Brussels: Radicalism, surrealism and multiculturalism

 
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By Khaled Diab

In many ways, radicals in Brussels are more a product of the local language war than they are of global holy war.

magritte golcondeWednesday 9 December 2015

Like a 21st-century reinterpretation of Belgian surrealist René Magritte’s famous Golconda, the sky over Brussels has been raining heavily armed soldiers and armoured personnel carriers, instead of the bowler-hatted gentlemen wearing raincoats in the original.

Though a familiar sight in cities undergoing a revolution, coup or popular uprising, images of the laid-back city of cosy cafes which I called home for many years under lockdown seemed too surreal to fathom – and an overreaction of mega-proportions. In response, Belgians mobilised their quirky dry wit and understated humour to poke fun at the quasi-Orwellian reality that had overtaken the streets by tweeting photos of cats.

The mood in the immigrant quarters of the capital was sombre. Already outraged by the Paris attacks, which were partially linked to the Brussels neighbourhood of Molenbeek, described in the media as a “hotbed of extremism” and “jihad central”, Moroccans and other Muslims feel a mix of anxiety and fear.

“They are afraid of how society sees them,” describes Maher Hamoud, an Egyptian journalist and academic currently based in Brussels. In contrast to the Islamophobic narrative which claims that Muslims do not condemn Islamist terrorism, Hamoud has found that, even though he is himself a Muslim, that “they always open the topic and clearly condemn the attacks”.

Many fear a backlash. “It’s like I can’t do anything any more without feeling unsafe,” admits Kaoutar Bergallou, 16, who studies audiovisual arts in Anderlecht, a neighbourhood with large pockets of poverty and deprivation.

Meanwhile, many native Belgians also feel unsafe and threatened by the Muslim “other” in their midst. “We mustn’t just talk about the problems, but the causes of these problems,” asserts Hassan Al Hilou, 16, an Iraqi-Belgian student and entrepreneur who has started up an online platform for youth.

A growing proportion of Belgians are succumbing to the simplistic narrative that Islam(ism) is at the root of all evil. While Islam, like other religions, can be abused for violent, inhumane ends, this myopic assessment misses the vital issue of what draws young people to such cults in the first place.

Although each radical is driven towards radicalisation by a peculiar, complex set of motives, I am convinced that socio-economic and political marginalisation are major factors.

In many ways, radicals in Brussels are more a product of the local language war, which has hollowed out the state and turned it into a slow and reactive beast, than they are of global holy war.

The frontline of this conflict is Brussels, with its shocking inequalities. The presence of the EU, Nato and the daily arrival of tens of thousands of commuting professionals and civil servants, make the capital the third-richest region in Europe, per-capita.

However, the inner city has suffered enormously from the decades-old conflict between Flemings and Walloons, which has geared the country’s political machinery along ethno-nationalist lines and focused politics on the rivalry between these two communities to the detriment of everything else, including the needs of minorities. The devolution of power to the provinces and the exodus of the well-off to the suburbs and other towns has only amplified the problem for Brussels.

This means that though Brussels generates a huge proportion of Belgium’s GDP, little of that wealth stays in the capital. Today, the city has the highest unemployment rate in the country and one of the highest in Europe. Poverty is rampant and marginalisation rife. “There are young people who have lost hope,” observes Al Hilou.

Some cite examples of jihadists and terrorists who were from middle-class backgrounds or had no money troubles. For instance, they point to Paris attacks suspect and fugitive Salah Abdesalam, who used to run a bar with his brother.

But this misses the point. It is about social, not just economic, marginalisation and exclusion, not to mention aspirations to actual, not just notional, equality. Abdesalam was reportedly raised in Molenbeek, where youth grow up with the idea that either they will be unemployed or need to find a technical vocation to pay the bills. They also have to contend with discrimination and racism from mainstream society, not to mention the demonisation of their cultural heritage.

This may partly explain – though does not excuse – why Abdesalam turned to crime long before he considered terrorism. Social exclusion and growing contempt towards his community, not religious conviction, may also partly explain – but not excuse or justify – how a young man enamoured of drugs and alcohol abandoned his hedonism to pursue violent Islamist terrorism.

The media can raise awareness of these issues and politicians can strike at the root causes. However, despite exceptions, both seem to be generally failing in this mission. “The media frenzy and the politicians are just dirtying Brussels’ reputation,” opined Zouhair Ziani, 16, from Molenbeek, who is also studying audiovisual art.

To tackle this bad press, a group of classmates from Ziani’s school in Anderlecht released a video titled “I hope”, which has garnered much-needed positive media attention. In it, they express silently, by way of handheld signs, their mundane hopes. “Here, we live together, through the power of multiculturalism,” they assert defiantly, adding their hope that the “fear and hate” surrounding them does not destroy their friendships.

Social and community workers are also frustrated by this simplistic, binary narrative. “What bothers me and makes me despondent is all the whining about the left-wing ‘politically correct elite’,” complains Eric Gijssen, a video artist and social worker who works with marginalised youth. “But from what I can see Islam-bashing is the new ‘political correctness’.”

The vilification of Brussels also misses its beautiful and rich social tapestry, and discourages the well-off from moving there to enjoy its many delights and help revive the city. “Brussels is multicultural and will remain multicultural,” observes Ziani, lamenting that this “magical mixing of cultures” does not get through to the rest of the country.

Beyond Brussels’ villainous reputation lies a small metropolis of vibrant, energising diversity. Etched on to its native bilingualism, waves of immigrants have added to its rich patchwork.

But this tapestry is becoming patchier, as Belgium drifts towards polarisation, according to Badra Djait, an Algerian-Belgian academic and researcher into Islamic extremism and immigration. This is reflected in how, while mainstream Belgium had its gaze turned exclusively towards the atrocities in Paris, many Muslims were transfixed by the civilian carnage and death caused by French air strikes in Syria. “Images are important,” emphasises Djait. “Foreign fighters were originally drawn to Syria by the ugly pictures they saw of the Syrian president’s atrocities.”

Many youth workers fear that the government’s security-centric and heavy-handed handling of the situation, as well as institutionalised racism and ignorance, will only make matters worse. “Like this, they are cultivating radicalism on all sides, Islamophobic as much as Islamist,” says Bie Vancraeynest, the art director of a youth centre called Chicago which serves marginalised communities in the city centre. “Institutional racism has ensured that nobody in the police, state security, or the federal authorities understands these neighbourhoods or their inhabitants.”

And this relative cluelessness is manifested in the misguided, panicked setting of priorities. Despite the painful austerity measures, prime minister Charles Michel somehow managed to dig up an additional €400 million for tighter security and the “war against terrorism”, but did not whisper a word about unemployment, discrimination and urban decay.

But, ultimately, people who feel they are integrated and integral members of society are much more resilient towards radicalisation. This requires huge investment in deprived inner-city areas, improvements in education there, creating better prospects for minority and majority youth, who are becoming increasingly marginalised and radicalised, and combating exclusionary ideologies, whether they be Islamist or Islamophobic, through dialogue.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which first appeared in The National on 28 November 2015.

