but they certainly saw themselves as the natural successors of the Israelites as “God’s chosen people”, some of whom were even carried off into captivity.

“For centuries, the American imagination has been steeped in the Hebrew scriptures,” wrote Walter Russell Mead, a professor of foreign affairs and a conservative commentator. “Colonial preachers and pamphleteers over and over again described the United States as a new Canaan.”

This also included prominent writers, such as Herman Melville, the author of Moby Dick. “We Americans are the peculiar, chosen people — the Israel of our time; we bear the ark of the liberties of the world,” he wrote in his fifth novel,White-Jacket.

And the Americas, in Melville’s view, were the Promised Land of the Anglo-Saxons. “We are the pioneers of the world; the advance-guard, sent on through the wilderness of untried things, to break a new path in the New World that is ours,” he wrote, reflecting the then-common sense of manifest destiny, translating into the mass displacement and slaughter of the native American population.

Seeing themselves as the new chosen people, Americans felt a certain affinity with their Jewish predecessors. “One of the many consequences of this presumed kinship is that many Americans think it is both right and proper for one chosen people to support another,” observes Mead. “The United States’ adoption of the role of protector of Israel and friend of the Jews is a way of legitimising its own status as a country called to a unique destiny by God.”

But mixed in with the presumed kinship, there is also contempt. “There were Americans who saw Jews positively and others who saw them as Christ killers,” notes Gutfeld.

Yet others had missionary positions. “In the 19th century, some saw [the Jews] as lost sheep who had lost touch with God,” Gutfield adds, noting that these Christians wanted to help the Jews “for one reason only so that they would embrace Protestantism”.

And then there was millennialism, some of which carried strong anti-Semitic tones. “These wanted Israel to be strong because the prophesies say that when Israel is strong, it’ll go to war with the rest of the world and be destroyed, harkening the second coming of Christ,” describes Gutfeld.

These variegate Protestant movements on both sides of the Atlantic in favor of Jewish settlement in the Holy Land were known as Restorationists and are now referred to as Christian Zionists.

In fact, Christian Zionism as a political movement predates its Jewish counterpart, and influenced it.

For example, a full two decades before Herzl convened the First Zionist Congress in Basel, the 1878 Niagara Bible Conference professed that “the Lord Jesus will come in person to introduce the millennial age, when Israel shall be restored to their own land”.

But it wasn’t just religious. Like today, Western powers saw strategic advantage to a Jewish state in the Middle East. The earliest proponent of this secular motivation was reformist politician and philanthropist Lord Ashley, who was also the president of the London Society for Promoting Christianity Amongst the Jews, who saw a strategic opportunity for Britain as the Ottoman Empire faltered.

“The soil and climate of Palestine are singularly adapted to the growth of produce required for the exigencies of Great Britain,” he wrote.

Lord Ashley may have even been the first to coin the prototype of a famous phrase regarding Palestine and the Jews. “These vast and fertile regions [Greater Syria] will soon be without a ruler,” he said. “There is a country without a nation; and God now in his wisdom and mercy, directs us to a nation without a country.”

And efforts to create this Jewish state did not actually start with Theodor Herzl. Some 14 years before Herzl tried to deliver his letter to the Ottoman Sultan, another man had attempted the very same thing.

Though William Hechler, failed in his mission, this Anglican clergyman of German-British extraction who was born in India authored a treatise, in 1884, entitled The Restoration of the Jews to Palestine. Herzl’s more famous Der Judenstaat appeared a dozen years later.

Starting a pattern that would become common in future decades, secular Jewish Herzl pragmatically joined forces with prophetic Christian Hechler. “Hechler declares my movement to be a ‘Biblical’ one, even though I proceed rationally in all points,” Herzl complained to his diary. But he overcame his reservations because “I must put myself into direct and publicly known relations with a responsible or non-responsible rule – that is, with a minister of state or a prince. Then the Jews will believe in me and follow me.”

