I do not know if it is an honour I should claim, but I believe that I am the first person to have introduced the term decolonisation into the national public debate in Belgium, not in relation to the liberation of the colonies in the third world, but in function of what was known in the early years 2000 as the “integration and immigrant debate”.
I compared the dynamics between the coloniser and the colonised to these between the indigenous and the immigrants and could draw some parallels. For instance I used to call most politicians of foreign descent "evolués", a reference to the Congolese evolués that were in service of the Belgian coloniser in Congo. My approach was frowned upon back then and considered an exaggeration and an outlandish claim. However, with the strong post-colonial immigration to the west, large communities emanating from the former colonies were then already settled in the old metropoles. The Algerians in France, Congolese and Rwandans in Belgium, East Asians in the UK, Latin-Americans in Spain, etc.. it wasn’t illogical then to try to analyse the link between that immigration and the colonial past, and by consequence, to point out the perpetuation of some colonial attitudes and their role in shaping the relationship between these communities and their new societies and their authorities.
What I noticed back then is mainly that the host countries and their authorities perceived these immigrant communities as a fremdkorper of barbarians that need to be civilised. Therefore, from that perspective, the notorious “mission civilisatrice” had to continue, on the metropolitan soil, after it had failed in the colony. This gaze was generalised into an approach to all other immigrant communities, also those who did not stem from the former colonies. And it was the ground upon which the policy of integration was built. That these communities, and especially the second and following generations contested these colonial attitudes and considered them problematic is an essential part of the conflict dynamic around the questions of identity and ethnicity in Europe.
The struggle against this colonial attitude is what myself and activists of my generation called decolonisation in the context of Europe.
We wanted to be seen as citizens and not as colonial subjects that need to be civilised. We wanted the state and society to accept our citizenship claim and make a clean break with colonial dynamics. We wanted "them" to stop seeing "us" in categories of integrated and non-integrated, just like the colonised were seen as evolués and non-evolués. This was the core of my decolonisation discourse.
Adjacent to this, decolonisation has a symbolic dimension within which the atrocities of the colonial period are addressed, contextualised and owned. This entails the end of justification and veneration of “colonial heroes” who are often mass murderers and slave traders. Unlike ancient empires, these colonial heroes committed these crimes in the modern era that was bathed with the ideas of enlightenment. They could not claim the benefit of the doubt pertaining to the ignorance of the dark ages. Therefore they had to justify their crimes by creating a theory that dehumanised the natives of the colonies and portrayed them as sub-humans. That is how colonial racism was constructed. We argued then, and still argue today, that in order to fight racism in Europe, its colonial roots must be acknowledged and dealt with. This is also decolonisation for me.
What decolonisation did not entail is a moralistic condemnation of the whole western civilisation and its cultures as a sort of essentially racist and oppressive construct. Decolonisation did not entail an attempt to put the whole endeavour of Enlightenment into question. Or an attempt at contesting the very foundations of positive science. Neither did it entail an attempt at problematising western literature and culture as a whole. We wanted to decolonise what is truly colonial and not to decolonise everything.
Even though decolonisation is also partly a cultural process, and that in that sense, it can be seen as an epistemological break with a certain colonial pensée unique, it should never be considered as a universal alternative epistemic system. Nor as a rival edifice of knowledge to the enlightenment and its scientific foundations. Decolonisation is a paradigm-cleansing and must not be a paradigm-shift.
Defining decolonisation as such a complete and universal paradigm-shift finds its roots in a mix of Gramscian Marxism and Foucauldian post-modernism that laid the ground for the field of post-colonial studies. Out of this body of intellectual work that contains some very interesting and enriching studies emerged the idea of epistemic decolonisation. This line of thought argues that decolonisation must also be a decolonisation of the minds. And that since colonialism supposedly destroyed the knowledge systems of the indigenous populations and replaced it with western knowledge systems, somehow this process must be reversed. There is certainly some truth in the idea that the colonial influence was not purely economic, political and societal and that on the intellectual level, ideas originating in the west found their way to the former colonies. The paradox here is, however, that ideas such as democracy, citizenship human rights, but also socialism, nationalism and revolution, which are all rooted in modern western thought, were also at the basis of the decolonial struggle. Revalidating ancient traditions and histories is a noble part of any decolonisation process. Nevertheless, no one can deny that colonialism, albeit with the intention of exploitation and domination, did introduce modernity in the colonised regions and carried with it tools and ideas that must be kept and cherished. Just like it did build roads and hospitals and schools and electricity grids, and that even if it did all that with the intention of facilitating its criminal endeavour, and not out of any philanthropic motive, that infrastructure was kept and used and perpetuated by the decolonised countries. Only a foolish leader would call to decolonise by destroying the modern infrastructure. Also a fool only would call to decolonise by uprooting modern ideas. Epistemic decolonisation is extremely problematic when it contests the foundation of science in favour of ancient and indigenous “systems of knowledge”. To plead against science and in favour of superstition and pseudo-science is not decolonisation it is “decivilisation”.