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The Brussels connection: Turning the tide on radicalisation

 
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By Christian Nielsen

Belgium says it is working to combat radicalisation in Brussels. But is it doing enough to counter jihadist narratives and address exclusion?

A man stands in front of mural in inner-city Brussels. Photo: ©Simon Blackley

A man stands in front of mural in inner-city Brussels.
Photo: ©Simon Blackley

Tuesday 17 November 2015

I almost felt sorry for Jan Jambon, Belgium’s Interior Minister, as he tried not to stand out too much during a joint press conference on 16 November with his French counterpart, Bernard Cazeneuve, in the wake of the Paris terror attacks last week.

But even if he could shrink by 30cm, there would be no hiding from the evidence that Belgium’s intelligence community may have dropped the ball… or were perhaps never in the game.

Belgium stands accused of being a “hotbed” for terrorists, or more euphemistically, disenfranchised Muslim youth, mostly in and around the poorer inner suburbs of Brussels, and that this is apparently not news to anyone in the intelligence community.

Only a few days before the Paris attacks, on 9 November, the Belgian interior minister claimed during POLITICO’s What Works event that Belgium was making some headway, citing its actions to shut down a terror cell in Vervier last January, and its awareness-raising efforts or “counter-narratives” for would-be youth thinking of, for example, joining ISIS. He said a tailored, one-to-one approach is more successful than top-down narratives like ads and internet campaigns.

He spoke to POLITICO’s Matt Kominski about the challenges he and the Belgian authorities face in dealing with ISIS fighters returning from Syria. Many don’t come back more hardened and angry, but rather feel “disgusted” at what they experienced. This, he suggested, is a useful counter-narrative weapon.

But the audience wasn’t buying it, asking why Belgium hadn’t put these young people on television or in internet ads as powerful, personal testimonials, or tried more mainstream approaches to stopping the momentum towards radicalisation, such as investing more in rejuvenating poor neighbourhoods and helping to integrate immigrant families better.

By his own admission, Mr Jambon said: “People think that mosques are the places of recruitment, but I think that today, most of the recruitment is done by the internet… The mosques were too moderate and they find their ‘truth’ on the internet.”

Then, as the saying goes, shouldn’t you fight fire with fire?  If the internet is the medium of choice for young people – and it clearly is – then well-meaning teachers and social workers are only going to have so much impact. The problem is, governments (not just in Belgium) are playing catch-up as they grapple to deal with the growth in online propaganda and extremism.

“Modern terrorists have embraced social media and ‘weaponised the internet’ to achieve their goals,” Mark Wallace, former US ambassador to the UN, told journalists at the Brussels launch of the European arm to the Counter Extremism Project (CEP) in July this year.

Yet Mr Jambon argued targeted messaging like that might lack credibility or come across as government propaganda. Maybe this is true, but it would at least send ‘a’ message, rather than leaving everything in the hands of overworked social workers in Brussels communes like Molenbeek, which has been identified as something of a ground zero for several incidents, including the recent Paris attacks and possibly the Jewish Museum murders in 2014 and the Thalys attempt last August.

Belgium’s Prime Minister Charles Michel said his government’s efforts until now have focused on prevention but that they now realise tougher measures are needed against jihadists returning from the battlefields in Syria and Iraq to Belgium.

But in Belgium sometimes it takes a shock event like the Paris attacks – and the extra heat Belgium is now getting from its neighbours who will no longer accept excuses – to galvanise its people and the authorities into action.

Mr Jambon acknowledged during the POLITICO event before the Paris attacks that Brussels was a hotspot for trouble (and it is reported at one point to have had more foreign fighters in Syria than any other European country per inhabitant). He said information-sharing between federal, regional and communal police forces is complicated, and that terrorism is a cross-border issue which only exacerbates matters. Indeed.

The Daily Beast confirms this fragmentation problem: “Security services in the city of Brussels have another significant issue: for a population of 1.3 million inhabitants, the local police force is divided up in six police corps spread over 19 boroughs. Sharing security information in that setting could only be complicated.”

In a piece about the role of the internet in dealing with terrorist extremism (‘Defusing the social media time bomb’), I wrote: “At some point, probably at the lowest ebb, enough people (digital natives presumably) will have had enough of their youthful innocence being stolen from them by radicals and extremists… murderers hiding behind a perverted cause. But have we reached the lowest ebb?”

That was back in July and I wrote that it already seemed like we had reached that point. But I was wrong. A new low water mark has been reached. Can we turn the tide before it gets any lower? I certainly hope so.

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Orientalism for kids

 
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By Khaled Diab

Despite the racism contained in Tintin and other classic children’s tales, I believe that children should be exposed to them.

C01-36

Tuesday 3 November 2015

My son’s long-standing love for comics betrays his Belgian side. At nearly six, he has now graduated to more advanced comic-books, including Tintin.

But the Cigars of the Pharaoh edition had his Egyptian side scratching his head, as its depiction of his other homeland did not match what his own eyes and ears had witnessed of that country and the wider region.

From the mummies of Egyptologists and the pharaonic wall-paintings of bowler-hatted Europeans with cigars and briefcases to bloodthirsty and violent Arabian tribesmen, none tallied with his real-life experiences.

Iskander’s reaction reminded me of a caricature by Kevin Moore I have seen of Tintin with a frown of concern on his face as he flicks through the pages of a book. The caption reads: “Tintin discovers Orientalism.”

In a similarly orientalist vein, Belgium and the Netherlands have been discovering the latent racism of Zwarte Pieten in recent years. These traditional characters, translated as “Black Petes”, are Moors who help Saint Nicholas (Sinterklaas or Santa Claus) distribute sweets on his saint day (December 6), which is a huge deal in the Low Countries.

But Zwarte Pieten are usually depicted by actors in “black face”, with exaggerated thick red lips and a mop of thick curly hair, a racist representation of African faces once common in the West. Now, the Netherlands is phasing out the character’s trademark look from its schools, sparking controversy and outrage, particularly among conservatives.

While the tradition undoubtedly has its roots in early 19th-century attitudes to African slaves, my wife and I take it all with a pinch of salt. Overt references to the race of the Zwarte Pieten were excised a generation or two ago and, with the far more ominous forms of racism around today, this is hardly a battle worth fighting.

Besides, as is the case with many other children, Iskander loves the Zwarte Pieten far more than Sinterklaas. In fact, when he was a toddler, he was terrified of the old man’s long beard and would not go near him.

Back to Tintin. Should he and other classic tales be banned for their offensiveness?

Tintin in the Congo – which the comic genius and pioneer Hergé was specifically instructed by his ultraconservative Catholic publisher to draw to shore up colonial sentiment among a people who had never possessed a colony before and were not terribly interested in one – is probably the most obvious example of this bigotry.

Framed in the classic mould of the “white man’s burden”, our swashbuckling young reporter travels to the Congo to investigate conditions there, uncovering a sinister diamond-smuggling operation in the process.

