On the waves of global protests against racism and discrimination, a iconoclastic storm rages. Statues of persons symbolizing racism and discrimination are knocked down (unlocking statues) or daubed. A statue that must now also be deflowered is that of Mahatma Gandhi. In a number of African countries, protests have been taking place for several years against the presence of statues of Gandhi because of his racist statements about Africans. In England, too, there are now activists calling for his statues to be removed. In the Netherlands, the statue of Gandhi in Amsterdam-South (Churchill Avenue) was daubed with red paint last week. On the pedestal is written ‘racist’ and the figures are 1312. These numbers represent the letters A‑C-A‑B, all cops are bastards. That Gandhi is associated with these figures is highly remarkable since he has never used violence.
Gandhi as racist
Mahatma Gandhi (October 2, 1869–January 30, 1948) is regarded internationally as an icon of nonviolent resistance to racism, discrimination and colonialism. Many human rights fighters found and find their inspiration in Gandhi and his life mission, such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela. What is the racist objection against Gandhi? Gandhi regarded the Africans in South Africa as uncivilized, dirty and alive as animals. As an Indian, he couldn’t have had the same treatment as a African. Gandhi considered Indians superior to black South Africans, following the European colonials, and he advised Indians to avoid contact with black South Africans. Gandhi made these statements during his stay in Natal in South Africa between 1893 and 1915.
Gandhi’s racist statements became known when a biography of him was published by Joseph Lelyveld, former editor-in-chief of The New York Times and admirer of Gandhi: Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India (2011). Where Gandhi is almost a saint in India, Lelyveld’s biography meant a desecration or demythification of the Great Soul. Lelyveld’s biography contains many asides in which he portrays him as a bisexual, racist, vainly, sourpuss and manipulator. The reviews that subsequently appeared in British newspapers have mainly magnified these ‘asides’ to the great displeasure of the author according to interviews with him, because years later Gandhi distanced himself from his racist statements. Not surprisingly, in India, the reviews in British newspapers about the Gandhi’s biography were met with great shock. In the eyes of Indians, this biography was a desecration of someone who now has the status of a saint in India.
Five years later, another publication was published that addressed Gandhi’s racism, but it did not receive widespread attention in the press as joseph Lelyveld’s in 2011. Two Indo-South African scientists Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed published their The South African Gandhi: Stretcher-Bearer of Empirein 2016. They, too, describe Gandhi’s racism during his South African years.
I do not rule out the fact that Gandhi, in his twenties, has taken over the narrative of racist white supremacists about the inferiority of the black race with his statements about black South Africans during his time in Natal. This, for my part, does not imply any condoning of his statements.
The spirit of the Taliban within the anti-racism movement
I can’t escape the impression that certain (extremist) activists are now overcome by blind anger and that common sense and nuance are far to be found in them. It would mean speeding up the search for anyone who has a racist slur to refer to the scrapheap of history. Historical personalities are not saints and their legacy is always inconsistent. This also applies to institutions such as the Church.
I explain this inconsistency below with a number of examples. Enlightenment philosophers from the eighteenth century such as Voltaire and Montesquieu symbolise everything the Enlightenment stood for with its pleas for freedom of religion, separation of church and state and equality of man. Universal human rights are for an important part based on the ideas of these enlightenment philosophers. Montesquieu owes us the political establishment of democratic states based on his theory of the separation of powers, the Trias Politica. However, Voltaire and Montesquieu expressed racist and anti-Semitic views. This also applies to many other enlightenment philosophers such as Immanuel Kant and DavidHume. These philosophers later distanced themselves from their racist views. Does it mean that, despite the change in their thinking, we will have to put a spell on their entire intellectual legacy in 2020? These philosophers proclaimed views that are totally unacceptable today, but they lived in a different time and in some ways had different visions of good and evil.
What about Christianity, Christian institutions and symbols? Should churches be daubed and Christian symbols removed from public life because Christianity legitimized the enslavement of Africans by referring to ‘the curse of Cham’? [Cham was one of Noah’s sons, who was cursed by his father]. Within Christianity, Africans were seen as descendants of Cham through all kinds of questionable reasoning. It was not until the nineteenth century that the Vatican would speak out against slavery. Just as Islam is not a retarded religion because of extremist Islamic fundamentalism, so the Christian Church is not a paedophile movement because of the many cases of child abuse. Such views would be short-sighted.
