The age-old challenge of ethnic and religious diversity

Walter Palm

Three possible policy responses

Paradesi synagogue in Kochi (India)

Years ago, together with my dear wife Orchida, I made an impressive trip to India. Her family is originally from there as well. We visited Mumbai, Goa and Kochi (formerly known as Cochin) among others. I was deeply impressed by Goa, because the old quarter of this city, the Fontainhas Quarter, with its pastel-coloured houses, reminded me of the picturesque Otrobanda district on my native island of Curaçao. Kochi, which is now the setting for the popular BBC series The Real Marigold Hotel, is known for its lucrative spice trade. It was this city that Columbus (1451-1506) wanted to reach when he crossed the Atlantic and mistook America for India.

Kochi has also been one of the oldest centres of the Jewish Diaspora since 562 BC. The synagogue in this city plays an important role in one of my favourite novels, The Moor’s Last Sigh (1995) by Indian author Salman Rushdie. Another wonderful novel by this author is Midnight’s Children (1981) about the bloody separation of India and Pakistan on 15 August 1947 at the stroke of midnight. India remained predominantly Hindu but with the largest Muslim population in the world at 172 million Muslims, and Pakistan became an Islamic state. Dealing with ethnic and religious diversity has been a challenge for centuries, but it is also a particularly topical subject because in today’s globalised world, there is not one country that does not have great ethnic or religious diversity. Suriname also has something to say about this.

Based on my years of experience in the field of integration policy, which even earned me the honorary title of ‘Mister Integration’, I see three possible policy responses to ethnic and religious diversity, namely: striving for ethnic and religious homogeneity; suppressing ethnic and religious minorities; and building bridges to ethnic and religious minorities. My preference is for the last variant.

Striving for ethnic and religious homogeneity 
A barbaric ‘solution’ is to strive for ethnic homogeneity. This often ends in a bloodbath like the civil war in Rwanda in 1994, the ‘ethnic cleansing’ in Srebrenica in 1995, the Rohingya Genocide in Myanmar from October 2016 to January 2017 and, of course, the Holocaust in World War II.

If ethnic homogeneity is a perverse response to ethnic diversity, then the pursuit of a mono-religious society is a knee-jerk response to a society that is religiously diverse. The realisation of a mono-religious society is an ancient idea. In the 16th century, King Philip the Second (1556-1598) wanted to impose Catholicism on the Netherlands, which led to the Eighty Years’ War (1568-1648). A century later, in 1685, King Louis the Fourteenth (1643-1715) cancelled the Edict of Nantes, which meant that only one religion was permitted in France, namely Catholicism.

My Huguenot ancestors were forced to flee France after the repeal of the Edict of Nantes, and they settled first in the Netherlands and then in Curaçao. Incidentally, the main characters in Albert Helman’s famous novel De Stille Plantage (The Silent Plantation) (1931) are Huguenots who fled from France and set up a plantation in Surinam.

Oppression of ethnic and religious minorities 
Another less extreme reaction to ethnic and religious diversity is suppression of ethnic and religious minorities. In my essay Het sluipend gif van Islamofobie,1989-2019 (The creeping poison of Islamophobia, 1989-2019) (In de Knipscheer Publishers; ISBN 978 90 6265 769 8) (2019), I describe in detail the phenomenon of political Islamophobia within Dutch politics. Political Islamophobia means that political parties deploy the fear of ‘Islam’ and ‘the Muslim’ for electorally opportunistic reasons in election campaigns. The phenomenon of political Islamophobia arose in 2002 when, more than half a year after the dramatic Al-Qaeda attacks in the United States, the Islamophobic LPF suddenly, out of the blue, won 26 seats in parliament in the elections for the Lower House on 15 May 2002, with an Islamophobic approach. The fear of ‘Islam’ and ‘the Muslim’ was further fuelled after 11 September 2001 by the endless series of intimidating attacks ‘in the name of Islam’.

When my wife and I were in Mumbai, we visited the imposing Taj Mahal Hotel which was the target of an attack by Islamic terrorists on 26 November 2008. Terrorist attacks came very close for me when on 22 March 2016 supporters of Islamic State carried out a bloody attack at Maelbeek metro station in Brussels. It was a metro station that I often frequented when I had to be at the European Commission for work. In other words. I could have been a victim too

Political Islamophobia is unfortunately part of reality. The Islamophobic PVV, which wants to ban mosques, is the best example of a political party that, based on an opportunistic electoral strategy, uses the fear of ‘Islam’ and ‘the Muslim’ to win at the ballot box.

