The curious case of the Islamophobe who became a Muslim

 
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0.0/10 (0 votes cast)

By Khaled Diab

Rather than being like a vegetarian who suddenly becomes a carnivore, a former Islamophobic politician’s conversion to Islam is more akin to a committed soda beverage drinker switching from Coca Cola to Pepsi.

Monday 18 February 2019

Irony is a cruel prankster. It turned a far-right politician from the Netherlands, Joram Van Klaveren, from virulent Islamophobe, who had made it his political mission to rid his country of Islam, into an unlikely convert to Islam. Van Klaveren’s epiphany occurred while he was working on a book which started off as an anti-Islam polemic but morphed into a defence of the faith.

Worse or better still (depending on your perspective), Van Klaveren had not so long ago been the right-hand man of the godfather of Dutch far-right extremism, Geert Wilders. For those unfamiliar with him, Geert Wilders is the Dutch Donald Trump.

More accurately, Trump is actually the American Wilders, as the Dutch anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim politician with the eccentric peroxide blond hair, helped pioneer the brand of outrageous, publicity-seeking, substance-free ‘populist’ far-right politics which Trump perfected. Wilders has gone from demanding the banning of the Quran, supposedly in the defence of free speech, to calling for a “head rag tax”, the complete banning of mosques, hijabs and Islamic schools, as well as a halt to Muslim immigration.

Given this track record, as well as the fact that Wilders lives under permanent police protection following death threats from Islamic extremists, he was bound to view the conversion of his former “crown prince” as a betrayal. Admitting that he “had no words” to describe his dismay, Wilders colourfully likened Van Klaveren’s decision to a “vegetarian working in an abattoir”.

Similarly confounded, Jan Roos, who co-founded the far-right party Voor Nederland (For the Netherlands) likened Van Klaveren’s leap of faith to a “black man joining the Ku Klux Klan”, dismissing it as a “PR stunt to promote his book”. This strikes me as nonsensical. In the current political atmosphere in Europe and America, Van Klaveren is far more likely to sell a book bashing Islam and Muslims than defending them.

In addition, Van Klaveren runs real risks. Some commentators fear that his conversion could make him the target of violence and hate crimes from neo-Nazis and the increasingly radicalised violent extremes of the far-right. Moreover, his harsh criticism, now from within Islam, of how jihadis and Islamist extremists twist and exploit their faith could lead to him becoming a target of their violent ire. And if this is an opportunistic publicity stunt and Van Klaveren were later to renounce his newfound faith, he could be the victim of death threats from fanatical Muslims who reject so-called apostasy.

Although Van Klaveren’s conversion appears to be inexplicable and to represent a 180-degree turn in his position, it is not as bizarre or surreal as it appears at first sight, representing what you could describe as a 360-degree change in his position, i.e. returning to the point where he started.

Rather than being like a vegetarian who suddenly becomes a carnivore, Van Klaveren’s change of heart is more akin to a committed soda beverage drinker switching from Coca Cola to Pepsi.

Although Geert Wilders describes himself as “agnostic”, he is culturally very Christian and exploits Christianity and racial identity politics to whip up fear against Muslims and immigrants. Despite Wilders regularly referencing a supposedly tolerant set of “Christian values” that contrast with allegedly savage Islamic ideals,

Not only do Islam and Christianity, like Judaism, derive from the same Abrahamic roots and draw on similar Greek philosophical traditions, the Reformed Protestantism in which Van Kleveren was raised in the Dutch ‘Bible Belt’ bears even greater resemblance to mainstream Islam – in their shared iconoclasm, attitudes towards drinking and intoxication, even the so-called Protestant work ethic bears a striking resemblance to the traditional Islamic concept of work as a form of worship.

Ironically, Muhammad is, in some ways, more compatible with contemporary Dutch (and American) Protestantism than Jesus. Whereas Christ was a radical and outspoken anti-materialist who believed the rich were condemned to eternal damnation, the Muslim prophet was a successful merchant who traded far and wide. Now which of the two sounds more like a Republican or the famously entrepreneurial Dutch?

[Van Klaveren] comes from an orthodox reformed [Protestant] background which is a lot like Islam,” posits Joke van Saane, a professor of religious psychology at the Free University of Amsterdam. “They swap one system for another, which makes it easier than for people without a religious background.”

Van Klaveren has hinted as much. “It felt a bit like a homecoming, in religious terms,” the convert explained in an interview, in which he confessed that he still loved Christianity. This sense of familiarity was probably intensified by the warped picture of Islam Van Klaveren had been exposed to in the Islamophobic circles he frequented – although this earlier demonisation probably made it much harder for him to come out with his new convictions.

In fact, the impassioned rivalry between Christianity and Islam is not down to their irreconcilable differences, as fanatics on both sides believe, but due to their uncanny and unsettling similarities – rather like the narcissism of minor difference identified by Sigmund Freud.

This makes the conservative Christian idea that Van Klaveren has gone over to the dark side just as ridiculous as the conviction among conservative Muslims that the Dutch convert has discovered the one and only true light.

