For a second I could not move: the language and metaphors the reverend used were almost identical to those of secular Islamophobic politicians in this country. And the Trumpet of God that was absent in India, an illustration of white Christian superiority, was easily translatable to a secular equivalent: India does not have a proper democracy, no intellectual tradition, no civilization etc.  I was trembling. I had always seen this church from the perspective of secularization: a small religious minority living under the pressure of a secular majority. Now, I saw this church from the perspective of whiteness, and European colonialism. I could not shake this feeling off so easily, because this was a group of people I am affiliated to. A tradition I was partly raised in, one that has influenced my experiences and how I look at the world. A tradition, in which whiteness and Christian superiority were completely entangled.

Why do I tell this story?

First of all, because people often speak of racism as a universal phenomenon. They say: everybody discriminates. If you are white in China, people will also treat you differently. I completely agree: everybody discriminates. Everybody has prejudices. In addition, Europe does not have the monopoly on cruelty and violence. However, racism as I use it here is a very specific phenomenon: one that is related to European colonial history and slavery that continues to shape our reality today. It is not a coincidence that the reverend was obsessed with Muslim headwear as sign of backwardness and not with red hats or blue suitcases. These obsessions have histories. It is not a coincidence that the groups that are or have been marginalized in and outside of Europe are Blacks, Muslims/Arabs/Turks, Jews, and Roma. For these groups it is incredibly hard to get into positions of power: let’s not forget that most of our institutions are still very white: universities, media, political parties, churches. There is a political party with 15 seats (!) in parliament that wants to abolish the civili rights of all Muslims. Our prime minister said on national television that Turkish-Dutch protesters should ‘piss off’, while the citizenship of white rioters will never be questioned. And if people with Afro-Caribbean backgrounds adress anti-black racism, they receive the most horrible racist threats. Instead of focusing on discrimination as a universal phenomenon we should rather look at the specific histories of excluded and enslaved groups. Especially, because we tend to see the histories of Jews, Muslims, and Blacks in isolation, whereas if we look at the longer history of racism, we will see that they are also entangled.

That brings me to my second point. People tend to say: the reverend in your grandmothers church was not establishing racial, but religious superiority. Islamophobia is not about race, it is about discrimination on the basis of religion. The problem is that we tend to think of racism as a modern phenomenon: as something that has to do with faulty biological notions of races and skin color. From this perspective violence against and exclusion of Jews in medieval Christian Europe is a fundamentally different phenomenon than secular anti-Semitism. In the Middle Ages Jews were blamed for having the wrong religion, in modernity for having the wrong race. The argument then goes that in medieval times Jews could still convert to Christianity and assimilate into Christian communities. This distinction between modern and medieval, is too binary. On the one hand because modern antisemitism is much more entangled with Christian anti-Judaism than is often acknowledged. And on the other, because the obsession with Jewish alterity in medieval times was not merely theological: Geraldine Heng argues that Jewish bodies too were believed to differ in nature. Jews gave off an offensive smell, and Jewish men were believed to bleed during Easter, like menstruating women: during Good Friday, Jesus’ crucifixion made Christians clean, while it made the Jews unclean. More importantly, Muslims (Saracens) and Jews were racialized along similar lines. In paintings, Muslims too were depicted as the crucifiers of Christ, black and demonic. White on the other hand, was the color of Christianity, of superior class and of noble bloodlines. It is not a coincidence then, that in 1492 both Jews and Muslims were expelled from Spain. They were believed to be inherently different from Christians. And while many Jews and Muslims converted to Christianity, their conversion was not accepted due to the ‘purity of blood laws’. They could not become ‘real Christians’. Against this background it is not surprising that the word ‘raza’ from which the word ‘race’ is derived, emerged in the 15th century and referred to both pure bloodlines and the impure bloodlines of Muslims and Jews, in which ideas on religious and racial alterity were completely entangled.

