Resistance to racism intensifies in the Netherlands

Laughing my hijab off.
Laughing my hijab off.
The reality of everyday violence caused by institutionalized and historically embedded racism in the Netherlands is bringing about new forms of resistance among the country’s most marginalized, challenging the boundaries of Dutch politics and national identity. A march organized against racism on March 22 was the most public and organized expression of this new wave of discontent.

“We are all Moroccans!” was the chant that dominated the streets of Amsterdam as an estimated 8,000 people marched against racism in the city. The chant was a direct response to the national uproar ignited by far right politician Geert Wilders, who, in the wake of recently held municipal elections, asked his supporters whether they want “more or less Moroccans.” His crowd enthusiastically chanted in response “Less, less, less!” Politicians, media outlets and white Dutch citizens were quick in publicly denouncing Wilders, giving an apparent sense of national unity against racism.

This article was written by Bryan van Hulst for Waging Nonviolence.

“These are statements that are absolutely unacceptable, disgusting” said the Dutch Minister of Justice Ivo Opstelten. “This does not fit in a country like the Netherlands. He [Wilders] needs to take it back.”

The online world has consolidated a popular stance against Wilders, with one Facebook page that urges people to file an official complaint against Wilders, accruing almost 100,000 followers in less than a week.

While enthusiasm and optimism are growing among those forging this national front, others remain skeptical. Activist Ramona Sno sees the trend as an expression of hypocrisy.

“It’s rather unbelievable that half of the country is shaken up by the Wilders statement, while we have a long tradition of systematically denying and playing down racism in the Netherlands,” she said. “Parties like PvdA [labor] and VVD [liberal] now pretend to firmly oppose racism, while quite explicit racism has been normalized among members of their own parties.”

Hans Spekman, a member of the Labor Party and spokesperson on poverty and asylum-related policies, recently assured that “mischievous Moroccans must be degraded before the eyes of their own people.” Similarly, the leader of the Labor Party, Diederik Samsom, said in 2011 that Moroccans own an “ethnic monopoly” over public disorder, which should be met with “a physical or verbal slap” by the police, family and fellow citizens. Neither of these statements were met with the same backlash as Wilders is currently witnessing.

At the same time, the recent popular opposition to the Dutch blackface tradition was not condemned as racist by either the majority of white Dutch citizens or the political establishment. The current fight against racism thus appears for some skeptics, as Ramona suggests, selectively hand-picked by those in the position of power.

While there might be little faith in politicians to make fundamental changes to racist speech, symbolism and policies in the Netherlands, marginalized minorities are increasingly more audacious and resilient in forcing the issue of racism and its violent effects on the socio-political agenda.

#BornHere, staying here

The Dutch-Moroccan rapper Salah Edin sparked a controversy with his lyrics in 2007 for allegedly inciting radicalization among youth of immigrant backgrounds. “The country with the highest percentage of Muslim haters,” he says in the song entitled “The Country Of,” criticizing the Netherlands. “The country that sees us as danger and terror… The country of rights, but where what they decide is obligation. The country where I was born, but where do I come from? The country that labels me as Moroccan cunt.” While the lyrics shocked a white Dutch crowd, they seem to speak a palpable truth about an invisible reality that most immigrant youth today face.

Sixteen percent of non-white Dutch citizens, 28 percent of youth and 40 percent in the most marginalized urban neighborhoods are unemployed, according to the Annual Integration Report in 2013. This is predominantly caused, the report suggests, by racial prejudice among employers. Also, poverty is significantly more prevalent among non-whites. Twenty percent of Turkish and Moroccan people live below the poverty line — three times more than their white Dutch counterparts.

Police violence and intimidation, stop and search, detention, longer and harsher penitentiary sentences are also disproportionately endured by people of color. This was most recently confirmed by an Amnesty International report whose findings were outright rejected by the Dutch police force.

“No, I don’t feel protected by the police,” remarked one of the interviewees in the Amnesty report. “In fact, I have to protect myself from them in some cases. As a citizen you are not heard anyways.”

Such views and experiences are not uncommon among Dutch Moroccans in the Netherlands. The Moroccan label carries a heavy weight of negative connotations, usually associated with criminality, terrorism, general backwardness, hyper-masculinity and unchecked misogyny and homophobia. Politicians, police generals and media pundits propagate these racialized and gendered stereotypes, thereby legitimizing policies that further marginalize and criminalize ethnic minorities, while compounding a culture of racism in the labor market, education system, police force and judiciary.

In the face of these dehumanizing and marginalizing processes, Dutch Moroccan youth have grown restless with the current system, taking it upon themselves to assert their claim to power.

