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The violence of today has its roots in the past. As the bloodied pages of history have taught, the carrot is needed alongside the stick to create change.
Haters of history, please look away now. I am sorry, but this article will be talking about things that happened in the past. Even worse, it will claim that the present is actually a consequence of that past and that we ignore it at our peril. It will also compare the incomparable, for the sake of argument, but also in the hope that it will teach us something.
Let me start with the present present, although it is already a week or two old. Ancient in social media terms, a breath away for an historian. The attack in Nice. The guy who perpetrated the violence was named Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel. He was born in Tunisia, but also held a French passport, like most Tunisians in France. From what we know about him, he was a small-time criminal who was angry, depressed and unstable since his wife divorced him two years ago. No religious background to speak of, or political motivation for that matter. Just a sad, frustrated man, who went from domestic violence to mass murder in a relatively short space of time.
So Bouhlel was a loser, who doesn’t deserve to be written about. What does need some further investigation is the relationship between Tunisia and France, which forms, I think, the background of attacks like this. Ready for it? Here comes the history. In 1881, Tunisia was a relatively autonomous part of the Ottoman Empire, which was then on its last legs. Three countries were very interested in adding it to their country-portfolio: France, Britain and Italy, and for a few years, small wars took place to see who would come up on top. In 1878, the Congress of Berlin decided that the French could take Tunisia and the Brits would get Cyprus. Nobody asked the Tunisians. Or the Cypriots, for that matter. In 1881 the occupation started, following by resistance that was relatively quickly (and violently) crushed.
The French treated Tunisia like any other colony they owned. They mined it for its riches, mainly phosphates, zinc, lead and copper, which they shipped to France. The Tunisians got a few jobs out of it, but most of the money and employment was taken by the French themselves, who soon started migrating to the colony. These settlers were given most of the good land and the money to farm it. Officials and judges were bought and played against each other. The language of education and business changed from Arabic to French and the artisan class was professionally destroyed by the French flooding the market with cheap French goods. Over time, Tunisia became a problematic amalgam of three groups: “native” Tunisians, who were treated like crap, white French, who were at the top of the tree, and “pied-noir“, a pejorative term for the people who were born in Tunisia but had French ancestry. They were the in-betweeners, nowhere really at home and despised by everybody else.
History teaches that repression (alone) won’t solve anything. If a government refuses to remember, it makes itself responsible for the consequences. As my friend said, “Nobody likes being ignored.”
Then WWI broke out and, inspired by Ataturk’s Turkey and the Russian revolution, the Tunisians started dreaming about independence. One of their leaders, Habib Bourguiba, who had studied law in Paris, set up one of the nationalist political parties and was arrested and exiled for his troubles. The French stayed in control for another couple of decades, until Independence finally came in 1956. Like most countries that have been under autocratic rule for a long time, the “new” Tunisia was principally a litany of dictatorships, corruption and suppression of freedoms. Hundreds of thousands of people left the country – mostly to France. There they were again treated like they were the bottom of the pile and a big percentage of them sank into unemployment, bad housing and the same lack of control they had had in their country of birth. At the moment, around 650,000 Tunisians and French-Tunisians or Tunisian-French live in France. They don’t all have a chip on their shoulder, but some do, and that is, historically speaking, with good reason. Although violence is never acceptable, it is understandable. And we would be well advised to try and recognise that, because then we can, maybe, prevent attacks from happening.
What happens if we don’t? Let’s look at the Dutch experience. Before Indonesia became Indonesia, it was (from the 1600s onwards) the Dutch East Indies. Like the French, the Dutch ruled with an iron fist, which came in the shape of the Royal Netherlands East Indies Army, also called the KNIL. The core of this army consisted of men from the South Moluccan Islands, an archipelago, and part of what were then called the Spice Islands. The Moluccans were professional soldiers and very good at their jobs. In WWII they were the last to stand up to the Japanese, which cost them a very unpleasant stay in Japanese concentration camps. After the war, when the Dutch tried to regain control, the KNIL were vital in trying to suppress the fight for independence. One of the reasons why they fought so hard, was because the Dutch had promised them an independent state of their own, the Republic of the South Moluccas (RMS). But the Dutch lost, Indonesia was born and the new regime viewed the Moluccans as traitors and collaborators. In 1951, 12,000 of them were brought to Holland, as a temporary measure, the Dutch government said, until they could be returned to their homeland.