And Hechler delivered the goods, helping Herzl to gain access to the German ruling elite, including Kaiser Wilhelm II. “Without Hechler’s intercession and support, Herzl may have simply remained an obscure, eccentric Viennese journalist,” said Jerry Klinger, the president of the Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation, who had discovered the English-German clergyman’s unmarked and forgotten grave in London.  “The course of Zionism, and possibly the very founding of the modern state of Israel, may not have been successful.”


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is an extended version of an article which first appeared in Haaretz on 23 June 2014.

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Send Qatar off and bring on Tunisia for 2022 World Cup

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By Khaled Diab

If Qatar gets a red card for the 2022 World Cup, Arabs should enter a joint bid to host it in Tunisia, regional role model for revolution and reform.

Jubliant Qataris celebrate news of 2022 win. Image: Qatar 2022 official site

Jubliant Qataris celebrate news of 2022 win. Image: Qatar 2022 official site

Thursday 12 June 2014

Like many people of conscience around the world, I am alarmed that Qatar is set to host the 2022 World Cup.

Qatar’s successful bid to organise football’s greatest tournament has trained the international spotlight on the inhumane and dangerous treatment of South Asian migrant workers in the tiny emirate and the wider Gulf region.

Many Qataris and some other Arabs see hypocrisy in the controversy. “Over 20 countries have organised the tournament and they only make this fuss about Qatar,” one Twitter user complained.

Some went even further: “We have to stand assertively against this kind of racist behaviour,” said Kuwaiti politician Ahmad al-Fahad al-Ahmed al-Sabah, who is also the president of the Olympic Council of Asia.

Though I don’t think racism comes into it, at a certain level there do appear to be double standards.  After all, there is a long history of the World Cup being abused as a political football by unscrupulous regimes: from fascist Italy in 1934 to junta-ruled Argentina in 1978. Inmates at the notorious Esma detention centre could hear the ecstatic crowds cheer Argentina to victory against the Netherlands in the final.

Even the 2014 Brazil world cup has not been without controversy, with protests over the costs and the treatment of indigenous tribes.

But it looks likely that allegations of bribery, which Qatar denies, rather than human rights abuses, may drive the final nail in the coffin of the Qatari tournament.

Both Qatar’s initial awarding of the 2022 World Cup and the possibility that it may lose it have stirred mixed emotions in the wider Arab world. It sparked enthusiasm in Qatar and some quarters that an Arab country had finally joined the major league of organising football.

“Congratulations to Qatar and to us for the football victory,” wrote Jihan al-Khazen in the pan-Arab daily al-Hayat back in 2010. “Winning the right to host the championship is an honour to all Arabs.”

Even if they were perplexed as to why minute Qatar with little footballing tradition to speak of had gained this “honour”, many Arabs echoed al-Khazen’s sentiments. For example, both Egyptian fans and the Egyptian Football Association sent Qatar congratulatory messages at the time.

However, the recent strain in Egyptian-Qatari relations over allegations that Qatar bankrolled and supported the despised Muslim Brotherhood have curbed the enthusiasm of some Egyptians.

This prompted Kamal Amer of pro-government Rose al-Youssef to urge his readers last year to overlook what he described as temporary differences and to focus on the “Arab, Middle Eastern and Islamic dream” of hosting the World Cup. He even suggested that Qatar could benefit from Egyptian expertise in the run-up to the event.

So far, the latest round of allegations has elicited little reaction in Egypt, which is preoccupied with meatier matters, such as the recent presidential elections and the anointing of its probable latest dictator, Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi.  Nevertheless, the FIFA corruption allegations have received a civil handling. For example, the outspoken, pro-regime TV presenter Amr Adeeb, rather than gloat at Qatar’s predicament, focused on the ethics of the matter.

“It’s not a question of whether Qatar should host the World Cup, it’s a question of morality,” he said on his popular talk show Cairo Today. “We were happy that Qatar was the first Arab country that would embrace the World Cup,” Adeeb noted.

