Tag Archives: Apartheid

Islamic Extremist Iconoclasm–and Its Christian Precedents

In recent days, there has been a global outcry about the destruction of the ancient Assyrian site of Nimrud by ISIS. Over the past few years, many invaluable antiquities and irreplacable world heritage sites have fallen victim to Islamic extremists in countries like Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. The theological justification for these acts is that these artifacts are idols which propagate a false religion and seduce the faithful to stray from the path to true faith.

Perhaps the most spectacular act was the the destruction of two giant Buddhas in Afghanistan by the Taliban in 2001. Ever since then, Islamic extremists have destroyed valuable antiquities up to the most recent atrocities committed by ISIS. Aside from expunging idols of false religions, the destruction serves a second purpose: it has become part of a propaganda war in which ISIS is shocking Western audiences in order to remain relevant. The destruction of antiquities and its documentation in videos thus serve as propaganda stunts not unlike the brutal and inhuman beheading videos.

While these are despicable acts, the fact that we infidels find these acts reprehensible is part of the reason why they were committed in first place. I decided not to link images in order not to fuel this propaganda effort by the Islamic extremists. The “propaganda video featuring the apparent destruction of the Mosul Museum” also raises the possibility that these accounts are actually exaggerated. It appears that many of the destroyed artifacts actually were plaster replicas–which reinforces the point about the propaganda stunt.

It is useful to remind ourselves that the Christian tradition had its own moments of sometimes violent iconoclasm–the theologically motivated destruction of religious artifacts. In the 8th and 9th centuries, the Byzantine Empire went through two periods of iconoclasm, for instance. But the most virulent example of Christian extremist iconoclasm is the Protestant Reform of the 16th century, promoted by Lutherans like Andreas Karlstadt and the two founding figures of the Reformed Church, Huldrych Zwingli and Jean Calvin. They regarded the visual representation of the divine as a form of heresy and ordered the systematic destruction of religious art in churches they controlled.

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Damaged relief in Utrecht Cathedral, desecrated in 1566 during the iconoclast fury in the Netherlands. (Wikipedia)

The Protestant iconoclastic fervor was as virulent and extreme as the destructive energy displayed by the modern-day Islamic extremists.  In the Zwinglian part of Switzerland, and particularly in Zurich, churches were purged of all religious images in 1524. Wooden art was publicly burned, and stone sculptures damaged and destroyed with heavy tools. Similar purges happened in some South German cities in the following years. A wave of iconoclast riots swept through the Low Lands in 1566 as an expression of Calvinist assertion against Spanish-Catholic rule.

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Removal and public burning of religious icons in Zurich in 1524. (Wikipedia)

Citizens were incited by preachers to remove idolatric religious art and to ritualistically destroy it in an act of public performance that amounts to a publicity stunt–an aspect which is reflected in many images from the period. Pre-Reformation church art had been commissioned and sponsored by prominent noble and patrician families whose members continued to identify with it. Reformers staged these acts of destruction to shock the entrenched establishment: the point was to destroy what was emotionally dear to its members. Just like with the destruction of antique treasures, there was a theatrical aspect to Reformation-era iconoclasm. So the barbaric destruction of antiquities at the hands of ISIS is not an Islamic specialty–rather an outgrowth of misguided religious fundamentalism. The examples from Christian history vividly illustrate the point.

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Destruction of religious art in the Church of Our Lady in Antwerp in 1566, staged as a communal act. (Wikipedia)

 

Eusébio, A Life in the Shadows of the Colonial Past

Eusébio was one of the heroes of my childhood. Watching the 1966 Soccer World Cup in England on our neighbor’s black and white TV set  in Switzerland, all we wanted to see is Eusébio. Eusébio was the dominant player of that tournament, Pelé notwithstanding, and led the Portuguese squad to the third place. We admired the elegance of his play, his speed, and his superb ball control. It is because of players like him that we call soccer the beautiful game. Eusébio died on January 5, 2014.