Other political parties emphatically distanced themselves from minorities after 11 September 2001. This distancing of minorities was most clearly visible in the PvdA, the party that traditionally attracted many minorities. After the municipal elections of 7 March 2006, in which minorities had voted overwhelmingly for the party, thus making a significant contribution to its resounding electoral success, the party leader at the time, Wouter Bos, took an unexpected turn when he publicly expressed deep concern that the PvdA would become the ‘Party of the Ethnic Minorities’. Instead of rejoicing in the electoral support he had received from minorities, he seemed to regret it. Minorities felt abandoned and betrayed by the PvdA.

Political Islamophobia is not a marginal phenomenon in the Dutch political landscape. On the contrary, it is a significant phenomenon. The Islamophobic PVV is the third largest political party in the Netherlands after the elections on 17 March 2021. After the elections on 17 March 2017, it was even the second largest political party in the Netherlands. Other political parties, with the exceptions, are happy to take a slice of this electoral success, making political Islamophobia in Dutch politics more contagious than the Brazilian variant of Covid-19. The consequence of this political Islamophobia is that politics in a general sense no longer stands up for the interests of minorities, as a result of which laws are enacted that restrict the religious freedoms of the Islamic minority in the Netherlands, such as the controversial burka ban or threaten them, such as the proposed ban on ritual slaughter.

America is a good example of oppression of ethnic minorities, more specifically the black population. The death of George Floyd on 25 May 2020 as a result of his arrest is still fresh in our minds, as are the Black Lives Matter demonstrations. In America, it took a civil war (1861-1865) to abolish slavery. After the abolition of slavery, Jim Crow legislation was in force in the Southern United States from 1877 onwards, which effectively constituted a kind of apartheid. This lasted until the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

While in the Netherlands we have political Islamophobia, in the United States former President Trump refused for electoral reasons to distance himself from white supremacy movements such as neo-Nazis, Proud Boys, Oathkeepers and Klu Klux Klan. After the Unite-the-Right Rally in Charlottesville on 11 and 12 August 2017 in which a counter-demonstrator was killed by a far-right protester, he did not distance himself from neo-Nazis, neo-Confederates and white racists. When asked in an election debate in September 2020 by his opposing candidate Joe Biden what his message was for the right-wing extremist Proud Boys, he replied ‘Stand back and stand by’. On 6 January 2021, supporters of then President Trump stormed the Capitol. I watched it with dismay. The storming of the Capitol illustrated how vulnerable democracy is. Suriname knows all about that too, after the military coup on 25 February 1980 in Suriname.

Mahatma Gandhi

The consequences of an intolerant society can be unforeseen. In 1893, Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948) was expelled from the train from Durban to Pretoria because, as a non-white, he had taken a seat in a carriage reserved exclusively for white people. He had a first class train ticket and therefore refused to sit in third class. As a result of this racist incident, Mahatma Gandhi became radicalised and in 1947, under his leadership, the British Empire lost its crown jewel.

Building bridges to ethnic and religious minorities 
On 1 August 1982, I had the privilege of joining the Minorities Policy Directorate of the prestigious Dutch Ministry of Home Affairs. The first assignment of the Directorate was to formulate a policy response to the ethnic and religious diversity of Dutch society as a result of four migration flows. Three of these migration flows resulted from the colonial past of the Netherlands, namely the flow of people from the Moluccas, from the former Dutch East Indies and from Suriname. The fourth migration flow was the result of labour migration from first the Northern half of the Mediterranean Sea (Spain, Portugal, Italy and Yugoslavia) and then labour migration from the Southern and Eastern half of the Mediterranean Sea (Turkey, Morocco and Tunisia).