However, if Qatar gets the red card for the 2022 championship, which I think it should still stay in the region. The World Cup has left its traditional venues of Europe and Latin America, to visit Asia, the United States and Africa, so the Arab world should get a shot too.

Although I prefer the idea of a fixed venue  classified as international territory, I believe holding the World Cup in the Middle East can be an opportunity to honour all those who sacrificed for the dream of the Arab Spring, provide relief to a troubled region and promote some inter-Arab co-operation amid the strained relations afflicting the region. This can be done through a joint Arab bid from several countries.

Given how it spearheaded the Arab revolutionary wave and has been a relative trailblazer in democratic reform, I would argue that the honour should go to Tunisia to be the actual host. Moreover, the Eagles of Carthage have significant footballing pedigree. Tunisia has qualified for four World Cups and was the first African side to win a match at the championship, back in 1978.

However, given the country’s modest means, a regional fund should be established, bankrolled by the rich Gulf states, including even Qatar, to finance preparations for the tournament. Other regional footballing heavyweights – like Egypt, Algeria and Morocco – can provide their technical expertise.

In addition, to avoid the waste associated with the tournament (which can only truly be curbed with a fixed venue), a blueprint should be drawn up that creates the maximum number of jobs ethically and every piece of infrastructure must be recyclable.

This would not only help to raise Tunisia’s prestige and stimulate investment in the country, creating much-needed jobs, it would also promote a deeper sense of shared identity across the region.


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The Guardian on 5 June 2014.


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Zwarte Piet, a bitter treat

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By Laura Boerhout, Mariska Jung and Paul Marcinkowski

Sinterklaas (Santa Claus) brings joy  to millions in the Low Countries. But his dark-faced helpers, Zwarte Pieten, are racist and a colonial throwback.

5 December 2012

Zwarte Piet and Sinterklaas on parade. Photo: ©Hans Splinter

The fifth and sixth of December are the most joyous days of the calendar for most Dutch citizens. Family and friends gather to celebrate the country’s largest holiday, Sinterklaas (Sint Nicolaas), when presents, candy and pepernoten are exchanged.

Already in mid-November Sinterklaas, who is the forefather of the American “Santa Claus”, arrives on a steamboat together with his black-faced servants called Zwarte Pieten (Black Petes). Riding his white horse and dressed in a red bishop’s cape, Sinterklaas towers above his dark helpers.

Across the world, people have been appalled by the Zwarte Pieten and their painted-on black skin, bright red lips, curly black-haired wigs and 17th-century page costumes, but this outrage has generally failed to make inroads in the Netherlands. Nevertheless, a growing number of Dutch citizens are struggling to convince mainstream public opinion that the figure is a hurtful and racist caricature and as such should be abandoned or transformed.

Last year, two Dutch social activists tried to challenge public perceptions of the Zwarte Pieten. Quinsy Gario and Kno’Ledge Cesare joined the crowd awaiting the arrival of Sinterklaas’s steamboat holding up T-shirts which read “Zwarte Piet is racism”. The two protesters were quickly tackled to the ground by the police and arrested while the media painted them as the bad guys.

In fact, the public mood is so supportive of Zwarte Piet that any utterance against the practice is almost always immediately silenced and ridiculed, preventing a real discussion from ever getting started. But what is behind the strong opposition of grownups in the Netherlands to transforming a children’s holiday into something less offensive by removing these black-faced servants? This requires a consideration of Zwarte Piet’s history and colonial symbolism.

 The dark history of Santa’s little helpers

Zwarte Piet has been a reflection of fluid and shifting racial biases and political developments since the colonial period. Prior to the 19th century, Sinterklaas’s helpers tended to be demons and spirits. Then, amid the campaign to abolish slavery, it was in the mid-19th century that Zwarte Piet was introduced in the classroom as an educational tool to scare children into behaving well. While dark-skinned slaves were being freed from their enslavement, Zwarte Piet continued to be imprisoned in the colonial ideology of the superiority of whiteness.

