How dare Muslims notice racism
by Sheila Musaji
Sheikh Yer’Mami has published Mohammedans attack our traditions with accusations of ‘racism’ in which he takes issue with an article published on Al Jazeera Blackface for the holidays: Dutch deny racism in ‘Zwarte Piet’ holiday tradition which discusses the question: “Is the Dutch tradition of Zwarte Piet, depicting Saint Nicholas’ helpers in black-face, a cultural treasure or racism? Those who love Zwarte Piet say it’s for the children and those outside The Netherlands just don’t get it. The fans claim there’s no racist intent. Those opposed argue the custom was born of the nation’s slave-trading past and it’s a harmful and stereotypical portrayal.”
Sheikh Yer’Mami thinks that no one can question this tradition except the Dutch Christians themselves, and certainly not Muslims. He says
“No denials or explanations necessary. The worshipers of Muhammad must be told to back off or ship out. There cannot be any more compromising or caving in.”
Sheikh Yer’Mami is a mysterious character and like many Islamophobes hides behind an alias. His real name is Werner Reimann and he is from Australia. Since he isn’t from the Netherlands, this is not “his” custom either. According to Sheikh Yer’Mami, if Muslims don’t like this custom they should “ship out”, and to acknowledge that there might be a legitimate issue with this character would be to “cave in” to Muslims. It is in such remarkable displays that the Islamophobes most clearly show their deep-seated bigotry. Sheikh Yer’Mami joins fellow Islamophobe Baron Bodissey from the Gates of Vienna in championing Zwarte Piet.
Here is the article from Al Jazeera (see the original for many photos and links to videos about the character).
The character of “Black Pete” traditionally joins Sinterklaas, or Saint Nicholas, as they travel around the Netherlands, handing out candy and presents until December 6th. He is beloved in his home country, but draws critiques for his black-face makeup and dim-witted behaviour. Below is footage from festivities celebrating Sinterklaas and Black Pete.
Black Pete was historically a Moorish character who would kidnap bad children and take them to his native Spain. Today, he is said to have a black face because of the soot in chimneys.
NTR is a public broadcasting service in the Netherlands that produces educational programming for children, including a show that features Sinterklaas and Black Pete. When asked about the controversy concerning Black Pete, NTR responded, “We at the NTR produce a television programme that is for children and based on a Dutch traditional children’s party called Sinterklaas… It is not up to the NTR to change a cultural tradition that is up to our society”.
The popularity of the Black Pete character, as well as the controversy surrounding him, has led to many comedic and satirical videos. Last year, protests against the depiction of Black Pete led to arrests. Below is footage of local law enforcement using force to arrest non-violent protesters.
So, contrary to Sheikh Yer’Mami’s headline, this article doesn’t attack anyone’s traditions. It simply raises the issue that this Zwarte Piet character may be perceived as racist, and the article provides the point of view of both sides on this issue.
The article on Al Jazeera does not have the name of the author, so there is no way to know if it was written by a Muslim. It does not refer anywhere to any Muslims complaining about this or demanding anything. It simply refers to a discussion within the Netherlands between people who believe this is racist and people who do not.
Even if the author is a Muslim, the author’s religion has no bearing at all on their right to discuss this issue. Trevor Fox, who is Jewish, posted an article in The Jewish Chronicle expressing concerns about this character. Would Sheikh Yer’Mami also conclude that he has no right to speak about “our customs”?
The question of whether or not this character is racist has been asked by many. For example, Toby Sterling of the AP wrote ‘Zwarte Piet is Racism’: Criticism of Dutch fictional Christmas figure ‘Black Pete’ grows in which he said:
Visitors to the Netherlands in winter are often surprised to see the Dutch version of St. Nicholas’s helpers have their faces painted black, wear Afro wigs and have thick red lips — in short, a racist caricature of a black person.
Most Dutch are devoted to the holiday tradition of Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) and insist he’s a harmless fictional figure who doesn’t represent any race. But a growing number are questioning whether he should be given a makeover or banished, seeing him as a blight on the country’s image as a bulwark of tolerance.
“There is more opposition to Zwarte Piet than you might think,” says Jessica Silversmith, director of the regional Anti-Discrimination Bureau for Amsterdam.
