In the 15 years that followed the Napoleonic Wars, a messy series of events -- international conferences, great-power land swaps, treaties, riots, military skirmishes, and, finally, a brief revolution -- resulted in a redrawing of borders in the Low Countries and the establishment of a new country called Belgium. Even in the best of times, it was hardly a country, fatally divided into a French-speaking south and a Flemish-speaking north, whose residents had little sense of shared identity. If, when the European Union came along, the Belgians embraced the idea so ardently -- and welcomed the transformation of their own capital into the capital of the EU -- it was largely because they had far less of a sense of nationhood than their Western European neighbors, and felt, or hoped, that the EU would artificially supply something ineffable that their own history and culture had failed to give them.
Even now, when the citizens of many Western European countries have been brought up to be ashamed of their national flags, some of these Europeans, at least, still exhibit intermittent signs of national pride: witness the crowds across the UK who, every year, sing "God Save the Queen", "Jerusalem", and "Land of Hope and Glory" during the broadcast of the Last Night of the Proms, or the spectacle of the French Parliament breaking spontaneously into "La Marseillaise" after the Charlie Hebdo massacre. Such displays are few and far between in Belgium. It seems appropriate that, while the official proportions of the Belgian flag are 13:15, most of the flags flown over government buildings are 2:3. In other words, they do not even bother getting the proportions of their own flag right.
It has often been pointed out that if Muslims in the West are more passionately devoted to their own religion, culture, and values than Western infidels are to the principles that undergird their own civilization, then that civilization is doomed to fail. In the face of the Islamic threat, of course, there is reason to be worried about pretty much every nation in Western Europe; but given the strange hollowness of Belgian identity, Belgium is a place of special concern. It is not only the location of the headquarters of the EU; it is, to quote the headline of a March 23, 2016, article by Soeren Kern for Gatestone Institute, "Why Belgium is Ground Zero for European Jihadis." As it happens, Kern's article appeared the day after members of ISIS in Brussels committed three suicide bombings, killing 32 people (not counting three terrorists) and injuring more than 300.
Four months before that, 137 lives were lost in terrorist attacks on the Bataclan Theater and other targets in Paris. The perpetrators were soon traced back to Molenbeek, a majority-Muslim neighborhood in Brussels.
"There is almost always a link with Molenbeek," commented Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel. Stefan Frank noted that Molenbeek "is considered Europe's 'terrorist factory.'" And French journalist Éric Zemmour facetiously suggested that France should forget about bombing Raqqa and should instead bomb Molenbeek.
Riot police guard a road in the Molenbeek district of Brussels, after raids in which several people, including Salah Abdeslam, one of the perpetrators of the November 2015 Paris attacks, were arrested on March 18, 2016. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)
Even the New York Times, of all places, ran an exposé about the ineffectiveness of Belgium's anti-terror efforts, pointing up the chronic laxity, buck-passing, and turf confusions that characterize every level of its government.
Of course, terrorism is only the most sensational aspect of the Islamic influx into Belgium. In December, Belgian author Drieu Godefridi wrote of Brussels as a city "rapidly descending into chaos and anarchy." November alone saw "three separate outbreaks of rioting and looting on a major scale," exposing the fact that "lawlessness... is the new normal in Brussels." Soldiers patrol the streets, but dare not act: "should a soldier actually hurt a looter, he would probably be publicly chastised, pilloried by the media, put on trial and dishonorably discharged." When, during a TV debate, one of the nation's few straight-talking politicians tried to address the obvious connection between this rampant disorder and immigration, "the moderator literally yelled at him that 'Migration is not the subject.... MIGRATION IS NOT THE SUBJECT, STOP!'" and then handed the floor over to a "slam poet" in an Islamic veil who attributed the city's problems to its failure to welcome people like herself with open arms. "The audience was then instructed to applaud her."