To stay with the present time, Malcolm X (1925–1965) still stands today as an icon of black protest in the United States. At some stage in his life, however, he was also a racist (whites supremacists are white devils, interracial marriages affect the purity of the black race), an anti-Semite (Jews are leeches and are the worst of the white devils), a homophobe and a sexist (women are subordinate to men). Malcom X later admitted that he was wrong about his statements about whites and Jews. Should we continue to regard him as a racist and anti-Semite? I am aware of malcolm x’s above statements, but he nevertheless remains to me above all someone who gave Afro-Americans dignity and cultural self-awareness. Should we also call for a ban on Michael Jackson’s music on radio and television because of his child abuse? By no means, he remains to me the King of pop but At the same time I realize that the flip side of his great contribution to entertainment has also been the abuse of children.
What I want to make clear with these examples is that we should not use the extreme position or faux pas in the past of individuals and an institution like the Church as a stall cover for their entire (spiritual, intellectual, artistic et cetera) legacy. We need to look at the inconsistencies of individuals and institutions and ask ourselves how they relate to their moral message. People and situations are complex and going down with one aspect leads to stereotyping and phrases like all whites are supremacists and all blacks are lazy. With such an attitude, we are entering a spiral of radicalism rather than engaging in constructive dialogue. Whoever we grab by the ankles and keep their heads down, there will always be things rolling out of the pocket that can’t bear the daylight. Gandhi is no exception for me in that respect. The enlightenment philosophers, Gandhi, Malcolm X and with them many others are not perfect. No one is. In blind rage unlocking and defacing statues are expressions of a Taliban-like state of mind and i consider the hijacking of a legitimate movement by extremists. On the important issue that is now at stake, we must not take the wrong people’s measure, but rather focus on combating racism and discrimination in the here and now!
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The police killing of 46-year-old Afro-American George Floyd in Minneapolis, USA on May 25, has sparked a wave of anti-racism protests around the world. In addition to many American cities, demonstrators took to the streets in other cities outside the US to protest against racism and discrimination. Social media plays an important role in these global protests. Footage that went viral shows a white policeman pressing his knee into Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds, despite the handcuffed victim shouting I can’t breathe and bystanders in vain cursing and swearing at the officer. This murder of Floyd is not isolated, but fits in with the pattern of structurally racist police violence in the US against Afro-Americans. As I write this (Sunday evening, June 14), the news reports of the shooting death of an unarmed 27-year-old Afro-American by a white police officer in Atlanta, yet another in a row. No, it doesn’t stop in the US!
Anti-racism protests and iconoclasm in the US
In addition to mass protests in many American cities, this murder also sparked a picture storm in this country. Many statues of leaders and generals during the American Civil War (1861–1865) of the Southern States were taken down symbolizing slavery in the US. That anger at this iconoclastic storm in the US is understandable since the idea of white supremacy in the southern states of the US has not gone away with the end of the civil war. Here, statues of Confederate army leaders (such as Robert E. Lee) dominate, and many government buildings still fly the Confederate flag (confederate flag during the civil war). The battle between white and black has never stopped and white supremacy is still alive and well. Until the mid-1960s, many states in the US had laws -Jim Crow laws- that imposed racial segregation. Despite the abolition of these laws, institutional racism (racial discrimination by governments, businesses, educational institutions and other large organisations) has remained alive and well in the US, and in particular in the actions of the police towards Afro-Americans. Young African-Americans are advised by their parents not to run in an environment where the police are present because they are likely to be hit by a police bullet.
In response to racist police brutality in the US, Afro-American activists founded Black Lives Matter in 2013 to denounce police brutality.
I can well imagine that after the murder of George Floyd, attention now also turns to symbols of white supremacy and racism in American society. Attention now turns also to The Washington State Capitol in Washington, D.C., where both the Senate and Congress are located. The State Capitol also has the National Statuary Hall, where all U.S. states have provided two statues for the colonnade. For the Southern states, statues of individuals who were advocates of enforcing slavery dominate in this colonnade. A visit to this colonnade is therefore a confrontation with white supremacy in the US.
Police action in the US also boosted the anti-racism movement in Western Europe. Here, too, demonstrators took to the streets in many cities to protest against racism and discrimination. On Second Pentecost Day (June 1) a large demonstration took place in Amsterdam, followed by protests in other cities in the Netherlands. Leaders of these events are active within the Anti-Zwarte Piet [Anti-Black Pete]movement. They consider Zwarte Piet as an expression of racism and have been calling for the elimination of this racist phenomenon for years. The debate about Zwarte Piet has led to a polarization in Dutch society. With the tragic death of George Floyd, the Anti-Black Pete movement in the Netherlands got the wind in its back, because where previously it failed to get thousands on the streets to demonstrate against racism and discrimination, it succeeded now. There was also widespread attention in the media for racism and discrimination in Dutch society. Radio and TV and the newspapers have now paid full attention to this theme.
