not all is lost

Building Europe

I pity the younger generations”, my colleague said, while we were discussing the state of the world in the coffee corner. “We have witnessed so much positive stuff happening - Europe being built- the free movement of capital and people, the Euro, ….”But a 20 year old?  Crisis upon crisis. And now, this, …. ”.

The vision of a borderless Europe was an inspiring one (and so it remains, for anyone with a modicum of historical awareness).   
The financial and the Euro crises have shown how financial and economic conditions and institutions across Europe were still too fragmented to cope with the grand vision of the free movement of capital. Politicians have more or less tried to mend that, catching up after the facts, introducing a European banking supervision, and a host of other regulations and measures.

Likewise, the ideal of the free movement of people in the Schengen area (abolishing controls at the internal borders), now collides with the harsh reality of insuffiently developed European institutions.   External border controls are found wanting, the coordination of national security services is insufficient.   It may be challenging, it will be hard work: but that too, probably - hopefully- can be mended – if enough political goodwill exists (and if Merkel, “the indispensable European” as the Economist called her, is not too exhausted …)

An intractable challenge?

But perhaps we're faced with a far more formidable and intractable challenge:  to develop a common European identity, a European sense of belonging. Not just across countries (which is what the European project was focusing on) but across the “multi-cultural” communities formed by the successive waves of immigrants over the past 50 years.

Improving socio-economic integration is obviously essential.   So is the principle of respect and non-discrimination.  
But, there’s an even more daunting and crucial question:  how to arrive at a shared civic sense of responsibility, a shared sense of togetherness across communities with differing cultures and religions? 
Very concretely – because this is one of the most awkard challenges at hand: how can a traditional religious world view be reconciled with a pluralistic, secular culture?        

An Egyptian imam in Brussels

Brussel Deze Week”, a small local Brussels paper, this week published an interview with Sewif Abdel Hady. The Egyptian imam, trained in Cairo, is the number two of the biggest Brussels mosque (the director of this mosque is a Saudi). Abdel Hady has been working in Belgium for 12  years, and he speaks neither French nor Dutch nor English.  (So the interview was done in Arabic, with simultaneous translation).  The imam stresses the non-violent nature of Islam and goes out of his way to confirm that Islam is not contradictory to Belgian  laws.  So far so good.  He earnestly continues:  The prophet has established how people should deal with each other. Everything is in Islam: rights and duties for both Muslims and non-Muslims. […] What God has laid down via the prophet is permanent. […] The Qu’ran is global and universal”.   How is a devout Mosque visitor to reconcile this with a pluralistic, secular culture, with a political democracy? How can integration into European civic society be fostered by foreign imams who do not speak any European language? 

Another interview, in another paper, with a  Mipster , a modern and dynamic, fashion-conscious woman wearing a headscarf : “I can get along with people who do not believe, but I can only be really friends with someone who is also a Muslim. A non-believer could never understand how important my faith is for me. […] My husband should definitely be a Muslim , how else could I trust him?”         

Cycling in Brussels and questions without answers. 

And, finally, a personal anecdote :  as a woman cyclist in Brussel, I’ve had my share of dirty stares. Once,  a small Moroccan boy, crossing me on a bicycle himself, even spat me in the face. After a split second’s cowardly hesitation (oh, let go), I did turn and furiously chased him through the narrow streets of Saint-Josse (a 90% immigrants neighbourhood). I finally cornered him – he was barely twelve, hiding behind his bicycle, trembling and looking at me with big scared eyes while I loudly scolded him (“you should be ashamed! What did you think you were doing?  This is so base! Shame on you! Don’t you ever again dare to spit at people! Etc etc) .   Later I looked it up on the web – wanting to find out what is so disturbing about women on bicycles. The first dozen or so of Google results were quite quite depressing  – all those solemn recommendations about what contemporary women should do or not, all based on a 7th Century text.

Getting back to our questions - we all know that religions bind people together around a common set of values which is of course precisely why they also divide people belonging to different groups. 