Eusébio, whose full name was Eusébio da Silva Ferreira, retired from soccer in Portugal in 1975 to play in North America, and I did not think about him much anymore after that. Until 2012, when I took a walking tour through Mafalala, a poor slum of Maputo, the capital city of Mozambique. As I walked across a gravel field, my guide told me that this is the place where Eusébio learned to play soccer and that Eusébio grew up in Mafalala. I was completely surprised–I always had thought of him as Portuguese, and the fact that he was black somehow went unnoticed during my childhood.

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Eusébio learned to play soccer on this field in Mafalala, Maputo.

Eusébio’s biography is marked by the de-facto Apartheid regime Portugal had implemented in Mozambique at the tail end of Portugal’s global empire. It lasted more than half a millennium and only ended in 1975 when Mozambique became independent from Portugal. The center of Maputo, then called Lourenço Marques, was reserved for whites only. In the 1950s and 1960s, the Portuguese built a large number of concrete highrises along stately avenues in the center of Maputo for a substantial Portuguese population–this is why it is referred to as Concrete City sometimes.

Blacks were not allowed to live there and were relegated to slums without any modern infrastructure. Mafalala was adjacent to the city center and became the focus of black intellectual life during the final decades of the colonial regime. It also was the center of resistance against white rule, and many leaders of FRELIMO, the Marxist liberation movement that seized power after independence, lived in shacks in Mafalala.

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Joaquim Chissano (b. 1939), the second president of Mozambique, used to live in the light blue house.

Eusébio moved to Lisbon in December 1960, at age 18, to play for Benfica. Sporting Lisbon, its cross-town rival, had first dibs on him as he played in their youth organization in Maputo. But Benfica outsmarted Sporting, and apparently they convinced Eusébio’s mother with a good bit of cash. Regardless the circumstances, for a kid from Mafalala to play for one of the major European clubs was a dream come true.

In Maputo, Eusébio was subjected to open racism imposed by the Portuguese colonial regime, but he was part of a majority community that gave him support. While the racism in Lisbon may have been less overt,  he had no community in Lisbon. So soccer became his community–which he worked for until the end of his life. He remained an untiring soccer ambassador for both Portugal and Benfica, his club, until his death. When Sepp Blatter, the FIFA boss, in 2011 stated that black soccer players just should shrug off racism, thus causing a scandal, Eusébio essentially agreed.

But we know that his 15 years at Benfica were tough, in spite of the huge sportive successes. Portugal then was a fascist state, ruled by António de Oliveira Salazar (1889-1970) and his successor Marcelo Caetano (1906-1980), until the Carnation Revolution of 1974 swept away the dictatorship–which led to the independence of all Portuguese colonies in the following year. The established society always saw Eusébio as an inferior African, and Eusébio also endured racist attitudes at Benfica. But he never talked publicly about his experience with racism–in spite of the fact that he agreed to be ambassador against racism for FIFPro, the global association of soccer players.

His pay at Benifica was far below of what top players elsewhere in Europe earned. Clubs like Inter Milan were interested in him, but Benfica demanded unreasonable amounts of money to release him. Apparently, Eusébio personally appealed to Salazar the dictator to get permission to leave. But Salazar denied the request with the justification that Eusébio belonged to the Portuguese people. Dictators are lousy at understanding irony. And by the time the regime fell, he was 35 and no longer of interest to top European teams.

Eusébio’s biography has a lot more layers of complexity than I possibly could have suspected as kid who admired him. As a victim of a brutal colonial regime, he moved to the racist “motherland” and sought his fortunes there. He never moved back to his native Mozambique where he was admired as a national hero, although he visited often.

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Street sign and informal portrait of Eusébio in Mafalala.

It appears that the issue of race was like a festering wound to him–a topic he never wanted to discuss publicly. Donald McRae in a 2006 piece in The Guardian describes Eusébio as a conflicted individual who was haunted by the ghosts of his past and struggled with issues of identity and belonging. Apartheid and the Portuguese colonial rule are gone, but their impacts on lives are real and ongoing. Eusébio is exhibit A. In its obituary, The Guardian writes: “Eusébio was the greatest African footballer in the history of the game.” While this is true, I would have never thought of it this way. The story is more complicated than that.