In the 1960s, when it became socially unacceptable to physically punish children for misbehaving, Zwarte Piet shifted from one stereotypical caricature to another – from an angry and scary servant to the childish, simple buffoon who spoke with a fake Surinamese accent and poor Dutch grammar.

As cultural sensitivities grew in the 1980s and 1990s, resulting from protests articulated predominantly by people from the former colonies, Zwarte Piet lost his big, bright red lips and golden earrings in an attempt to make the figure less offensive. It is this transformation that makes proponents of Zwarte Piet argue that he and Sinterklaas are now friends in an equal relationship with each other. Nevertheless, Zwarte Piet is still depicted as inferior to his white master – after all, he still wears a costume that was worn by enslaved servants.

The concept of Zwarte Piet evolved simultaneously with the way race is perceived at any given point in time. Defenders who claim that the figure is not inherently connected to racism obviously miss this point.

In contrast to the US, where the practice of blackface became a taboo following the civil rights movement, the Dutch continue to deny the racist elements in the Zwarte Piet figure. Jan van Wijk, president of Sint Nicolaas Genootschap Nederland, an organisation fighting to get Sinterklaas on to the UNESCO World Heritage list, argued in an interview that Zwarte Piet has been transformed from a racist caricature to “a family-friendly holiday icon on par with Sinterklaas”.

Arguments like this seem to imply that the Dutch have moved past race. But as long as Zwarte Piet is forced to be a black person, the argument that the Sinterklaas celebration has moved on past race is simply a farce. Moreover, ignoring the history and blackness of Zwarte Piet does not change the racial context in which the figure originated and has developed ever since. After all, if it isn’t about race, why did Sinterklaas’s original helpers, who were demons, evolve into Zwarte Pieten?

Colonial amnesia

The transatlantic slave trade lasted from 1519 until 1867. During this period, a total of 11 to 12.5 million Africans were shipped to the “New World”, many of whom would not survive the voyage. The Dutch involvement in slavery and the slave trade would last for more than 200 years and was only formally abolished in 1863. In contrast to the United States, where slavery was an explicit system embedded in every aspect of life, people enslaved by the Dutch never reached the soil of the motherland from the colonies.

“The history of slavery and the slave trade became situated outside of Europe, as an element of African, Caribbean or American history. It kept the visible realities of the slave trade away from the Netherlands. This crucial separation was helpful in further ignoring the role of Dutch trading companies in the transatlantic trade of slaves,” historian Dienke Hondius explained in an interview.

The absence of slavery on Dutch soil is reflected in the way Dutch merchants discussed their business. They referred to themselves as ‘shareholders’, trading in coffee or sugar. By naming only the final products, the slave labour itself was made implicit, and invisible. This geographical schizophrenia and the distancing terminology are not without consequences. On the contrary, they lead to a “reframing of history”, as Hondius stresses.

In the United States, slavery took place on US soil itself and as such was explicit and publicly present. So, though the Netherlands and America both perceived enslaved people as chattel, the Americans proudly held on to their dehumanised possessions, whereas Dutch merchants passed the blame on to others, portraying themselves solely as disconnected investors. After the United States finally abolished slavery, it experienced a long and painful struggle for equal citizenship rights for former slaves and their descendants. In contrast, the Netherlands only began to be truly confronted with its colonial alter ego in 1975, when the former Dutch colony of Suriname gained its independence and a relatively large influx of immigrants from the former colonies moved to what was once called their ‘motherland’.

This longstanding pattern of keeping colonialism and slavery both out of sight and out of mind has resulted in the distortion of Dutch collective memory. Traditionally, a one-sided narrative has been presented in the media, history textbooks, and the public debate, contributing to general indifference and a lack of consciousness. As a result, it is possible simultaneously to glorify Dutch mercantilism during the nation’s “Golden Age” and neglect the suffering of the enslaved and Dutch responsibility for this. This lack of a comprehensive understanding of Dutch colonial history has led to the absence of vocabulary to discuss the ideology of racism that underpinned these undertakings and to trace its present-day legacy. This is why it is possible for an unreconstructed colonial mentality to seep through into contemporary discussions of discrimination, racism and the practice of Zwarte Piet.