The #BornHere hashtag, which trended on Twitter in March, was the most recent manifestation of this resistance. Second and third generation Dutch Moroccan youth asserted pride and recognition of their hybrid, yet stigmatized, identities by tweeting pictures of themselves defiantly displaying their Dutch passports. This was a direct response to an earlier electoral promise Wilders made “for a city with fewer problems, and if it’s at all possible, a few fewer Moroccans.”

The hashtag further aimed at subverting the dominant discourse and policy that demands Dutch Moroccans assimilate, integrate and normalize to white Dutch “norms and values,” let go of their “backward” Moroccan heritage, and become “more like us.” The claim to both Moroccan and Dutch identities, then, seeks to redefine traditional and conservative notions of Dutchness so as to include difference rather than extinguishing it.

The hashtag trend is indicative of the importance the online world has in providing a rare public space for marginalized and dissident voices to speak out in the Netherlands. In a country where black voices are rarely heard or simply silenced, social media is becoming a powerful tool in facilitating empowerment and solidarity among society’s most oppressed.

The multinational retail chain Hema, for instance, recently came under fire because security guards mistook Yosra Aajir, a 17-year-old Dutch-Moroccan girl, for a junkie. The guards publicly humiliated, detained and abused her, and subsequently had her arrested by the police. Aajir, in fact, is diabetic and had gone to a changing room to inject her necessary medication before the security guards checked up on her. When she tried to explain her medical situation she was accused of deception. “That’s what a lot of ‘allochtonen’ [aliens/foreigners] do,” she was told.

Aajir and her family and friends started a Facebook page calling for a national boycott of Hema, further making the case that this was not an isolated racist incident, but in fact, all too common at Hema stores. The chain had been under the spotlight before for firing a female employee because she wore a headscarf as well as selling cakes that featured photos of a Hitler salute with the text: “Islamic culture is backward.” The Facebook page gained 14,000 followers within days and sparked public debate, as well as protest, on racism both on and offline. Social media is thus also becoming the means by which marginalized voices can incite public discourse and challenge unquestioned truths.

Reclaiming dignity

But the #BornHere hashtag has a more profound underlying demand: full human recognition of the Dutch Moroccan as a citizen, not “criminal” or “terrorist.” It’s in Schilderswijk — the most impoverished and stigmatized neighborhood in the Hague — where poverty, unemployment and police violence are rife that resistance for human dignity is gaining new ground.

“As a ‘foreigner’ we can keep our mouths closed, but we have done that long enough,” said Mohamed Ghay, spokesperson of the recently founded Action Committee for the Restoration of Trust in Schilderswijk. “You see what that has brought us. It’s time that we make our voices heard. This cannot continue any longer.”

The committee was formed in January to end racial profiling and police violence in the neighborhood. The committee collected a total of 95 complaints against police brutality by residents and has put enough pressure on the mayor of the Hague and the police force that they have begun to listen to their demands. This is unprecedented, according to Ghay.

“Often people want to file a complaint against the police, but they are just outright rejected as if you are not a citizen and have no rights,” he said. “Now they cannot do that any longer because the evidence is piling up.”

The committee has also been successful in forcing the previously invisible issue of police violence and racial profiling into the public spotlight through television appearances on mainstream news outlets.

In recent months, the resistance has emboldened Dutch Moroccans to be more defiant of normalized racial violence in personal encounters. At one skirmish between police officers and a male Schilderswijk resident, he angrily denounced the arbitrary aggression of the police as racist, escaped and ran off while holding his passport in the air.

“I’m also a citizen! I’m also a citizen! You can’t do this!” he was heard yelling at the police.

Similarly, two Dutch Moroccan men recently interrupted a political debate on unemployment in Amsterdam and confronted the politicians for being “out of touch” with the reality on the ground.

“I am awake, and I am here to wake you up,” said Safoan, a former immigrant youth organizer in Amsterdam. “There are no jobs for you if you are Moroccan. There is no future for you if you are Moroccan. Here you are shot to death by the police. People come here to drown.”

While politicians, mainstream media outlets and the majority of white Dutch citizens might seek to forge a national front against the racism of the far right politician Geert Wilders, the grassroots and decentralized resistance coming from all over the country appears to be more ambitious. It is seeking to radically alter dominant notions of Dutch identity and belonging while inciting public debate on the detrimental effects of racist policies and discourses on human lives. Decades of silence, marginalization and state violence are birthing this wave of discontent which, at the moment, appears to mark merely the beginning of something new.

Bryan van Hulst