The triumphalism and smugness among Islamists on social media has been palpable, with many seeing this as a sign of the self-evidently superior truth of Islam. “Truly anyone can be guided to Islam once you look at it with an open and sincere heart to find the truth,” said one influential Twitter user. “Some of the biggest enemies of Islam can become the greatest of the believers.”

This echoes an existing narrative that Islam is the world’s fastest-growing religion by virtue of its undeniable veracity and its irresistible ideas. However, not only are their minor religions that are growing faster, the reason Islam appears to be growing so rapidly is due to population growth in Muslim-majority countries, where people are counted as Muslims regardless of what their beliefs may or may not be, while conversion accounts for a pityingly small 0.3% of this growth.

In short, Van Klaveren’s conversion tells us almost nothing about the reality of Islam. All it tells us is that one man discovered that the negative hype around the religion was exaggerated and exchanged one very similar faith for another.

What I take home from this curious case is the demystifying and humanising power and potential of knowledge and familiarity – the importance of compassion, not of conversion. As surveys and anecdotal evidence have revealed, people who actually know Muslims are far less likely to fear or hate them. With the polarised reality in which we live, it is vital that we learn to understand and empathise with our fellow citizens, especially the marginalised, even if we disagree with them.

_____

This article was first published by The Washington Post on 11 February 2019.

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0.0/10 (0 votes cast)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)

Related posts

Nostalgia… when the past is a better country

 
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: +4 (from 4 votes)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 10.0/10 (4 votes cast)

By Christian Nielsen

The majority of Europeans do not want to let bygones be bygones and pine for a past which they believe was better than their present. This is problematic for Europe’s future.

Image: ©Khaled Diab

Tuesday 13 November 2018

A new report charts European’s feelings of nostalgia and how this “sense of loss for times bygone” affects political views. The results of a survey just published by eupinions reveals that two-thirds of Europeans think that the world used to be a better place, with Italians leading the pack at 77%.

Our evidence suggests that those most likely to harbour feelings of nostalgia are men, the unemployed, those who feel most economically anxious, and … the working class,” notes the report, entitled ‘The power of the past: how nostalgia shapes European public opinion’.

This matters because nostalgia is commonly triggered by fear and anxiety fuelled by sometimes rapid personal or societal changes. Nostalgia makes a potent political tool which has been skillfully used by what the report calls “populist political entrepreneurs” on both the right and the left – though, on average, those identified as nostalgic favour the right of the spectrum.

Fears of a “populist” revolt in elections this year (Italy, Sweden), and the Netherlands and France before that, are tangible signs of a political system in flux, with political elites at national and European levels being put through the proverbial ringer by electorates fed a steady diet of diatribes that the past was “more pleasant, untarnished and predictable”.

Marginalised by digital technologies, anxious electorates are being pandered to by a new wave of politicians who have witnessed first-hand the power of simple tropes mostly aimed to advance what the report calls “in-group favouritism and ethnocentrism” in order to tackle trumped-up fear of other groups and the new.

Nostalgia closely coincides with increased concern about migration and terrorism, according to Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Isabell Hoffmann who led the study: “The fear factor is driving Europeans to the edges of the political system.” And external shocks, she points out, tend to result in increased support for the EU by both nostalgists and non-nostalgists.

Nostalgia is thus a powerful political tool, the report concludes, as references to a golden era are manipulated by populists to “fuel dissatisfaction with present-day politics and anxiety about the future”. These findings could well prove to be a predictor of political sways during European Parliamentary elections coming up in May next year.

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 10.0/10 (4 votes cast)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: +4 (from 4 votes)

Related posts

The road less travelled – part II: Overwhelmed at Overloon

 
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: +1 (from 1 vote)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 10.0/10 (1 vote cast)

By Christian Nielsen

As Christian Nielsen takes the road less travelled this summer, he uncovers the volatile, violent past hidden under the tranquil, peaceful present of the Dutch village of Overloon.

Photo: ©Christian Nielsen

Read part I: Navigating without algorithms

Monday 23 July 2018

Set in the verdant woods of Overloon, in the Dutch province of North Brabant, is one of the first and finest museums to recount and remember World War II’s European chapter.

Started in 1946, just one year after hostilities ended, the cavernous Oorlogsmuseum Overloon takes visitors on a journey from the ominous failure to reset the world order after WWI ended in 1918, to the seeds of national socialism and resulting polarisation leading to a sense of German exceptionalism and eventual invasions of Poland, the Netherlands, Belgium and so on.

The sombre exhibits capture the utter despair of life in occupied Netherlands, the deprivation, humiliation, torture, fear … what it was like as a child, parent, student, worker, etc. It dutifully recounts the systematic rounding up by the Germans of the Jewish population during the war years until liberation by the Allied forces in 1945.

In one segment, visitors meet a 10-year-old Jewish girl and her family as they struggle to survive. The loneliness and heartache she faces as her mother dies of a brain tumour, her brothers are taken to a labour camp, followed by her father, cousins, aunts … They all disappear from her life in the space of five years.

She goes into hiding with her grandparents, moving from one place to the other, and eventually to a secluded farm. After liberation, she is reunited with her grandparents, and they soon learn the fate of her parents and brothers – all lost in the camps.