The first white paper on minorities policy was published on the 15th of September of 1983 and it addressed minorities in three ways, namely (1) combating social disadvantages of minorities in three crucial policy areas, namely education, labour market and housing; (2) combating disadvantages of minorities; (3) promoting dialogue of the government with minorities. Within the minorities policy department, I became project leader of the Minorities Policy Consultation Act. To my pride, I had successfully completed the legislative process in 1997 with the publication in the Bulletin of Acts and Decrees of the Minorities Policy Consultation Act (Bulletin of Acts and Decrees 1997, 335). Unfortunately, fifteen years later this excellent law was repealed for political reasons (Bulletin of Acts and Decrees 2013, 299). Political vandalism at its best.

After almost forty years, the first white paper on minorities policy is still surprisingly topical. It has stood the test of time very well and has become a classic. Take the first policy priority from the first white paper on minorities policy. I fear that when the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic become visible, it will be more necessary than ever to combat the social inequality of minorities in education, employment and housing. With the rise of Black Lives Matter in 2019, the call for diversity became louder in the sense that minorities are not automatically passed over for jobs and internships. Institutions should have a balanced workforce. For some time now, there has been Diversity in Business a project aimed at promoting diversity and inclusion in the workplace. It is part of an infrastructure at the Social and Economic Council that actively helps companies to set up, implement and monitor their diversity plans.

Fighting racism, the second policy priority in the first white paper on minorities policy, is more topical than ever with both horizontal racism (between people, for example racist statements on social media) and vertical racism (by institutions, for example in police action). After the dramatic benefits affair in which the lives of innocent citizens were ruined by the government, there is a clear call to improve the relationship between citizens and the government. I would welcome it if, in accordance with the third policy priority in the first white paper on minorities policy,, a modernised form of consultation between the government and minorities would be re-established.

In the present-day Dutch multi-ethnic and multi-religious society, the government should also build bridges to the colonial and guest worker and slavery past, because the Dutch multi-ethnic and multi-religious society is a product of the centuries-old slave trade, the colonial past and the recruitment treaties aimed at acquiring guest workers. We are here because you were there’.

Since the Dutch government was closely involved in the recruitment treaties, the slave trade and the colonial past, it therefore has a special responsibility to promote the peaceful development of this multi-ethnic and multi-religious society that was created by their actions. That means building bridges and no longer denying this past.

Walter Palm, former government official on minority policy

So I think the government should apologise for its role in the shameful history of slavery. And by extension, I also think that the Dutch government should apologise for the treatment meted out to contract workers on the plantations. I also think that the government should apologise to the Moluccan community for their cold reception in the Netherlands seventy years ago. Upon arrival, the Moluccan soldiers were told that they had been collectively discharged from military service, which meant that the Dutch government brutally deprived them of their honour and dignity. It must have been an ice-cold shower for these loyal soldiers who had fought on the Dutch side during the Indonesian war of independence.

You do not need to have studied higher mathematics to be able to calculate that the substantial migration waves in the 1970s, decades later, would have a drastic demographic change as a consequence. This drastic demographic change does not only have consequences for the government. It also has consequences for institutions. Health care, youth and educational institutions with a lily-white management and staff composition are obviously a thing of the past. These institutions must reflect ethnic and religious diversity in the composition of their board and staff if they are not to miss the boat. But even institutions that are not subsidised by the government would be wise to ensure ethnic and religious diversity in their management and staff. Times are changing. With globalisation, the process of greater ethnic and religious diversity is inescapable. Institutions that do not change course in time run the risk of becoming breathing dinosaurs in the future, wandering around lost in an ethnically and religiously diverse society.

Rajendre Khargi, the Surinamese Ambassador to the Netherlands, drew my attention to an impressive speech by Dr Shashi Tharoor on diversity and nationalism at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi on 21 March 2016. Shashi Tharoor concluded his speech with the beautiful parable of a guru who asked his disciples when the night ended. The disciple from the tropical South of India replied that dawn begins when the sun starts shining on the palm branches of the palm trees. The Guru did not consider that the right answer. The disciple from Northern India said that for him, the night has ended when the sun rises above the Himalayas. The Guru did not think that was the right answer either. He said that night is ended when two complete strangers realise at dawn that they have slept under the same sky and that they are brothers in human beings.

Photos Walter Palm: Jeroen van der Meyde (header) and Yvette Wolterinck (seated)

Walter Palm, Het sluipend gif van islamofobie, 1989-2019. In de Knipscheer (2019). ISBN 9789062657698, 230 pp, €19,50.

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