Whose discontent? An Open Letter to Dutch IntellectualsDear Dutch Intellectuals
I write to you as one of those that the organisers of the Winternachten (and some of you perhaps) regard as a “discontent from the East”. Even though I bear no enduring “discontent” and the discomfort that concerns many Dutch intellectuals seems more theirs than mine; even though I am not from “the East”. But since some vociferous Dutch intellectuals and cultural workers have decided that I, as a Muslim, must be Eastern and discontented, I will wear that label for a few minutes.
I attended a debate on the 21st January 2005, which was part of the exciting Winternachten cultural festival in Den Haag. I had been in the Netherlands for exactly a week and found the debate extremely stimulating.
The debate featured three well-known European men of letters: two Dutch (Michael Zeeman and Paul Scheffer) and one French (Olivier Roy) Actually, there was a fourth European, Swiss academic Tariq Ramadan, but he was treated as if he was less of a European than the other three. (I found it interesting that the French Embassy tried to convince the Winternachten organisers to withdraw the invitation to Ramadan, but that is a matter that, perhaps, does not need to be addressed here.) The other two panellists were Eddin Khoo, a Malaysian writer, and South African academic Farid Esack.
As an aside, I must say that there were problems with the organisation and composition of the panel. I am sure that such oversights are not an example of the Dutch intellectual scene. There were no women on the panel, just six men. I know that there are Dutch female intellectuals and cultural workers. I wondered that perhaps what Europeans wanted was just a good fight, a clash of machismos. “Forget the women, find their strongest men and let’s battle it out.” Forget, also, other marginalised groups. There were no Africans on the panel, even though there are a number of African Muslims and other African intellectuals in the Netherlands. And strangely, there was no Dutch Muslim on the panel.
Then there was the debate topic. “Discontent of the East”? Should “Arrogance of the West and its resultant discontent” not have been more appropriate, I had wondered. Where is the discontent and why? Also, have there been debates here about the discontent of Africans living in Dutch society? Women? Dutch workers? Other marginalised groups? Was the message that discontent will only be acknowledged in Dutch society if the discontented planted bombs and killed people (as it is claimed “discontented” Muslims do)?
And what of “the East”? Only one member of the panel – Khoo – was of the East. The other Muslims were Westerners. Stereotyping Islam as Eastern is a huge part of the western confusion about Muslims and for casting them as “the other” that needs to be analysed, feared, civilised and / or subjugated. I am also wondering whether “the East” has not become another codeword in reference to Muslims; so that people can attack “the East” without being seen for what they are doing: Muslim-bashing. I’m sure that wasn’t the intention of the Winternachten and I am also grateful that they didn’t use Theo van Gogh’s word of choice in describing Muslims: “goatf*****s”.
I turn to some of the substantive matters in the debate. The moderator-panellist, Michael Zeeman, one of your important literary figures, was unbelievable. Most astounding was his half-hearted apology on the absence of women panellists. All he could concede was that it was a “slight mistake”. As a South African, I was appalled. This would not happen in an academic or cultural programme in South Africa. And if it did, there would be profuse apologies and attempts to rectify the situation, not the feeble acknowledgment that Zeeman gave.
But this wasn’t his only amazing statement. Zeeman set the tone for the evening with his initial comments. He explained why the debate took place at this time and why it could not have taken place 10 or five years ago. As justification, he listed what he regarded as watershed events of the past five years: the terrorist attacks of the 11 September 2001, the murder of Theo van Gogh, etc. Incredibly, he forgot the refusal by the US and Europe to discuss reparations at the World Conference Against Racism in Durban in 2001 and the US’ snub to the rest of the world by walking out, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq (the latter in violation of the UN Charter), Dutch troops currently in Iraq, the many global mobilisations of millions of people by the global justice and anti-war movements, attempted coups against Venezuela’s elected President Chavez, assassinations and murders of Palestinians by Israeli Occupation Forces, the rejection by Israel and the US of the International Court of Justice ruling on the Apartheid Wall.
But that is not enough. People from “the East” have memories longer than five years. What of the 56-year genocide of the Palestinian people? The coups against Iran’s Mossadeqh and Chile’s Allende? The assassination of Congo’s Lumumba? And Europe’s role in all of these?