Prime Minister Rutte is also gradually coming to his senses. Where he initially said about Black Pete that he is black and cannot do anything about it, he recently stated during a debate in parliament following the anti-racism demonstrations in the Netherlands that he now has much more understanding of people who feel discriminated against by the servant [Black Pete] of Saint Nicholas. According to him, however, Black Pete is not a state matter. He is convinced that in a few years there will hardly be any Black Petes. Rutte’s unexpected outburst is considered historic. It was also when Rutte acknowledged that not only in the US there is racism and discrimination, but also in the Netherlands people experience first-hand that they are not judged on their future but on their past, not addressed as individuals but to the group from which they emerge, not on their behaviour but on their faith. Rutte avoided to talk about institutional racism, but about systematical problems in Dutch society. What’s in a name I’d say, if only we mean the same thing.
Dealing with a shameful memory
In addition to the many protest demonstrations, statues of persons associated with the slave trade and racism were also taken down or daubed in Western Europe (England, France, Belgium). Statues were also de honoured in the Netherlands, including Jan Pieterszoon Coen (1587–1629), Piet Hein (1577–1629) and General Van Heutz (1851–1924). These statues have been controversial for some time because they are considered in left-wing activist circles as symbols of an infected colonial legacy.
Although I understand the storm of images in the south of the United States, as these are symbols of white supremacy, oppression and racial hatred, I am not in favour of a iconoclastic storm in the Netherlands. The Netherlands is not the United States and has no grand tradition of monuments and statues as symbols of white supremacy. Many statues were erected in the nineteenth century and in the first half of the twentieth century with the aim of creating a national awareness and self-image.
With a iconoclastic storm, we don’t rewrite history. Moreover, in the euphoria, every discussion and nuance is thrown overboard. In the United States these statues are a symbol of still existing racial hatred, Dutch statues such as j.P. Coen and General Van Heutz symbolise a shameless Dutch colonial past. With the removal of their statues, the dark page in Dutch history does not disappear. By removing these statues from public spaces, we are (unconsciously) trying to remove the less flourishing aspects of Dutch history from the collective consciousness, as if we were to be freed from the painful sides of Dutch colonial history. Iconoclasm (removal or destruction of statues) evokes in me associations with blind anger, not for reason and fundamentalism, such as the destruction of the Buddha statues in Bamyan in Afghanistan by the Taliban in 2008 or the destruction of archaeological cultural heritage by Islamic fundamentalists in Iraq and Syria. Fundamentalism is by definition intolerant, rejects dialogue and ends with that. I prefer historical disclaimers for statues that tell the whole story: adding a plaque with text at, for example, the statue of General Van Heutz which mentions his responsibility for his cold-blooded action in Aceh that killed thousands of people, or that J.P. Coen is apart from the founder of Batavia (present-day Jakarta) in the Banda Islands, has more than thousands of people killed.
Dutch somatic norm image
As Gloria Wekker writes (White innocence 2017) the Netherlands for a long time considered itself in many ways as a guide country for other peoples and nations: an ethical nation, colorblind and free from racism. Racism occurred in South Africa during the white apartheid regime and in the US, not here. This is the dutch self-image or the Dutch self-representation. However, the practice is different: immigrant children receive a structurally lower flow advice compared to indigenous children, immigrant students cannot find an internship, there is discrimination in job applications and in the labour market, the police and tax authorities do ethnic profiling. This is institutional or vertical racism. Common or horizontal racism is also a reality for many immigrants. In this context, I would like to point out the Dutch somatic norm with regard to being Dutch (I derive this concept from the Utrecht sociology professor Harrie Hoetink who used it in his analysis of Curaçao society). Somatic standard image refers to the image that is considered by members of a group as standard and ideal. Being white is the measure of beauty and the key to social appreciation. It also functions as a sorting machine in daily live and acts as a criterion for in- and exclusion. The well-known native Dutch question to people with a colour ‘where do you come from’ often followed by ‘where do you really come from’ is in my view related to the somatic norm image of native Dutch people: a Dutchman is WHITE (and BLOND and has BLUE EYES). Anyone who does not fit this image is therefore by definition not an established but an outsider. The third and fourth generation Dutch people who are not white will also constantly be confronted with the question: ‘Where do you really come from?’ It means that if we want to fight racism and discrimination it is important that we recognize that there are dutch people in all kinds of ‘smells and colours’.
