We live in a global landscape that has largely been shaped by the effects of industrialisation, capitalism, and centuries of colonialism that extend into present times. The world today is defined by nation-states, a recent development in concurrence with the rise of nationalism. The governments of nation-states remain entrenched in horrific practices, from exerting imperialist control over weaker nations to supporting outright settler-colonialism. The majority of these governments implement capitalist policies at the expense of the earth we live on, the indigenous populations that inhabit it, and the very fabric of society.
Newspapers, followed by televised media outlets and the internet, have led to unprecedented levels of interconnectivity and augmented the spread of information between peoples. As a result, it is more critical than ever for governments to cover their tracks and paint a ‘progressive’ image of themselves.
This article zooms in on The Netherlands, and in its scope takes a critical look at the current socio-political situation in relation to matters of social justice. From the perspectives of two international student activists, we further explore the complexity of anti-racist advocacy on Dutch university campuses.
The Netherlands brands itself as a hyper-developed first world utopia, where diversity is celebrated and inclusivity championed – a true nation of justice and social equity. With a colonial past (and present) as atrocious as The Netherlands’, the need for this branding is obvious.
The Dutch participated heavily in colonialism and the transatlantic slave trade up until the early 20th century. The wealth accumulated during this time, propelling The Netherlands to be the “developed” nation that it is today, came at the expense of the peoples and natural resources of lands that are now considered “developing”. To this day, The Netherlands still controls the defence and foreign policy of Aruba and Curacao, and through its own foreign policy tightens its imperialist grip on some of the most oppressed lands in the world (examples here, here, here and here).
The global sociopolitical sphere influenced by historical biases has designated certain reputations to countries and regions around the world. In the Netherlands, a self-image of diversity and progressiveness has been internalised by a large majority of the Dutch public and is expected to be maintained by those who choose to live here. It is very easy to pander to the narrow, liberal Dutch narrative by falling into the trap of superficial inclusivity and equality laid out by systemic forces that are inherently imperialist and racist in nature. However, when challenged even remotely, it is immediately evident how hostile these forces are to any critique or meaningful change. Once this façade of civility and allyship is dropped, it is impossible to ignore the blatant disrespect for diversity and decolonisation thriving in this country.
Europe has seen a recent rise in right-wing governments and sentiment, and The Netherlands is no exception. One quick glance at Dutch politics tells you that racism is not only accepted, but popular. The VVD (the conservative party) is the current ruling party, re-elected despite being caught up in a scandal that saw thousands of families ethnically profiled (based on their surnames) and falsely accused of fraudulent childcare benefit claims. Low-income families were forced to pay tens of thousands, effectively ruining their lives. It gets worse; VVD leader and current prime minister Mark Rutte openly stated that migrants “should behave normally, or leave”. The general public did not react significantly. The cherry on top came in May 2021, when in response to hundreds of civilians being bombed in Gaza, with over a hundred child deaths, Rutte’s only statement was “The Netherlands supports Israel’s right to defend itself”. This party, along with its prime minister, received the most votes in The Netherlands.
That all seems mild when compared to the third most popular Dutch party. The PVV, an openly racist far-right party calling for the deportation of Muslims, enjoys almost 11% of the Dutch vote, making it one of the largest political parties in the Netherlands. Explicit policies include making headscarves illegal, banning Muslims from entering the country, kicking out Moroccans, and enforcing a law that sees the Dutch flag raised in schools on a daily basis. These are just examples of what large sectors of Dutch society deem to be acceptable, if not desirable.
Racism in politics inevitably translates into (or stems from) racist traditions and legislations. Take as examples the existence of laws that legalise ethnic profiling by Dutch border police, or the citizenship (“inbugering”) exams that reek of white superiority. Public money was spent on sending spies into Dutch mosques, unlawfully. Not least of these is the continuing nationwide celebration of Sinterklaas with state-sponsored street parades hosting the racist caricature “Black Pete”, complete with blackface, chains, and fat red lips.
The issue of Dutch immigration policies is too broad to even begin to describe. To many, there is still no reason for decolonisation efforts, because – as things stand – if the middle-class European man doesn’t experience it, it doesn’t exist.