Multimedia displays including clips from the period projected on to walls, floors and windows surround the visitor. The overwhelming collection of original mementos, artefacts and machinery would be hard to beat anywhere.

The military hardware in the adjoining hall is thoughtfully displayed to capture what it might have been like in the dying days of the war as the Allies pushed through to the German border in late 1944.

Operation Market Garden was an Allied push through Belgium and Holland to cross the Rhine at Arnhem and get round the German’s heavily fortified Siegfried Line in preparation for a final drive to Berlin.

It was a make-or-break moment and the Germans knew it. They pushed back and met the Allies across a looping front that also took in Belgium (best known for the Battle of the Bulge) and German territory (fierce fighting in Hurtgen Forrest). These clashes were an all-in effort by a German army that literally had everything to lose. And it was in Overloon that Market Garden reached a crescendo between 30 September and 18 October 1944.

The story of the Overloon Battle is told with great care and detail in a panorama room with a replica shelter below, which tells the trials and tribulations of thousands of frightened civilians who waited out the nearly three-week-long ordeal.

A number of sculptures line the pathway to the entrance of the museum, symbolising the twin evils of war: shattered lives and destroyed livelihoods. One installation (see photo) sits incongruously beside a WWII-era tank with its turret poised in the air.

The €15 price to enter the museum seems steep at first but as the sheer magnitude of the place begins to open up, and the attention to detail (the personal stories juxtaposed against the carefully arranged machinery of war) is appreciated, the money feels well spent. Curators are everywhere, dusting Howitzers and arranging life-like mannequins into new scenes like the battlefield mess tent and mobile tool shop. Combined with several military memorials and cemeteries in and around Overloon, as well as a new playground and nature activities, this is a day well spent … and not only for history buffs.

Read part I: Navigating without algorithms

Read part III: The cycle of life in Groningen

Read part IV: The rich texture of the original Hamburger

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 10.0/10 (1 vote cast)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: +1 (from 1 vote)

Related posts

When Mariette met Mary

 
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: +5 (from 5 votes)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 10.0/10 (5 votes cast)

By Christian Nielsen

The Virgin Mary appeared eight times to a child in Belgium and the rest is ‘alternative history’

Image: ©Christian Nielsen

Thursday 10 May 2018

On the eve of a quiet Sunday in January 1933, the young Mariette Beco saw the faint glow of a woman outside her kitchen window. Smiling, the woman beckoned the child to come out, but Beco’s mother held her back. Beco noted what the woman was wearing a white veil, long white robes with a blue sash, a golden rose on her right foot, and a rosary with a golden chain and cross hanging on her right arm. Three days later, the woman in white reappeared and told Beco that she was ‘Our Lady of the Poor’. Altogether, the woman appeared eight times to the girl. Word quickly spread of the visions and an episcopal commission from Rome was called in to investigate the claims. It was not until May 1942 that the Roman Catholic Diocese of Liege acknowledged the veneration of Mary under the title of Our Lady of the Poor. Approval by the Holy See had to wait until after the war, coming in 1947 with a final declaration in 1949.

“I was no more than a postman who delivers the mail,” remarked Mariette Beco dryly after decades of silence about the apparition of the Virgin Mary which she saw more than 70 years earlier. “Once this has been done, the postman is of no importance any more.”

The child’s sightings put the small village of Banneux (Sprimont, Belgium) on the religious map. But it came at a price for the newly dubbed Our Lady of Banneux, who suffered taunts and derision, even reportedly from members of her own family.

Today, Banneux is a recognised pilgrimage site for Catholics in Belgium, joining the village of Beauraing, where apparitions of the Blessed Virgin were recorded the year before Beco’s own. These sites are sometimes overshadowed by better-known Marian holy sites elsewhere in Europe including Our Lady of Lourdes and La Salette in France, Our Lady of Fátima and Sameiro in Portugal, and many sites in Spain like Our Lady of Sorrows in La Codosero and Umbe, Our Lady of Graces in La Puebla del Río, and many more dotted around the continent.

With international tourist arrivals on the rise, the World Tourism Organisation — a UN body — estimates that 35% of European travellers are interested in religious tourism. Out of every four short breaks, religion and spirituality are the main reasons for at least one trip.

Pilgrims to Banneux day trip in from Belgium and nearby France, Germany and the Netherlands, or stay for longer in one of the hotels which sit alongside facilities that sprang up to cater for visitors to the holy site, which has grown to include a seminary, hospital, mission, information centre, and several indoor and outdoor chapels.

In one of the eight reported apparitions, Mary guided Beco to a nearby spring now on the site and urged her to plunge her hands into the healing waters which were “reserved for all nations … to relieve the sick”.

Fresh memories of the war

For those inclined to analyse past events for meaning or ‘alternative’ historical explanations, the timing and location of the sightings is not without interest. First is the location of Banneux just across the border from what was becoming an increasingly impoverished and restless Germany, while memories of World War I were probably still fresh. Then the timing; the girl’s sightings in 1933 were the same year the Nazi government came to power.