The album depicts the indigenous Congolese as “noble savages” who are essentially good but lazy. In contrast, the white Belgians are portrayed as efficient and industrious, building villages and facilities for the natives, educating them and leading them down the path to Jesus.

In one panel, a missionary shows Tintin his mission. “This is the schoolroom, and there, in the middle, is the chapel,” the priest explains. “When we first arrived here a year ago, this place was bush.”

“Missionaries are the tops,” barks Tintin’s dog, Snowy, brimming over with admiration and enthusiasm.

At one point, a young native, eager to be educated by the white man, rushes up to the missionary to inform him, in pidgin, that the priest tasked with teaching them is too sick to give them lessons.

Helpful to a fault, Tintin volunteers to be the replacement teacher for the geography lesson, despite, presumably, not being much older than the pupils. “Today, I’m going to teach you about your country: Belgium,” Tintin pompously informs the class.

When Tintin finally departs the Congo, the supposedly primitive and dim-witted Congolese erect a shrine for him and his dog Snowy, and a pious native is pictured prostrating before it.

For a strong believer in equality and human dignity, this kind of superiority and casual racism makes me highly uncomfortable and leaves a bad taste in my mouth. That said, I don’t think it should be banned.

After all, many children’s classics contain at least some content that we would consider unacceptable today, from Walt Disney cartoons to popular Arab fairy tales.

For instance, the frame story of the 1,001 Nights involves an insulting depiction of a black slave who sleeps with Shahryar’s queen, portrayed as a fickle and untrustworthy woman, and a tyrant who feels it is within his rights to murder a woman every night. As this example attests, it is not just racism that is a problem with old tales.

Sexism is a major issue too. Tintin, for instance, has almost no female characters and the only notable one, Bianca Castafiore, is whimsical, absent-minded and self-centred.

As a strong believer in freedom of expression and thought, the idea of bans does not appeal to me, especially since unsavoury attitudes need to be actively tackled, not swept out of sight. This is especially the case when it comes to historical literature.

Tintin was very much a product of his time, as reflected in the runaway success of the series and how little controversy around the world it elicited when it was published – ironically, Tintin’s adventure in the Congo remains hugely popular there and across francophone Africa.

Despite how unsavoury and even alien the attitudes above seem to us from our 21st-century perspective, when Hergé first published Tintin in the late 1920s and early 1930s, the views of his young hero were sadly commonplace, especially in the conservative Christian circles to which Hergé belonged.

Four decades later, Hergé expressed regret, describing the Congo strip as a “sin of youth”. “All I knew about the country was what people said at the time,” he admitted.

In some later adventures, in which both Hergé and Tintin matured, the cartoonist sought to atone for this “sin”.

In Blue Lotus, Hergé, who had consulted a Chinese art student who became a friend, tackles colonial attitudes head on. Tintin defends a rickshaw driver against a savage beating from a white man who complains: “Can’t we even teach that yellow rabble to mind their manners now? It’s up to us to civilise the savages!”

“Tintin himself is vehemently anti-racist,” one reader contends, “and is often seen sticking up for downtrodden locals over the objections of imperial powers.”

Whether or not Tintin, the character, is anti-racist does not absolve the comic, especially its early editions, of racism.

However, episodes of racism and sexism notwithstanding, Tintin was a pioneering work of comic art and his boyish adventures tickle the hero instinct in children and appeal to their longing for the independence and self-determination of which we adults deprive them.

In addition to not wishing to deprive my son of such simple pleasures, I feel Tintin and other classics of bygone eras present a wealth of educational opportunities. As the enduring appeal of the far-right suggests, these bigoted attitudes are, sadly, still alive and well in our societies, and so it is our duty to prepare our children by making them aware of this reality.

An unthreatening comic full of exotic destinations and outlandish storylines could be utilised as a great teaching tool. Although my son is still blissfully oblivious to the ogres of discrimination, I intend to use Tintin and other stories to discuss with him and to help him learn, as he gets older, about these unsavoury aspects of human culture.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The National on 17 October 2015.

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The West’s hidden tribalism

 
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By Khaled Diab

Tribalism and sectarianism afflicts Western societies too. So why is that they seem to be tearing the Middle East apart?

Charles Rogier leads revolutionary volunteers during the Belgian revolution against William I of the Netherlands.

Charles Rogier leads revolutionary volunteers during the Belgian revolution against William I of the Netherlands.

Thursday 17 September 2015

The disintegration of Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya – and the increasingly likely redrawing of their maps once the dust settles – are widely regarded, both in the West and within the Arab world, as a symptom of tribalism and sectarianism which the “artificial borders” imposed by the imperial powers were unable to contain.

While it is true that many of the conflicts in the region have taken on a tribal, sectarian or even religious dimension, or a combination of the three, they did not start that way. The idea that centuries-old Sunni-Shia animosities are behind the violence in, say, Syria or Yemen, are simply self-serving myths and half-truths.

Yet the media and politicians continue to fixate on this conviction, echoing  the late Egyptian diplomat Tahseen Bashir’s infamous quip that: “Egypt is the only nation-state in the Arab world – the rest are just tribes with flags.”

While a number of countries in the region are small enough to qualify as a tribe with a flag, this is not unique to the Arab world. And I’m not just thinking of Africa and other developing societies here.

Despite the Enlightenment’s focus on individualism and the shining light of reason, the West, after all these centuries, has not shaken off many elements of its traditional tribalism, and new forms of tribalism have also emerged.

As a small example, take Belgium, the country of which I am a naturalised citizen. Not belonging to either of its two main linguistic communities, I have often been baffled by the amount of mutual bitterness and distrust on view.

The quiet conflict between Flemings and Walloons that has been simmering for over a century could easily be framed in “tribal” terms – what is (ethno-)nationalism, after all, except a broader form of tribalism. However, to do so, would be to oversimplify an extremely complex situation.

As for “artificial borders”, Europe, like the Middle East, is replete with them. The two world wars were, at least partly, a case of borderline insanity.

Belgium is a prime example of how fake European frontiers are. Following Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815, and the dissolution of the First French Empire, what is today Belgium was handed over to the Dutch king William I.

Like Sunnis in modern-day Iraq, the Protestant minority controlled the state, though all citizens theoretically enjoyed legal equality.

Some 15 years later, as revolution fomented in neighbouring France, the Catholic majority of the Southern Netherlands revolted in what become known as the Belgian Revolution. How much of it was sectarian and religious and how much a reaction to William I unlimited (despotic) power and his bulldozer approach to modernisation (imposing modern notions of equality on his traditionalist subjects and stripping the Catholic church of its centuries-old privileges) is hard to ascertain.

Sect was the apparent driver of the conflict back then. Language is today.

Responding to the uprising, the great European powers agreed to give “Belgium” its independence, drawing lines in the mud similar to those they would draw later in the Middle Eastern sand. Belgium was destined to serve as a buffer zone (read: regular punching bag) between Germany, France and the Netherlands.