Institutions of higher education are an area of focus for governments and activists alike. Through government policies and incentives, Dutch universities and research institutions are being encouraged to implement “more diversity and inclusion”. One would expect ‘inclusivity’ to entail being open to acknowledging the inherent imperialism in historical and modern Dutch institutions, and embracing the process of unlearning this ideology. Dutch colonialism is largely ignored in school and university curricula, whether implicitly or explicitly, and is often still referred to as the “golden age”. The “underdeveloped” state of nations ravaged by colonialism and still controlled by the West through the support of oppressive proxy-dictatorships is written off as “poor local governance”. A racist undertone exists within common Dutch conversation; through personal experience in the university, lecturers often refer to poor equipment or unfavourable conditions by saying “it’s like we’re in Africa”. The famous homogenous country that exists to be used as a point of comparison, Africa.
In the lecture hall, there is a noticeably insensitive moderation of discourse and dismissal of critique in compliance with the Western imperialistic status quo. An “open mind to all opinions” approach is encouraged, often incorporating hate speech under the umbrella of opinions we should respect and accept on campus. Perspectives excusing human rights violations and delegating whole ethnicities to inferior statuses are treated on the same level as one saying they prefer vanilla to mango ice cream. This proves dehumanising to students whose lived experiences are actively questioned and debated.
In response to initiating dialogue with institutions, or attempting to achieve tangible change, the current narrative being emitted by the representatives of Dutch higher education is one that champions being ‘apolitical’. Through this, ideas critical of the status quo are easily dumped into the dustbin of ‘too political’. The belief that universities can – let alone should – be apolitical is naive at best. Research and academia are driven by, as well as being the drivers of, politics.
The very individual conducting research or giving a lecture, by doing so, influences the flow of ideas within society. That same individual also interacts with the world around him, which is – you guessed it – shaped by politics. Making ‘political’ a term that discredits anything associated with it, that is viewed as dirty and avoided when possible, is a narrative that sterilises critical thought within academia. As mentioned by Edward Said in his book Orientalism, such positions fail to recognise the inherently political nature of all aspects of society – including higher education. This desire to separate knowledge from politics, decontextualising it, attempts to neutralise the breeding ground of ideas that is academia.
With that being said, admirable individual stances from persons of influence – be it a professor, secretary, or board member – exist, and provide us all with hope and support. Teachers have voiced their support and offered to moderate events. Admin staff have provided priceless advice on how to approach university boards. Even outside the university, on an individual level, commendable exceptions to the institutional attitude described in this piece exist and deserve credit.
AN EXPERIENCE – PALESTINIAN ADVOCACY ON CAMPUS
For over 70 years, Palestinians have been the victims of settler-colonial violence at the hands of the Israeli occupation; an injustice sustained by influential colonial countries and consequently misrepresented by international media. The Netherlands is guilty of providing diplomatic, economic, and military support, making a strong case for activists in the Netherlands to call for change.
Being a Palestinian rights advocate anywhere in the global North will quickly attract smear campaigns claiming you must be an antisemite if you speak up against the Israeli occupation. The Netherlands is no different. Institutions and politicians are happy to mobilise and attempt to chill Palestinian activism under the influence of Israeli lobby groups. Those attempting to organise events and protests are met with opposition and police intimidation. The universities involved often react with vague expressions of concern or remain silent.
It’s interesting to examine how other student associations and activist groups react to the phenomenon of global Palestinian activism. In the wake of the global uprising in May 2021, local action for Palestine started conversations between pro-Palestinian activists and other groups. In Maastricht, the smear campaigns began from day one. We called on other activist groups for support and solidarity. The reactions paint an accurate picture of where the Dutch left is today. A select number of groups (namely socialists, feminists, and black lives matter) showed unwavering support. Some local climate groups did the same. These are the people who bring hope into what is frankly, a far-right breeding ground.
On the other hand, the remaining groups adopted a narrative somewhere between wanting to be apolitical (on this topic) and wanting to avoid antisemitism. These groups advocate for climate issues, for queer rights, but that’s where it stops. Just like the majority of larger ‘activist’ organisations in the Netherlands, the sentiment seen here was strikingly that of mediocre middle-class activism. An abundance of performative statements and positions, but recoiling the moment an issue of injustice comes close to touching their white-European fragility. The issue of Palestine, in this context, can be extrapolated to represent any issue that is not in line with the imperial narrative of the global North.