The third point I would like to make is that we should not isolate this history, from what happened outside of Europe. While Jews and Muslims were expelled from Spain, Europe expanded to the America’s and West Africa and the slave trade emerged. These seemingly different phenomenon were legitimized by the same narrative: European empires perceived themselves as Christian (later on ‘secular’), superior, and civilized as opposed to barbarian others, whom they could expel, civilize, use, or murder. Blacks, Jews, Muslims and natives were believed to be inherently inferior. And though their racial histories are not the same – Jews have never been enslaved – ­ a racial hierarchy was installed in which white European Christians were on top (read Santiago Slabodsky’s Decolonial Judaism). Some of the echoes of this superiority narrative resonated in the church of my grandmother: in India there is no Truth, people are trapped in the deceitful webs of Islam.

You might think: this history does not involve me. I’m not Christian, I’m secular or atheist. However, I think it is not a coincidence that Wilders and the reverend are speaking the same language. The narrative of Christian European civilization in its secular form – Europe’s culture, intellectual tradition and democracy are superior ­- is still very strong. I have studied history at the Utrecht University. Most of my studies were about the French Revolution, modernity and the emergence of the nation state and democracy. Not once, did I hear of the Haitian Revolution, a response to the French Revolution, until a few years ago, and I do not think it was a coincidence that my professor was not white, and Latin American: Nelson Maldonado-Torres. This liberation movement against the French colonizer in 1793, was far more radical then the French Revolution: it advocated freedom and equality for all, also enslaved people and people of color. This blind spot in my history program illustrates how we can uphold European (often white) superiority: by focusing on the French Revolution and other emancipation movements we create a narrative of European progress and democratization, while covering the violence and persecution in the colonies. At the same time political experiments of equality and intellectuals that are not white or non-European, are completely ignored. During the 17th century a republic was founded in Brazil by Africans who rebelled against slavery, Palmares. This republic became a refuge for the persecuted of Brazilian society: Indians, mestizos, renegate whites, Jews, Muslims. The republic lasted for over a hundred years. Nonetheless, political philosophers at my university do not conceptualize this political experiment in their theories. More painfully, this republic was under Dutch and Portuguese attack, while I as a Dutch person, never heard of it (until I read ‘Race in translation’ by Ella Shohat & Robert Stam).

In conclusion, what is often unnamed in processes of racism and exclusion is whiteness. Without mentioning whiteness the French Revolution is canonized in the history books, while the black revolution, the Haitian Revolution is not. Also in the service at my grandmother’s funeral whiteness was unnamed. The reverend defined people in India, as the ‘barbaric other’ entrapped as they were in the webs of Islam. But the whiteness of his own church remained invisible. I think most churches in the Netherlands do not reflect upon this. They are just ‘churches’, our theology is just ‘theology’, while we do speak of ‘black churches’, and ‘black theology’. This is precisely how whiteness works. The ‘other’ is named: Jews, Blacks, Muslims, Indians whereas whites present themselves as universal, or just ‘Christian’, or not belonging to a particular group at all. I think white Christians should ask themselves more fundamentally how the power of whiteness is still at work in our churches, not only in relation to Black Christians, but also in relation to Muslims and Jews. In the 60s churches in the South practiced and conceptualized liberation and decolonial theologies. I would argue that European secularism and Christianity need liberation and decolonization too. Not by appropriating theologies of the South, but by starting to particularize their own experience, which is an experience of power: only when we face these histories, privileges and structural inequality can be unpacked and white people can be liberated too: by sharing power. In the words of the Nigerian-American writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie who recently visited the Netherlands: ‘The solution is often very practical. Just let other people in.’

This lecture was part of the programme ‘Racism: Christianity’s sin?’ in De Nieuwe Liefde in which Mpho Tutu van Furth reflected on the legacies of Apartheid and racism in today’s South Africa. The programme was organized as part of our connection with the Edward Schillebeeckx Chair for Theology and Society at the Vrije Universiteit, which is an initiative of De Nieuwe Liefde and the Theological Research Centre of the Dutch Dominicans (DSTS). Other speakers: Godian Ejiogo and Hans van der Jagt.

Matthea Westerduin

Matthea Westerduin

Theoloog en historicus

Matthea Westerduin promoveerde cum laude aan de VU op een proefschrift over theologie, witheid en racisme, waaronder ook de relatie tussen …
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