And faultlines like this abound across Europe. In fact, there isn’t a country in Europe whose borders are not artificial, whose historical frontiers do not overlap with that of its neighbours and whose population is not a messy mix of peoples.

This raises the question of how and why it is that European states manage to keep their tribal undercurrents in check, while the Middle East is apparently being torn asunder by the very same forces.

That’s because it is not. If it were, then Egypt should be – due to its apparently more homogenous nature and far clearer historical boundaries, not to mention the regional headstart it got as a modern nation-state – the most stable country in the region.

Tribalism is the symptom, rather than the cause, of the Middle East’s ills. Unlike the generally much older nation-state experiment in Europe, many Arab states have failed and others are on the brink of failure.

This is due to a complex mix of poor governance, corruption, authoritarianism, economic and gender inequality, poverty, under-education, foreign domination, overpopulation, environmental stress, and more. The vacuum left by this enormous, state-shaped black hole has enabled the demons of  tribalism and sectarianism to rear their ugly heads.

That does not mean that the West is immune. It is simply cushioned by effective governance, relative prosperity, greater freedom and the painful memory of the totally destructive power of modern-day tribalism, both between nations and within them.

But there is no room for complacency. Disintegration can come fast, like a chain reaction, order can quickly descend into disorder, and the most “civilised” can rapidly more into the most “barbaric”.

Many of the ingredients of that sort of unravelling are already in place, but the secret combination that unleashes mayhem has not yet been mixed together. Early signs of this include the growing “tribalism” within and between European states, including the Greek-German standoff and the rising spectre of far-right nationalism from France to Hungary, not to mention huge levels of youth unemployment, growing hardship and inequity.

Across  the Atlantic, the United States has among the greatest inequalities in the advanced industrialised world, enormous inter-racial tensions, massive gun crime, mass incarceration, growing class divisions, and rising animosity between the north and south.

While Western societies appear robust enough today to deal with these challenges, the chance still exists that, with time, the “never again” of yesteryear will become the “not again” of tomorrow. Let’s hope that does not happen.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 14 September 2015.

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The leper priest who lost his marbles

 
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By Christian Nielsen

Father Damien’s dying wish of marbles for his children may seem odd, but this saint’s caring for lepers can teach us a lot about selfless sacrifice.

Father Damien, shortly before he too succumed to leprosy. Photo: Sydney B Swift

Father Damien, shortly before he too succumed to leprosy.
Photo: Sydney B Swift

Thursday 4 June 2015

There’s a dedicated ‘day’ for everything now. Pick any date in the calendar and something momentous happened. Take 4 June, for example. On that day in 1783, the Montgolfier brothers demonstrated their miraculous hot-air flying machine. The Battle of Midway kicked off in 1942 and dozens of other battles and bloody victories share the same date. The actors Russell Brand and Angelina Jolie were both born on 4 June, in 1975.

Or how about remembering something just as obscure but a bit more existential? Ten years ago this day, the ambitious son of a grain farmer from Belgium was beatified in Rome by Pope John Paul II for his sacrifice to the church and the Kalawao leper colony. There is more to this celebration than the neat passing of a decade. It is an opportunity to reflect on the meaning of altruism in a ‘selfie-obsessed’ era, where the decision to join a colony of outcast lepers would be derided by today’s me-generation as madness, a one-way ticket to crazy town.

Born Jozef De Veuster in the rural town of Tremelo in 1840, the practical and head-strong youth spurned the family business in favour of a missionary’s life dedicated to the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary (Picpus Fathers). At an age when most youth today are still living off their parents, young Father Damien, as he became known, was building chapels and perhaps a little too zealously converting the natives of the Sandwich Islands (now Hawaii) to the Christian faith.

After a decade in the priesthood, his faith was put to the test as the islands struggled to contain a worsening outbreak of leprosy, or Hansen’s disease. Anyone showing signs of leprosy – skin discoloration, sores, wart-like lumps – was quickly isolated… cast out. A local newspaper report of one such “leper colony” in 1873 paints a grim picture: “It is a terrible place, where people lie rotting away, a place full of death and manslaughter, drunkenness, prostitution and rape. A place that could use a brave missionary.”

This gauntlet, as well as calls from church seniors for ‘volunteers’ to do shifts in the colony, were answered by Father Damien. He set out to alleviate the human suffering and indignity in Kalawao. He wanted the dead to be granted a Christian burial, not “eaten by wild pigs”, as described in the booklet Damien’s Way.* He wanted to provide better healthcare, contain the extortion, drinking and gambling, and stop the abuse of orphans in the colony.

But as the leprosy crisis spread, health officials in Honolulu tightened the quarantine, ordering all who entered the colony into effective exile. Father Damien had become one of the outcasts. He spent 16 years of his life taking care of the spiritual and physical needs of his leper family until he too ultimately succumbed to the disease in 1889.  The local press called him a “Christian hero… an apostle of the lepers.”

More than Christian zeal

In his dying days, when asked if there was anything he or his mission needed, the ‘leper priest’ simply replied: “Yes, marbles for my children.” These odd but moving words sum up the Picpus father’s selfless view.

Would we take that same one-way journey? Would we let our children volunteer to treat Ebola victims in West Africa? And what qualifies as a sacrifice – religious or non-religious in nature – nowadays? A week without a smartphone? A booze-free month after New Year’s over-indulging?

It is hard to reconcile his unflinching act of sacrifice with today’s norms. Sure, it was in the name of God, and the whole ‘converting the heathens’ European missionary ideal is less than savoury in a 21st-century setting. We might also be inclined to look cynically for ulterior motives in light of the Catholic priesthood’s more recent track record.

In fact, Damien’s early Christian fervour was put to the test by the Old Testament teachings that lepers were sinners and should be shunned. It’s been said that he preferred the pre-mission Hawaiian stance on the illness, which would never exclude the sick on such grounds.

So if you discount the original motives for being in Hawaii and look at Father Damien’s response when his humanity was directly challenged by the Old Book, on paper it looks like he made the ultimate selfless choice. “We lepers,” he is reported to have said, “stand together in solidarity, in simple acts or ordinary life with no superior detachment, reaching out to the sick and caring for them.”

Perhaps he hadn’t lost his marbles after all. Maybe he found them while the rest of us are still looking to win them on Mystic Marbles.

More info

Father Damien is the patron saint of the Diocese of Honolulu and Hawaii. He was canonised by Pope Benedict XVI on 11 October 2009. Several memorial days celebrate the Belgian priest’s contributions to the islands and humanity, including Father Damien Day on 15 April and a Feast Day on 10 May.

*Damien’s way is distributed in the Sint-Antoniuskapel on Pater Pater Damiaanplein in Leuven, which contains Damien’s crypt and tomb.

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War and peace in the Middle East and Europe

 
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Europe’s history of total war and mass displacement can help create more sympathy for today’s refugees and keep hope alive in the Middle East.