So, again, what kind of civic cement, what kind of shared values,  what sense of community can we develop to bind people from different cultures & religions together?  Is asking the question without having a ready answer too pessimistic a conclusion? Or just a realist, urgent plea to “society” (so to all of us) to at last develop a coherent answer?   

Solidarity in Brussels

And yet, and yet, really, not all is lost. Not even in Brussels – the butt of near global bashing these days (1). Despite the anecdotes mentioned above, most of my daily “multi-cultural” experiences in Brussels are in fact positive -  there’s a smooth shared daily life  of Brussels inhabitants of all stripes & colours – I’ve mentioned them before :  the hospital doctors, the bus conductors, the shop keepers, the neighbours, the colleagues, etc. 

And last Monday, with the “Brussels lock down” – there was definitely a sense of heart-warming solidarity.  With Brussels mostly deserted by the out-of-town commuters -  it were only Bruxellois, of whatever colour, who  kept things going.
 Ah, encore une courageuse  the Moroccan cleaner said,  when I arrived very early at the office, and we exchanged a complicit smile. The Congolese postal employee proudly explained how he had managed to get there anyhow, despite the metro being shut. We then playfully discussed the relative threat exposure of cycling versus walking.  And at the local super-market, the super-diverse team was complete, joking about the physical exercise they had had to make it to work.

note on failed states and whether Belgium is one (no it isn't)   

  1. what a relief - when last I checked, Belgium was still counted amongst the “more stable nations” by the Fragile States Index, scoring even better than France or the US .
  2. the former US ambassador in Belgium was right when he said that Belgium's biggest failing is a PR failure. Also personally-professionally speaking I can confirm that Belgians are lousy at PR, lousy at self -promotion. Too honest, too diffident, too self-derogatary, too auto-critical ;   certainly in comparison with other countries 

random notes from Brussels

The Chinese Tea Shop

It was 10 AM on a wintry Saturday. When I parked and locked my bicycle, the local shopping area was only just waking up.  Pushing the door of the small, narrow shop, I revelled in the delicious smells of teas in all varieties.   
The young Chinese woman, who took over the tea-shop only last year, was busying herself with filling a jar while talking excitedly into a smartphone lying nearby on the counter. A rapid salve of Chinese of which I could make out only two words:  metro” and something like “terrorista”. 
Upon that last word, she looked up at me with a quick anxious smile, and we both nodded gravely. When she had hung up and started filling my tea order, she updated me on the latest news, in careful but hesitant French:  they’ve closed the metro, they say commercial centres are at risk. It’s all terrible”. And looking pleadingly at me, she asked, as if I had an answer: “will this still go away?”

A grave awareness

It’s not acute fear – it’s something else, more like a grave awareness that testing times are upon us, that we’re not sheltered from the worse. That trouble is no longer only reserved for "the rest of the world".   A grave concern shared by everybody, well at least , everybody in my surroundings. Like the Flemish colleague  in what world will my 4-year old son grow up? “. Or the IT colleague with Turkish roots “terrible, it is everywhere".  Or the quiet despair of my Paris colleagues from Lebanon, who are reliving their worst nightmares, shocked by two successive attacks, one day in their native city Beiruth and the next in their adopted home town Paris. Or the concern of the Thalys train attendant with African roots who,  sending away two youths trying to board the  train without ticket, yells nervously to his colleague “they say they’re Syrians, what should I do, and no police in sight”. Or the anger of the Moroccan grocer: "these madmen are ruining everything". 


Shall we draw comfort from the fact that at least there is a “we” with shared concerns?     
Shall we find strength in a united “we “, even if only united in having a common enemy? (A unanimous UN vote …. can it possibly herald something like a coherent peace and reconstruction plan ?)
Can we put our faith in a “we” of citizens of all stripes who realise that, all alike,  we value  security, peace and individual freedom, that we all abhor chaos and violence?  A shared feeling of European citizenship and responsibility?

Not an uplifting thought 

Or should we rather ponder the extent of the challenge – acknowledging the presence of seeds of possible civil strife: different group-identities,  based on race, religion, culture or language.

