Why you should care

Othman El Hammouchi, 18, challenges the traditional molds of the European right.

He often wears suits, has thick glasses and when he talks, he starts out in an informal, teenager-like tone but then quickly recovers into academic language. Othman El Hammouchi is on his way to becoming one of Belgium’s most prominent philosophers, but he’s still an 18-year-old college student. “My choice to study mathematics had nothing to do with politics,” El Hammouchi laughs when I ask him about his choice of study, amid his first-year exams at the Free University of Brussels. “I’m just interested in certain questions and how they relate to things like the relativity theory and Kantian philosophy.”

When he was 17, El Hammouchi won an essay contest for high school students and in his own words entered the “circuit” of writing opinion pieces, doing interviews and giving talks. Since then he has been featured in most of Belgium’s newspapers, and one of the country’s most important philosophers, Etienne Vermeersch, called him “brilliant.”

At first sight, his conservatism seems to be quite traditional. “For me, conservatism is a complete world view that places emphasis on traditional structures such as religion, marriage and hierarchy,” El Hammouchi says. Yet at the same time, he moves away from commonly held positions on the right, such as doubting the existence of man-made climate change. “As a conservative, you shouldn’t deny science,” he says.

The traditional marriage was a sort of contract in which the woman exchanged sex for stability. Yet the sexual revolution undermined that.

Othman El Hammouchi

His most obvious clash with today’s right? El Hammouchi is a religious Muslim at a time when European conservatives are moving toward hard-line positions on identity, often critical of Islam. It’s not just far-right groups. A leader of the conservative New Flemish Alliance, Belgium’s biggest party, Bart De Wever this year told a local newspaper: “Muslims want a place in the public space, in education, with their external religious symbols. That causes tension.”

This kind of rhetoric, argues El Hammouchi, means “conservatives in Belgium are throwing away the votes of 7 percent of the population who are Muslim.” He rather argues for a “conservative grand alliance” between Christians and Muslims. “One of my goals is to take away this irrational hatred toward Islam,” he says. His work has elicited little reaction from conservative politicians, but recently he joined Doorbraak, a prominent publication in conservative circles, as a regular contributor.

When I ask him what he is currently reading — besides his exam coursework, of course — he rattles down a lengthy list of philosophy books. He mentions Dutch (and strongly atheist) philosopher Herman Philipse’s God in the Age of Science? A Critique of Religious Reason and Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, a 1979 book by Douglas Hofstadter about cognition and machines. But Immanuel Kant “was truly the greatest,” El Hammouchi says of the German philosopher behind Critique of Pure Reason.

El Hammouchi grew up in Vilvoorde, a small city in Flanders, the Dutch-speaking area of Belgium, right outside of Brussels. He credits his “orthodox Muslim family” for his conservatism. Said Bataray, a pundit who knows El Hammouchi, says his friend’s focus on the family is all-encompassing. “Othman is a good aspiring philosopher, but he is also a bit sheltered,” Bataray says. “He was always the smartest in his class, came from a good family and encountered little discrimination so far in his life.”

El Hammouchi’s political thinking is difficult to pin down — and evolving, as one would expect of an 18-year-old. He might critique contradictions in European conservatism while at other times taking hard-line positions out of step with progressive Belgian society. His socially conservative views about gender and sexuality have already caused controversy. “The traditional marriage was a sort of contract in which the woman exchanged sex for stability,” he says. “Yet the sexual revolution undermined that. And I don’t think women benefited. Men can now do whatever they want.”

When he published a fiercely antiabortion article in which he compared abortion to murder (not so common in European conservatism, compared to its U.S. counterpart), it yielded a strong counterreaction. Writer Heleen Debruyne called him pompous, adding: “I could ignore this little philosopher, but if history teaches us anything, it’s that we should keep guarding the social rights we conquered.” Meanwhile, social media commenters questioned how much media attention should still be put on the provocative views of El Hammouchi.

In Europe, May 1968 has become shorthand for a range of progressive movements active during the ’60s, which culminated in a massive wave of strikes and riots in Paris. Belgium also saw riots at that time, mainly in the student city of Leuven, where protests by Dutch-speaking students snowballed into a broader movement against traditional hierarchies such as the church, patriarchy and traditional politics. To European conservatives, it unleashed individualism, irresponsibility and identity politics.

Gui Polspoel is a journalist who was a student in Leuven during that time who recently debated El Hammouchi. “He reads a lot of books and philosophers, yet he fails to truly think,” Polspoel says. “He just quotes them but remains stuck in his own dogmas. May ’68 was for me a movement of emancipation and thinking outside accepted frames. Maybe he should use more of that spirit himself.”

Bataray points out that El Hammouchi’s heterodox thought can hardly be considered rigid. “He can think outside of the box; in some areas, he is very advanced and has extremely interesting ideas,” Bataray says. “Yet in others, he is so cramped it occasionally gets difficult.”

El Hammouchi is staying busy as his public profile continues to grow, writing for Doorbraak and working on a wide-ranging book. Yet he is still a student. Grand alliances notwithstanding, for the moment he still has exams to pass.

Five Public Intellectuals to Know Around the World

  1. Steven Pinker (U.S.) — Harvard professor, strong proponent of evolutionary psychology and the computational theory of mind.
  2. Shirin Ebadi (Iran) — Nobel Prize–winning human rights lawyer representing her country’s dissidents.
  3. Jordan Peterson (Canada) — University of Toronto professor and prominent dissector of identity politics and political correctness.
  4. Pratap Bhanu Mehta (India) — free market proponent and social liberal, arguably his country’s most-read public intellectual.
  5. Richard Dawkins (U.K.) — scientist, prolific speaker and author who has become the global face of atheism.

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