Recognition instead of denial
Encouraging in all protest demonstrations is the joint protest of white and colored. These demonstrations represent a tipping point in relation to the phenomenon of racism and discrimination in Dutch society. I do not rule out the fact that the joint and massive protest by Prime Minister Rutte has led to his turnaround: finally recognition by the Prime Minister that we are also dealing with everyday and systemic (institutional) racism in the Netherlands. I am therefore cautiously optimistic about tackling racism and discrimination in the Netherlands. As long as we see racism and discrimination as ‘bad apples and nothing else’ we can’t go any further. However, a structural approach starts with recognition and recognition of the problem rather than denial as has been the case until recently. With recognition, the conversation can also begin and solutions can be jointly sought. I therefore regard the last mass protest demonstrations as a clarion call.
Elections have recently been held in both Suriname and neighbouring Guyana. In both countries, however, the current presidents refuse to accept their electoral defeat. In the last elections on 25 May in Suriname, Bouterse’s National Democratic Party (NDP) suffered a major defeat (from 26 to 16 seats). He wants a recount of the votes in Paramaribo. David Granger has been president of Guyana since 2015. In the elections on 2 March, the incumbent government declared that, even before the official election results were known, they had won the election by one seat difference. Opposition and international observers spoke of a fraudulent election result. Under great international pressure, the Guyanese government decided to carry out an overall recount of the votes. The Guyanese Electoral Commission announced on Monday 8 June that the opposition had won the elections with 33 seats, while President Granger’s party had won 31 seats. Granger, however, did not accept the election results and spoke of fraud in the recount.
How did the process in Suriname go after the elections? The statement of the Surinamese people was unequivocal: exit Bouterse and the NDP. The population had more than enough of the disastrous socio-economic policies, endemic corruption, the sale of natural resources, the skyrocketing national debt and the self-enrichment by a small group around the president. In a democratic system, it is customary for losers to accept the election results and congratulate the winners on their election victory. For the losing party, it means that it takes its place in the opposition benches and submits to a reflection on the cause of the election defeat. To date, however, the NDP leadership has still not officially resigned from the election results. Before the election, Bouterse declared: ‘The people are in charge and we must bow our heads to it’. A day after the election, he had long forgotten his statement, because when it became clear to him that his NDP was the big loser, Bouterse demanded an overall recount across the country in the presence of cameras. A few days later, instead of an overall recount, a recount of the votes in Paramaribo was demanded. According to the NDP, there could have been irregularities on the day of the vote. However, no concrete incidents were reported by this party regarding possible irregularities. Recount is also not a meaningful exercise since all polling stations were supervised by NDP officials. The organisation of the elections was quite chaotic, but according to the president of the Independent Electoral Office (OKB), Jennifer van Dijk-Silos, there was no question of fraud. She stated that in her 20-year career at the OKB she had never seen so much chaos and that the Ministry of Internal Affairs showed ‘incompetence’ and ‘a huge breach of the organisation of elections’. The organisation of the elections was purple [party colour of the NDP]: wrong ballots delivered to the polling stations, voters who had already voted at some polling stations were called upon to cast their ballots again, and there were quite a few reports from a number of polling stations in Paramaribo. In particular, the official handling of the votes in Paramaribo caused a great deal of commotion. From the point of view of the opposition the NDP government attempted to intervene in the democratic process of counting. Observers from various political parties spent a week spending nights in the Anthony Nesty Sports Hall (ANS) where the administrative handling of the ballot papers of the Paramaribo constituency took place. This is to prevent fraud. All in all, it took ten days before the unofficial results of Paramaribo were announced. There was a suspicion that the government was using a delaying tactic in order to be able to defraud.
Despite the great loss, the NDP is still trying to stay in power in many ways. The opposition parties VHP, NPS ABOP and PL declared that a day after the elections they would form a new government with Chan Santokhi [political leader of the VHP] as presidential candidate. Although Brunswijk [political leader of ABOP] had stated before the elections that he was excluding cooperation with the NDP and had already committed to a coalition with VHP, NPS and PL, the NDP side nevertheless tried to persuade Ronnie Brunswijk of the ABOP to engage with the NDP. According to the mofokranti, [verbal spreading of news or rumours] the NDP even offered the presidency to Brunswijk. Apparently, the NDP is trying in all sorts of ways to stay on in the power center despite the outcome of the vox populi on May 25. The NDP’s delaying tactics can be seen as the last convulsions of a criminal regime.