Zeeman compounded his selective narrative with the comment that Dutch people have suddenly, in the past five years, been faced with violence and murder which they had not witnessed “in centuries”. How many centuries, I wondered.
Much as we South Africans remember gratefully the Dutch role in the anti-Apartheid struggle, we also have another memory of you. I am constantly reminded of this memory as I walk the streets of Leiden where I am currently based. I repeatedly hear that Leiden University is the oldest in the Netherlands, built in 1575. And each time I am told this, I remember that my country has just emerged from a long period of Apartheid which began, as far as South Africans are concerned, in 1652 – 77 years after this great centre of learning was built – when the Dutch colonised South Africa and subjugated her people by force.
Muslims (whose discontent you are so desperate to understand) were brought to the Cape Colony as slaves and exiles by the Dutch. I also remember that Indonesia and Malaysia suffered 350 years of brutal Dutch occupation and won their independence only in the 20th Century. And we Africans remember that even today your Royal Dutch Shell – owned in large part by your Royal Family – causes the deaths and misery of tens of thousands of Ogoni in Nigeria. Have the Dutch really no memory of violence and murder, when they are themselves responsible for it even in the 21st Century?
Paul Scheffer, the journalist-politician, constantly asked the Muslim panellists to “take responsibility” for Muslim violence. A fair demand. But will you Dutch (and European) intellectuals, literati and politicians ever (unlike Scheffer) take responsibility for and grant reparations for your societies’ crimes against humanity? Also a fair demand.
The other demand constantly made in this debate (and at other forums) was for Muslims to repeat that we are a “peaceful people”. As a Muslim intellectual and activist I am not sure I want to make such a categorical statement under this kind of duress. I spent a large part of my life trying to convince Muslims that we were not a “peaceful community” who had to be “good citizens” under the Apartheid government, so that they would realise that they had to fight against Apartheid. A highlight of that part of my life was the death of my brother, AK47 in his hands, his body shredded by bullets from the guns of Apartheid police. We South Africans won the struggle against Apartheid – with your help – because we were not a “peaceful people”. And South African Muslims engaged in that struggle because we refused to be a “peaceful people”.
Surely you cannot expect us to now suddenly accept Apartheid for Palestinians and become “peaceful”? Or to see children’s bodies ripped to shreds in Iraq and to repeat the mantra of “peace”? Surely you understand that global Apartheid and injustice needs to be fought against as well? Surely you cannot expect oppressed people around the world to forget that Dutch troops participated in subjugating Iraqi people as part of the US coalition? (That the Dutch government has just decided to withdraw its troops is welcome news, but they are still there.) Surely we cannot face the reality of 36,500 Third World children dying every day of malnutrition and “peacefully” accept our lot? You will not allow this for your children; please do not expect us to allow it for ours.
Before I conclude, I must, in all fairness, say that I do not lump all Dutch intellectuals and writers in with the Zeemans and Scheffers. There are many Dutch intellectuals who are part of the global justice movement. They do not caricature and stereotype people, they involve themselves in the day-to-day struggles of the underclasses – Muslims and others – in order to stem the tide of capitalist globalisation and realise a better world. They seriously engage with issues of injustice and violence and find common cause with all the discontented – of the East and the West – in a world of unbridled capitalism, greed, environmental degradation, gender, racial and class discrimination. As an African and a Muslim I am proud to be their comrade.
Clearly, just as not every Muslim is a violent terrorist, not every Dutch writer is a Theo van Gogh – anti-semitic, misogynist, Islamophobic and racist. What the Netherlands requires is an intelligentsia across ethnic and religious boundaries that will stand firmly against murder and against the bombing of religious buildings, that will support free speech and protection from racist and sexist hate, that will condemn violence against artists and demagogical hatred against marginalised groups. Such a pity that Winternachten did not see it fit to invite any of these intellectuals to the debate.
This letter is already longer than I had hoped; we still have lots to discuss and many centuries to cover. Let me conclude by inviting you to engage more, as equals and as fellow human beings, with Muslims – in your own country and beyond – so that we might together understand the factors that cause discontent for us all and so that we might discuss how these causes might be removed. Removed in a way that will allow us all to live as peaceful individuals and communities. Removed in a way that will allow us all to realise our full human potential – the potential of peace and development. We Muslims, you see, desire peace and development as much as the next Dutch person – even if we do sometimes seem somewhat discontented.