Geplaatst op 6 January 2009 door Roland Legrand

The thin line between defending a culture and narrow-mindedness

Immigrants (Flickr picture jepoirrier, Creative Commons License)

Regarding the increased tension between Muslim and Jewish communities in Antwerp, colleagues drew my attention to some related news and analysis.On Monday there was a petrol bomb attack in Toulouse (France) on a synagogue. The authorities were quick to condemn the attack. No one was hurt, but people fear more violence.

Reading the reactions on sites, blogs and forums, it is obvious that many citizens ask tough questions about the integration of Muslim communities in the European cities. As the readers of this blog may know, I am a big fan of  Professor Richard Florida, who claims that cities which are diverse and tolerant tend to be more creative and richer. I think that the way in which cities deal with diversity is crucial for the economy.

Last month The Economist ran an insightful story about Muslims and city politics: When Town Halls Turn to Mecca. Numerous examples are given about the difficult relations between the communities in various European suburbs, such as in the Brussels suburb of Molenbeek, where the dominant culture is that of Morocco. Accommodating Islam is a big dilemma, so it is explained, but not an insoluble one.

The "talk of civilisational war in Europe’s cobblestoned streets is out of line in one respect: it understates the ability of democratic politics, especially local politics, to adapt to new social phenomena."

One very interesting example in my own wider region is Rotterdam (Netherlands):

Or take Rotterdam, where Ahmed Aboutaleb, a Muslim from Morocco, will take over as mayor at the start of 2009. On the face of things, Rotterdam has the ingredients for a Eurabian nightmare. Its Muslim population (at least 13% of the total, some say more) huddles in a few poor districts; there is a big white working class; and this is the home of Pim Fortuyn, the Islam-bashing gay politician who was killed in 2002.

And yet for now the public mood in Rotterdam is one of compromise. Among the leftist councillors who induced Mr Aboutaleb to leave his government job, the talk is of reaching out to xenophobic voters. Some policies adopted by Liveable Rotterdam—such as house searches to find illegal immigrants—have been kept under Labour. And Labour councillors like Hamit Karakus (born in Turkey but now steeped in Dutch emollience) stress the need for sensitivity to the “host” community.

This example is than compared with that of Antwerp (Belgium):

That port is a bastion of the Flemish-nationalist movement, Vlaams Belang, which plays on fear of Islam as much as linguistic chauvinism. In the last city elections in 2006, VB retained about a third of the vote, and was kept out of power only by a broad centre-left block. Between Antwerp and Rotterdam—both historic ports that are diverse but Dutch-speaking—there is a big difference in political climate.

Every time moves are made towards opening a new mosque in Antwerp (there are now 36), Vlaams Belang stages a noisy protest. Last January it brought to Antwerp a gaggle of far-right groups from across Europe; a cross-border effort to stop creeping Islamisation was duly proclaimed. And nationalist Flemings reacted with triumphant rage when an Antwerp bureaucrat quietly decided that, henceforth, all food in city schools would be halal.

The finesse that other north European cities bring to inter-faith relations seems lacking in Flanders. A compromise over the apparel of Antwerp city workers—scarves were not to be worn when dealing with the public, but okay elsewhere—left all sides grumbling.

This is exactly the kind of international coverage which the Flemish authorities try to avoid. Flanders constantly tries to safeguard the Dutch language. Historically the Flemish movement tries to defend and develop the Flemish language (Dutch) and culture against the dominance by the French language and culture.

The movement was and still is supported by left as well as right leaning politicians, but the radical wing is dominated by radical right-winged organizations such as Vlaams Belang, Voorpost, Nationalistische Studentenvereniging (Nationalist Students Union), and several others.

International media (as well as Belgian media) are worried about the influence of the extreme right.

The fear for assimilation by the French culture also leads to allergic reactions to English. It is not self-evident in Flemish universities to teach in English for instance.

There is a thin line between defending one's own culture and language and being intolerant or narrow-minded.

While theoretically it would be a good idea to have English as an official language in Belgium (we already have French, Dutch and German), it is politically out of the question. However, the reality is that young Flemish and French speaking people do have English as their second language (and not at all the "other" official language). So maybe having English one day as an official language is not that crazy at all.

