A decolonial critique of a colonial project

This is the text of a lecture by Sandew Hira on April 22, 2018 at the University of Amsterdam for Indonesian students on decolonizing history.

You can download the powerpoint here.

Slide 1: A decolonial critique of a colonial project

I would like to thank PPI Belanda, PPI Leiden and PPI Amsterdam for inviting me to present my views on the colonial research project of white Dutch academics on the liberation struggle of the Indonesian people. I will explain why this project does not meet basic standards of scientific research, why nonsense is presented as scientific knowledge and what the alternative can be for this colonial project. I will present my critique from a decolonial theoretical framework. I will briefly touch on some theoretical aspects of a decolonial critique of Western knowledge production before going into the aforementioned questions.

Slide 2: If you are a professor, that does not mean that you are a scientist, you can be an ideologue of colonialism

Let me start with a basic critique of the authority of knowledge production. What is the authority of knowledge production? The authority of knowledge production is the collection of institutes that assures society of what is valid knowledge and what not. In Western science professors are the authority of knowledge production. If you are a professor, you are supposed to be knowledgeable and searching for the truth. In decolonial critique we argue that if you are a professor, that does not mean that you are a scientist. You can be an ideologue of colonialism presenting nonsense as science. It is not the position at a university that determines whether you are a scientist, but the content of your argument. Ideologues are not searching for the truth, but are producing lies to cover the truth. This is a theoretic proposition of decolonial theory and does not only bear specifically on this colonial research project but on Western knowledge production in general.

Slide 3: Western epistemology

Another theoretical note I want to touch on is the difference between Western epistemology and decolonial epistemology. Epistemology deals with what is knowledge en more specifically what constitutes valid knowledge. Western science has developed in opposition to Christian theology since the second half of the seventeenth century and evolved from David Hume’s view of knowledge based on experience thought Immanuel Kant’s concept of the need to understand experience with theoretical analysis to George Hegel notion of testing theories by prediction. Karl Popper later developed this notion into the concept of falsification. And August Comte conceptualized it in the idea of positivism that holds that knowledge is solely derived from observation and reasoning and detached from ethics. The idea that ethics is not part of knowledge has now become entrenched in the canon of Western epistemology. Knowledge is about true or false and not about right or wrong.

British philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) says: “Our knowledge of truths … has an opposite, namely error.”[1] Not quite. In decolonial theory the opposite of truths are lies. The difference between a lie and an error is that an error should be corrected, while a lie should be opposed. An error is a false statement in an effort to find the truth. A lie is a false statement in an effort to block the truth. Once you realise that there is an error, you will try to correct it. A lie is produced with the intent to manipulate the mind.

Slide 4: DTM epistemology

In the theory of Decolonizing The Mind knowledge is not only about true or false but also about right and wrong.  In DTM the basic unit of knowledge is a concept. A concept is an idea that describes and explains certain aspects of the social and natural world. Knowledge is contained in concepts.

A concept has five dimensions.

The five elements of a concept are treated differently in an error, a lie and a truth. They have to be understood in relation to each other.

  1. In search of the truth you develop a terminology that is an adequate representation of the object of knowledge. If you make an error and you use a term that does not adequately represent the concept, you correct that and use another term once you realise the error. If you produce a lie, you intentionally come up with a term that is not an adequate representation, yet you use an inadequate term because you want to paint a different picture of the object that does not correspond with reality. Take the story of Columbus. The colonial scientist use the term “discovery of the Americas”, while the indigenous people use the term “the illegal occupation of their lands”. The Dutch would never use the term “the discovery of Holland by the Nazi’s in 1940” to describe the German invasion of their country. And they are right.
  2. Observations (facts). In search of the truth you take all relevant facts into account that relate to the concept. If you make an error, you might mistakenly leave out facts, but once you realise that, you make a correction and include these facts in making your argument. If you produce a lie, you select facts that fit into your concept and intentionally leave out or twist the facts that contradict your concept. In the case of Columbus his first crime – the fact of the kidnapping of seven Taino’s – is left out of the narrative of the colonizer but is very much present in the stories of the Taino’s.
  3. The analysis offers a framing and a storyline that makes us understand the concept. In search of the truth you develop a framing and a storyline that matches the facts and provides a logical explanation of the concept. If you make an error in the storyline, you correct it by adapting the storyline so it matches the facts and logic. If you produce a lie, you intentionally develop a storyline that matches your concept and manipulates the facts and logic so as to suit the concept. If you need to fantasise, then you put the fantasies into the storyline. The analysis use a logical framework. The logical framework of Western science is the two-value logic that goes back to Aristotle and use two values: true and false. It does not help us to understand problems of uncertainty and change. Non-Western logical systems like the Indian philosophy of Jainism use a seven value-logic that enables use to understand reality in its uncertainty and process of change. The colonial analysis of Columbus is the legitimization of colonialism in the story of discovery. The decolonial analysis of Columbus is the legitimization of the struggle to colonialism in the story of resistance.
  4. A theory is a collection of interrelated concepts that provides a bigger picture of the natural and social reality. In search for the truth you put your concept in the context of a theory that provides a factual and logical extension of the storyline of the concept. If you make an error, you correct it by looking for a theory that better matches the facts and logics of the bigger narrative. If you produce a lie, you select a theory that extends the storyline of your concept despite the facts and the logic that go against the theory. The colonial theory behind Columbus is the rise of modernity and human civilization. The decolonial theory behind Columbus is the demise of human civilization through the horrors of colonialism.
  5. A concept often contains ethics, a value judgment about what is right or wrong, good or bad. In searching the truth you acknowledge the ethics, make it explicit and defend your position. If you make an error, you correct it by acknowledging the ethics, make it explicit and move on. If you produce a lie, you hide or disguise the ethics by presenting your concept as objective and devoid from ethics. Western epistemology has hidden their ethics from science and cloaked it in notions of objectivity.