“Temporary” turned out to be permanent and in the middle of the 1970s, that began to bite. The Moluccans were still living in camps, were mostly unemployed, badly educated and isolated. Because they had been counting on going back home soon, they had made no effort to become a part of Dutch society, and nobody had stimulated them to do so either. In 1975, the younger generation had had enough. First, they tried to kidnap the Dutch queen, and when that did not work, they hijacked a train. These were times when terrorists still had demands and wanted to come out alive, so the whole episode lasted for 12 days. Three hostages were killed and the seven captors were caught and put in jail for 14 years. At the same time, another group took over the Indonesian embassy, killing one hostage.
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After the hijackings, the Dutch government did some soul searching and made promises to at least change the living conditions of the Moluccans. Two years went by and when nothing happened, the violence flared up again. Another train was hijacked, this time resulting in the death of two hostages and six hostage-takers. Just to make their point, the Moluccans also took over a primary school, imprisoning 105 children and five teachers for 19 days. Again promises were made and again nothing happened. This time, it took the Moluccans less than a year to reiterate their point. In early 1978 the Dutch equivalent of one of its State Parliaments was seized and to make sure authorities knew the Moluccans meant business, the first hostage was sprayed with bullets, in plain sight, after only hours. The siege was ended within a day, and the Dutch finally took some consequences. First, the Dutch government officially recognised that mistakes had been made, in the past and the present, and that promises had not been kept. Unpaid pensions were finally awarded and money made available to build a Moluccan Historical Museum, that would tell the story of the South Moluccan people.
Initiatives were also taken to improve health care and education, people were offered better housing and there was the “1000-jobs plan”, which actually managed to pull around 2,000 people out of unemployment. Things were also done to end the isolation and nudge Moluccans a little closer to Dutch society. Is it ideal now? Not really. After twenty years or so the attention went elsewhere and at least half of the initiatives ended up in the bin. And, of course, an independent RMS is also still far, far away. But there haven’t been any hijackings for a while and when I asked my Moluccan friend why he thinks that is so, he told me that although they are not happy, they do feel heard. “In the 1970s, nobody wanted to listen to us. We didn’t exist and that hurt. Nobody likes being ignored, especially not if you have a valid gripe. We had to make them sit up and take notice then. Now they are at least trying, even if they can’t give us what we really want.”
At the moment, France’s response to the recent terror attacks is to use the stick: state of emergency, lots of police and military, raiding people’s houses, tapping phones. More control, less freedom and no discussions or reflections. That might be absolutely necessary, I don’t know. But history teaches that repression (alone) won’t solve anything. The stick needs a carrot to actually work. That carrot is recognition. Of the wrongs of the past, of the validity of the anger and despair, of the need to mend and heal. If a government refuses to remember, it makes itself responsible for the consequences. As my friend said, “Nobody likes being ignored”.
A few months ago, Indonesian poet and novelist Laksmi Pamuntjak wrote an article for The Guardian, discussing the 1965 mass murder of Left wing critics of the then-government. At least half a million people were killed that year, and it is still a sore point in the country. She called for her government to “reckon, reflect and repair”, which is as good a recipe for peace and stability as I have ever heard, and, as she says, the prerequisite for a civil society. Without it, the result will be, to stay with the r’s: retaliation and revenge, which is what we are seeing around us at the moment.
History teaches, and there are examples aplenty of good and bad responses to violence.
The question now is: are we willing to learn?