Inciting racial consciousness

Although it has become more controversial in recent times, the Sinterklaas celebration in its current form continues to be a tradition enjoyed by many in the Netherlands. Many fans of the Zwarte Pieten wonder what all the fuss is about, and why activists attack these cultural icons and, by association, attack the thousands of people who enjoy celebrating the Sint and his little helpers.

Activists are simply trying to start a conversation. After all, what better way to get people thinking critically about Sinterklaas than to open up a national dialogue on the topic? When Gario and Cesare were protesting, they were not whining about having their feelings hurt, nor were they complaining about the hurt feelings of a woman that was reportedly called Zwarte Piet as a “joke” by a colleague, or the dark-skinned children who are upset because they are not allowed to dress up as Sinterklaas.

Rather these activists are criticising a practice that is quite literally the personification of centuries of racism and oppression. As the national conversation on Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet grows, and as voices that were silenced in the past continue to get louder, the connection between past wrongs and present traditions will grow clearer. It is about time, especially given the upcoming 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in the Netherlands, that the Dutch public starts to associate Zwarte Piet’s bright red lips, wooly wig, and black-painted face with their country’s bloody colonial past and contemporary race relations and injustices.

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When two tongues collide

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By Ray O’Reilly

No this isn’t a perverse way of describing French kissing, but a new theory of how two languages can peacefully co-exist in one country.

Friday 11 March 2011

Analysing the pattern of populations speaking Castilian, the most common language spoken in Spain, and Galician, a language spoken in Spain’s North West region, the researchers used mathematical models to show that levels of bilingualism in a stable population can lead to the steady coexistence of both languages.

The findings, published in the New Journal of Physics put pay to an earlier theory that, in competition, the weaker or minority language would inevitably die out. Here, Welsh is often cited as an example. The researchers fed historical data into their model, which took into consideration elements of similarity between the languages and the number of bilingual speakers.

Jorge Mira Perez, a researcher familiar with the study at the University of Santiago de Compostela in Spain suggests the similarity factor is critical to the peaceful coexistence. “If the statuses of both languages were well balanced,” he says, “a similarity of around 40% might be enough for the two languages to coexist.” The findings suggest that even in unbalanced language ‘divides’ a higher degree of similarity (say up to 75%) would help the weaker tongue survive.

UNESCO publishes a so-called ‘Atlas of the world’s languages in danger’. According to the atlas, half of the 6,000-plus languages spoken around the world today will disappear by the end of this century, if nothing is done to prevent it.

“With the disappearance of unwritten and undocumented languages, humanity would lose not only a cultural wealth but also importantancestral knowledge embedded, in particular, in indigenous languages,” says UNESCO.

The Spanish researchers suggest their work could inform policy-making and educational programmes aimed at preserving cultural heritage of this nature. Personally, I’d like to put their new model to perhaps the toughest test of coexisting languages – Belgium.

After a little investigation, I am unreliably informed that Dutch and French have much more in common than expected. Although they hail from different roots – Dutch is Germanic, while French is a Romance language – there is significant cross-over, especially French to Dutch. But these so-called loanwords have mostly come via the Netherlands, not Belgium, as you’d expect, due to the years of cultural and economic dominance exerted by French speakers until the first half of the 20th century.

For centuries French was a language of nobility throughout Europe and the Dutch spoken in the Netherlands was heavily influenced by this period. But as Belgium’s upper and upper-middle classes would have spoken mostly French, the Dutch spoken in the country managed to remain less ‘tainted’, you could say. Check out a long list of French words of Germanic origin.
So to the situation today in Belgium, while neither language is under threat per se, they are it seems threatening to each other. Many would say the language divide is largely to blame for the patent lack of ‘peaceful coexistence’ between the regions or peoples who speak them; the Flemish speakers mostly in the north of the country and the French speakers of the south.

