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Belgium in Tatters: Call the UN, quick! Oktober 10, 2007

Posted by ummahonline in Islam Bi La Hudud, Kolum.

By: Farish A. Noor

It seems that the state of Belgium has been without a government for more than a hundred days now; as the Belgians seem unable to decide on their future and settle upon a collective identity that can be shared by all.

Divided between the more prosperous Flemish north and the less well-to-do French-speaking Walloon south, the country seems almost a textbook case of communitarianism run rampant and sectarian divisions tearing apart the nation-state. On both sides of the ethnic-cultural-linguistic fence right-wing ethno-nationalist politicians take to the soapbox to bemoan the ills of the country and to lay the blame at the feet of their neighbours next door.

As an aside, the minorities of Belgium must be relieved that for once the stereotype of the evil nefarious foreigner is not being brought to the fore as the root of all that is wrong in the country. No, here the problem does not seem to be the dreaded Turk, Arab or Asian around the corner, but rather those familiar but different Walloons and Flemish down the road!

Now if Belgium was located elsewhere on the map, we would probably have heard calls for UN intervention by this point. For as we all know by now sectarian divisions anywhere else – be it in Africa, Asia or Latin America often enough warrants some form of international military intervention, ostensibly to save the natives from themselves. But after all, is this not a case of a nation-building programme falling to pieces before our very eyes, with communal sentiments and parochial loyalties to race and culture being fanned in the public domain? Yet perhaps one of the most ironic twists to the story of Belgium today is the fact that the divisive politics we see in the country at the moment was also a rather noxious export that was taken as far as Africa by the Belgium government in the past.

Divisive politics should not be something alien to the Belgians by now, for Belgium’s colonial policies abroad have always been predicated on the logic of divide and rule anyway. The most noteworthy example here is the case of Rwanda and Burundi, of course: Two African nations that were first annexed by Germany and then taken over by Belgium in 1916.

In the decades that followed, it was Belgium that introduced a plural economic system of indirect governance by proxy, where the Tutsis were elevated to the status of compradore elites and used to govern over the Hutu population in the name of the Crown of Belgium. Convinced by their own racist ideology of racial difference and racial superiority (like all the other Western colonial powers then), the Belgians created and perpetuated a violent racialised social hierarchy that placed them at the top, the Tutsis as intermediaries and the Hutus at the bottom of the social strata. Coffee became the main export of the colony, the profits of which were siphoned back to Belgium to build those plush houses you see in the cities of Belgium today.

The net result of this policy of divide-and-rule was the racialisation of Rwandan politics and the growing antagonism that eventually led to years of systematic discrimination and institutionalised racism that finally boiled over and led to the inter-racial civil war and genocide the world has witnessed live on TV. Yet till today the Belgians have said and done little in terms of compensating for the damage they caused there, as they did in other strife-torn colonies such as the Congo.

Is it therefore any surprise if Belgium today is also divided along racial and communal lines, where ethnic, cultural and linguistic differences have come to the fore to dominate the nation’s politics? The mindset that sees human beings not as members of one human family but rather as sub-sets to be divided and antagonised comes from a long history of racialised politics, with its hey-day during the sad days of Empire. Ironically the proverbial chickens have come home to roost and now it would seem that the same divisive logic that was once used to keep the unruly natives at bay has settled in the countries that exported them to Asia and Africa in the first place.

A case of history repeating itself, or the irrepressible past revisiting the present? Whatever may be the case, it would be difficult for us today to utter the shallow prognosis that communal sectarian race politics is a malady of the Third World solely. Imperialism carries with it a terrible human cost, and that cost is often borne by the imperialists themselves.



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