Sunday, 25 March 2018

Belgian integration experiment

The current political tensions in Europe are no longer the usual little tremors structurally part of democratic processes, but signify the important question about the future of the continent. The difficult relationship with Russia, the apparent withdrawel of the USA, Great Britain's exit from the EU, are all part of this pandora's box, but the most troubling is how to deal with the many immigrants - both the millions of second and third generation of (mostly muslem) immigrants and the many newlings, fugitives from war and devastation. As we know, the regular islamist attacks within Europe keep it awake to this ongoing, disruptive problem, fuelling the destructive influence of rightwing extremist parties (supported by Russia). The integration of non-European immigrants, people coming from countries with a very different cultural and political history, is thus one of the most important challenges for a Europe if it wants to preserve its character in the future.

Belgium has, so far, produced the greatest number of young muslem men who went to Syria to fight for IS, an embarrassing proof of an enormous failure of integration: where immigrant groups feel completely excluded from society and locked-up in an existence of poverty, destitution and isolation, without hope on a normal life, the morally underdeveloped of this group are vulnerable to a narrative which seems to answer all the longings which have been so drastically frustrated by experience. No doubt, one has to be very primitive to begin with and carry around a burning, vengeful need to destroy, to believe the archaic nonsense of those diabolical 'warriors for Islam'. But integration in a society where people will feel accepted as anybody else and with similar chances, will raise the treshold to destructive violence considerably.

An interesting experiment in the Belgian town of Mechelen appears to demonstrate the obvious solution. The town has a large immigrant community, mainly consisting of muslem families, and a ruling party: Open vld - Groen, which has provided the mayor, Bart Somers, who has developed a strategy to counter the incredible problem of many towns and cities in Belgium where hundreds (!) of young men have gone to Syria to help IS. This strategy is an example for every community in Europe. There are two lines of action: a) an intense educational program at all schools about civilized behavior, the development of social awareness and skills, and wide-spread sports programs where children learn to deal with each other and handle difference and freedom; and b) a zero tolerance strategy towards disruptive behavior both in public space and at schools across the board, with lots of police officers monitoring streets and markets, and with two police officers related to every school who immediately come-in where pupils misbehave and, when necessary, arrests are made. This policy has been in operation for many years, and while other towns have produced many disaffected youngsters going to Syria, Mechelen had none, and most people appear to be very happy about the improvements in public space. Of course, chances on employment have to fulfil the promises of the program, but it appears that this is working as well. The process does not touch the cultural customs of immigrant families, which - of course - are unrelated to the radicalisation of disaffected youngsters, and prepare young people for living as Europeans, being part of a society type which is universal, based upon enlightenment values, human rights, tolerance and hence: a protected individual freedom. Only in such way can European society be preserved for the future.

If culture as such can freely live under the umbrella of a secular, enlightenment society, would not the typical European culture as it has developed over the ages: its visual arts, architecture and music, disappear? As we know, this character has already disappeared in every cultural field in terms of new creation, and only its museum culture (the museums, the architectural monuments, the musical institutions like orchestras and opera houses) are kept alive through subsidies (mainly) and sponsoring (sporadically). If this heritage is to survive the 21C troubles, and - maybe - provide an impulse for a Renaissance, understanding the richness and meaning of this heritage should be a natural part of such educational programs as being practised in Mechelen, and it should be an important part of the policies of the European Union. The Mechelen way of treating the integration problem is a hopeful sign that it is indeed possible to find a fruitful solution to the problem.

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