Belgium in Tatters: Call the UN, quick!

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.

  1. #1 by Jeffrey on Wednesday, 19 September 2007 - 8:55 am

    Farish has given an ideological slant to interpretation of events in Belgium. He says “Belgium’s colonial policies abroad have always been predicated on the logic of divide and rule”. He blames this policy of divide-and-rule racialised Rwandan politics “that finally boiled over and led to the inter-racial civil war and genocide the world has witnessed live on TV anyway” (a reference to the Tutsis/Hutu conflict). And then he blames the current political impasse in Belgium – where owing to the differences between the 52% Dutch-speaking Flemings in the north and 32% French speaking Walloons of the south, Yves Leterme, head of the Dutch-speaking Flemish Christian Democrat party with 60.4% of votes couldn’t secure consensus, after 3 months standoff, to be prime minister and form the government – to the Belgian’s racialised/imperial “mindset that sees human beings not as members of one human family but rather as sub-sets to be divided and antagonized”.

    According to Farish, this same mindset that in the heydays had been exported to Belgian colonies in Asia and Africa and kept unruly natives at bay, has now “come home to roost”, repeating its communally sectarian and divisive logic at the heart of Brussels.

    Come on, this has nothing to do with imperial policies of divide and rule and Belgian mindset in particular. That’s an ideological interpretation. Lets admit to a realistic one.

    What happens in Belgium merely underscores the point that beyond the veneer of sophistication and civilization, it is innate human nature universally to be racist, whether, historically, the peoples had been a colonial/imperial power or a colonized people or neither of both (though it is admitted that colonial policies bringing different peoples to the same place, and implementing divide and rule for maintenance of colonial power had made such a place no more homogeneous (culturally, linguistically, racially or in terms of religion) and therefore had exacerbated and accentuated greater opportunities for this innate universal human tendency to be suspicious or antagonistic of others of different race, language, culture and religion to express itself in blatant ugly form.

    In a word it is human tribalism that is so deeply rooted that even education and relative prosperity of a community like Belgians does not transcend it – albeit, offering little consolation to us in Malaysia noting that.

    For Belgium is not comparable in same stature with the underdeveloped countries of Africa or developing countries of Asia including Malaysia and the racial divisions in these countries.

    Belgium is comparatively a rich democratic European country noted for her contributions to the development of science and technology as well as arts (painting and architecture) and besides all these have also given us one of the best chocolates (Neuhaus, and Godiva) in the world!

    And yet the slightly bigger majority of North cannot see eye to eye and unite with those of the South because although all are whites, they speak different language and have different culture and religion.

    In terms of a realistic interpretation, what are they really fighting for ? Ultimately it is for political power for access to Money.

    Differences in race, religion or language are universally used as tools to unite the stronger and more cohesive group against others in order that the national cake in terms of goodies represented or purchasable by moneys can be appropriated more for the benefit of the stronger group with less sharing with the other marginalised group.

    Bottomline, it always boils down to having something to do with money as medium of exchange for all that humans desire. Everyone and every group wants to take more and share less with others.

    They need a a justification to differentiate and exclude others.

    Race is convenient excuse (as what is happening in ex colonies) but where skin colour is the same (as in Belgium now, in war torn Ireland and other places) then differences in religion, language and culture will be just as good another excuse.

    What is Farish talking about this mindset that sees human beings as members of one human family ? We’re still not there after several thousand years of human history and evolution.

    What has evolved – and the point where we have arrived is merely sophisticated hypocrisy and the capacity to preach, to even back up that preaching by having laws against outward racial and religious or cultural discrimination though the insidious sentiments of race and religion still flutter quietly within the human heart, well camouflaged though outwardly and for political correctness we pretend otherwise to show that we’re civilised. :)

  2. #2 by Jeffrey on Wednesday, 19 September 2007 - 9:09 am

    At least in Malaysia, we claim higher moral ground of pretending less and openly institutionalise and legalise racial and religious differentiation. We call a spade a spade. We admit openly by our system that we’re not that far evolved as aspired. Malaysia boleh, down on hypocrisy!

  3. #3 by Jeffrey on Wednesday, 19 September 2007 - 9:30 am

    Now, one blemish on our record of “transparency” and failure to call a spade a spade is our denial that we’re corrupt. We come out with excuses, notwithstanding the Auditor’s General Report. We give soft loan of RM4.6 billion for Port Klang Free Zone (PKFZ) bailout as if no corruption is implicated but merely bad commercial decision. And ever so occasionally when we did admit there was corruption as in RM2.5 billion Bumiputra Malaysia Finance (BMF) scandal more than two decades ago, then premier TDM said it was a crime with no criminals – what an oxymoron! If we want to shed hypocrisy and claim honesty, take a leaf from the Americans – redefine corruption, legalise or put a cap on some parts of it and call it by other names (lobbying for interest groups) and seriously prosecute the balance of it, crossing the limit. Corruption like prostitution is a social evil or problem that cannot be eradicated or even ameliorated by just declaring war against it (with no real fight or will to fight involved). What cannot be avoided, no matter how pernicious, has to be tolerated, in the sense regulated (rather than denied that it is even there) so that the excess does not proceed to absurd levels by lackadasical or selective enforcement.

  4. #4 by k1980 on Wednesday, 19 September 2007 - 10:11 am

    The UN should be called in to Malaysia, NOT Belgium! Belgium today might be divided along racial and communal lines, but there is no governmental policy to discriminate one particular ethnic group over others. There is no NEP, racial discrimination, mass corruption, cronyism and the like which is entrenched in Malaysian society.

    The Americans have tried and are still trying to divert attention from their occupation of Iraq to the human rights issue in Darfur, Myanmar, Zimbabwei ect. To them, the murders of hundreds of Iraqi civilians every day is peanuts compared to the breaking up of demonstrations in Myanmar.

    So please don’t divert attention of the ills afflicting this country by highlighting a minor hiccup in a truly democratic European country. I bet most Malaysians would gladly exchange our apartheid-minded political leadership with those from Belgium.

  5. #5 by AntiRacialDiscrimination on Wednesday, 19 September 2007 - 12:38 pm

    [k1980 Says:
    September 19th, 2007 at 10: 11.06

    The UN should be called in to Malaysia, NOT Belgium!….]

    I totally agree that the UN should step in to end the worsening racial discrimination in Malaysia.

    Can any NGO initiates this move?

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