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 


billoo said...

I'm sorry to hear about that terrible incident, fff. Truly shocking and disgusting! When my mother was growing up in Lahore (some) women used to cycle to university. Can't see that happening now! (Though, having said that, a colleague is involved in a 'pink rickshaw' scheme that would increase female mobility.

Two quick points, if I may?

1. Do you really think the free movement of capital is a grand thing?

2. Based on my own experiences of London (this may or may not hold for Brussels) the problem is not so much about traditional Islam. It's about a number of other things that get conflated with that:

a) the conservatism of people from small towns/rural areas coming to the west.
b) the often racist attitudes of local inhabitants (pre-multiculturalism, that is. even then, I'm not sure how deep that was).
c) the reactionary and extremist attitudes of the second or third generation has little to do with "traditional" Islam and is more, I think, about alienation, the *lack* of formal (traditional) training, housing and other issues.

That is not to say, of course, that I completely disagree with you. But on the other hand, lots of Muslims *have* integrated and do feel part of a pluralistic, civil society. They watch the same t.v. programmes, follow the same football teams and in terms of language, education and habits are to all effect British. In that sense the question you pose doesn't really bite because life, as it is lived, dissolves the question (for most people).

Best wishes and salams,


Swann Ffflaneur said...

dear b or K.

thanks for your thoughtful comments - books can (and have been ) written about this - so I'll neevr be able to capture all nuances in a post, let alone in a comment.

But quickly:

1. freedom of capital:
- on a global scale: absolutely, beware! fraught with risks and adverse effects
- on a European scale: well we've been living through the risks & drawbacks for a couple of years now. But going back to small national economies? with small national interests? here comes Marine Le Pen. So within Europe, yes, I do think the freedom of capital movement is the grander vision

2.your a, b and c are all very important factors - I've touched upon them in previous posts. It is a many sided issue. And the way a certain "traditional Islam" is preached in some mosques, in some books, and on some websites is also part of the problem.
The 2.d, if you will. (And how mono-Arabic speaking foreign imams can ever foster integration, that I genuinely fail to understand.)

It is crucial indeed, to keep in mind the many Muslims that have integrated. And so, for most people, luckily, the question can dissolve.

But not for all, I'm afraid.


billoo said...


I hear what you're saying about small economies. On the other hand, there is Wendell Berry!

I think you're absolutely right to point out what's been happening in the mosques (i've only been once in 25 years in London and only go here when a relative dies so I have no first-hand experience).

But I suspect that that was truer for the 80s and 90s. Why it was allowed is a big question. Partly out of sensitivities to "multi-culturalism," I think. But, on the other hand, a lot of very unsavoury people were allowed to speak and we're also given a lot of air-time in the media (at least in the UK). Bizarre, to say the least!

Here was Adam Shatz in the LRB:

'What most of the jihadis appear to have in common is a lack of any serious religious training: according to most studies, there is an inverse relationship between Muslim piety and attraction to jihad. As Olivier Roy, the author of several books on political Islam, recently said, ‘this is not so much the radicalisation of Islam as the Islamicisation of radicalism..'

So, to think about the mosques is-at least now-to probably miss what's really going on (in my opinion. I may be completely wrong).

I think on your other main point, though, that there's a danger of taking up the extremists' position. *That* is certainly what *they* think is traditional Islam but I really think most scholars from the conservative but traditional schools (the so-called 'ulema') have condemned extremism.

Yes, not all. worrying.

Keep well,


Swann Ffflaneur said...

Dear K.

interesting thoughts.

True, many of those radicalized young did not even speak Arabic, and displayed little religious interest until they were recruited.

What worries me though, about those foreign imams, however peace loving, is that they are out of touch with contemporary European life. They comfort older generations in their traditional beliefs but cannot help younger generations find their way in society, since they do not speak the local language. And confronted with issues a, b, and c - where do youngsters in search of self-esteem turn to? To shady characters and doubtful websites.

Perhaps we need more Belgian trained imams participating in Belgian social life and being exposed to the same level of societal scrutiny and secular debate as their Catholic counterparts are. Having to rub along with other faiths, with agnostics, etc – by pure symbiosis these local imams would help "dissolving of the question."

I stumbled upon some stats (for Europe: Ruud Koopmans, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, for US: Pew) According to these surveys:

In the US, about 30% of both Muslims and Christians affirm that “there is only one interpretation possible of their faith “ - so well aligned.
In Europe less than 20% of European Christians are that affirmative. Just half of German Muslims stick to the “only one interpretation” but no less than 82 % of French and Belgian Muslims do.
Asked whether “religious rules are more important than secular law”, less than half of German Muslims agree but more that 70% of French and Belgian Muslims confirm religious rules are the more important.

So it does seem that in Belgium and France the gap between Muslim religiosity and an extremely secularised society is particularly large.

Why? In Brussels your a, b and c have been clearly at work: a first wave of immigrants coming from very poor regions, a second generation often looking for spouses in their region of origin, further boosting the inflow of immigrants not speaking the language and unfamiliar with European customs. Combine that with a school system ill equipped to cope with the huge inflow of children speaking neither French nor Dutch. Then add a few Saudi-financed conservative imams and there you are: a recipe for out-of-touch older generations and for alienated, resentful younger generations.

But still - if we can avoid the trap of escalating mutual suspicion, time will probably indeed do its work. The question will dissolve and we can all go back to reading books and meditating on wintry slants of light.

take care,

PS will have to read up on Wendell Berry
PPS pink rickshaws in BXLs! now there's an idea

billoo said...

Yes, think you're right, fff. Same happened in the UK where they "imported" imams from Pakistan/Bangladesh who were totally out of touch with the concerns of the younger generation and spoke a different language (literally and metaphorically)

Your question: where do youngsters in search of self-esteem turn to? doesn't have to be answered in terms of religion, though (mosques or imams) and i think that that is *part* of the problem, no?

Better integration, a greater sense of feeling that they are members of the society they actually live in, would improve esteem. Can't but help think that France's rigid understanding of secularism isn't helping.

That is not to shift the blame but just to suggest that it might be one of the contributory factors (housing, work and education-to take up an old (PPP) People's Party line- might be a more effective way of tackling this).

Best wishes,


Swann Ffflaneur said...

With all the cheap money sloshing about: we should be investing massively in "housing, education, work".
Guaranteed societal ROI - Investing for Tomorrow.