I was tending towards  the optimist “we, citizens” thesis. But then I read the article about the youth  (20) who blew himself up at the Stade de France. 
Just an ordinary  kid, playing football and doing video games – so his friends told.
His father died when he was eight. His mother struggled to raise 4 children. A difficult school career, including a year at a school in my old home town. There are photos of him in red swimming shorts in a recreation park there (where I spent many a summer day a long time ago). And then one day, at 19 , he’s off to Syria. Posting a photo of himself, somewhere in a Syrian villa, again in shorts, but this time very macho with a gun. And with a proud caption, full of typos  I’m playing in the big league now”.

There must be many impressionable youths like him - looking for adventure, looking for respect – easy prey for cold-blooded propagandists and religious fanatics.

Not an uplifting thought.

          (some defensive notes about Brussels, which has been branded by the international press as the centre of European Jihadism)

It is true that the many Belgian tribal compromises between Dutch and French speaking communities have diverted energy and resources from more pressing matters, such as the management of immigration and integration. 
The typical urban issues of a super-diverse city such as Brussels have also often been neglected by Flemish or Walloon politicians defending the interests of their regions or linguistic communities only. 
And the 90’s success of a local racist party (Vlaams Belang) has not only made life harder for immigrants but has also pushed too many well-meaning citizens and politicians in simply denying the possibility of integration problems with newcomers.   

And Belgium indeed scores badly when it comes to education-levels and employment of its citizens with foreign roots. As to religious radicalism, whether Brussels is infiltrated more by Salafism and radical Islam, than, say, Paris' banlieues,  I cannot say. But,  relatively speaking more Syria-fighters have been recruited here than elsewhere in Europe.

Is all this only due to bad Belgian governance and native resistance to immigration? No, it isn’t.

The pattern of immigration into Belgium has had its own particularities. For instance, Belgium has had relatively more immigration "for family reasons" (bringing in people without any schooling to speak of) than immigration for work or study reasons. So from the outset, the integration gap was bigger.

And then there’s the central location of Belgium/Brussels, “in the heart of Europe” – a great logistical and transport advantage: not only attracting international institutions and companies, but also international trafficking of the illegal sort.  Furthermore, Brussels, as a big French speaking city just across the border of France, has quite naturally, ever since the 19th century (remember Victor Hugo) attracted French fugitives.  

62% of Brussel's population is foreign born, according to the   World Migration Report (Table on p39) (which  is in fact  more than I would have thought - it's a varied mix of course: of European expats, of French fiscal refugees, of French Jihadis, of NATO officals, of multi-national company employees, of lobbyists, of Polish electricians, of Congolese students, of Afghan refugees, of Moroccans from diverse backgrounds, of Turcs and Kurds, of ...... etc etc).

Living for over 25 years in Brussels now,  I have witnessed the city's evolution to a super-diverse city. And yes, Brussels definitely has issues of failed integration and Islamist radicalism to deal with.

But no, not all is bad in Europe's most diverse city.
In fact, mostly, all these people do get along. It's a subjective indicator of course, but the energy in the streets of Brussels is quite stimulating. There are no "no-go" areas, not even in Molenbeek.... (though for a woman, it can get sometimes very awkward indeed).  There is a growing middle class of citizens with non-European roots - from hospital doctors and nurses, over bus conductors and shop keepers to accountants and IT specialists.      

I do care a lot about Brussels - and for its sake, for the sake of its inhabitants,  I really would like to put faith in a "we"-thesis - we citizens of Brussels .....   But it will demand still a lot more work, more goodwill and more commitment from authorities and inhabitants alike. 


Shall Europe manage?

Back to the past during an archeological excursion in Trier

One might get dazed by the mind-boggling span of time covered by an archeological museum.  The one in Trier undauntedly starts in pre-historic times before dwelling at length on the brilliance of the Gallo-Roman civilisation which apparently fluidly merges (was that so?) into early Christian times.  

Because of the sheer solidity and beauty of some of the Roman artefacts it is tempting to believe that true grace & dignity “can never pass into nothingness but will still keep a bower quiet for us. and a sleep, Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.