“While it cannot be claimed that eleven-year-old Mariette was aware of the ramifications of the political situation, she grew up in a culture where there would have been intense concern about the international situation,” notes Chris Maunder in his book Our Lady of the Nations: Apparitions of Mary in 20th-Century Catholic Europe.

“The Virgin Mary was believed by devotees to have created a shrine ‘for all nations’ that would outlast the war and mark her healing properties for decades to come,” he explains.

Today, the site is dotted with mini-shrines or chapels erected by Christian communities from all over the world. One shrine immortalises ‘Our Lady of the Poor’ or ‘Queen of Nations’, as Mary came to be known in Banneux, complete with a life-like statue of her bent over in prayer or contemplation before a cross and the simple words, “I thirst”.

The connection to the healing waters of Banneux is not lost. The small spring yields about 7-8,000 litres of water a day with many reports of miraculous healings throughout its existence. Religious souvenir shops lining the out-sized car and coach park sell the water by the gallon. Day-trippers head straight to the line of taps, some content with a sip and a dip, others to fill drums of it for later use.

“Believe in me and I will believe in you”
But for the young Beco, the strain of her apparitions took something of a toll. Reportedly not a regular church-goer, the events of 1933 changed her life and that of her family. As Maunder explains, “There is a long-held Catholic belief that Mary appears to people who have no particular predisposition to visions nor merit them.”

Beco maintained that Mary called her to believe but this faith must have been put to the test throughout the woman’s adult life. She suffered the loss of two children and divorce, according to Maunder: “Beco’s traumatic adult life is popularly regarded as another good example of the way in which quite ordinary people appear to be chosen by the Virgin Mary.”

To the plain-speaking Beco — who died at the age of 90 after having spent most of her life in the Banneux area, and even ran a pilgrim hotel for many years — all these theories would probably struggle to conjure up much interest in a time of rising religious scepticism.

 

 

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 10.0/10 (5 votes cast)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: +5 (from 5 votes)

Related posts

The generous of the earth in the most wretched of places

 
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 10.0/10 (2 votes cast)

By Khaled Diab

If you’re feeling dejected by the troubled times we live in, remember that human generosity lives on, even in the most wretched of places.

Najih Shaker al-Baldawi intercepted the attacker and hugged the suicide bomber tight, not out of affection for him but out of love for the strangers flocking to a local shrine.

Iraqi Najih Shaker al-Baldawi intercepted an ISIS attacker and hugged the suicide bomber tight, not out of affection for him but out of love for the strangers flocking to a local shrine.

Friday 2 September 2016

War. Mass murder. Fanaticism. Bigotry. Racism. Hatred. Environmental devastation. These are depressing times we are living through.

However, scratch beneath the surface of the headlines and beyond the escalating news cycle of violence and you can find human beauty, even in the most wretched of places, at the most wretched of times.

This was driven home to me by what seems to be a startling statistical finding. Iraqis are the most likely people in the world to help a stranger, according to the World Giving Index (WGI).

Let that sink in for a moment. This is a country that was “shocked and awed” by the US and Britain into almost total state collapse, endured years of civil war, is supposedly prey to sectarian and ethnic hatred and is at the mercy of rival militias and warlords, including the infamous and bloodthirsty Islamic State (ISIL or ISIS).

Against such a backdrop and in a world where the relative trickle of refugees into Europe is causing continent-wide panic, you would expect Iraqis to fear strangers, to suspect that a passerby in apparent need is actually part of an ambush or a ploy, to keep what little they have for themselves and their nearest and dearest.

Despite this, a full four-fifths of Iraqis report having helped a stranger in the past month. How is this possible?

Part of the reason may be cultural. Arab societies possess elaborate and nuanced social codes demanding oft-excessive generosity and hospitality to visitors and strangers. This is encapsulated in the ancient Arab proverb: “A guest is greeted like a prince, held like a captive [to your generosity] and departs like a poet [to sing your praises].”

And many is the time that I have been made to feel  like the proverbial prince by Arabs I’d never met before. In fact, the most memorable shows of spontaneous generosity from strangers I have encountered in my life were in Egypt.

But culture is only part of the story. Necessity is the mother of generosity. There is a universal human tendency to respond to need and the needy – and a sense of guilt when we do not. In places like Iraq, where the ranks of those in need are enormous, the ranks of those willing to help them also grow, though they can never keep up with the runaway demand.

Conflict- and warzones bring out both the worst in humans and the best. This, to my mind, was symbolically embodied in a single recent incident in Iraq. An ISIS suicide bomber was on his way to take the lives of many innocent worshippers in Balad.

Najih Shaker al-Baldawi intercepted the attacker and hugged the suicide bomber tight, not out of affection for him but out of love for the strangers flocking to a local shrine. By preventing the mass murderer from entering the shrine and by taking much of the initial impact of the blast, al-Baldawi committed perhaps the supreme act of generosity: he gave his life to save dozens of others.

And despite Europe’s current (partly unjustified) reputation for selfish individualism, wartime Europe was replete with stories of such heroic, self-sacrificing generosity and solidarity, from the suicidal heroics of World War I trenches to the death-defying resistance to Nazi occupation in World War II and the sheltering of fugitive Jews destined for German death-camps.

