Belgium’s other racism problem

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Othman El Hammouchi is a Flemish author and columnist based near Brussels.

As Belgium slowly wakes up to the prevalence of anti-black racism within its own borders, it has stayed suspiciously silent on a painful, intolerable form of discrimination against its Muslim population.

Earlier this month, the Constitutional Court ruled that the Belgian government’s legal authority to ban religious garments in universities does not contravene the freedom of religion.

Although the prohibition is described in neutral terms, it is known colloquially as the “headscarf ban” — because that is what this is really about.

The ruling is an alarming development: It gives the government the right to tell Muslim women what they can and can’t wear on university campuses, taking away their basic freedom to choose how they dress.

Belgium’s ban on headscarves in universities has gone largely under the radar | Yahya Arhab/EPA

And yet, the court’s decision has gone largely under the radar, especially outside Belgium. Some have called for a demonstration against the ban on July 5, and the hashtag #TouchePasAMesEtudes (“Hands off my studies”) has been trending on Twitter. Several Flemish institutions have also publicly supported the right to wear a headscarf on their campus. It’s a start, but it’s a far cry from the level of public outrage we should be seeing.

This latest development is the result of a concerted effort by far-right parties and champions of extreme secularism in Belgium to deprive Muslim women of the right to choose how they dress.

The Flemish socialists have suggested a general ban on headscarves for young women under the age of 16. Current legislation already bans the burqa in all public places and prohibits some observant Muslim women from serving as teachers, clerks, police or judges by prohibiting the wearing of headscarves. The burkini is also banned in a number of swimming pools.

These deprivations of Muslims’ basic civil liberties have often been portrayed in the Anglosphere as a curiosity, a local quirk of French-influenced countries and regions that adhere to a strict form of secularism — laïcité.

To us, they are a painful, real and intolerable form of oppression. Everyone should have the freedom to choose what they wear and how they lead their lives free from state-sanctioned discrimination. This should not be contentious; it is a non-negotiable, universal right.

The stinging feeling of injustice is compounded by the utter relativism and nonchalance with which the issue is broached in Belgian public discourse.

Whereas we rightly react with strong condemnation when other countries pass discriminatory policies — such as disgraceful anti-transgender legislation in Hungary, for example — Belgium’s Islamophobic laws are considered “up for debate.”

Both the media and the political establishment discuss it as though there were two sides to the issue, debating the pros and cons in a way they don’t when it comes to human rights issues anywhere else.

Professors and jurists — almost invariably white men — are regularly invited on television programs to discuss in important-sounding language the merits, implications and scope of the headscarf ban.

Back in 2018, the outlet Apache did a study of the guests who appeared in the Flemish public broadcaster’s flagship program, De Afspraak. Among the top 30 most regular guests, not a single one was a person of color.

Even more seldomly is a Muslim woman asked to be a part of the conversation. She is an object, a fixture in a culture war waged on behalf of a part of the white population, who feel as though their country is being taken away from them by people of color.

Belgium likes to portray racism as something evil and foreign, not something that poisons us too.

The unadulterated glee with which the Constitutional Court’s ruling has been welcomed by far-right politicians — and those public figures who champion secularism above all else — is quite revealing.

The far-right N-VA’s Theo Francken called the decision “excellent news,” while Flemish liberal MP Jean-Jacques De Gucht said the ruling now allows the Flemish government to introduce legislation that formalizes a ban that is de facto already in place. Wouter Duyck, a psychology professor at the University of Ghent, also welcomed the ban, describing the freedom of Muslim women to choose their garments as the “liberty to oppress.”

This obsession with the headscarf is indicative of something much deeper. It is Belgium’s equivalent of the U.S.’s border wall, or Brexit in the U.K.: a symbolic effort to reassure the “angry white voter” that they are still in charge and that the government will keep the “intruders” out.

That symbolism has very real consequences for the Muslim women in Belgium whom it targets, and who face one of the highest rates of unemployment among Muslim women in Europe as a result of prohibitions of where they can wear headscarves.

Belgium likes to portray racism as something evil and foreign, not something that poisons us too. As a Muslim who suffers daily from the effects of pervasive Islamophobia, I’ve watched in utter disbelief as Belgian politicians jumped on the bandwagon of performing solidarity for people protesting in anti-racism marches sparked by the death of George Floyd, both in the United States and in Europe.

For Muslims in Belgium, it’s been hard to breathe for a long time. The structural racism we experience on a daily basis is difficult to bear, even while those in power deny it exists at all.

Muslims in this country are being deprived of the oxygen of freedom. It’s high time Belgium acknowledges its Islamophobia.



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