Tiny Belgium has recently broken a record as the country going the longest without forming a government following a federal election, stealing the title away from Iraq! Though very complex to explain, one of the basic causes of the division is language and the use of it in official settings in certain designated language territories around the capital Brussels.

There is no apparent solution to this politico-linguistic conundrum. Lawyers, politicians, philologists, linguists and even kings have all been brought in at different intervals to sort out the mess. May be it’s time to ask the physics and maths nerds to have a go. Couldn’t hurt.


This article is published here with the author’s permission. ©Ray O’Reilly.

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Guardians of the unborn

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By Khaled Diab

The Dutch parliament is considering whether protecting unborn children should supersede the rights of parents to procreate.

November 2008

Women in the Netherlands who are deemed by the state to be unfit mothers could soon be sentenced to take contraception for a prescribed period of two years, according to a draft bill before the Dutch parliament.

The proposed legislation would further punish parents who defied it by taking away their newborn infant. “It targets people who have been the subject of judicial intervention because of their bad parenting,” explained the author of the bill Marjo Van Dijken of the socialist PvDA. “If someone refuses the contraception and becomes pregnant, the child must be taken away directly after birth.”

When I see how some parents treat their children and come across adults who wish they’d never been born because of the abuse they endured as kids, I get some idea of where Van Dijken is coming from, but her proposed solution strikes me as far too draconian.

In fact, I have serious misgivings about the implications of this proposed law, and it raises a torrent of questions in my mind. Is it really the state’s role to protect the unborn and does it have the right to control people’s bodies in such a way and to deprive them of the basic right to procreate? Whatever happened to the presumption of innocence? Just because a parent was bad with one child, does it mean (s)he will repeat the offence?

Have we got the right to exercise pre-emptive “justice” – and could this be the first step towards a “minority report” approach to parental “precrime”? And, perhaps, given the Dutch penchant for social engineering, this could prove to be the prelude for the professionalisation of parenting, where in the distant future only certified and trained “fathers” and “mothers” would be allowed to raise children in special facilities.

Less fantastically, could this not be the first step down a slippery slope? This government may have all the best intentions, but what’s to guarantee that a future government won’t use the law, or an amendment of it, to target undesirable groups, such as Roma, gays, religious minorities and immigrants.

More immediately, there’s the question of how we would define the “unfit parents” who should be deprived of the right to bear children. Should the law apply only to parents who pose a clear and present danger to potential offspring or could it be more loosely interpreted to apply to those of whose parenting style the state disapproves?

Even if the law does save legions of notional children the trauma of neglectful parenting and abuse, how about all those parents it unfairly condemns? Surely, not all people who have ill-treated their children will raise their future offspring badly. Some will learn from their mistakes or be prompted by remorse to do better. Others will have mistreated their children because of temporary factors, such as depression or a nervous breakdown, the break-up of a relationship, or the loss of a job and other social deprivations.

“I find this is going way too far,” exclaimed one Dutch blogger. “That’s may be because I experienced how my own sister could not take care of her son as a consequence of postnatal depression… Was she such a bad mother that, in the future, she can’t determine for herself whether or not to have another child?”

I must admit that it shocked me that this law was the brainchild of a socialist. As a confounded psychiatrist friend who deals with troubled children put it, this bill is vaguely reminiscent of the eugenics and sterilisation programmes of the fascist era.

Rather than the altruistic goal of protecting children, one friend thinks that this legislative proposal, which is likely to be defeated, is an attempt to steal the populist thunder of the far right in a society that has veered significantly rightwards in recent years. Another hidden objective could be to reduce the cost to the state of caring for abused children.

Luckily, this ill-conceived law, according to legal experts, contravenes the Dutch constitution and the European Charter of Fundamental Rights, and will hopefully be defeated on the floor of the parliament.

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free section on 4 November 2008. Read the related discussion.

This is an archive piece that was migrated to this website from Diabolic Digest

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