As Belgium prepares to go to the polls following four years of the ‘rainbow' coalition, question marks surround what lies at the end of the rainbow for Belgium's Muslim community.
Since the broad six party liberal-socialist-green alliance came to power in 1999, a number of major global events have propelled the relationship between the Muslim minority and mainstream society – not just in Belgium but across Europe – to the forefront of public debate.
Despite their increasing engagement and prominence on the political landscape, Muslims in Belgium – as in Europe and the United States – find themselves caught in the middle of a widening chasm of distrust between the ‘West' and ‘Islam' spurred largely by fear of what extremist Islamic groups might deliver and insecurity fuelled by a slowing economy.
Statistics have revealed a rising trend of Islamophobia sweeping across Europe. This was shockingly underscored with the racist murder of a Moroccan couple in Brussels and a Moroccan teacher in Antwerp last year. On the political front, it has been illustrated by the meteoric rise and subsequent collapse of far-right front men, such as one-time French presidential pretender, the veteran National Fronter Jean-Marie Le Pen, and the Lijst Pim Fortuyn in the Netherlands.
The Vlaams Blok has been working hard to capitalise on the atmosphere of insecurity in the hope of consolidating the gains they managed in the previous elections. In addition to their regular platform of blaming immigrants for unemployment, crime and sponging off the state, they have rushed to portray the Muslim community as potential ‘fifth columnists' whose ‘mixed allegiances' threaten the very foundations of society.
Although this idea gained some currency in the early days of the so-called ‘war on terror', it has lost major ground recently as a large cross-section of Belgian society found common cause with the local Muslim community and millions around the globe in their opposition to the war in Iraq.
The Vlaams Blok have succeeded in pushing the political landscape further to the right as other nationalist parties vie for their support base. Under the banner of ‘Safe Flanders', the far right party has forced several contentious minority-related issues onto the election agenda.
Key among them is the question of integration. Few would argue with the need for immigrants to know enough about the language and culture to allow them to function as productive citizens, something that would enrich both their own lives and society at large.
However, a great deal of controversy surrounds what exactly constitutes ‘integration'. Moderate parties interpret it to mean that minorities should enjoy their cultural heritage while respecting the broad principles of Belgian society. They also perceive a two-way exchange in which minorities and the mainstream learn from one another. This also includes helping recent immigrants find their way with free language courses, outreach programmes and information packs.
The Vlaams Blok, on the other hand, champions the notion that immigrants and minorities must ‘assimilate', while some other nationalist parties call for the more toned-down ‘inburgering', a form of naturalisation.
For the Blok, having a sufficient command of the language is not enough. For an immigrant to be sufficiently ‘assimilated' requires him or her to cast off their entire cultural background and take on the norms of the ‘dominant culture', i.e. the mainstream.
The party has been understandably coy about outlining exactly what ‘norms' minorities have to abide by. Does it mean that if they come to power, it will be obligatory for Moroccans to eat witloof or vol-au-vent with fries for dinner each night? Personally, I think what they privately mean is that immigrants have to learn to become white and change their names to Jan or Mieke.
Not only does the Vlaams Blok want to reduce the inflow of foreigners, they want to make it tougher for those already living here to become Belgian or make their voices heard.
They are outspoken critics of the country's ‘Snel Belg' law, which was introduced by the current ruling coalition to streamline and simplify the process of acquiring nationality for long-term residents. It is precisely for this reason that it has provoked the Blok's ire. Although the facts do not back them up, they claim that the legislation has brought about an unprecedented tidal wave of foreigners obtaining Belgian citizenship.
Fearing, one suspects, for their own chances at the ballot box, the Blok maintains that the right to vote that goes with citizenship threatens the very fabric of society by allowing people with ‘alien values' to wield a lobby that can derail the course of democracy. Rabid hyperbole aside, their attempts to silence an inconvenient segment of society – who also pay taxes and have spent all or a good part of their lives here – makes an obvious mockery of the very democratic principles they claim to be defending.
Nevertheless, they propose a draconian vetting process to filter out undesirable elements. In addition to a language test, which is also supported by some right wing and nationalist parties, they wish to introduce a series of other tests to measure the eligibility of prospective Belgians.
The Vlaams Blok is again vague on how it proposes to measure the quality of someone's ‘Belgianness'. After being pushed on the issue by a sceptical TV journalist, party chief Gerolf Annemans suggested the probing question: “Do you think a woman should always wear a headscarf in public?”
Measuring a person's ‘Belgianness' is, of course, a subjective exercise open to broad abuses. Even if a standard test were devised, it would necessarily carry the demeaning assumption that Belgians hold homogenous views or be so general as to be rendered useless. As my wife – who is Belgian – points out, if she or any of her friends answered a questionnaire designed by the Blok, they probably would not qualify.
This raises the question of what the purpose of such vetting is. If it aims to shore up the ghetto walls and exclude minorities from acquiring more rights, then it is an extremely effective weapon – but one that will backfire.
Sweeping immigrants and the problems they face under the carpet will only cause more social upheaval. As some greens and socialists have pointed out, the only way forward is to address the unemployment and lack of opportunities that face a generation of young Muslims who were born here and know no other home. Giving them a fair stake in society will more effectively integrate them than a hundred tests and language courses.
A vote of confidence
Despite their best efforts, support for the anti-immigrant party has stubbornly refused to rise since the previous elections and recent polls suggest that it is actually beginning to dip. Although election day may deliver a different verdict, this appears to suggest that the Vlaams Blok is reaching a ceiling and that a growing number of people are seeing through their thinly disguised policies.
At the more progressive end of the political spectrum, the socialists – one of the country's top three parties – and greens are fielding dozens of Muslim candidates, some at the very top.
Flemish green party Agalev is the only Belgian party with women in first or second place on all its electoral lists. One of its leading lights is Fauzaya Talhaoui (33). She has the tough task of leading Agalev's campaign for Belgium's second-largest city and Vlaams Blok stronghold Antwerp.
The socialist SP.A has chosen Saïd El Khadraoui (28) to head their electoral list in Leuven. A relative unknown nationally, the young politician, who has shot up the socialist ranks, has made a name for himself in the prosperous university town as a counsellor for education and culture.
It is heartening to see normally polite Belgians ripping up Vlaams Blok flyers and telling the party's candidates they want nothing to do with ‘racist' policies. One can only hope that the bottom will fall out from under them as it did with other far-right parties in Europe.
However, discontent at how the complex politics of this small but diverse country are managed and worsening economic times may delay the advent of that momentous occasion. Still, one sincerely hopes that come May 18 people will vote for the voices of tolerance and multiculturalism and shun the envoys of sectarianism and social unrest.
This article appeared on Expatica on 15 May 2003.