 

 

On the Wrong Side of History: Christoph Blocher on the Passing of Nelson Mandela

The passing of Nelson Mandela reopens the question of Swiss collaboration with South Africa’s Apartheid regime. Switzerland continued to have both diplomatic and trade relations with South Africa even at a time when the rest of the world shunned the regime. It allowed commodities traders, like Mark Rich, to use Switzerland as a base to circumvent international sanctions against South Africa. Switzerland was not a member of the United Nations then and was not bound by its sanctions. The policy of absolute neutrality served as justification for non-interference and free trade with the result that Swiss corporations were allowed to do business with the Apartheid regime and thus profit from the international sanctions against South Africa.

Christoph Blocher (b. 1940) is one of the most prominent, influential and divisive politicians in recent Swiss history. He was a Nationalrat (national councilor, member of parliament) from 1980 to 2003 and has been serving as Nationalrat again since 2011. He was a Bundesrat (federal councilor) and minister of justice between 2003 and 2007. He represents the populist-right Schweizerische Volkspartei (SVP, Swiss People’s Party) which has spearheaded all anti-immigration and anti-EU measures of the past quarter century and which currently is the strongest party in Switzerland.

Blocher was a co-founder of the  Arbeitsgemeinschaft Südliches Afrika (Southern Africa Working Group) in Switzerland–a Swiss lobby group that supported the Apartheid regime all the way to its demise.  The work of this influential but secretive group still is largely unexplored. In spite of the 2005 report by the Swiss historian Georg Kreis on Swiss relations with South Africa between 1948 and 1994, there is little public awareness of the larger role Switzerland played in support of the Apartheid regime.

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Christoph Blocher (left) in his home, discussing the passing of Nelson Mandela. (Screenshot teleblocher.ch, 12/6/2013)

For several years, Blocher has run his own webcast called Teleblocher–a weekly program where he chats with the Swiss journalist Matthias Ackeret about the issues of the week. The 25-minute program recorded on December 6, 2013, includes a segment dedicated to the passing of Nelson Mandela which lasted a total of six minutes and 42 seconds (also posted on Youtube). The conversation was in Swiss German–I transcribed and translated the entire Mandela segment, and I am posting it below. The interview has a certain oral and stream-of-consciousness quality to it, and I decided to render that in my translation even though it is is not always clear what Blocher meant to say. The transcript also does not render the tone of the conversation–for instance the indignation with which he tells us how the Swiss federal government refused to receive the South African president F. W. De Klerk in the late 1980s. The Mandela segment starts at minute 7:12 and ends at 13:54.

Rather than commenting on this interview, I want to make it available to a wider global audience. What this interview shows is a clearly Euro-centric, unrepentant racist apology in support of the Apartheid regime–and of the Swiss collaboration with it. Blocher throughout the interview idealizes the accomplishments of the Apartheid regime while showing contempt for Black liberation. But I think that the text can stand for itself. Read on.

Ackeret [7:12]: Well, our second topic is a bit more serious. This morning, an announcement which went around the world, Nelson Mandela died. What kind of a relationship did you have?

Blocher [7:21]: I did not have a direct relationship, but I followed this issue of course. Simply put, Nelson Mandela was in South Africa which had a very brutal and strict racial division between White and Black—he always fought for Black people to have the same rights. And he was banned and put into prison—that was an island just off the coast where he was put. And as the Whites were–whoever was against that, it was a question of whether the government would be toppled—they intervened quite brutally. And South Africa was part of Southern Africa.

Ackeret [8:11]: Well, you were part of this famous committee.