Like today's refugees, Belgians fleeing World War I often took to the sea in overcrowded boats.

Like today’s refugees, Belgians fleeing World War I often took to the sea in overcrowded boats.

Tuesday 28 April 2015

Some 800 refugees lost their lives in the Mediterranean sea last week. While this has prompted calls for the European Union to do more to deal with the refugee crisis created by the current turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa, voices on the far-right have demanded that Europe do less.

Among them was Katie Hopkins, a popular columnist with UK tabloid The Sun, who has over half-a-million followers on Twitter. Shortly before the latest tragedy, she wrote a column in which she described these migrants as “cockroaches” and “feral humans,” suggesting outrageously: “What we need are gunships sending these boats back to their own country.”

On social media, the reactions were even more shocking and disgraceful. Supporters of the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom), or PVV, founded by the anti-immigrant firebrand Geert Wilders, expressed stomach-churning euphoria and ecstasy at the tragedy.

“600 fewer benefits,” one rejoiced.

“Good so. The more who drown, the fewer the problems,” another volunteered.

“Now the seabed is even more polluted,” joked yet another.

Judging by this small sample of comments, what has actually hit rock bottom are the moral compasses of many Dutch people and Europeans

Despite the clear racism of these comments, the European anti-immigrant right wing in general also taps into deep-seated public anxiety towards the violent upheavals and conflicts taking place in the Middle East, which many fear refugees might bring with them.

For some on the far-right, “refugees” and “asylum seekers” have become dirty words, terms of abuse and subjects of hate. While right-wing nationalists may claim to be defending their heritage and tradition, in their attitudes to refugees they are actually betraying it.

Europeans weren’t always so hostile towards those fleeing war and conflict. During World War I, the Netherlands welcomed so many refugees that the Germans saw it necessary to construct a 200-kilometre-long fence along the Belgian-Dutch border in an effort to curb the influx of Belgians pouring from the German occupation into neutral Holland.

The Wire of Death's deadly innovation claimed hundreds of Belgian victims. Source: http://www.dodendraad.org/index.php/wire-of-death

The Wire of Death’s deadly innovation claimed hundreds of Belgian victims.
Source: http://www.dodendraad.org/index.php/wire-of-death

Known as the Wire of Death, it was the world’s first-ever high-voltage electric barrier. Built at a time when Europeans were largely unaware of electricity and its attendant dangers, the fence claimed hundreds of victims who were unaware of how deadly it was or were desperate enough to risk death to cross the border.

In order to shorten the barrier’s distance, German engineers took shortcuts that left large swathes of Belgian territory stuck in the no-man’s land behind the fence. Like in the contemporary West Bank, this meant that a large number of farmers could not reach their land and many families and friends were forced to live in enforced separation. Using a system that would be familiar to modern-day Palestinians, the Germans only allowed those with hard-to-obtain passes, which excluded men aged 16 to 45, to cross the barrier.

This is a far cry from the current situation, where the Benelux countries (Belgium, Netherland and Luxembourg) are tightly integrated and even acted as a precursor and “experimental garden” for the EU. The Middle East, especially the former Ottoman Empire, has gone in the other direction. While the Levant was once largely a borderless economic and cultural area, with many mixed marriages and friendships, today many of its borders are tightly sealed, especially Israel’s borders with Syria and Lebanon.

Many generations on, the vast majority of Belgians, including my wife and myself, are unaware that such a deadly barrier ever existed and almost no physical signs remain. In fact, I still remember clearly the first time I “crossed” between Belgium and Holland and my wife (girlfriend, at the time) challenged me to identify the border. As the two countries flow so seamlessly into each other, I failed.

It was not just the Dutch who gave refuge to their unfortunate Belgian neighbours. Even though Britain is famed for its oft-isolationist island mentality, it was, during World War I, home to a quarter of a million Belgian refugees, many of whom were housed in purpose-built villages.

Unlike today’s image of asylum seekers as being spongers and cheats, these refugees were regarded as heroic and people wanted to help the “plucky Belgians.” It would be welcome if, instead of shirking its responsibilities, Europe rediscovered this spirit and took in more refugees today.

To understand the fundamental shift in attitudes over the ensuing decades, one needs to delve into the nature of contemporary (Western) Europe. It’s not just a matter of selfishness and ill-will but also a question of profound misunderstanding.

It is said that the past is a foreign country, and the Europe of war and near-annihilation has become just that – a distant memory which only the oldest of Europeans has partly experienced first-hand. When viewed from the peaceful, still-largely prosperous and borderless European Union, the madness and mayhem in the Middle East and Africa seems inexplicable and barbaric, and this makes it far easier to blame the victims for the situation they find themselves in.

But the Europe of the First and Second World Wars resembled the contemporary Middle East to a frightening degree – except Europe was deadlier still.

While an estimated 3 million Syrians have fled the war that’s ravaging their country, the situation is not unprecedented. A century ago, there were over 10 million refugees in Europe, while World War II resulted in tens of millions of displaced people.

A century ago, Belgium, like Syria today, was a devastated nation of refugees and internally displaced people. Some 1.5 million Belgians fled to neighboring countries, and possibly as many again sought refuge from the fighting in other parts of the country. And this was in a country of just over 7.5 million inhabitants.

To Europeans, another inexplicable aspect of the contemporary Middle East is the horrendous levels of mindless killing and blood-letting, which leaves the impression that our region has a unique bloodlust.

Though comparative carnage is a rather macabre undertaking, it is nonetheless a useful exercise to highlight, both to Europeans and Middle Easterners, that the current situation is not unique and, hence, can eventually be overcome.

The first day of the Battle of the Somme, one of the deadliest clashes in human history.

The first day of the Battle of the Somme, one of the deadliest clashes in human history.

While the carnage and destruction in Syria and the wider region today is horrendous and troubling, it pales in comparison with the butchery that took place on the Western Front, where the average trench soldier held onto life for just six weeks. The Battle of the Somme alone claimed over a million dead and wounded.

Despite the tens of millions of Europeans who perished in the two world wars, Europe was able to turn over a new leaf in its history and herald in an extraordinary era of peace and coexistence.

It is inevitable that the fire engulfing our region will eventually die down. I only hope that it happens sooner than it did in Europe, and that, out of the rubble of conflict, we draw similar lessons to those of the architects of the European Union, and construct a frontierless Middle Eastern Union.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which first appeared in Haaretz on 23 April 2015.

 

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The mystery of Arab joy at Netanyahu’s re-election

 
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By Khaled Diab

When Netanyahu’s election victory was declared, rather than grieve, Arabs in Israel were out on the streets celebrating. 

Wednesday 25 March 2015

Dashing the hopes and wishes of the Israeli centre and left, the rightwing Likud party came out as the top party in the country’s notoriously fractured political system, which would give those of Italy and Belgium a run for their money.

Despite the depressing prospect of another Netanyahu-led hard-right coalition, rather than mourning, Palestinians in Israel are in a celebratory mood. In the northern city of Nazareth, for example, motorists beeped their horns as if on their way to a wedding.