Slide 5: What happens when you hide your ethics in knowledge production?

When you hide your ethics in knowledge production, you are then able to present lies as scientific knowledge. How?

First, you present pose knowledge only in two terms: true or false and neglect the dimension of right and wrong.

Second, you claim objectivity on the basis of the authority of knowledge production, not on the basis of arguments. You present yourself as a scientist who is objective.

Third, you claim universality of your knowledge. Not only are you objective, your objectivity has a universal claim: your truth is the absolute truth.

And thus you are able to present blatant lies as scientific knowledge.

A decolonial theoretical framework enables us to lay bare the ethics behind Westernized knowledge and the fallacies it contains from  scientific point of view.

Slide 6: Critique #1: extreme and normal violence is not about facts, but about morality

Let us take a look at the colonial project of these white Dutch historians. The aims and content of the research program is defined on the website of het Koloniaal Instituut voor Taal, Land en Volkenkunde: “The program, which consist of nine parts, should answer questions about the nature, extent and causes of structural extreme (they use the Dutch term ‘grensoverschrijdend’) violence in Indonesia, seen from a broader political, social and international context. In this regard extensive attention will be paid to the chaotic period of August 1945 till the beginning of 1946 – often termed as the Bersiap – and the political and social legacy in the Netherlands, Indonesia and other places.”[2]

The first decolonial critique of the project is that is not a scientific project, but an ideological one. Why? Because it does not use a scientific concept to define the content of the program but an ideological one. In the ideological concept extreme violence is wrong and normal violence is OK. In the decolonial concept the judgment of violence depends on many factors: strategy, tactics, the nature of violence as one of oppression or one of liberation etc.

Slide 7: Critique #2: the concept of extreme violence is an insult to the victim of oppression

The second critique is that this concept of normal and extreme violence is an insult to the victims in a war of liberation. There is no extreme violence without normal violence.  How would any Dutch person feel when German historian would set up a project to assess whether the bombing of Rotterdam was normal or extreme violence? On May 14, 1940 the German bombed the Dutch city of Rotterdam which killed 650-900 victims. On February 13-14 1945 the allied forces carried out a massive bombardment of the city of Dresden which killed 25.000 German, 25 times more than in Rotterdam. How would the Dutch feel when German historians would then claim that the bombing of Rotterdam was not extreme violence but normal violence compared to Dresden? They would feel extremely insulted, and rightly so. The whole notion of normal violence which is inherent to the concept of extreme violence is an insult to the victims of this violence. What are the criteria of these white Dutch historians applied to Indonesia. Is cutting off the balls of a freedom fighter normal violence but beheading is extreme? You get into these ridiculous discussions if you use the concept of normal and extreme violence.

Slide 8: Critique #3: the concept of extreme violence is a direct legitimization of the crime of colonialism

The concept of normal violence means that Dutch racist colonizers who introduced apartheid in Indonesia are perfectly in their right to use normal violence to maintain their colonial rule. Normal violence means the acceptance of the relationship of power. Colonial power is legitimate as long as they use normal violence. This is nonsense presented as science.