Roland Legrand


@Roland, I agree you cannot force people to learn another language. But why is it that the French-speaking citizens of Belgium, on average, do not speak Dutch or only very basic Dutch? It is all a question of mentality and in this respect I can recommend you to read an article that appeared in De Morgen today by Luc van Doorslaer on "Taalgraaicultuur en de Belgische loftreflex". It is exactly that mentality that leads to a lot of tensions in the Flemish periphery around Brussels. An estimated 200.000 Flemish live in Wallonia, but you never read stories about Flemish refusing to speak French with the local authorities in Wallonia, demanding "language facilities" or the annexation of their village to Flanders. That is because they find it natural to integrate into the local community, not because they are all fluent in French. So in the end it all boils down to basic respect and politeness towards the local community, its culture and its language. If you are willing to learn a language, you can, it is as simple as that.
The French-speaking community, however, has a very bad track record in this respect: I only need to refer to the systematic suppression of local languages in the French republic (Basque, Flemish, Langue d'Oc, Corsican, Breton etc) and the "Frenchification" of the once-Flemish city of Brussels. Now you can see that happening again in the Flemish periphery around Brussels.

Personally, I think everyone should be at least tri-lingual. But if your statement above is true,I think this country will split up in the near future as you cannot live together in one country unless the one community fundamentally respects the territory,language and culture of the other. Even the French bishop of Namur, Monseigneur Leonard, understood this and warned the French community that their attitude towards learning and speaking Dutch must change.

I would like to end with a quote (in Dutch) by the famous author Herman Teirlinck in 1959, winner of the "Prijs der Nederlandse Letteren" and former advisor for both King Albert I and Leopold III: "Laat iedere Belg vrij uitgaan door het land en zich vestigen waar hij wil. Hij verlieze echter nooit uit het oog dat hij een onschendbaar taalgebied is binnengetreden, waar hij hoe dan ook geen voorrechten voor eigen taal heeft te doen gelden. Er mag onder geen voorwendsel worden getornd aan het heilig recht voor beide taalgemeenschappen om de volstrekte onaantastbaarheid op te eisen van beider geboortegrond."

@Tom I understand your position, but I don't think you can force people to learn a language. In general, our French speaking citizens only speak a very basic Dutch, or don't speak the language at all (of course, there are notable exceptions). We never managed to convince them to do more in this regard, not in the old national state, and in a federal (or confederal) setting they will even be less inclined to learn Dutch up to a sophisticated level.

However, there is considerably more enthusiasm for English - in French-speaking Belgium as well as in Flanders. Learning a language is very rewarding, but it costs a lot of time - and our citizens increasingly want to focus on their own language and on the one language which is truly international, and that is English.

Maybe I am wrong of course, but most of the students and young journalists I meet only have a rudimentary knowledge of the "second official language" but feel far more self-confident in English.

I doubt whether it is possible to force them in another direction.

This opinion shows very little respect for the cultural and linguistic diversity of Belgium. While multilingualism should be promoted at all times, it is a different thing to say that English should become an official language in a country where there already are 3 official languages: Dutch, French and German. The trouble in Belgium is that a lot of the people do not even master the second official language well, let alone the third. In Flanders, the second language taught in schools is compulsory French. In Wallonia, pupils are free to choose their second language, which in reality means that only 48% of Walloons choose Dutch as 2nd language, 22% as 3rd language and 29% or almost one third of all Walloon pupils graduate without one single notion of Dutch, still the language of 60% of the Belgian population!

Instead of making English the 4rth official language of Belgium, it would be better to ensure that Dutch becomes compulsory for all French-speaking pupils, just as it is now with French in Flanders, so as to ensure true bilingualism. This would also greatly help the mass of unemployed French-speaking youth in Brussels find a job just a few kilometres away in Flanders.
I dread the day that Flemish and Walloons have to communicate with each other in... English.

I think you may be right. The only problem with having English as an official language is that it makes the world an extremely boring place. English is everywhere, everyone speaks it, some better that others. It is the un-official Esperanto. But can you imagine what would happen if other countries would follow suit and English became the official language in most countries? What an extremely poor and boring place we'd live in. After 11 years in Ireland I am bored with all the English around me. I miss the diversity of languages in Belgium. Not just French, Flemish and German but all the other languages too. The world would be a better place if we showed some respect for other people and learned their language. But then again, that's Utopia, I think.

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