Freedom is not our gift to the world

Tolerance and democracy are not “our European” values

@LeidenunivThe dutch flag flew half-mast at Leiden University after the terrorist attacks in Brussels

‘We will continue to defend our European values of freedom and tolerance’, rector Carel Stolker wrote after the attacks in Brussels. Ethan Mark suggests a restatement.

The day after the terrorist attacks in Brussels, on Wednesday March 23rd, Leiden University rector Carel Stolker issued a statement of support for the victims that included the following paragraph: ‘Leiden University mourns the victims of the terrorist attacks in Brussels. These attacks are an assault on our democratic society. We will continue to defend our European values of freedom and tolerance against all attempts to undermine them.’
The following day the first and last sentences of this paragraph were reproduced both on the Leiden University Facebook page and in a tweet sent from its Twitter account. I applaud the solidarity and sympathy with the victims expressed in the rector’s statement. As an employee of Leiden University, a Dutch citizen, and a specialist on global history, however, I am concerned about its reference to freedom and tolerance as ‘our European values’.
Regardless of its doubtless positive intentions, I do not think this is appropriate or helpful in the shared aim of overcoming the threat of terrorism—in fact, I fear, quite the contrary. Not only because such a statement, however inadvertently, suggests the existence of a European “us” who subscribe to such values and a non-European “them” who do not. But also because it misrepresents the story of how these values became “our values” in the first place—a story that is global rather than European.
Freedom, tolerance, and democracy are not “our European” values, but global values. They are not Europe’s gift to the world; in fact it was often precisely in struggles against European and American colonial domination and discrimination—struggles against the hypocrisy of a Europe and America that claimed to advocate freedom, tolerance, and democracy, but did not necessarily see these as applicable to non-Western peoples—that these values were truly established as universal.
From 18th-century Haiti to the 19th-century Philippines to 20th century British India, Netherlands Indies, and Belgian Congo, to 21st century Egypt, not only have non-European peoples demonstrated a profound understanding of and dedication to these values and ideals, they have made an indispensible, formative contribution to their global evolution. Not only did their struggles pressure their European and American overlords and local autocratic rulers to practice what they preach; they also reshaped the very meaning of these values and our widespread commitment to them in the process.
Where would freedom, tolerance, and democracy be without the contributions of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Wangari Maathai, Aung San Suu Kyi and countless other famous and nameless men and women throughout the world who sacrificed, and continue to sacrifice, their lives and livelihoods so that all people might finally and truly enjoy them?
Terrorism represents a threat not only to “us Europeans” but to all those dedicated to values of freedom, tolerance, and democracy. The proper role of an institution of higher learning is to proclaim its dedication to their defence as values shared, and fought for, by people throughout the world.
Might I then suggest a restatement as follows: ‘Leiden University mourns the victims of the terrorist attacks in Brussels. These attacks are an assault on democratic societies everywhere. We will continue to defend the universal values of freedom and tolerance against all attempts to undermine them.’
And what better place than a university for doing so in a range of settings, from the classroom to the library to the wealth of academic and cultural events that welcome students and scholars on a daily basis? I am sure it’s not just the global historians who want to contribute.

dr. Ethan Mark, University Lecturer (UD), Modern History and Area Studies

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