Religion also seems to play a role in generosity. When it comes to giving money, Myanmar and Thailand top the WGI. Experts attribute this to the Buddhist practice of Sangha Dana, which encourages people to make donations.

But one must not overestimate the role of religion or assume that secular societies are less giving than pious ones. In the example above, Myanmar was assumed to be the most generous country because a higher percentage of its citizens had given money over the preceding month. But we know nothing of the amounts given and how they relate to income.

So it is entirely possible that in another country where people give away large sums to charity but do so only once or twice a year, citizens would donate a large proportion of their incomes yet appear less generous on the World Giving Index. For example, research has repeatedly found Americans to be the most generous charitable donors in the world as a percentage of income, giving away around 2% of GDP.

However, this does not necessarily make America the most generous country in the world. Like in developing countries with low taxes and huge income disparities, the visible poverty all around forces wealthy people of conscience to give.

In more egalitarian societies, that need is less because of the disguised or invisible forms of collective generosity that do not appear in WGI or statistics on charitable donations. In high-taxation societies with a generous social safety net, “giving” is a legal duty, not an individual choice.

For instance, in the European Union, where such a social model is prevalent, at least nine countries spend over 30% of their gross domestic product on social protection, led by Denmark (34.6%), France (34.2%) and the Netherlands (33.3%).

In addition, although foreign aid is woefully inadequate and wealthier countries are generally reneging on their obligations, a number of countries donate significantly above the benchmark 0.7% of GDP target. These include Sweden (1.4%), the UAE (1.09%), Norway (1.05%), Luxembourg (0.93%) and the Netherlands (0.76%).

This shows how generosity comes in many shapes and sizes, from the individual to the collective. Then there are the intangible, unmeasurable aspects of generosity. A dollar given by someone poor is worth far more than a dollar given by someone wealthy. Help given at great personal risk is worth more than risk-free assistance. Assistance received when you most need it is worth far more than that which is received too late. And a fish given to feed you once is worth far less than giving you the rod or net with which you can feed yourself.

Next time you feel despondent at the selfish taking and destructiveness of the world, look around for the everyday examples of giving which may not capture headlines but do capture a spirit of generosity that may just save humanity from itself.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which first appeared on Al Jazeera on 25 August 2016.

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 10.0/10 (2 votes cast)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)

Related posts

Eutopian nightmares

 
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: -1 (from 1 vote)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 10.0/10 (1 vote cast)

By Boštjan Videmšek/DELO

By raising the drawbridge in the face of desperate refugees and succumbing to bigotry and hatred, the EU’s utopian ideals are being abandoned for a dystopian reality.

Photo: © Jure Erzen/DELO

Photo: © Jure Erzen/DELO

Wednesday 1 June 2016

When Slovenia’s army began to erect a barbed-wire fence on its border with Croatia in November 2015, almost a decade had passed since that historic day when the former Yugoslav republic was admitted into the European Union. During this period, we had become accustomed to the wonderful fact that there were no borders within the EU – at least not of the visible kind. Despite the savage quickening of the economic, financial, social and political crisis, free travel all over Europe had become a matter of great simplicity. It was something one could count on, something that almost went without saying.

And so we only started to debate this entire business of borders, fences, barbed wire and “the strengthening of Europe’s external borders” when these outer frontiers were already in great peril. But contrary to popular belief, that peril didn’t really come from the refugees and economic migrants who started pouring in on a large scale in 2014 and 2015.

In fact, the refugees and the migrants were the ones who, by breaking through the physical frontiers, were making clear that Europe’s borders had never been truly eliminated. Quite the contrary. The more the old continent had been opening up internally, the more it had been beefing up its outer ramparts. And so, slowly but inexorably, a thing some of us like to call Fortress Europe had been born – this enormous yet infinitely fragile and self-obsessed ivory tower… And the more fragile and self-obsessed it became, the more removed from its lofty freedom-loving ideals its immediate future had become. And in 2015, that immediate future had finally merged with the present.

The discourse – both in private and in public – was soon radicalised beyond repair. The cankerous genie of the far-right had broken out of its bottle, and its twisted worldview soon became the norm. The differences between Europe’s high castles and “the streets” were soon dissolved. Instead of the alarm that should be ringing out in every house and every soul still clinging to a shred of human decency, all one could hear was a thunderous silence. The core of the entire continent has been radicalised with a ferocity quite unprecedented in modern times.

The people of Europe took to acting as if it was quite natural that the incoming refugees should have no names, faces, fates, stories and future. Even worse: we started treating people on the run from war zones as if they were so much nuclear waste; as if we had all been stripped of any semblance of historical memory; as if the entire continent had been living a giant all-pervasive lie, which had clouded our judgment and had left us quite satisfied with this vague and infinitely flimsy idea… An idea that – a quarter of a century after the collapse of the iron curtain – had been thoroughly humiliated by the construction of the two walls on the Hungarian-Serbian and the Slovenian-Croatian borders.