However, historic timelines ruin the illusion, cruelly counting the number of times Trier was destroyed: in the 5th Century by Germanic Franks (5 times) and by the Huns.  And after a return to splendour under Charlemagne the timetable then marks the year 882 with a brief devastating comment; “Vikings destroy Trier during Easter week (worst of 12 major destructions in all)”. Afterwards, destruction is meted out by WWI and WWII bombings (“40% of structures flattened, an additional 35% damaged”). 

But humankind is resilient -   unswayed by the succession of disasters, archaeologists & art historians gather the fragments and tirelessly reconstruct a parallel human history of arts & crafts, of traditions  & believes, a ”Geistes-geschichte”. 
And so an imaginative museum visitor can still pass, with equal admiration, from the vestiges of the antique world to the remains of the Christian medieval world.  From a happy pagan world to a suffering devout medieval humanity?  Surely not, the ancients “lived under the shadow of tragedy” as much as medieval man feared his God. 
But maybe from a stoic world to a more empathetic world?  Or so I am musing, not for the first time, in front of a heart breaking pieta, with a Madonna holding her dead son on her lap.

Contemporary reality 

Contemporary reality bursts in:  a rowdy class of school children has entered the room, and is spilling over into the next.  The teacher doesn’t take long to re-assert his authority, with one boy charged to lead back stray pupils from the next room  hé les gars, il faut venir par ici, il s’agit de Jésus Christ 
Most of the pupils faithfully troop again around  the  teacher.  It’s a French-speaking class - from Northern-Eastern France?  or from Belgium, Verviers perhaps? Judging by his accent, the teacher is of Italian descent. The majority of the pupils seem to have African or North African roots. Most of the girls wear headscarves – in different shapes and colours. One girl is dressed from top to toe in a black dress – she’s excitedly showing something on her smarthphone to her friend, who is dressed in skinny jeans and a leather jacket.

The teacher is guiding his troops brilliantly through Western cultural history. With admirable enthusiasm & clarity he explains medieval iconography -  the role of Judas, the passionate veneration for the Madonna.  With gravity he admonishes his fidgety teenage pupils  “il faut toujours respecter les images et les symboles, même si ce sont ceux des réligions des autres » .     

Contemporary news

When waiting in a queue, sitting down in a café, or walking by a newsstand – there’s no escaping the ardent German refugees-debate on TV and in the papers. With German thoroughness all angles are shown and investigated:  from moving refugee tales and stories of altruist relief over instances of petty self-interest & duplicity to sectarian fights in asylum centres. From deep empathy to an even deeper seated fear of being swept away by the sheer size and momentum of this exodus.  Lofty moral obligations inspired by “history standing in judgment” vie with rational real-politik.

The FAZ analyses the question with irrefitable logic  Wenn man sich weniger attraktiv macht, denn wird der Ansturm geringer. […] [auch] im Fluchtgeschehen spielt das Gesetz  von Angebot und Nachfrage. Wenn ein Land wertvolle öffentliche Güter wie Sicherheit und Daseinsvorsorge Bürgern anderer Staaten in Aussicht stellt, dann darf es sich nicht wundern, wenn diese Einladung von Hunderttausenden angenommen wird”.

Contemporary horror 

The next day, on Saturday, scanning a German morning paper, I first think it’s an old one – what with this small article mentioning "18 dead in Paris attacks"? 

Checking the news on-line, my heart misses a beat – at least 120 dead.
Killing unsuspecting people during their Friday night out is indeed easy.

Europe has had decades of (relative) peace, Europe seemed to have managed to tame its old nationalist demons.  
Who on November 13th in 1915 would have dared to hope that 100 years later France and Germany would be playing a friendly football game with France’s president chatting with a German minister while watching the game?  But then again, who in 1915 could have foreseen that 100 years later religious fundamentalists would spread terror in Paris, randomly killing people in bars, restaurants and a concert hall. 

Shall Europe manage? Is a peaceful super-diverse society überhaupt possible? Can we preserve our pluralist free societies? How many liberties and illusions are we going to lose while combating terror?  
Shall Europe manage? 

In any case, let’s stick to the Parisian motto “Fluctuat Nec Mergitur”