The reason for their apparently paradoxical jubilation had nothing to do with the Likud or Netanyahu but was related to the unprecedentedly strong showing of the Arab-dominated Joint List. “This is an excellent result because it represent a renewed vote of confidence from Arab citizens to their representatives,” reflected a friend from Nazareth.

And two men were to thank for this “vote of confidence” and the large Arab turnout following years of apathy.

One was Avigdor Lieberman of the ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party. The outgoing foreign minister initiated legislation to raise the electoral threshold which was widely interpreted as a bid to muscle out Arab parties, who tend to draw fewer votes than their Jewish rivals, from the Knesset. This, along with his and the far-right’s vitriolic anti-Arab rhetoric, pushed these small parties to form an unlikely alliance, the Joint List, between Palestinian nationalists, Arab and Jewish progressives, not to mention Islamists.

The other was the lawyer-turned-politician from Haifa, Ayman Odeh, who came from relative obscurity to lead a charismatic campaign for the Joint List which had some observers describing him as the most exciting Arab politician in the Middle East.

“Our Joint List calls for the unification of all the weak and oppressed populations, regardless of race, religion or sex,” explained Ayman Odeh in the UK’s Guardian newspaper. “We will be an alternative camp, the democratic camp – where Arabs and Jews are equal partners, not enemies.”

And with Arabs making up the bulk of Israel’s under-privileged, the Joint List has devised a 10-year plan to close the socio-economic gap between them and the mainstream. “We intend to march on Jerusalem… to raise awareness of our 10-year plan and demand justice and democracy,” Odeh declared, echoing civil rights pioneers such as Martin Luther King.

Another important plank is strident opposition to the occupation in an Israel apathetic towards its subjugation of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza and fixated on “managing” the conflict. “We say that there can be no real and substantial democracy as long as the 1967 occupation of Palestinian territories continues,” Odeh observed.

It is unclear how successful the Joint List can be in its declared goals when faced with a possible ultra-nationalist rightwing coalition or a status-quo-friendly “national unity” government. But one thing is clear: the Joint List’s success at the ballot box has finally and belatedly put Palestinians in Israel on the political map in which they may end up leading the opposition.

This carries the potential of being a game-changer and future historians may look back at this time as being the turning point when the Palestinian struggle began to morph into a civil rights movement.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Corriere della Serra on 19 March 2015.

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The Brussels press corps: Shaken, not sunken

 
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By Christian Nielsen

Despite the crisis in traditional media, the Brussels press corps continues to survive and thrive, but not without difficulties.

Yanis Varoufakis, Greece's radical new finance minister, addresses reporters in Brussels. The drama surrounding Greek austerity and the EU financial crisis have helped keep the Brussels press corps on the global map. Image: europa.eu

Yanis Varoufakis, Greece’s radical new finance minister, addresses reporters in Brussels. The drama surrounding Greek austerity and the EU financial crisis have helped keep the Brussels press corps on the global map.
Image: europa.eu

Thursday 26 February 2015

Europe’s financial crisis and the Greek tragedy may not be good news for those affected by them, but for the Brussels press corps, these events have helped keep their stories on or near the front page for several years, according to Gareth Harding, managing director of Clear Europe, a media consultancy company, and co-curator of a new book, Mapping Foreign Correspondence in Europe.

The book charts the major changes and challenges foreign correspondents face across Europe in the context of new media trends, the shifting political landscape in the European Union and the broader impact of the economic crisis on the industry.

“Print is still the king,” according to the book’s editor Georgios Terzis of Vesalius College (VUB), but online and cross-platform reporting are growing outlets for the foreign correspondents surveyed. The economic pinch can be seen in other trends observed in the book. Greater emphasis on generalists, travel budget cuts, and limited resources also affect the type and depth of coverage.

“Journalists say they are more prone to follow the official line and use think tanks or NGOs to get the other side of the story,” noted Terzis at the book launch. They lack resources, time and sometimes access to primary sources to check the story out. The journalists feel “kidnapped” by official sources, he added.

The mapping took two-and-a-half years to realise and involved a survey of more than a thousand foreign correspondents, hundreds of interviews and contributions from authors Europe-wide.

Perhaps surprisingly, the UK has the biggest press corps in Europe with some 1,700 registered foreign correspondents, followed by France (945), Belgium (931), Germany (729) and Spain (258). The industry is still predominantly a “boys’ club”, according to one journalist, and there has been a shift towards more single bureau offices with one correspondent wearing multiple hats, supplying content for print, online and social media channels, which is leading to increased pressure and stress.

In Brussels, despite what was purported in The Economist in 2010 (‘The incredible shrinking EU press corps’), the number of foreign correspondents accredited by the European Commission has remained quite stable in the decade following a ‘big bang’ expansion when 10 new member states joined in 2004.

“The single biggest problem is clearly economic,” noted the columnist Charlemagne. “The industry that has fed and clothed me for 12 years –being a full-time foreign correspondent – is in desperate straits everywhere. The internet has broken the link between news and advertising, establishing the idea that news as a commodity should be available for free.”

But while the EU press corps is not in “free fall”, as The Economist put it, there is some substance in the claims that new forms of online reporting, but also Belgian tax complications and the disconnect between traditional advertising and news have all hit the Brussels news business particularly hard. As too the suggestion that many, mostly older, member states have grown weary or just plain bored of the EU story unless – it should be added – it involves some sort of pain or grief that audiences in the more euro-sceptic  countries can ‘relate to’.

But the withdrawal of old Europe from the Brussels reporting bubble has not reduced the overall interest in Europe, nor its status as the new king of news and reporting, spearheaded by such outlets as the Financial Times and Der Spiegel. Terzis and Harding suggested correspondents from the former eastern countries and other regions, including China, have made up the numbers in Brussels, and where full-time posts have become rarer, the army of freelancers, bloggers and other ‘new’ journalists fill the gap.

Harding commented on some of these trends, including the growing pressure to publish or Tweet first and check later, the blurring of the line between reporting and opinion, and the need for more innovation and mashups in the sector.

Buzzfeed in the EU would shake things up, he concluded.

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Arabic: The language of confusion?

 
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By Khaled Diab

If an Arab says he’ll kill you, don’t  worry – he wants to buy you dinner. Whether Arabic dialects are a single language is politcal, not linguistic.

Photo: Aieman Khimji / Wikimedia Commons

Photo: Aieman Khimji / Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday 30 December 2014

Earlier this month, the United Nations celebrated Arabic Language Day which got me musing about whether that should be in the singular or take the plural form, Arabic Languages Day.

It is something of a recurring joke among Egyptians who do not speak foreign languages to quip that they speak two languages: Egyptian and Fusha (Modern Standard Arabic).

For language purists and traditionalists, the various forms of colloquial Arabic (amiya or darija) are simply bastardisations of classical Arabic and do not merit much attention.