As hard as it is to state this out loud, the flood of refugees and terrorism Europe has witnessed in recent years is partly a consequence of its failed foreign, immigration and integration policies. Its neglect of its neighbours in the Middle East and Central Asia, and its neglected immigrant neighbourhoods at home, not to mention the active role a number of European countries have played in fuelling conflict, war and despotism in the Middle East, have blown back in the form of large-scale radicalisation.

For the European Union, the crises it is experiencing today are the consequence of decades of living in a bubble, of distancing itself from reality – both within Europe and in its neighbouring regions – while immersing itself ever further into the heartless algorithms of an ever-burgeoning bureaucracy. What happened was the consequence of decades of catastrophic delusions and of failed immigration policies and processes; of our being unable to grasp the realities, let alone confront them or respond to them in a constructive and proactive manner which could result in (at least) our moral distancing from the wars and conflicts in the Middle East and Central Asia. Instead we fuelled them, through our indifference, ignorance, arms exports, ill-conceived military interventions, our favouring of trade over human rights and dignity, our support of dictators and violent, authoritarian regimes.

It is little wonder Europe was so quick to adopt the language of war: Europe, after all, had proven quite adept at starting wars while being absolutely awful at putting a stop to them. Given its historical legacy, it is hardly surprising the continent was so quick to renounce its ideals and keel over before the challenges of the present moment.

The post-terror developments in Europe are also tragic in their predictability.

First, the shutting down of borders, both inwardly and outwardly. Then the “Americanisation” of our security and the systematic creation of fear. The rapidly escalating division between “us” and “them”. The spine-chilling rise of private security firms. The radicalisation of policies, fomenting grave polarisation within society, increasing our internal frictions and fostering the rise of the far-right and even neo-Nazis, the European equivalent of Daesh. The outbreak of populism, the vanishing of what remained of our common European identity, the strengthening of both benign and malignant strains of nationalism. The crumbling of the masks dictated by our mostly feigned political correctness and the streamlining of both racism and xenophobia. The triumph of reflexes over reflection. The dehumanisation of refugees, who have left their ransacked homes fleeing the exact same demonic violence Europe had first faced in Madrid, then in London, then Paris and now Brussels.

Above all, the dehumanisation of ourselves.

These developments are something to be feared at least as much as the next terrorist attacks, which are at this point inevitable. We should be at least as afraid of these developments as we should be afraid of the thunderous silence created by our lack of reflection and the by now chronic absence of critical reasoning… That awful, inexcusable silence of our ever so comfortable European minds, the silence that will ultimately enable the extremists to shriek at the highest possible frequencies. This is what the so-called Islamic State could understand as their victory.

As early as 2004, the Dutch migration researcher Paul Scheffer told me that Europe is treading a dark and dangerous path. He went on to explain he felt that its grave mistake was to ignore some fundamental parts of human nature, and all under the guise of multiculturalism and tolerance. Holland was, he said, the best example of that wishful thinking with (socio-economically) limited expiry date.  “We were passing each other by looking the other way so determinedly that we ended up colliding,” Scheffer opined at the time when Europe was facing its first major terrorist attack in Madrid and the Dutch film director Theo Van Gogh (the maker of Submission) was murdered in Amsterdam by a Dutch-Moroccan Muslim Mohammed Bouyeri. The idea of the functioning multicultural society was for the very first time shaken to the bones. Even a dozen years ago, Scheffer was well aware of what was likely to happen to a continent steeped in a chronic lack of reflection in the times of growing open conflicts.

The tragedies were as awfully, inexcusably predictable as the future we are now facing – a future we have done virtually everything in our power to facilitate.

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 10.0/10 (1 vote cast)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: -1 (from 1 vote)

Related posts

Brussels attacks: A stark new reality

 
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: +5 (from 5 votes)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 9.2/10 (5 votes cast)

By Christian Nielsen

In Brussels, people are resigned to a stark new reality of uncertainty and insecurity until a way is found to channel destructive energy positively.

Sunday 27 March 2016

Brussels attackersA week is a long time in the fight against terrorism.

A dangerous display of triumphalism over the capture of Salah Abdeslam – the ISIS-affiliated terrorist who was at large since the Paris attacks last November – gave way to bewilderment and shock folllowing the dual attack in Brussels on Tuesday this week. Who could have predicted that?

Quite a few people, it seems, including Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who said Turkey warned Belgium about one of the men involved in  the Brussles attacks – and even postulated its possibility during a UN speech not long after the recent Ankara attack.

Last June, Turkey is reported to have held one of the terrorists, Brahim el-Bakraoui, at Turkey’s border with Syria and released him to the Netherlands with a warning that he had been a foreign fighter in Syria.

And then there are the conspiracy theorists and, of course, Donald Trump’s claims that he saw it coming, plus countless others with a powerful sense of hindsight.

There are also those of us who live or work in Brussels and have our own theories, ideas and fears concerning the plight of the city and Europe’s struggle dealing with the enemy within.

