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09 May 2012

Belgium's integration problem

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By Stratis G. Camatsos

New Europe reported of a recent incident that occurred on the streets of Brussels which raised questions as to the true integration of the Muslim population in an already divded country.
Crime in EU's capital has been growing as well as minority population. 

Integration of Muslims into Belgium culture has been extremely difficult.  With a rapidly growing population, the capital of Belgium - and of the EU - is already one of the most multicultural in Europe. Muslims are already a majority in some neighborhoods.

After reaching an historic high of 1.1 million residents in early 2010, the Brussels Region will, according to the planning bureau, gain another 250,000 people in the next 20 years. According to the Brussels Institute of Statistics and Analysis, by 2018 it might have 1.2m.

Although Brussels still has one of the lowest homicide rates among European cities, it is of little consolation to a country shaken by shootings, riots and prison breaks. Dirk Jacobs, a sociology professor at Brussels Free University said: "It is clear that the city — and the country at large — is confronted with unprecedented social problems, and policymakers seem to be spending their energy on other topics."  It is also a matter of diplomatic concern because Brussels serves not only as the capital of the nation but as the home of most of the European Union's institutions. In March 2010, the president of the European Parliament demanded that Belgium provide special security around the E.U. institutions after a series of mugging incidents involving MPs.

Jacobs puts the blame of the degradation of security on the tensions between Belgium's French- and Dutch-speaking communities, which have fattened budgets for their respective regions while starving federal institutions. This has left police under-resourced, prisons obsolete and courthouses lacking security, with a rudimentary computerisation of the entire legal system. He said: "Belgium has a 19th century criminal-justice system."

In Europe, and especially in Belgium, most Muslims are part of the underclass. As immigrants, most have come from underdeveloped nations, many as economic and political refugees. As such, they have often lacked the skills necessary for success in the labour market. That reality, combined with discrimination by the native population, has led to sub-average economic conditions for Europe’s Muslims.

The social and civil status of religion is another key factor in the integration process of Muslims in Belgium. European secularism has traditionally meant that political power interacts in a neutral manner with religious institutions.

Three scenarios for the future of Muslims in Belgium are possible: acceptance, avoidance, or resistance. Professor Jocelyne Cesari of Harvard University says that these three possible Muslim attitudes subtend the multiplicity of discourses and actions in the name of Islam, whether they are oriented towards Muslims or non-Muslims.

Cesari explains that acceptance means that the dominant Western discourse is accepted by Muslims, and is accompanied by cultural amnesia and a definite will to assimilate. This trend is marginal among immigrant Muslims.

Lastly, avoidance refers to behaviours or discourses that attempt to separate Muslim communities from the non-Muslim environment by developing, for example, a sectarian usage of Islamic religious beliefs. Resistance means refusing the status given to Islam within dominant discourses and politics.

For the short term, Belgium must answer the call to protect its citizens, the EU's workers who live here, and its reputation by modernising its police force and judicial system, while at the same time, increasing the budget for both of these.  However, in the long term, it has to increase its efforts in effectively integrating the Muslims, especially the young ones, into its culture and society, specifically, and the western society in general.  It has to do this by which Muslims acknowledge a personal commitment to their faith while simultaneously accepting European societies as their own. The key is to engage the emergent Muslim middle classes which will be able to convey this position of connection between Islam and the West. Thus, they could, in turn, provide role models for some more disenfranchised segments of Muslim youth tempted by separatist voices.

Belgium has a long road ahead of it, trying to find its identity as it is torn between history, language and culturaly resentment.  However, now more than ever, it has to find a way out of this murkiness to embrace its Muslim minority to prevent any further problems it may find along its path of societal change of the tacit norms of the dominant culture.

(Courtesy: NewEuropeOnline)

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