People calling to decolonise history curriculums, relations with the global south and immigration policies should be listened too, they are right.
People calling to decolonise human and social sciences may have some valid points, while being wrong on other points. It is good to have a dialogue with them.
People calling to decolonise exact sciences, maths, physics, biology, medicine are non-sensical fanatics, they must be ignored.
Epistemic decolonisation did not only enable the two first debates, it also opened the way to that third dangerous one.
Unfortunately, It is this epistemic decolonisation that is a product of critical theory and activist post-modernism that is taking root in activist and academic circles in the west today. It is also finding its way into political circles. The governments in Belgium ( on various scales) is listening more carefully then ever to these theories and entering a process of negotiations and dialogues with activists and academics carrying these kinds of ideas.
And while I do not believe that any level of government will accept the call of the epistemic decolonials to contest modernity and its scientifical foundation, they are overcompensating by accepting less important but ridiculous claims such as the decision of the Ghent library to add a disclaimer to Pippi Longstocking’s books saying that it contains racist elements. The same thing already happened in Norway. Now I don’t know how dangerous is Pippi Longstocking, I did not read it so I cannot tell of the disclaimer was absolutely a must. What I can tell you is that I have read Mein Kampf as a teenager without becoming a Nazi. The problem of Pippi Longstocking is mostly the use of the word “Negro”. I agree that this word should not be used anymore as black people nowadays take offence to it. Yet at the time when Pippi Longstocking was written; “Negro” was used in a non-pejorative manner. Even Malcolm X spoke about the Negro community and the Negro activists. Should we also put a note at the memoires of Malcom X saying that it contains racist language? And even if it was racist at the time, the book is what it is, the story is what it is. Starting to put disclaimers by authorities on books is not only paternalistic, it can be also a first step towards censorship.
We need a mature conversation on decolonisation, and therefore, let me suggest four principals that can maybe help policymakers make up their mind when things get tricky:
Principal 1: No pre-modern historic figure should be judged by modern standards. Leopold II, operated in the modern era and his atrocities were even criticised in the newspapers in Europe at the time. Calling for decolonising his memory and putting it in the right context in might of his crimes is therefore legitimate. On the other hand, figures such as Godfrey of Bouillon or Charlemagne, who were also targeted by decolonial scrutiny in Belgium, were pre-modern figures and cannot be subjected to any decolonial or other moral scrutiny using modern or post-modern values.
Principal 2: No modern figure should be judged solely based on problematic parts of his legacy when other parts of that legacy are his main contribution. Thomas Jefferson, for isntance, was a slave owner but his Legacy is the contribution to the constitution of the United states and notions of democracy. Honouring him for that is legitimate. The same goes for thinkers and figures such as Rousseau, Voltaire, Kant and even Karl Marx and many more figures, who made problematic statements by the standards of today, but can never be reduced to that and continue to be seen as great figures.
Principal 3: No Art or culture product should be evaluated based upon the opinions, politics or behaviour of its maker. Art and cultural products should be appreciated on the merits of their creativity and the standards of their craft. An example The music of Wagner is something that should not be dismissed because of the ideas of Wagner.
Principle 4: Exact Science is not an ideological construct no matter how eloquent epistemic decolonisation claim it to be. We should refuse that our children are taught that science and pseudo-science are equal. Let alone science and superstition. The method of modern science must be defended and upheld.
Decolonisation is first and foremost a political act. It pertains to how we approach the relationship between the global north and south, and to how we get rid of the glorification of colonialism, past and present, in favour of an approach of mutual respect. When it is kept to that, it is a good thing, and can be a remedy to some tensions in society. However, just like all remedies, an overdose of it makes it toxic and dangerous.