…continued from chronicle seventeen.
“Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.” Why it catches my attention? Let me tell you something that happened in my home country this week but concerns all. It got my blood run cold. Now I don’t consider myself some kind of messiah, but nevertheless I came here looking for a certain piece of information that might help save the world. New York City is the most ethnically diverse place in the world and could therefor maybe serve as an example of how a society can cope with growing cultural diversity. Right?
I was born and raised in Flanders, world-renowned for its art and science. It’s a small region of about six million people in the North of Belgium. We speak Dutch and have delivered an long and painful fight for our language rights against Francophone domination. The Dutch-speaking North also wants to split from the French-speaking South. At least, that’s what the ruling Flemish-Nationalist party wants.
It is doubtful whether the majority of Flemings really wants to split from the South. The true reason behind the electoral success of Flemish Nationalism might well be their recycling of racist discourse in mainstream terms. Flanders, despite its international allure in Medieval times, is now steeped in belittlement and xenophobia. It is a place where shutters are closed and the television is turned on before sunset. Coincidentally, it is also the second worst place in Europe to be born in an immigrant family. One in three migrant families – be it first, second or third generation – lives in poverty. Non-native speakers of Dutch are half as likely to finish school than native speakers. Of course, popular belief has it that only if immigrants should try a little harder, they’d make it as well. There is absolutely nothing policy can do about it. After all, who asked them in anyway? Without drawing a direct link between equal opportunities and radicalization, it is rather striking that the highest number of Western radicalized youth heading to Syria per capita seem to come from Belgium. Yes, tiny little Belgium. And very little is being done to keep them from leaving. Does that surprise you?
And since some years, Flanders’ belittlement has found its incarnation in the figure of the strongest and most popular politician in the region. With striking resemblance to America’s Republicans: made popular by way of television shows, openly admitting to be working for big business, demonizing the jobless after the crisis and blaming minorities of being unwilling to adapt. Taxes must go down. He is a brilliant orator and disposes of a small army of idolizing followers. His body guard is black. The man – Bart De Wever is his name – has managed to turn national politics into a one-man show. He refused the job of prime minister and reigns the country from his mayoral office in Antwerp. Yes, he is smart.
On Monday 23 March, Bart De Wever appeared on national television to stress that racism cannot possibly be the cause of radicalization. Instead of putting some emphasis on inclusion and support – there’s a tragedy going on in our midst, think of the parents who loose their children fighting someone else’s delusional war – the politician chose another path. Listen.
The host: “Is racism a relative concept?”
He: “Of course it’s relative, all ism-s are relative.”
The host: “Your party delivers the minister of housing and equal opportunities. What is she undertaking to deal with structural racism? Aren’t your ministers supposed to be dealing with these issues?
He: “Racism is all too often an easy excuse for personal failure.”
The host: “That is easy to say. The numbers show that there are definitely cases of overt racism.”
He: “I will absolutely not deny that it exists. It exist everywhere and that is deplorable. But there’s other problems as well. I have – for instance – never met an Asian immigrant in Antwerp telling me he or she is the victim of racism. I hardly ever see them popping up in the crime stats – although there’s thousands of them (Asians in my city).”
The host: “Are you linking racism to crime?”
He: “I’m saying that there’s negative experiences that are real with certain specific communities.”
The host: “Who?”
He: “I am talking about people of Nothern African origin. Especially the Moroccan community. Especially the Berbers. Eighty percent of the Moroccans in Antwerp have Berber roots. We’re having a hard time organizing social mobility in those groups. It’s closed communities, with distrust against the government, weakly organized islam, very susceptible for salafi schools, thus radicalization. It doesn’t really help (them) that people here see beheadings on the television, day after day, while knowing that some (Berbers) around here sympathize with them (IS) or even leave the country to participate.”
The host: “But you can’t say that is necessarily linked to the community in Antwerp?”
He: “No. But the rejection of those people comes from somewhere (it is comprehensible). If people leave from here (Belgium) and go there (Syria).”
That was it. Far from brilliantly constructed, his message read loud and clear. “Dear people from North-Africa, please leave your tribal world behind you. As long as you don’t stop loving terrorism, we will not love you.” Pointless to dwell on the many logical fallacies here.
On Wednesday, a demonstration was organized in front of De Wever’s mayoral office. It was broken up instantly by the police. Hundreds of people were arrested and put on buses. According to personal accounts that reached me all the way to my little East River apartment, without being informed on any of their rights, they were released a couple of hours of confinement and intimidation later.
Odd, isn’t it? Of course this is not in the least comparable to what happened in Mississippi or Alabama, Kent State or New Orleans. As a rule, people in my country don’t die in the hands of the police. But all this happened in a country that until recently, at least tried to be sincere about being democratic. “Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.” That’s why it strikes me.
One last note. The cartoon on top was drawn by Jonas Geirnaert, one of Flanders’ most respected creative minds and comedians. It shows Bart De Wever strolling through the media landscape.
For the fans, here’s Jonas’s full cartoon.