Close to home

As colleagues and I left an emergency staff briefing and discrete head count, I noted the time was 9:30 – just 30 minutes or so after the Maalbeek metro bombing and a little over an hour following the airport explosions. There was a moment of stunned silence. Management urged us to stay in the office, which is just opposite Brussels Central Station, and we watched as  security men blocked the entrance  and workers in the offices above the station were evacuated.

My colleagues popped in and out of meetings  to take calls or answer queries from loved-ones. Several had to leave while they could still get out of the city before it was completely locked down.

A French colleague said she was not that surprised by the events: “When you kick over a termite mound, where are they supposed to go?” she remarked on the recent capture and security shake-up in the Brussels suburbs of Forest and Molenbeek the week before.

I understood what she meant. These actions would not pass without repercussions. Perhaps the speed with which the reprisal was issued by this Brussels ISIS terrorist cell – it is now clear that it is following their claim of responsibility in the hours after the bombing – is more the surprise element here. Unless of course Salah Abdeslam was only caught because of increased activities in preparation for this pre-planned attack.

Jan Jambon, Belgium’s minister for security and home affairs, admits as much when he said there had been some chatter between Europe’s security forces that something was brewing. But Belgium and France seemed too satisfied with the small victory the week before. Overstretched security forces have since learned that a week is long time in what is clearly a much longer battle against home-grown terrorism than anyone cares to fathom.

“How do you see this ever ending?” a friend from England asked in one of the many enquiries from loved-ones in the hours that followed the attacks. “I don’t!” was the only answer I could muster as the realities and tiredness started to take effect.

Different this time
During the lock-down and level 4 security alert in Brussels after the Paris attacks in November 2015, life more or less carried on. Colleagues still showed up to work, despite shuttered shops and an eerie quiet around the station. There were more sirens than usual and the military trucks camped out in front of the luxury hotel opposite the station was a bit surreal, but there was no real sense of danger.

But this time is different. My back faces a big window overlooking the station just 40m over Rue Cantersteen. It sounds silly as I write this, but I worked half-slouched most of the day; not because of the despondency brought on by this sad day but because subconsciously I found myself wanting to be below the window blast level.

That’s the new reality. Do I fear more horrific acts like this? It would be naive to say no. Will I succumb to the fear? No, of course not! This is the first reaction. Then after some thought, the more honest answer comes… I’m more vigilant, and if that means I change my behaviour even a little, then the effects of ‘terror’ are there. For example, I used to get a coffee and sandwich quite often inside the main hall of the Central Station. I did that less after Paris; it just seemed such an obvious target. And now? I hate to admit it but I’m likely to steer clear of places like that… for a while or at least until the memory starts to wear off.

As I write this, I’m looking at a photo I took from my office on Tuesday evening as a massive line of workers snaked out from the station. With most trains and the metro out of action, they were all waiting to see how to get home to their safe villages. Strangers were offering a couch to crash on, taxis and volunteers were driving people around for free. Kind acts in an unkind world.

Anticipate the day

Some anticipated this day. Others hoped it would all be over with the capture of Abdeslam. But most are now resigned stoically to a stark new reality.

Termites are  industrious creatures and work with an absolute sense of purpose and order. You can’t stop them by knocking down their homes. They just rebuild. A new order is needed to channel that purpose in constructive ways.

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 9.2/10 (5 votes cast)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: +5 (from 5 votes)

Related posts

Of crusaders and jihadists

 
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0.0/10 (0 votes cast)

By Khaled Diab

Despite Donald Trump and Ted Cruz’s aversion to Islam, their own beloved Bible contains troubling “Christian values” of war, misogyny and homophobia.

donald-trump-bible

Monday 21 March 2016

Christianity, and especially the Bible-thumping variety, has been playing a starring role in the US presidential campaign among the Republican candidates. “I’m a Christian first, American second, conservative third and Republican fourth,” Republican candidate Ted Cruz, a devout Southern Baptist, declared in no uncertain terms last month.

And despite being a self-styled bad boy who has appeared on the cover of Playboy, Donald Trump has been trumpeting his “Christian values” and has vowed that “Christianity will have power,” if he becomes president. The billionaire has even gone so far as to make the incredible claim that his taxes were being audited because he is a “strong Christian.”

Even though the property mogul and leading Republican presidential hopeful has claimed that “nobody reads the Bible more than me,” Trump has been hard pressed to name a favourite verse and has made numerous scripture-related gaffes.

The Republican frontrunners aren’t just affirming their Christian credentials, they are also expressing an alleged dichotomy and incompatibility between their Bible-bound religious beliefs and a ‘benighted’ Islam.

Though Trump admits his ignorance of the Quran, he nonetheless felt qualified enough to venture, in a 2011 interview, that “there’s something there [in the Quran] that teaches some very negative vibe… I mean things are happening, when you look at people blowing up all over the streets.”

Building on this view of Islam and Muslims as being intrinsically violent, Trump has vowed to keep foreign Muslims out of America because “our country cannot be the victims of horrendous attacks by people that believe only in jihad, and have no sense of reason or respect for human life.”

