The Many Faces Of Belgian Fascism
BRUSSELS -- Belgium is the birthplace of René Magritte. So perhaps it's not surprising that, in politics, even the fascism here is surreal.
Take Belgian Socialists, Flemish or Walloon. The hallmark of nearly every European socialist party has long been hostility to religion. In recent years, Belgium's ruling Socialist-Liberal coalition has antagonized Catholics by legalizing gay marriage and euthanasia, banning crucifixes from government buildings and abolishing the traditional Te Deum service previously held by the government to commemorate the inauguration of Leopold I, first king of the Belgians.
But then the Socialists began taking note of Belgium's Muslim community, some 500,000 strong. In Brussels, notes Joël Rubinfeld of the Atlantis Institute think tank, half of the Socialist Party's 26-member slate in the city's 75-seat parliament is Muslim. In the commune of Molenbeek, longstanding Socialist mayor Philippe Moureaux has made Halal meals standard in all schools; police officers are also barred from eating or drinking on the streets during Ramadan. The Socialist Party was also, improbably, the leading opponent of a bill that would have criminalized the denial of the Armenian genocide. This, too, is a product of burgeoning Muslim-Socialist alliance, as is the party's routine denunciations of Israel.
Now take the Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest), the secessionist Flemish Party previously known as the Vlaams Blok until a court ruled it illegal in 2004. The Blok has longstanding links to Nazi collaborators. One of the party's founding members is Karel Dillen, who in 1951 translated into Flemish a French tract denying the Holocaust (possibly the only French text for which a Vlams Blok party member has ever shown sympathy.) For many years, the party's chief selling point was its call to forcibly deport immigrants who failed to assimilate. It also made plain its sympathies with other far-right wing European parties, such as Jean-Marie Le Pen's National Front in France.
But that's changing. Younger party leaders, realizing their anti-Semitic taint was poison, began making pro-Israel overtures. And the party's tough-on-crime, hostile-to-Muslims stance began to attract a considerable share of the Jewish vote, particularly among Orthodox Antwerp Jews who felt increasingly vulnerable in the face of the city's hostile Muslim community.
Today, Vlaams Belang is the largest single party in the country.
Then there are the government's actual policies. In April, Belgians were shocked by the murder of a teenager named Joe Van Holsbeeck, who was stabbed to death in Brussels's central train station by two Gypsy youths, at the height of the afternoon rush hour, in broad view of dozens of onlookers. (Apparently, the killers wanted his MP3 player.)
Amid a pervasive and growing sense of lawlessness -- Belgium's per capita murder rate, at 9.1 per 100,000 is nearly twice that of the U.S. -- the murder became the occasion of much national soul-searching. When Jean-Marie Dedecker, a senator from the ruling Liberal Party, opined in an op-ed that "policemen look the other way in order to avoid being accused of racism," he was rebuked by Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt for "inciting hostilities."
There is also the amazing case of journalist Paul Belien, who edits the Brussels Journal, a pro-American, Euroskeptic, anti-Islamist blog. In February, the blog was one of the few news sources to republish the notorious Danish cartoons of the prophet Mohammad, thereby attracting some two million unique visits. It also attracted extraordinary scrutiny from the Flemish newsweekly Knack. Noting that Mr. Belien's blog had been cited by Middle East scholar Daniel Pipes, Knack described the link as "no coincidence," but rather a "deliberate provocation by the neocons," the ultimate aim of which was to make Americans and Europeans believe "that all Muslims are violent and dangerous, after which the clash in Palestine, Iran and Syria can really kick off."
But that was as nothing compared to the reaction Mr. Belien provoked by an article following the Van Holsbeeck murder, in which he described the killers as "predators" and called for Belgium to decriminalize the possession of self-defense weapons (pepper-spray is what he says he had mainly in mind).
Two weeks after the article appeared, Mr. Belien received a letter from the Center for Equal Opportunities and Opposition to Racism, a government-mandated body whose mission is to "assist victims of discrimination" and "sensitize the general public on anti-discrimination." (Belgium has one of the strongest anti-discrimination regimes anywhere.) Mr. Belien's article, according to the CEOOR, constituted an "incitement to violence"; he was ordered to remove it from his blog or face state prosecution. He complied. In the meantime, he says he received emails with pictures of burned corpses and messages reading, "This is what is going to happen to you."
Mr. Belien has since been questioned by the police for homeschooling his five children, four of whom have moved on to university or beyond. Part of Mr. Belien's problem, surely, is that his wife is a member in parliament for the Vlaams Belang. But whatever her politics, Mr. Belien is not a member of the party, and nothing on the Brussels Journal suggests that it is a party vehicle. His chief crime, rather, seems to be that he has laid bare, to an English-speaking audience, the lesser-known charms of the Belgian state.
Meanwhile, the real fascists in Belgium are gaining strength, largely protected from scrutiny by the country's "anti-racism" legislation. At Brussels's Imam Reza mosque, a preacher commemorated the 17th anniversary of the Ayatollah Khomeini's death: "The enemies cannot extinguish the light of the Islamic Revolution." And in Molenbeek, the newspaper Het Volk published a study of the local Muslim population: The editor, Gunther Vanpraet, described the commune as "a breeding ground for thousands of Jihad candidates."