In fact, it took decades of struggle before Arabic vernaculars became accepted as more than spoken languages. The late colloquial poet Ahmed Fouad Negm – who managed to piss off three Egyptian presidents enough to jail him – did not just shock the establishment with his irreverence, dissent and obscenity but also his insistence on employing Egyptian working class Arabic, rather than the refined poetic language of classical Arabic, in his verse.

But Negm, and other trailblazers before and since, have given amiya authenticity, respectability and, most of all, street cred. And today colloquial Arabic is used regularly on TV, social media and even in literature.

This is just as well. As any frustrated foreign learner of Arabic can tell you, speaking the classical language can make you sound like you’ve stepped out of a TV period drama about, say, Saladin, or give people the impression that you’re a newscaster – in other words, it’s just not natural.

Not only does standard Arabic not feel natural to most Arabs, the differences between it and some vernaculars is so great that schoolchildren sometimes feel they are learning a second language, though not quite a foreign language.

But when it comes to the dozens of Arabic dialects, some would surely qualify as a foreign language. If the definition of a language is that its speakers can understand each other, then Arabic often fails this test, since some of its dialects are mutually unintelligible.

The decision to classify all these dialects as being the same language is both political and historical. Arabic is at the core of modern Arab identity and so promoting the idea of common nationhood has required the glossing over of these linguistic differences. Such apparent linguistic unity also encouraged the illusion that Arab unity was natural and inevitable, which meant that pan-Arabism rested more on sloganeering than on concrete efforts to bridge the huge cultural, economic, social and political differences in the region.

In addition, Arabic remains the only generally accepted liturgical language for Islam – which used to confound me as a child when I came across Pakistani and Indian friends in London who knew the Quran by heart but didn’t comprehend a word they recited.

Speakers of dialects from the Arab Mashriq (East) cannot generally understand people from the Arab Maghreb (West). Try as I may, I have never managed to decipher Algerian, and Moroccan is a serious challenge, even after encountering many Moroccans in Belgium. While travelling around Morocco, I was amused by the fact that it was sometimes easier to communicate with locals in French than in Arabic, since many were not well-versed in standard Arabic.

There is a certain level of mutual unintelligibility even between dialects in close geographical proximity. Even among mutually intelligible and relatively similar dialects, like Egyptian and Palestinian, there is plenty of room for confusion.

When I first moved here, to Jerusalem, I was surprised to discover just how different the words in Egyptian and Palestinian were for many basic items. These include bread (eish/khobez), shoes (gazma/kondara) and slippers (shebsheb/babouj). Many basic phrases also differ significantly: How are you? (ezayak/kefak?), good (kewayis/meneeh), What’s this? (Eh dah/Shoo hada?).

Many common verbs vary too: look (bos/itala’), run (igree/orkod), lift (sheel/irfa’a), hug (uhdon/a’ebot), etc. This is why I sometimes feel sorry for my son. At five, he is grappling with four languages (Arabic, Dutch, English and French), but the Arabic component must feel like more than one language to him.

Sometimes, and this is where the real fun begins, the same word exists but it can have quite a different meaning, leading to much mirth or confusion or even insult.

Palestinians have repeatedly described a person to me as “naseh”. To my Egyptian ears, this means smart, clever or even a wiseass. But here it means chubby. Some Palestinians have on occasion told me that I look “da’afan” which to my ears sounds like “weak” or “under the weather,” but to them it means “you’ve lost weight.”

Speaking of health, many Palestinians bid each other farewell by saying: “Ye’tek el-afiya” which literally means “May you be given rigour.” In Egypt, we only say that to sick people and so, in my early days here, I wondered why some people thought I was unwell.

Sometimes these dialectical differences can cause bewilderment. While “mabsout” in Egypt and some other countries means happy or in a good mood, in Iraq, it means to be “beaten up.” A friend relates an anecdote in which an ICRC worker visiting Iraqi prisoners asked them whether they were “mabsouteen” and they were utterly confused by the question.

Speaking of violence. A German friend of mine who went out to dinner with a Tunisian was told in no uncertain terms that her date would “khalas aleki.” In the Egyptian dialect she knew, it meant “finish her off.” Confused, she asked him why he wanted to kill her, to which he explained that, in Tunisia, it means that he was going to pick up the tab.

Sometimes, Arabs visiting other Arab countries can unintentionally cause insult. While in many dialects “marra” is just the normal way of referring to a woman, in Egypt, it is derogatory and verges on calling her a “slut.”

Even respectful terms like teacher (me’allem, for a man, or me’allema, for a woman) mean something different in Egypt. For Egyptians, a me’allem is the boss of a gang or a group of manual workers or craftsmen, while a me’allema is a head belly-dancer.

With all these mind-boggling variations, whether or not Arabic qualifies as a single language or many languages is really in the eyes, and ears, of the beholder.

If the idea of Arab unity is to have any kind of future, these linguistic differences, not to mention socio-economic and political ones, need to be recognised and accommodated. Arabs need not speak with a single voice, but need to find harmony among their chorus of divergent voices.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is an extended version of an article which first appeared in Haaretz on 18 December 2014.

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Promised lands and chosen peoples

 
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By Khaled Diab

Protestants are the chosen people and Western Europe and America their Promised Lands, according to Israelism and Christian Zionism.

The Garden of Eden by Jan Brueghel.

The Garden of Eden by Jan Brueghel.

Thursday 3 July 2014

Israelis and Jews have it all wrong, apparently. The Promised Land is not where they think. It’s actually a few thousand kilometres to the northwest in the Netherlands and Belgium.

In fact, the Low Countries have the dual honour of being both paradise on Earth and the place where many of the Bible’s most prominent celebrities did their thing, at least according to Johannes Goropius Becanus (1519-1572).

This Renaissance polymath was not only a physician to the royals, he was also an amateur linguist. According to his bizarre theories, the Garden of Eden was actually located in Antwerp, and Adam and Eve spoke the Antwerp dialect of Dutch.

His proof? The etymology of their names. According to Becanus, Adam apparently derived from the Dutch compound Haat-Dam (Dam-Against-Hate) and Eve is Eeuw-Vat (The-Eternal-Barrel). He similarly “discovered” origins for Cane, Abel, Noah and other biblical figures. Becanus believed that these etymologies were self-evident; after all, he was convinced that Dutch was the oldest language in the world (Duits, i.e. De Oudst, or The Oldest).

He also theorised that Antwerp was founded by the descendants of Noah, though how they located this low-lying town – only 7.5 meters above sea level – after the reported deluge is unclear.

Though he did have admirers, Becanus and his theories were ridiculed even during his lifetime. His contemporary, Dutch religious leader and historian Joseph Scaliger (1540-1609) scoffed: “I have never read such nonsense.” He derided Becanus as the man who “was not ashamed to criticise Moses for drawing etymologies from Hebrew rather than Dutch.”

The lost tribe of… the Dutch

While creating his alternative mythology, Becanus is also credited with debunking the popular myth at the time that Hebrew was the mother of all languages.