A PERSONAL EXPERIENCE – PRERANA PAI
Having lived in the Netherlands I have noticed a flagrant superficiality afforded to opinions on processes of decolonisation and dismantling systemic oppression. This is almost deliberately ignored, as the self-image of the country is one of ethicality and equality. Glorified views of support for the LGBTQ+ community and Dutch resistance against the Nazis during the Second World War are used as evidence of the Netherlands being historical advocates of justice, and justification for inattention to other human rights issues. Especially in the issue of Palestine, these points are utilised as crutches to further politically motivated dogma.
The Second World War is a source of national identity and solidarity for Dutch society, at the expense of historical accuracy. There is a strong sentiment of national heroism and resistance, derived from individual stories. “This myth further propagates the idea that Dutch society as a whole – and not Dutch Jews alone – was victimized by the Nazi regime”. This sense of ownership is weaponised to hurl accusations of antisemitism at pro-Palestine activists and potentially alienate people from supporting the cause. Conversely, it is antisemitic to conflate Judaism and Jewish people with the racist apartheid regime that Zionism creates and upholds. Students are dissuaded from action and asked to consider the fragile sentiments of students and staff who might feel targeted by statements opposing actual war crimes. A recent opinion piece written by my colleagues urging Utrecht University to cut ties with Israeli institutions as a statement of Palestinian solidarity was met with a xenophobic, orientalist and factually incorrect response accusing the authors themselves of supporting apartheid.
The Netherlands is globally considered to be a haven for the LGBTQ+ community. Yet, as a queer woman of colour, it is evident to me that this inclusivity is conditional and unauthentic when gay rights are used as a front to excuse Islamophobic and racist rhetoric. Other issues, especially ones concerning marginalised groups or non-Western countries are subjected to suspicion and disdain. Geert Wilders, the leader of the PVV (referenced above), makes inaccurate and hateful assumptions about Islam and Muslims, supposedly to protect Dutch gay rights. This narrative conveniently neglects the experiences of non-white members of the LGBTQ+ community who are apparently not subjects of focus for the queer utopian Global North. Ignoring intersectionality screams of tokenism and does not understand that queer rights have always been intertwined with antiracism and anti-imperialism. So, this Dutch claim to being a champion of gay rights tolerates only a white gender-conforming minority, but is used politically to marshal nationalistic sentiments under a neoliberal guise of LGBTQ+ pride. Pinkwashing is the detrimental tactic used by Israel to represent itself as liberal gay-friendly democracy contrasting with a homophobic demonised image of the South West Asia/North Africa region, including Palestine. This myth is sustained by many Western countries, contributing to the obfuscation of apartheid and war crimes on Palestinian land.
All in all, the Netherlands resembles much of Northern Europe in its sociopolitical status quo. Performative acts are tokenised to perpetuate the same view of how far ahead the Netherlands is with its progress in justice and equality, whilst in reality, systemic racism remains endemic in the country. This article paints a grim (yet realistic) picture; however, it’s imperative to give credit and attention to the presence of grassroots groups, movements and thought leaders within The Netherlands and globally that are different to the status-quo described above. Antiracism protests calling for an end to the annual blackface tradition have been picking up traction and popularity. Palestinian advocacy groups are more interconnected than ever. On an academic level, thousands of Dutch students and professors signed a petition calling for a boycott of Israel. The narrative is changing, and the voices of those championing justice are increasingly heard. Although they are a sidelined minority in society and politics today, they exist, and they are the future.
Omar Ashour is an Egyptian medical intern at the University of Maastricht. He’s also the founding chairperson of Free Palestine Maastricht, a student activist group, and coordinates the recently initiated Student Coalition for Palestine in The Netherlands.
Prerana Pai is an Indian medical sciences student at University College Utrecht, part of Utrecht University. She is involved in student-led anti-racist action, is a founding member of the activist group Utrecht Students for Solidarity with Palestine and is part of the Student Coalition for Palestine in The Netherlands.