By Khaled Diab
Despite the paranoid conspiracy theories and fear-mongering of the extreme right, cultural diversity is a beautiful and wondrous thing.
Monday 1 March 2021
Belgium's statistical agency Statbel has released the first official survey of the diversity of the country's population. The picture that emerged is one of an increasingly diverse and heterogeneous society.
While just over two-thirds of the population (67.9%) are Belgians of Belgian ancestry, almost a third of Belgium's population is either made up of citizens with a foreign background (19.7%) or are citizens of other countries (12.4%).
Multiculturalists and progressives have reacted positively to this statistical snapshot of contemporary Belgian society as a sign of the country's growing cultural richness. Traditionalists and racists, in contrast, have expressed consternation, fear and outrage.
The usual suspects from the far right have pounced on the new statistics to fearmonger, spread misinformation, distort reality, demonise immigrants and stir up racism.
Tom Van Grieken, the head of the anti-immigrant, Flemish nationalist Vlaams Belang, tweeted that the ‘omvolking' or ‘ethnic conversion' was going fast. To leave no doubt about where he stood, Van Grieken, who is himself married to a foreign woman and whose name means “Of the Greeks”, used the hashtag #VreemdeInEigenLand (#ForeignInYourOwnCountry).
The Dutch ‘omvolking' comes from the German ‘umvolkung', or ‘ethnic conversion', a Nazi term used to describe the perceived dilution of the superior Germanic race through assimilation with other supposedly inferior ethnicities – a kind of perceived de-Germanisation. Later, during World War II, the term was also used to describe the reverse process, of Nazi plans to Germanise Slavic lands.
Van Grieken's use of a word with such a terrifying, murderous past has, unsurprisingly, elicited outrage.
“I am the fruit of the love between my mother and father,” said State Secretary for Migration and Asylum Sammy Mahdi, whose father is Iraqi and mother is Belgian. “I would like this fruit not to be seen, by definition, as a rotten apple.”
Despite the backlash, Van Grieken was echoed by other members of his party. Describing ‘omvolking' as a component of the supposed ‘culture war' being fought by so-called ‘cultural Marxism', Vlaams Belang MEP Tom Vandendriessche wrote: “This is a deliberate policy. If we continue with mass migration, we will become a minority in our own country.”
These outbursts provide an insight into the paranoid and toxic myths at the heart of modern far-right politics. What these Vlaams Belangers allude to are a hodgepodge of extreme right conspiracy theories, including the ‘Great Replacement' and its more extreme variation ‘white genocide' and ‘Eurabia'.
What these rabid conspiracy theories, which are becoming increasingly popular on both sides of the Atlantic, have in common is their belief that multiculturalism is a smokescreen for a global plot to dilute, weaken, replace or wipe out the white race.
What is remarkable about these fantasies is how they clumsily combine elements of classic anti-Semitism and anti-leftism with more recent elements of Islamophobia. According to many on the far right and neo-Nazis, a global cabal of either ‘cultural Marxists' (Jews and leftists) or ‘globalists' (rich Jewish capitalists) are conspiring to destroy white civilisation by importing millions of brown and black people, especially Muslims.
These feverish fantasies reflect the profound anxiety and sense of inferiority at the heart of contemporary white supremacy. That these ‘theories' enjoy currency and are given credence reflects the (wilful) credulity of those who believe in them, as well as their ignorance of science, genetics and demographics, amongst other things. It is also testimony to the far right's skilful manipulation of social media to spread misinformation.
In a sane world, it should not need stating that there is no Great Replacement, let alone a white genocide in progress. The very idea is preposterous. Despite decades of large-scale movement, native Belgians still make up the overwhelming majority of the population, and whites are the overwhelming majority everywhere in Europe.
Moreover, a huge chunk of the immigrants and people with immigrant backgrounds living in Belgium are not the dark-skinned non-Europeans and Muslims that the far-right claim are invading Europe.