The only article that I found anywhere written by a Muslim on this subject of Zwarte Piet is Blackface in Amsterdam by Hind Makki, an American Muslim who visited Amsterdam during the Christmas festivities and was torn about the meaning of this character. In her attempt to understand the character from the point of view of the Dutch, she talked to a number of people and discusses their views. In that article she says:
The second trend was astonishing, to my American ears. Most of the people I discussed Zwarte Piet with did not feel as though the character was very controversial. “It’s a children’s holiday; racism has nothing to do with Zwarte Piet” was the typical response I got from people I talked with, including those of white, Turkish and Moroccan backgrounds. At some point during these conversations, I wondered if I was letting my post-civil rights American sensibilities dictate how I viewed another culture’s holiday. After all, while The Netherlands does have a history of black slavery and colonization of black peoples, it does not have the same exact history as the United States and I could not view The Netherlands with American lenses.
But I soon realized a deeper reason for their seeming ambivalence: for many Dutch citizens, of all racial, ethnic and religious backgrounds, the racism in the children’s fantastical Sinterklaas holiday is overshadowed by the real struggles people of color – citizens of former slave colonies and descendents of North African guest workers alike. These Dutch citizens are designated as allochtoon, always considered as foreigners by their society, and face tremendous difficulties in obtaining equal opportunities to the education and jobs that would open a path toward upward mobilization. The Zwarte Piet debate is seen as a diversion from the taking actions to promote the full economic and social integration of Dutch citizens of color.
One could argue that the Zwarte Piet debate is a result of the increasing diversity of The Netherlands; the earliest protests began in 1995 by black migrants and has continued ever since. As global migration grows and telecommunication technology continues to advance, all Dutch people are forced to look at their history with new lenses. This is not necessarily a bad thing. If the Zwarte Piet debate can shed help light onto the unequal opportunities for upward mobility that the majority of people of color in The Netherlands still face daily, Dutch society will be better for it and Zwarte Piet can stay as he is: a relic of 19th century minstrelsy.
In the U.S. we had to re-think the vaudeville “tradition” of minstrel shows with actors in blackface. And, as a society, we were forced to come to the conclusion that this was racist. Such stereotypical depictions of minorities in the guise of “humor” or “tradition” perhaps should be re-thought everywhere in the 21st century.
Annual Zwarte Piet debate http://www.expatica.com/nl/leisure/arts_culture/annual-zwarte-piet-debate-2394_9285.html
Australian Islamophobe, Sheikh Yer’Mami smears Richard Bartholomew http://www.islamophobia-watch.com/islamophobia-watch/2012/8/31/australian-islamophobe-smears-richard-bartholomew.html
Blackface in Amsterdam, Hind Makki http://www.patheos.com/blogs/hindtrospectives/2012/12/blackface-in-amsterdam/
In Holland, Santa Doesn’t Have Elves. He Has Slaves, Jessica Olien http://www.slate.com/articles/life/holidays/2011/12/zwarte_piet_holland_s_favorite_racist_christmas_tradition_.html
Jihad Watch University (JWU) Graduates Another Pseudo-Scholar: Sheik YerMami Declares Himself “Scholar of Islam” http://www.islamophobiatoday.com/2011/10/17/jihad-watch-university-jwu-graduates-another-pseudo-scholar-sheik-yermami-declares-himself-%e2%80%9cscholar-of-islam%e2%80%9d/
Like the Golliwog, Zwarte Piet is a racist relic, so why is it part of the modern Dutch Christmas? http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/like-the-golliwog-zwarte-piet-is-a-racist-relic-so-why-is-it-part-of-the-modern-dutch-christmas-8364296.html
Zwarte Piet: A Racist Caricature?, Keisha Weil http://www.racialicious.com/2012/12/05/zwarte-piet-a-racist-caricature/
Zwarte Piet — a sinister symbol in a ‘tolerant’ country, Kevin Lowe http://www.expatica.com/de/lifestyle_leisure/blogs_photos/zwarte-piet—a-sinister-symbol-in-a-tolerant-country—1658_9813.html
Zwarte Piet and Jews’ biscuits, Trevor Fox http://www.thejc.com/blogpost/zwarte-piet-and-jews-biscuits
Zwarte Piet: Opposition Grows To ‘Racist Black Pete’ Dutch Christmas Tradition, Felicity Morse http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2012/12/06/zwarte-piet-black-pete-christmas-dutch-netherlands_n_2249412.html
PHOTO from Huffington Post article