Why you should care
A controversy — or lack thereof — around a Bible verse on state TV in Belgium says all you need to know about Muslims in Europe.
Othman El Hammouchi is a university student and columnist in Belgium who is working on a book about identity in Europe.
For years, Flemish national television in Belgium has broadcast important ceremonies of the officially recognized religions as a service to those who couldn’t be present. Few people watch, and they tend to be more or less ignored. That is until the content can be appropriated as a prism through which to express one’s political opinion, a new battleground for the perpetual culture war. This time, the motivating drive was a passage in Ephesians, quoted in Catholic Mass, in which Saint Paul says:
“Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.”
Obviously, this sounds like blasphemy to modern, liberal ears, and no doubt most will have good grounds to disagree with such a statement, especially in Europe. After all, the proportion of the population here that holds to some kind of social conservatism is negligible, especially compared to the United States, where churchgoing remains somewhat steady despite an emerging brand of “progressive” Christianity and pressure from a mostly socially liberal media. Nevertheless, traditionalists in Europe — that is, a majority of Muslims, Orthodox Jews and what remains of Bible-believing Christians — believe strongly in a patriarchal family structure with the husband as formal head, entrusted with more responsibilities for care and protection than the wife.
The real source of tension must lie somewhere else: identity.
For years now, so-called nationalist and right-wing parties have relentlessly attempted to exploit the socially conservative opinions of Muslims to paint them as alien, foreign, not integrated, not part of Western culture, failing to embrace Western values, etc. This is a deliberate attempt to construe having certain values as being an essential prerequisite for membership of the common national identity, the implication being that Muslims could not become an integral part of society until they, in effect, stopped believing in their religion.
This reasoning is absurd. For there are still quite a few indigenous conservative Christians in Belgium who thus subscribe to much the same socially conservative doctrines as their Islamic compatriots, and no one seriously questions their belonging to the Belgian nation. Similarly, citizens’ political views can diverge wildly. And yet all these — communist, fascist, nationalist, democratic socialist, ultra-secularist — are without question Flemish.
This reveals that the real source of tension must lie somewhere else: identity. The unfashionable socially conservative ideas of a native Catholic, though they may elicit revulsion and disgust, do not cause him to be excluded from the national community. His sins are penalized more gently, because he remains “one of us,” whereas the Muslim is still considered to be foreign, an “other” whose actions are an attack on “our” culture and “our” civilization. If one is to judge by nasty online comments, a dazzling amount of people still consider Belgian-born, Dutch-speaking Muslims to be aliens, whose opinions should have them “sent back to their own country.” This was also shown in the reaction to the aforementioned incident, or lack thereof. Only a few members of the leading nationalist party made any comment on it, and there was certainly no national outrage of the kind you would see if an imam had said those same words.
The answer for this continental identity crisis is complex, and these double standards aren’t the direct fault of anyone, however severely we might like to reprimand those who indulge in them. Nations should deliberately embrace everyone in a unified identity that has a definite character based on the historical roots of the nation but is still wide enough so as not to inflict unbearable infringements on personal liberty.
While many self-described conservatives would indulge the impulse to have the state resolve such conflicts, identity is mainly influenced by soft sources of social power: media, public opinion, social pressure, general perceptions, etc. The state can push for language, history and citizenship education, but community forming typically comes outside of the government purview.
Foreign policy, though, does concern the state. Half a century later, Morocco and Turkey consider what are third- or even fourth-generation Belgian citizens to still be part of their diaspora, and provide wide-ranging cultural services to them — inhibiting integration. For instance, many if not most people of Moroccan descent still watch Moroccan television channels, and Turkish mosques are still run by the Turkish government’s Directorate of Religious Affairs. Those countries benefit from family visits, remittances and tourism. And for decades, establishment social and Christian Democrats have been happy to let them operate freely in Belgium, forsaking their duty to promote social cohesion. If the government put severe restrictions on what influence the countries of origin can exert, it would start to solve the social mess we find ourselves in.