They are actually white Europeans from neighbouring countries, who have always migrated to Belgium, or EU citizens who have taken advantage of the Union's freedom of movement guarantees. This can be seen in how the top nationalities which migrated to Belgium in 2019 were Romanian, French, Dutch and Italian.
Although there is no scientific basis for race and colour is only skin-deep, so-called white people, i.e. people with pale skin, are in absolutely no danger of dying out, neither through immigration nor through interracial mixing.
White supremacists who don't believe me should travel to, say, the Levant, especially parts of Syria and Palestine. There, large numbers of Arabs live who are as pale as the palest Celts or Scandinavians, thanks to the influence of everything from Romans to Crusaders to Circassians.
My Egyptian family exhibits the range of skin tones of the waves of different migrants that have passed through the civilisational crossroads that is Egypt. This diverse gene pool resulted in my Belgian wife and I producing a son who is fairer than most native Belgians rather than brown like his father.
Of course, people who are ‘white' on the outside and ‘brown' on the inside, or vice-versa, are bound to anger white supremacists. This is because they confuse and undermine the pride these sad souls derive from their mythical notions of racial purity and their skin tone, as if they have nothing else from which to draw a sense of self-worth and esteem.
Naturally, concern about immigration is not limited to racists and fascists. There are also many ordinary people who simply find the rapid pace of change overcoming society worrying and hard to process, which has led to a great deal of nostalgia for how things were, especially amongst conservatives.
I can understand such worries, especially amongst older people who are old enough to remember living in a very different country.
However, it is important to put the situation in perspective. The most radical changes that have swept Belgian society, like elsewhere in the world, have little to do with the largely cosmetic changes brought about by immigration. Scientific and technological progress, as well as autochthonous social and cultural developments, are responsible for the lion's share of change.
If a Belgian nostalgic for an imagined past were actually able to travel back just a few short decades, they would quite literally find themselves in another country. Rather than the largely secular reality they live today, they would find the stifling presence of the Catholic church almost everywhere, with not only full churches but also priests and nuns in the classrooms.
The majority of women would be confined to the domestic and family sphere, in a permanent patriarchal lockdown, unable to pursue their dreams and aspirations.
While this may appeal to the most ultraconservative in society, the vast majority of Belgians, even nostalgists, would not like to turn back the clock to the constricted reality of yesteryear.
More importantly, the things Belgians value the most about their society, and which they've grown to reappreciate during this pandemic, would not be feasible without immigration. This will come as a shock to those who have been told for decades by the right that immigrants are spongers off the state.
Not only do immigrants provide essential manpower in the medical and care sectors, among others, they also play a pivotal role in keeping Belgium's healthcare and pensions system afloat. Without the taxes and social security payments immigrants pump into the system, Belgium's welfare system may well have collapsed by now.
With falling birth rates, demographers have warned for decades that Belgium's population would decline, with dire consequences for a greying population. Immigration has made up the difference since the end of World War II.
Judging by the large numbers of children with a mixed or foreign background currently making their way up through the school system, Belgium will become even more reliant on immigrants and their taxes.
Beyond the economic imperative, diversity is a beautiful thing in and of itself.
Contrary to what anti-immigrants claim, a multicultural society is no more prone to conflict than a monocultural society. But it offers the additional advantages of dynamism and cultural richness.
As someone who has resided in numerous countries and who lives a multicultural reality within the walls of my home, I find it hard to grasp why there are people who prefer dull, monochromatic monoculturalism.
That the next generation is even more diverse than ours fills me with wonder and hope for the future. Our son has been a polyglot since he learnt to babble, is aware of his dual heritage and can switch seamlessly between languages and cultures.
Humanity provides us with such a delicious range of cultural choice to feast on that it is a pity to stick to the same set menu. Rather than trying to stamp out multiculturalism, bigots should give themselves the chance to savour its delicious diversity.
This article was first published by Al Jazeera on 20 February 2021.