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

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