Change is in Our Hands: Ways in Which Belgian Muslims could Begin to Make their Integration a Reality

Article publié dans le Vol. 1, n°3 de février 2006 du bulettin de l'Association "Karamah, Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights (http://www.karamah.org/)".

Le contexte: étant à cette époque vice-président du FEMYSO (Forum of European Muslim Youth and Student Organisations, http://www.femyso.org/), j'avais été invité à une conférence organisée à Bruxelles, à l'automne 2005 par l'Ambassadeur des Etats-Unis, M. Korologos, pour échanger réflexions, expériences et bonnes pratiques entre musulmans belges et américains. A la suite de cela, j'avais été sollicité par une organisation participante américaine pour proposer quelques paragraphes de réflexion sur cette initiative.

Under the initiative of Ambassador Tom Korologos, the U.S Embassy in Belgium and the Belgian Royal Institute for International Relations, a conference convened that provided 30 American Muslims and 70 Belgian Muslims the exceptional opportunity to meet and discuss issues of common concern.

Thanks to the commitment of the U.S. Embassy staff, a positive material and relational framework was set up to facilitate and encourage participants to exchange and share experiences. Without those resources, such a dialogue would simply have remained unconceivable. But it took place! And we all benefited from this occasion to network and build good and strong intercontinental relations for years to come.

Yet, beyond those first positive impressions and results, a critical look at what happened still remains to be taken for the sake of intellectual sanity. In my opinion, the fact that the conference was entirely funded by the U.S. Government compelled many of us to reassess many stereotypes and prejudices about the reality of the relationship between Muslim communities and the Administration, and to depart from black and white ‘do-it-yourself’ simplistic worldview to consider more complex shades of grey. And if it “halalises” this meeting that would have looked very suspect to any intelligence service had it been organised by anyone else, one can only but regret that such a useful and positive initiative did not stem from the so called Muslim countries, whose embassies are as deeply involved on the Brussels’ scene. The fact remains that once again, save the building of mosques and trendy Islamic centres, Muslim officials and governments are (at least) one train late when it comes to community building, exchange of best practices and thinking for the future.

Now, as a Muslim Belgian, I still feel a kind of dismay at the picture that some Belgian participants gave of their communities. Perhaps the same is true for the American participants, but I do not have any direct personal knowledge of the situation of the American Muslim communities to be able to give a judgment on the possible gap between the delivered discourses and the grassroots reality. True enough, this was a first step that was not really meant to be in–depth, but exploratory. However, it strangely resulted in a form of reproduction of some stereotypes about our respective communities, although one could have expected more nuances from the part of Muslims expressing themselves about their own day to day realities.

I will focus on three main issues which should help clarify my point:

1) Muslim Politicians/MPs in Belgium
It was quite surprising for me to learn that many of the MPs or even ministers of Arab (essentially Moroccan) or Turkish background were presented as Muslims. Being myself ethnically European, this aroused in my eyes the lasting confusion in the minds of many Muslims from migrant descent between religion and ethnicity: being Moroccan or Turkish means being Muslim, which is a fallacy and a basic negation of the cultural and religious diversity of both the alleged countries of origin and the Belgian or wider European societies. The reality is that none of those politicians was elected on the basis of his/her religious affiliation but rather on the ground of his/her ethnicity. None of them has been campaigning on the religious aspect of his/her identity and very few of them have been publicly expressing themselves say by mobilising this religious identity in ethical debates (euthanasia, homosexual marriages, cloning, etc.) or in social controversies (the wearing of hijâb in secondary schools). Many of those politicians are also engaged in left-wing parties which are usually uncomfortable with the expression of one’s faith in the public sphere. What I am trying to say here is by no mean an expression of criticism or a judgment of value on their involvement and positioning. I just wish to underline the fact that there are no Muslim representatives in the Parliament, but just people from various ethnical and cultural backgrounds whose religion externally plays a minimal if no role at all in their political careers.

2) The Media and their Negative Portrayal of Muslims
Sure enough, one cannot deny the fact that some journalists or media have a certain political agenda in which the depreciating portrayal of Islam, Muslims and Muslim communities plays a key role. Yet, during our exchanges, I received the impression that it is a hopeless reality for Muslims.

I know that there are differences in the mindset of the populations (and thus, of the media) between Northern and Southern Belgium, where the former tends to be far more conservative and often cooks up far right ideas. But I cannot place all the blame entirely on the media. The media is a complex world with its own rules, demands, deadlines and shortcomings; it is not per se against Islam and the Muslim communities. It is true that there is much ignorance, but I personally met many media people who were eager to learn and who expressed their deep regret that they had too little time to become acquainted with the world(s) of Islam. Muslims should understand that for outsiders, Islam and Muslim communities are an intensely complex universe. Journalists unfortunately do not have the time to try to understand the complex direct, indirect or even subliminal relationships existing between people, groups, ideologies, religious interpretations, cultures, traditions, national and/or ethnical interests that are all intrinsically linked within the Muslim magma. Moreover, Muslims should also quit being self-centred and should start realising that the media’s treatment of many other minority groups is very similar in terms of the stereotyping they endure (i.e. Roma minorities, anti-globalisation movements, etc.).

Therefore, before blaming the media for not portraying us not nicely but at least objectively (i.e. telling what is right and wrong, according also to their perspective and not only ours), Muslims in Belgium (and Europe) should make great efforts to communicate more effectively and accurately to the Western audience. They need to articulate who they are, as a community, what they think, what they do and what they plan (if they ever managed to reach this last stage!). Very strangely, I often noticed that the individuals who are the most suitable to deliver such a message to the broader community are refusing to speak out. This is due to their fear of the media. But change has to come from somewhere, so let’s start with ourselves.

3) The Financial Condition of Muslims in Belgium
Masâkîn! That’s what I was thinking, my hand in the pocket, ready to give, when hearing the reports. It is a fact that the socio-economic level of Muslim communities in Belgium is quite lower than that of the Muslim communities in the U.S. with the notable exception of the African-American Muslim community. But from my particular position which is neither totally of an insider or an outsider, I can only but notice that, in general, Muslims in Belgium are not amongst the poor, but are increasingly part of the middle classes while many of them maintain the habits they inherited from their parents, dating from their family’s experience with poverty. What is needed above all is a change in mentalities. Beyond the huge amounts of money sent back to the respective countries of origin, in Brussels only, this last Ramadan had witnessed once again millions of Euro being collected for the building, extension, development and embellishment of mosques. But very few Muslims dare give money for civil rights organisations, social organisations, youth organisations, student organisations, Muslim private schools or even for real estate investments that would offer their offspring a suitable working and studying environment.

I dare think that the financial condition of Muslims in Belgium is not so linked to an endemic poverty than to questionable logics of priority investment and fund management. These few examples are also a marker of the level of a ‘victimization mentality’ that is pervasive in Muslim communities. As much as Muslims complain about being the scapegoats of Western societies, they are themselves using the broader community as a scapegoat for their own underachievement. Muslims in Belgium should depart from this comfortable mindset that prevents them from facing their failures and taking charge of their own matters without the need for any external help. Neither the Muslims nor the broader communities are entirely responsible for the present state of affairs. Responsibilities are shared and need to be mutually confronted. But as long as Muslims go on moaning and begging for help while refusing to acknowledge their shortcomings or taking lessons from them or constructively engaging the broader society – which they are already part and parcel of – few positive changes will occur in the coming years.

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