“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)
- 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 . http://fsi.fundforpeace.org/rankings-2015
- 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