He is also recognised as having taken the first steps on the road to discovering the Indo-European roots of many languages. “Both with respect to his methods and ideas … Becanus can be considered a pioneer of comparative language studies,” says Kees Dekker, a professor at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands.

Besides, Becanus’ ideas didn’t sound as absurd back in his own time as they do today. Adriaan van der Schrieck (1560-1621), another Flemish language researcher, reportedly claimed that “the Netherlanders with the Gauls and Germans together in the earliest times were called Celts, who are come out of the Hebrews.”

According to Dutch Israelites, the Dutch were one of the lost tribes of Israel, namely the Zebulun. After all, one of the children of Zebulun was called Helon, who gave his name to Holland.

Some outlying Dutch fundamentalists still believe this, as this video purports to prove.

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Biblical megalomania

Not to be outdone, across the North Sea the British soon developed their own variation, called British Israelism. The first to espouse a link between the British and the Israelites was an English Puritan by the name of John Sadler (1615-1674), Oliver Cromwell’s private secretary.

The ideas he set in motion proved amazingly enduring, enjoying their heyday in the late 19th and early 20th century, when the “sun never set” on the British empire. A sign of its cult popularity was the creation of the British-Israel World Federation in 1919, whose members included royalty, nobility and leading politicians.

In the interbellum years between the two world wars, the jingoism that British-Israelism promoted set alarm bells ringing among advocates of a more peaceful world order. “It must be said quite clearly that British-Israel turns the Bible into a handbook of national megalomania,” wrote theologian and scholar CT Dimont in 1933, “and that it is a determined foe to the League of Nations and all efforts for world peace.”

It wasn’t just nationalism, but colonialism too. In both Britain and the Netherlands, the rise of Israelism and the myth of descent from the lost tribes coincided with the construction of the two countries’ vast empires. This was no coincidence, some historians assert.

“This myth is a vital feature of colonial discourse throughout the long period of European overseas empires,” wrote the British historian Tudor Parfitt in The Lost Tribes of Israel: The History of a Myth.

This link is perhaps most apparent in the conquest and settlement of what became the United States. “From the first landing of the Pilgrim Fathers in Massachusetts, they called it the New Jerusalem and the City Upon the Hill,” says Arnon Gutfeld, professor of American history at Israel’s Max Stern Academic College. “So the theme of America being the world’s last and best hope was from the first settlement.”

The very imagery of these religious refugees and colonists as “pilgrims” is connected with the imagery of the New Testament, namely the Book of Hebrews’ reference to the “strangers and pilgrims on the Earth”.

Moreover, the Puritans may not have regarded themselves as a lost tribe, but they certainly saw themselves as the natural successors of the Israelites as “God’s chosen people”, some of whom were even carried off into captivity.

“For centuries, the American imagination has been steeped in the Hebrew scriptures,” wrote Walter Russell Mead, a professor of foreign affairs and a conservative commentator. “Colonial preachers and pamphleteers over and over again described the United States as a new Canaan.”

This also included prominent writers, such as Herman Melville, the author of Moby Dick. “We Americans are the peculiar, chosen people — the Israel of our time; we bear the ark of the liberties of the world,” he wrote in his fifth novel,White-Jacket.

And the Americas, in Melville’s view, were the Promised Land of the Anglo-Saxons. “We are the pioneers of the world; the advance-guard, sent on through the wilderness of untried things, to break a new path in the New World that is ours,” he wrote, reflecting the then-common sense of manifest destiny, translating into the mass displacement and slaughter of the native American population.

Seeing themselves as the new chosen people, Americans felt a certain affinity with their Jewish predecessors. “One of the many consequences of this presumed kinship is that many Americans think it is both right and proper for one chosen people to support another,” observes Mead. “The United States’ adoption of the role of protector of Israel and friend of the Jews is a way of legitimising its own status as a country called to a unique destiny by God.”

But mixed in with the presumed kinship, there is also contempt. “There were Americans who saw Jews positively and others who saw them as Christ killers,” notes Gutfeld.

Yet others had missionary positions. “In the 19th century, some saw [the Jews] as lost sheep who had lost touch with God,” Gutfield adds, noting that these Christians wanted to help the Jews “for one reason only so that they would embrace Protestantism”.

And then there was millennialism, some of which carried strong anti-Semitic tones. “These wanted Israel to be strong because the prophesies say that when Israel is strong, it’ll go to war with the rest of the world and be destroyed, harkening the second coming of Christ,” describes Gutfeld.

These variegate Protestant movements on both sides of the Atlantic in favor of Jewish settlement in the Holy Land were known as Restorationists and are now referred to as Christian Zionists.

In fact, Christian Zionism as a political movement predates its Jewish counterpart, and influenced it.

For example, a full two decades before Herzl convened the First Zionist Congress in Basel, the 1878 Niagara Bible Conference professed that “the Lord Jesus will come in person to introduce the millennial age, when Israel shall be restored to their own land”.

But it wasn’t just religious. Like today, Western powers saw strategic advantage to a Jewish state in the Middle East. The earliest proponent of this secular motivation was reformist politician and philanthropist Lord Ashley, who was also the president of the London Society for Promoting Christianity Amongst the Jews, who saw a strategic opportunity for Britain as the Ottoman Empire faltered.

“The soil and climate of Palestine are singularly adapted to the growth of produce required for the exigencies of Great Britain,” he wrote.

Lord Ashley may have even been the first to coin the prototype of a famous phrase regarding Palestine and the Jews. “These vast and fertile regions [Greater Syria] will soon be without a ruler,” he said. “There is a country without a nation; and God now in his wisdom and mercy, directs us to a nation without a country.”

And efforts to create this Jewish state did not actually start with Theodor Herzl. Some 14 years before Herzl tried to deliver his letter to the Ottoman Sultan, another man had attempted the very same thing.

Though William Hechler, failed in his mission, this Anglican clergyman of German-British extraction who was born in India authored a treatise, in 1884, entitled The Restoration of the Jews to Palestine. Herzl’s more famous Der Judenstaat appeared a dozen years later.

Starting a pattern that would become common in future decades, secular Jewish Herzl pragmatically joined forces with prophetic Christian Hechler. “Hechler declares my movement to be a ‘Biblical’ one, even though I proceed rationally in all points,” Herzl complained to his diary. But he overcame his reservations because “I must put myself into direct and publicly known relations with a responsible or non-responsible rule – that is, with a minister of state or a prince. Then the Jews will believe in me and follow me.”

And Hechler delivered the goods, helping Herzl to gain access to the German ruling elite, including Kaiser Wilhelm II. “Without Hechler’s intercession and support, Herzl may have simply remained an obscure, eccentric Viennese journalist,” said Jerry Klinger, the president of the Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation, who had discovered the English-German clergyman’s unmarked and forgotten grave in London.  “The course of Zionism, and possibly the very founding of the modern state of Israel, may not have been successful.”

____

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This is an extended version of an article which first appeared in Haaretz on 23 June 2014.

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