Photo: Belgian activist Dyab Abou Jahjah. Credit: A.D. McKenzie. - Photo: 2018

Scholars Explore Violence in ‘Postcolonial, Neocolonial World’

By A.D. McKenzie

LIEGE (IDN | SWAN) – While scholars discussed “Violence in the Postcolonial and Neocolonial World” at a conference in this eastern Belgian city, news of various acts of violence filled the airwaves, underlining the extent to which people have to deal with the issue on a constant basis.

The Liège meeting, February 15-16, focused on both systemic violence (resulting from colonialism and oppression) and individual acts, with discussions highlighting the consequences for society, including ethnic divisions and paranoia.

“Doesn’t one kind of violence lead to others?” asked Rebecca Romdhani, a lecturer at the University of Liège and a co-organiser of the conference with her colleague Daria Tunca. Both stressed that violence is perceived differently depending on the observer’s standpoint.

The aim of the conference was to “question the ways in which different forms of violence function in the postcolonial and neocolonial era to uphold divisions in societies and to ensure that previously colonised countries remain economically disadvantaged and under the control of their former colonisers and/or other countries,” stated the organisers.

The event was equally meant to question “whether absolute violence from the oppressed is still inevitable and whether it is desirable.”

“Can violence help to heal the wounds of violence, or is there another way to achieve such ends?” asked the convenors.

With controversial figures such as Belgian activist Dyab Abou Jahjah and Senegalese-born writer Fatou Diome among the keynote speakers, some observers had warned that the conference might itself “end up in violence”, Tunca said. But disturbance came only in the issues raised by the participants.

Abou Jahjah, a Lebanese-born writer and political activist who is sometimes described as “Belgium’s Malcolm X”, said society viewed systemic or structural violence differently from individual or “resistance” violence, where a killer may be in personal contact with the victim.

“When we see videos of people being humiliated and assassinated, a lot of people think this is barbaric. I think so too,” he said.

But he added that society in general is in “denial of the vile nature of killing masses of people in an organised and structural way”, through the use of drones, for example. Here, “the system” is not perceived as “swinging the sword” in a personal manner.

Agents of systemic aggression also are not often seen as violent. Yet “a kid from Molenbeek who is fed up with profiling and tells the police to go do something with themselves … he’s violent. He’s very violent,” said Abou Jahjah, referring to an “immigrant” area in Brussels which has served as the base for several individuals who have committed terrorist acts.

Some Belgians consider Abou Jahjah’s views unacceptable, and he was dismissed as a columnist from a national newspaper. He recently co-founded the “Be.One” political party, and his ideas are sparking increased discussion. According to Abou Jahjah, his criteria for violence rest on the question: is it legitimate or not?

“If a woman is being raped and she scratches (out) the eyes of her rapist, maybe she’s violent, maybe she’s barbaric, but I’m on her side,” he said, in a closing analogy that a number of conference participants found to be off-key.

“His argument kind of unravelled towards the end,” one scholar commented after the speech; the comparison between fighting back as the victim of gender violence and resisting systemic violence seemed to equate two different issues.

In a question-and-answer session following his speech, Abou Jahjah drew attention to forms of violence that do not follow the North vs Global South paradigm. “Violence against Africans is very institutionalised in the Arab world as well,” he noted.

Inter-regional or intra-ethnic violence is no news to Strasbourg-based writer Fatou Diome, another keynote speaker at the conference. Growing up in Senegal as the child of unmarried parents, she faced discrimination because of her status and because of her ethnicity, she said.

“When I came to France, they thought they would unbalance me with racism, but I knew it already (in Africa),” she told a large audience at the end of the conference, where her presentation was open to the public.

A popular figure among young French-speaking Africans in Europe, Diome takes what some observers call a “conciliatory” attitude towards the legacy of French colonialism.

“We cannot remain stagnating in the corridors of history,” she said. “I have chosen to love … that’s my form of violence.”

The author of Le ventre de l’Atlantique (The Belly of the Atlantic) and the recent book-length essay Marianne porte plainte! (which discusses French people’s interpretation of their national identity), Diome said Africans should stop believing that “Europe is their father who is going to change their lives.”

Her session at the conference comprised readings, recitations and responses to questions, and some members of the audience queried her assertions although it was clear that they appreciated her presence.

“Me, I’m not a victim of history,” Diome declared, often interspersing her comments with jokes. She said that Africa was on the rise and Europeans may one day become the migrants “in Dakar”.

Her presentation contrasted with the measured speech of Grenadian writer Merle Collins, who had opened the conference focusing on the psychological toll of colonialism and warning with a poem that “violence comes in gentle forms sometimes”.

Collins, known for her involvement in the Grenada Revolution, spoke of the selling of the “sun and sea of the Caribbean”, where plantation tours that “basically sanitise the violence of slavery” are among tourism offerings.She called for raising awareness about the issues covered at the conference.

“Academics speak in our little groups while outside the perception is different,” Collins said. “We have to push for education outside.”

Violence in the Caribbean, and in the literature from the region, was a significant feature of the conference, with scholars such as Suzanne Scafe from London South Bank University focusing on certain literary works.

“Writers have to do more than just reproduce violence – their work should intervene in discourses of violence,” Scafe said. “Violence is part of the everyday life in places like Jamaica but, in among the horror, people find connections on a day-to-day basis, receiving help from others. They are able to survive because of this.” [IDN-InDepthNews – 21 February 2018]

Note: This article is being published by agreement with SWAN – Southern World Arts News – an online cultural magazine devoted to the arts of the global South.

Follow SWAN on Twitter: (@mckenzie_ale)

Photo: Belgian activist Dyab Abou Jahjah. Credit: A.D. McKenzie.

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate. –

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