Yet his proposed remedy to this violence is to go on a killing spree that would make a slasher horror movie look tame. Trump wants to “bomb the shit out of ISIS”, reintroduce water-boarding and “much worse” for suspected terrorists, and approves of the summary execution of Muslim fighters with bullets soaked in pig’s blood.

If Trump were actually to delve into the Bible, he may well be surprised by what he reads, and even mistake it for the much-maligned Quran. More to the point, he would perhaps begin to realise that making comprehensive declarations about an entire religion and all its followers based on a selective interpretation of some of its texts would make Christianity and Judaism appear just as intrinsically violent (if not more so), and capable of teaching just as ‘negative vibes’ as his characterisation of Islam.

This is exactly what happened in the Netherlands late last year, when a couple of pranksters disguised the Bible as the Quran and read out some shocking passages to unsuspecting passersby.

They included such choice quotations as Leviticus’ “If a man also lies with a man, as he lies with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death,” and Deuteronomy 25:11-12 which prescribes the cutting off of a woman’s hand if she intervenes in a fight between her husband and another man.

Perhaps even more perplexing for Donald Trump’s hostile attitude towards Muslims would be the recent computer analysis which revealed his beloved Bible to be statistically more violent than the Quran.

While the New Testament was only marginally more violent than the Quran, the Old Testament was a whopping twice as bloody as the Islamic holy book. In it, God regularly destroys and smites unbelievers, and those believers who have wandered off the straight path, and empowers the “righteous” to commit divinely sanctioned mass murder.

A small example of this appears in Numbers 31 where God commands Moses to “take vengeance on the Midianites” by looting and burning their towns, killing all their men, including the boys, and taking the women and children into slavery, except those women who had slept with a man, for whom death was prescribed.

His preaching of universal love and peace notwithstanding, Jesus possessed a very Old Testament intolerance of sin and adultery, extending the concept to make it even a thought crime, as well as of divorced women and of children who disobey their parents, whose punishment should be death.

Early Christians may have been against war, partly due to their opposition to Rome, but many were not averse to using religious violence to intimidate and silence “pagans” and “heretics” – or even intellectuals whose thinking didn’t jibe with theirs. This was symbolically demonstrated by the gruesome and cruel murder of Hypatia of Alexandria, widely regarded as the last philosopher of classical antiquity, by an angry Christian mob.

Despite the view of Jesus Christ as some kind of ancient olive tree-hugging hippy who preached a new testament of love and forgiveness, he himself claimed otherwise.

Although Jesus imparted some beautifully peaceable notions during his famous Sermon on the Mount, informing his followers that “blessed are the meek… merciful… and peacemakers,” that they should “love thy enemies” and turn the other cheek, he also insisted that he had not come “to destroy the law, or the prophets” and recommended that believers pluck out their own eyes and cut off their own hands rather than commit sin.

Like Muhammad would do centuries later, Jesus preached both peace and violence. “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth,” Christ briefed his disciples before sending them out to spread the gospel. “I came not to send peace, but a sword.”

Many Christians interpret this “sword” of Christ as being figurative, a metaphor for how Jesus will divide the world into believers and unbelievers, but in the past, this passage, and others in the Old Testament, were used to justify “holy war”- a crusade, Mr Trump, is just a jihad in a Christian habit.

None of this is to suggest that Christianity and Judaism are somehow more violent than Islam, or that Islam is solely a religion of peace. Like its Abrahamic predecessors, Islam can be interpreted both as a spiritual vessel for war and for peace. After all, Muhammad, like ancient Biblical prophets, was both a spiritual and a military leader, and the Quran is replete with contradictory passages that call for forgiveness and vengeance, promote violence and non-violence.

Islam, like Christianity and Judaism, or any other religious tradition, is what its believers make it to be, and is interpreted differently according to time, place and group. The same event is also open to multiple interpretations. For instance, though most Americans view the invasion of Iraq in secular terms, “divinely guided” George W Bush saw it as a “mission from God,” like General Allenby earlier saw Britain’s conquest of Palestine as concluding the Crusades.

In these troubled times, where we have too many prophets and propagandists of doom and destruction, we need moderates who spread the peaceful interpretation of their faiths and expand their religions’ boundaries to embrace the other. That goes for Christianity and Judaism as much as for Islam – all three of which carry the seeds to be weapons of war or implements of peace.

As Donald Trump and Ted Cruz fight it out, the greatest enemy America faces today lives within its own boundaries, an unholy alliance between an unhinged billionaire TV star, millennialist evangelists and racists. If either candidate becomes leader of the most powerful nation on the planet, the world may learn that the fear mongering about the Quran pales into insignificance next to the self-righteous fury of a president touting Bible-thumping “Christian values.”

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which first appeared on Haaretz on 8 March 2016.

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0.0/10 (0 votes cast)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)

Related posts

Orientalism for kids

 
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0.0/10 (0 votes cast)

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.

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0.0/10 (0 votes cast)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)

Related posts

The West’s hidden tribalism

 
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0.0/10 (0 votes cast)

By Khaled Diab

Tribalism and sectarianism afflict Western societies too. So why is that they seem to be tearing the Middle East apart but not Europe and America?

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.

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0.0/10 (0 votes cast)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)

Related posts