Blocher [8:13]: The Arbeitsgemeinschaft Südliches Afrika (Southern Africa Working Group); it was not just concerned with South Africa. And that was during the time of the Cold War. The Soviet Union wanted to do everything to gain control over Southern Africa. Because, this was the Cape of Good Hope, it was a very important route around Africa. And whoever strategically had control over this had an important part of global power in their hands. And thanks to the most important state in Southern Africa, South Africa, where the Whites made sure that it would not be Communist-controlled, they did not gain control over it. And the Southern Africa Working Group in which mostly higher officers [of the Swiss Army] were participating was concerned with this issue.

Ackeret [9:06]: But which supported Apartheid—that was the allegation at the time.

Blocher [9:08]: No, no, that is what they said, because we said that South Africa should resolve this problem on their own. Of course, it is clear: Russia wanted the Blacks to gain control because with them they could have turned things. So they held back in such a strategic situation. And the Whites always said that when they get this into their hands we would not come anymore. But one always has to know: Africa turned this regime on its own, and it was the Whites to be sure. And I was part of these discussions. And De Klerk who afterwards turned things.

Ackeret [9:55]: The Prime Minister.

Blocher [9:55]: He [De Klerk] came to Switzerland shortly before that. He was not given a reception, in Switzerland, by the Bundesrat [Federal Council]. They let him stand in front of the Bundeshaus [federal building] just so they would not get a bad reputation with the United Nations. So I received him with two or three other members of parliament in the Bellevue [hotel]. And then, as a White, he turned things around and received the Nobel Prize afterwards. And since then, race discrimination has disappeared. Africa is a wonderful country, this has to be pointed out, in terms of landscape, and the Whites kept very good order. But they did not grant equal rights. They did everything to integrate the Blacks. Hundreds of thousands of them, every year, came from the North, all Blacks, because they had it much better in South Africa than back home. But they did not have political rights. They also did strange things: they labeled benches, only for whites, only for blacks. And the Blacks also did not want to be where the Whites were. For us, this is a alien way of thinking.

Ackeret [11:08]: What was the goal of that committee?

Blocher [11:10]: The committee wanted to ensure that South Africa would not fall into the hands of Communism. Because we knew if that was going to happen the Cold War would turn in favor of the left, of the Soviets. One would not get it back once they would control that tip [of Africa]. The Americans knew that too. That is why the Americans always did both things: Apartheid, nothing at all, but simultaneously collaborated with the South Africans. And I believe that this was the merit of those groups who said, let the South Africans solve the issues on their own, we do not have to give them advice, and they did solve it themselves. South Africa is difficult now. One has to be very careful when going to South Africa, because they have a high crime rate which did not ever exist before. It is difficult to go out into the streets, and of course they are economically doing more poorly than before.  But as before,  South Africa is the state that is the strongest in Southern Africa, and all the other states profit from that as well.  And now Mandela, the representative, they had released him, and since then he has been a hero in South Africa.

Ackeret [12:35]: Rightly so or not?

Blocher [12:37]: Well, I mean, he contributed a lot to the end of racial discrimination—this is alien to us. And rightly so, we say that he fought during his entire life and went to prison—that is always a sign that one is serious about it. But perhaps he has been overrated (“überschätzt”) in many places. This is how it goes: if somebody did something well at some point, everything else he does is considered to be good. But this is all over now. Those who in the early years saw Mandela’s house—which for us almost is a palazzo—and Bishop Tutu, that was the other one…

Ackeret [13:20]: That was the neighbor.

Blocher [13:21]: […] he was on the same side. Well, they did not live in tin huts. They were well taken care of.

Ackeret [13:30]: You went to look at it?

Blocher [13:31]: Yes, look at it. I wanted to see where they lived. Well, I said, of course this is hierarchical. But in these states this has to be that way, that people of this kind and that kind live that way. And of course those in the regime made sure that they did not have to live in poverty.

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Nelson Mandela’s home in Soweto before his 1964 imprisonment. Yes, I went to see it too–not exactly a palazzo. (2007)

Ackeret [13:54]: Let’s go back to Switzerland. […]

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Rhäzüns castle, part-time residence of Christoph Blocher. Why criticize Mandela for living in a simple bungalow?