Slide 9: Critique #4: the moral judgment of violence should be related to its purpose and cannot be judged in absolute terms

There are two moral categories of violence: the category of the injustice of oppressors violence and the category of the justice of the violence for freedom and liberation. The violence of a woman who is raped by a man cannot be placed in the same moral category of the violence of the rapist. The violence of Dutch freedom fighters against Nazism could not be placed in the same moral category as the violence of the Nazi’s. The violence of the freedom fighters of the people of Indonesia cannot be placed in the moral category as the violence of the Dutch racist colonizers to maintain their apartheid state in Indonesia.

Slide 10: Critique #5: the most obvious comparison is not made: extreme and normal violence of Nazism and colonialism

Scientific research often has a comparative dimension. You compare the phenomenon you want to study in different situations in order to get a better understanding of the phenomenon. In 1945 the Dutch just came out of a struggle for freedom in which they also used violence. The Dutch resistance organized violent resistance in coordination with the allied forces. Shortly after their fight for freedom from Nazism they used violence against the freedom fighters of Indonesia. If you are an objective researcher into violence, why don’t you take this obvious comparison into account?

Slide 11: Critique #6: this colonial research project is a racist project

The leader of this colonial research project, Gert Oostindie, wrote a book on this topic as a prelude to this investigation titled Soldaat in Indonesie, soldier in Indonesia. He claims to be objective and open-minded, as many racists do and contrasts his attitude to the historians in Indonesia who are not objective and open minded. He writes about the way he conducted his research on documents of Dutch soldiers who were fighting their colonial war: “Each of the ego-documents is just an individual account, but an open-minded, systematic analysis of the whole body can produce a more balanced picture and thus also more insight into the war.”[3]

So he is the white objective and open-minded researcher. This is what he says about the historians  in Indonesia: “Until now no Indonesian government has ever showed any interest in serious historical research into the war of decolonization, whether it is carried out in cooperation with the Netherlands or not. That is not strange. Open-minded research would undermine the image of a united heroic people that expelled the colonizer under the leadership of the army.”

The racism of Oostindie lies in his contradiction which he does not even notice. How can you know the result of a research that was never started according to your own account? Why is the conclusion of the white Dutch historian Oostindie open-minded and the conclusion of the historian in Indonesia narrow-minded without judging the facts of a research that was never conducted? Objectivity and open-mind means that you have to subscribe to the conclusion of the white Dutch colonial historians without discussing the fact of the research.

Oostindie is the leader of the colonial research project so he will carry his racist arguments into this project.

Slide 12: Critique #7: the legitimization of the racist colonial rule deligitimizes the fight for freedom – 1

In a debate in Amsterdam Jeffry Pondaag from Indonesia asked his panel members the basic question regarding Dutch colonialism: who gave you white people the moral right to occupy my country that is 11.000 km away from your country and oppress, exploit and humiliate coloured people? This is the crucial question that anyone should pose at the start of any discussion on colonial history. If you evade this question, you evade the crucial context that determines your position in the discussion.

Slide 13: Critique #7: the legitimization of the racist colonial rule delegitimizes the fight for freedom – 2

Colonialism was a system of oppression that used any means necessary to establish and maintain its rule: rape, theft, violence, yrs extreme violence, humiliation, occupation. They colonize by any means necessary. And when colonized people fight for their freedom by any means necessary the colonizers start to scream: you use extreme violence. That is not fair! Oostindie claims that the violence of the freedom fighter was worse than the violence of the occupier and there illegitimate. He writes: “It is clear without any doubt the Indonesian side have committed cruel crimes – probably on a much larger scale and directly mostly against other Indonesians.” Oostindie argues that without Dutch rule the Indonesians would kill each other. He writes: “An important part of violence in the Archipel can be explained by the absence of an effective (colonial) power, but reflected further local contradictions of which the Netherland was partly party to, other than in the function of the keeper of public order.” The Dutch as the neutral ruler that keeps the Indonesians from killing each other. This is belanda racism of the worst kind.

In any freedom struggle the strategy and tactics is related to the means of oppression of the colonizer. Why is the colonizer allowed to establish their rule by any means necessary and the colonized is limited in their struggle of freedom to the means that the colonizer finds acceptable? What kind of logic is this?

Oostindie explicity legitimize colonial oppress in the following statement: “The Dutch military actions should be understood in the context that was given then by the Dutch: protection of the population en restoring law and order.” This is how the so-called scientist conceptualized a system of oppression: colonialism as the protection of the colonized and law and order as the natural way of governing the colonized. The most outrageous comment from Oostindie is to deny the role of violence in maintaining colonial rule. He writes that the Netherlands never had a strong military culture. It was always about protecting the Dutch border. If that is the case, why did you go 11.000 km from you country to occupy and exploit other men’s and women’s country? How was colonization achieved? By saying to the colonized: we come here in peace to rape your women, steal your resources, enslave your people and impose a racist aartheid system. Was this all done with peacefull means? In what kind of world does Oostindie live? What kind of colonial fantasies does he produce. Rember: if you are a professor that does not mean that you are a scientist. You can be an ideologue of colonialism and that is what this project is about: producing the lies of the legitimacy of Dutch fascist rule of Indonesia.