Given all this, it should not be surprising that one of the more prominent voices in Belgium today is that of a foundation, established in 2014, that goes by the name Ceci n'est pas une crise (CNPC, "This is not a crisis" -- a deliberate reference to the famous painting Ceci n'est pas un pipe by Belgium's most famous artist, René Magritte.) Is Belgium in trouble? Is Brussels a hellhole? Is Molenbeek the ninth circle of hell? Au contraire. As CNPC blithely puts it, "We are facing a transition to a new social model rather than a temporary phase of dysfunction." Yes, recent societal changes "have destroyed many of the structures that shaped our daily lives and formed the foundation of our identities, leading to a loss of bearings and a sense of anxiety." But while the "simplistic rhetoric" of "populists" represents this transition as involving "confrontation" between "us" and the "other," thereby turning us into nationalists and xenophobes and them into an "enemy," what we should be doing is letting go of the last vestiges our old society, with traditional "social roles" and "ways of thinking" and "accepted standards," and learning to cultivate "open identities" and to "perceive diversity as an enrichment that contributes to the improvement of our societies."
One CNPC founder, Le Soir cartoonist and TV commentator Pierre Kroll, put it this way:
"We are living in a time when a constant feeling of crisis, upheaval and deep-seated change looms large, giving rise to a widespread tendency to mourn the past and fantasize about a 'comforting' return to rigid values, closed borders and simplistic rhetoric. Those who know that this 'crisis' is not really a crisis, that the world will never revert to what it was before (and thankfully so!), must make these people understand that we need more Europe and not less, that instead of avoiding each other we must learn to live together, that we have to be optimistic and determined."
Well, it is always easy to believe that the crisis is not really a crisis when you are a cultural-elite figure who lives in a safe upscale neighborhood and whose path never crosses those of women forced into burkas, girls subjected to FGM and cousin marriages, or "youths" who beat up Jews, bash gays, and harass their teachers and classmates. How easy it is for privileged folk to preach diversity to those who live with such mayhem every day!
Who is behind CNPC? Its president, Jean-Pascal Labille, is a former government minister and professor. Hilariously, despite all the rhetoric about diversity and even "superdiversity" (a trendy term of which the CNPC is exceedingly fond), Labille and the twenty other members of CNPC's executive committee are all ethnic Europeans. Their backgrounds are in sociology, philosophy, economics, zoology, architecture, business, broadcasting, theater, and politics. A couple of them are members of the European Parliament. One of them is the brains behind Belgium's horrific euthanasia law -- the world's most "liberal."
Last year, CNPC conducted an exhaustive survey on Islam, immigration, and related topics; among the representative findings included in its 141-page report was that 63% of ethnic Belgians consider Islam a menace to their national identity, while only 12% see it as a "cultural enrichment." CNPC's conclusion: Belgians are increasingly fearful, xenophobic, hostile to the "other," and pathologically awash in "anti-Muslim paranoia."
CNPC does not just carry out studies. It also publishes a magazine which goes by the simple name Revue. One early article served up a sanguine message: stopping immigration is not "realistic." Closed borders "undermine...the dream of universal and inalienable human rights." Believing in nationalism is a "dangerous fiction." The nation-state? An "anachronism." Revue registered shock at the Brexit vote. After the election of Donald Trump, whose "eyes look to the past," Revue found comfort only in the notion that his presidency compels Europe to "take its destiny into its own hands." In the latest issue, Fatima Zibouh, a Moroccan-Belgian politician scientist, actually celebrates Molenbeek, arguing that those who focus on its role as a terrorist factory "misunderstand" its "many facets," especially its cultural life, which is "characterized as much by its effervescence as by its diversity." Cultural events, she further notes, are not just cultural events -- they are "subversive... political tools" that can help advance the desired societal transition.
Revue has also featured countless articles about "anti-immigrant" and "anti-Islam" parties in Europe. The one subject it appears never to have seriously addressed is Islam itself. The cover of one 2016 issue of the magazine features a four-panel comic strip that is worth pondering. It features two girls. In the first panel, Girl A says "I'm not racist," then adds "But," whereupon Girl B covers Girl A's mouth and says: "Shh." In the last panel, still covering Girl A's mouth -- quite forcibly, it appears -- Girl B says: "Nothing good comes after that." Apparently, Girl A was about to point out something she had observed about her society, even though she knew that some people, fairly or not, would consider her racist for mentioning it. Whatever that something was, CNPC agrees with Girl B: best to stay silent. Shut up. Zip it. It is a pathetic and cowardly way of responding to reality, but it is, alas, a widespread behavior pattern in Western Europe today -- and, at least in certain milieux in poor little Belgium, it has been all but raised to a sacrament.
Bruce Bawer is the author of the new novel The Alhambra (Swamp Fox Editions). His book While Europe Slept (2006) was a New York Times bestseller and National Book Critics Circle Award finalist.