Neighbouring Country Guyana has a long history of ethnic and political tensions. Elections in this country are always associated with ethnic violence. In this country, politics is dominated by the Indo-Guyanese (East Indians) People’s Progressive Party (PPP) with charismatic leader Cheddi Jagan (1918- 1997) and Afro-Guyanese (East Indians) People’s National Congress (PNC) in the 1960s, 1970s and the first half of the 1980s led by the dictatorial Forbes Burnham (1923–1985).
The PNC’s dominance of Guyanese politics between 1964 and 1992 effectively marked the establishment of a Creole dictatorship in which East Indians had the position of second-class citizens. Not surprisingly, during Burnham’s reign, tens of thousands of East Indians sought safe haven in countries such as the US and Canada. The PNC was able to stay in power due to large-scale electoral fraud. Under great international pressure and thanks to the presence of a team of 100 foreign observers in 1992, elections were held for the first time in more than three decades free of manipulation and fraud. They ended 28 years of political sole rule of the PNC and resulted in a victory for Jagan’s PPP. This party remained in power until 2015. That year, David Granger was elected president.
Granger was an officer and national security adviser to President Burnham. In 1979 he was appointed commander of the Guyanese army. He retired in 1992. In 2012, he was elected leader of the PNC. By working with a number of smaller parties (including a split from the PPP), the name PNC was changed to A Partnership for National Unity (APNU)/ Alliance forChange (AFC), but within this coalition the PNC is the dominant party. In 2012, Granger was the presidential candidate for APNU/AFC. The PPP candidate Donald Ramotar was elected president in 2012.
In 2015, the APNU/AFC coalition won the election with just one seat difference. After an APNU/AFC MP joined the opposition at the end of 2019, President Granger had no choice but to call new elections on 2 March 2020.
The APNU/AFC coalition claimed the election win on March 2. The PPP opposition rejected this claim and spoke of widespread fraud. International observers from the US, Canada, Britain, the European Union, Caricom and the OAS also questioned the credibility of the election results and demanded a recount in their presence. The US threatened to block Guyana’s foreign funds and, as well as Canada and England, by not recognizing the legitimacy of a new government under President Granger. The Caricom even threatened to move its headquarters in Georgetown (the capital of Guyana) to another Caribbean country if Granger continued to reject a recount. As a result of the struggle between the government and the opposition over the outcome of the elections, ethnic tensions in the country increased. In riots between Indo- and Afro-Guyanese in march and April, some people were injured and one was killed.
After more than a month of wrangling over the election result and under great international pressure, the Guyanese government finally agreed to a recount. President Granger and Bharrat Jagdeo (former President and Secretary-General of the PPP) agreed to accept the outcome of the recount, which would take place under international supervision. The recount of the 465,000 votes and 2,339 ballot boxes took more than 33 days. However, when the then incumbent President Granger became clear that the opposition PPP was ahead, he rejected the result of the recount, despite his earlier commitment, by talking of fraud in the vote. During the recount, it became clear that Granger’s party had been defrauded at the earlier count. The recent election in Guyana calls for reminiscences of the Burnham government, which was able to stay in power for more than three decades thanks to widespread fraud. In the unofficial result announced by the Guyanese Electoral Commission on Monday 8 June, the PPP won 33 seats and President Granger’s APNU/AFC 31. With this result, the 40-year-old Irfaan Ali (1980) becomes the new president of Guyana on behalf of the PPP. He was previously an MP and minister in the PPP government. With Granger’s rejection of the election result, new violent clashes between Indo and Afro-Guyanese in Guyana should not be ruled out.
Granger’s attitude is similar to Bouterse’s: both refuse to accept the election result. Although Bouterse and Granger promote free and fair elections, but their actions prove otherwise. In Caribbean political circles, President Granger is described as a “sanctimonious gangster” [sanctimonious gangster — quote from John Beale, former ambassador of Barbados to the US and to the OAS, quoted in Inewsguyana.com,6 June, 2020: ‘Opinion: Zero Tolerance for any violation of democracy in Guyana’]. Like David Granger, Desi Bouterse is from the same sheet a suit. The attitude of both represents an undermining of the democratic process in their country and shows their undemocratic disposition.