Slide 14: Critique #8: the colonial project turns the victim into the criminal and the criminal into the victim

A common technique in colonial the production of lies is the technique of turning the victim into the criminal and vice versa. Oostindie draws the following conclusion from his research on the liberation struggle of the Indonesian people: “Veterans reject Dutch apologies with reference to war crimes of the opponents.” Then the socalled objective researcher takes a political position in the debate: “It is clear that the other party was guilty of war crimes on a large scale.”

Oostindie turns the victim of oppression into a criminal of war crimes because of the war of liberation. While the oppressor is granted the method “by any means necessary” to impose oppression the oppressed cannot use the same method “by any means necessary” to liberate him or herself from oppression. The colonizer will put limits to the forms of resistance.

Oostindie leaves all claims of objectivity aside when he openly honor the soldiers who weer sent to put down the liberation struggle of an oppressed people. According to him his book should be seen as “a testimony of honor to these men.” What happened to the objective researcher that does not give moral judgments?

Slide 15: What is Decolonizing The Mind (DTM)?

Let me go back to the theoretical framework of Decolonizing The Mind. In this framework decolonizing the mind means three things:

  1. The articulation of a scientific critique of Western knowledge production on different levels: conceptualization, methodology of research etc. This critique exposes the lies of Western knowledge production, in this case the lies of normal and extreme violence and the lies about the legitimacy of colonialism crimes.
  2. The production of alternative decolonial concepts. If we study the period of 1945-1950 we use the concept of the legitimate fight for freedom and not the concept of normal and extreme violence to understand what has happened.
  3. The translation of the alternative knowledge in activism.

I will deal with the third point in the form of the question: what is a decolonial alternative for this colonial research project?

Slide 16: Understanding the nature of Westernized academia and the colonization of the mind

In order to develop an alternative you must understand the nature of westernized universities. You must understand the difference between education and training. Education is the liberation of the mind through free discussion and open debate, critical research and the search for the truth. Training is the imposition of limitations on the mind, disciplining the mind to think in one particular way, acquiring the skills to produce lies and developing the attitude to criminalize people who disagree with you and criticize you.

Education is related to power because education is an attack on the authority of power. We don’t accept propositions that are based on positions of power. We accept proposition on the basis of arguments.

If I talk about Westernized universities I mean not only universities in the West, but also universities in the former colonies of Suriname and Indonesia where we have Surinamese and Indonesians who are eager to defend their former masters against decolonial critique. Jeffry Pondaag can pose the crucial and basic question in every discussion on the history of colonialism because he was not trained in the Westernized university. He is a cement worker in an factory who has not lost his common sense and dares to ask: who gave you white people the moral right to occupy my country that is 11.000 km away from your country and oppress, exploit and humiliate coloured people? That is the question is ask to any Surinamese of Indonesian historians who stand up to defend his or her colonial master. What gave them the right to colonize our land, institute apartheid, enslave, exploit, oppress and humiliate our people? That is the basis of my conversation of coloured people who are trained to defend their white masters.

In 1940 the Kingdom of the Netherlands was a Muslim country; 90% of the kingdom were Muslims, yet there was a minority racist dictatorship in the Kingdom that prevented the coloured people to vote. In Indonesia racism and apartheid was instituted in public places under the banner of “No dogs and Indonesians allowed”. In Nazi-Germany Hitler instituted racism and apartheid with the banner “No Jews allowed”. At least the dogs were better off under Nazism compared to Dutch colonialism.

Slide 17: An alternative decolonial research project

My suggestion for the alternative is to organize a network of activists and academics to set up and carry out a decolonial research project into the colonial history of Indonesia. This project should systematically document the crimes of Dutch colonialism, calculate the amount of reparations that the Dutch should pay as compensation for colonialism and documents the resistance struggle against the racist colonizer. That is the most appropriate answer to this colonial project. The Decolonial International Network would be happy to support any initiative in this direction.

Thank you for your attention.

[1] Russell, B. (1912), p. 186.

[2] http://www.kitlv.nl/vierjarig-onderzoeksprogramma-dekolonisatie-geweld-en-oorlog-indonesie-1945-1950/.

[3] All references are from my review of his book in: https://www.iisr.nl/koloniale-geschiedschrijving-van-indonesie/.