Éloge de la Naïveté

Photo by Miguel Discart on Flickr : https://www.flickr.com/people/miguel_discart_vrac/ (CC BY-SA 2.0)
People gathering, chalk drawings and flowers for the victims. The largest message says (translated from French), “Brussels is beautiful”, with further inscriptions of “Stop violence”, “Stop war”, “Unity”, and “Humanity”. Photo by Miguel Discart on Flickr : https://www.flickr.com/people/miguel_discart_vrac/ (CC BY-SA 2.0)

In the week since the attacks on Brussels Zaventem airport and the Maelbeek subway station, there is an atmosphere of deep mourning in Belgium, where I am spending the year as a Fulbright scholar. While I happened to be out of the country on the day of the attacks, I returned shortly thereafter to memorials to the victims marking the urban landscape. Moments of silence have become de rigueur additions to formal gatherings, and public declarations and acts of compassion and solidarity abound, most of them heartfelt and touching. In the university town of Leuven, where I live, many students—even those who knew none of the victims—broke down in grief and fear, their world evidently shaken to the core. They received comfort from friends and colleagues who were themselves feeling conflicting emotions. As in Paris this past November, or in many other places before or since that have experienced equally terrible events, the country seemed to come together in sorrow and succor, as collectively suffering humans beyond any divides of identity or ideology.

In the week since the attacks on Brussels Zaventem airport and the Maelbeek subway station, there is an atmosphere of deep mourning in Belgium, where I am spending the year as a Fulbright scholar. While I happened to be out of the country on the day of the attacks, I returned shortly thereafter to memorials to the victims marking the urban landscape. Moments of silence have become de rigueur additions to formal gatherings, and public declarations and acts of compassion and solidarity abound, most of them heartfelt and touching. In the university town of Leuven, where I live, many students—even those who knew none of the victims—broke down in grief and fear, their world evidently shaken to the core. They received comfort from friends and colleagues who were themselves feeling conflicting emotions. As in Paris this past November, or in many other places before or since that have experienced equally terrible events, the country seemed to come together in sorrow and succor, as collectively suffering humans beyond any divides of identity or ideology.

But behind such harmony a minor key of rancor could already be heard. If who the attackers were was little in doubt, how they managed to perpetrate such violence in spite of a mobilized security apparatus and national state of emergency raised significant questions both inside and outside the country. Accusations of police or ministerial incompetence, or failures of coordinating among federal, provincial and municipal security forces, pointed toward something broken or failed within the Belgian “state,” seemingly forever culturally and structurally split between Flanders and Wallonia with Brussels in the unhappy and often unloved middle.

But an even deeper line of critique accused Belgian society more generally of complacency and naïveté. Israeli Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz and French Transportation Minister Michel Sapin said as much mere hours after the blasts, even as victims were still being identified, hinting that something in Belgians’ lifestyle (“eat chocolate and enjoy life”) or their blasé approach to “integration” created the conditions of possibility for the attacks. While these comments were resented by Belgians and quickly disavowed by Israeli and French officials, even the distancing took the form of generalizing Belgian society’s failings to Europe as a whole. French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, speaking the day after the attacks on Europe 1 radio, said that France too had “closed its eyes,” and the president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker,similarly defended Belgium by citing the Biblical adage, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”

What was the nature of this sin? To what had Europeans closed their eyes?

For Valls it was explicitly “the rise of extremist salafi ideas in neighborhoods where a mix of drug trafficking and radical Islam led astray…some of the youth.” These transgressions were by no means new. The accusation of Belgian complacency toward Molenbeek as a breeding ground for terrorists was raised in the immediate wake of the November 13 attacks in Paris, and indeed since the early 1980s the district had been portrayed within Belgium as a dystopian space of Islamic threat, as anthropologist Nadia Fadil has traced. Similar journalistic portrayals of the French banlieues as spaces of jihad go back at least as far, indeed arguably back to the 1954-1961 French-Algerian war, and have been periodically reanimated after moments of violence, such as the 1995 subway bombings attributed to the Algerian Armed Islamic Group, which bear eerie resemblance to the recent Brussels attacks in terms of targets, means and likely repercussions. Juncker himself, in his plea against Belgian exceptionalism, cited “terrorism in Britain and Germany in the 1970s and 1980s.”

Minimally, then, according to these long-standing anxieties, the Belgian state, like other European governments, had allowed (or even facilitated) so-called radical, extremist salafi or other jihadi groups to establish networks within “immigrant” neighborhoods under the guise of providing religious or social services, sometimes at the behest of Saudi Arabia or other states, sometimes ignoring their warnings. At their extreme, such anxieties build into conspiracy theories about a byzantine plan to transform Europe into “Eurabia,” with Christian or secular societies forced to submit to Islamic authority. Such fantasies certainly have a market amid heightened Islamophobic public sentiment, but remain relatively marginal, mostly spouted by media pundits with minimal traction in official or scholarly circles.

Yet a growing consensus does seem to be emerging across Europe about a more widespread and apparently pernicious form of naïveté: namely, that of past multicultural tolerance whose inherent failures have now come home to roost in terrorist violence, as well as sectarianism, US-style ghettos, criminality and even racism itself. European state leaders seem to be trying to outdo one another in declaring multiculturalism a dead letter. Neighborhoods like Molenbeek, once celebrated for their cultural diversity, now come off as closed spaces of otherness ruled by an ethno-religious code of silence, which protects criminals-turned-terrorists. The new mot d’ordre is national identity and cohesion, with European Muslims called upon to publicly declare their allegiance; apologize for violence; denounce anti-Semitism, sexism and homophobia; and even distance themselves from the obligations and prohibitions that Islam entails. Those who fail to adequately perform such mandatory politesse quickly become objects of suspicion and harassment, with personal and professional consequences.

Again, there is nothing particularly new about such a predicament. Indeed, Abdelmalek Sayad, writing about the Algerian-French experience, spoke eloquently of such “suffering” back in the 1980s. But the younger generation of Muslim Europeans is increasingly explicit in demanding their social, political and religious rights as Muslims and European citizens. They refuse to accommodate themselves to a set of pre-existing norms, but rather call for accommodation and even transformation of the societies of which they are fundamentally a part. For these actors, the problem with multiculturalism is that it maintained the (white, Christian-secular) state as that which tolerated, managed and set the terms for public expression of cultural and religious differences—such as what dress might be worn in school or where one might pray. Muslim Europeans had to accede to these terms or be socially or even physically excluded. Young activists are now seeking an active role in setting new terms, much to the chagrin of observers who see in such claims a violent effort to impose the demands of the few on the lives of the many. From this perspective, the Brussels attacks, like the Charlie Hebdo and November 13 attacks before it, were not understood as a transnational military riposte to the war in the Middle East, but as the outcome of a homegrown predicament, perpetrated by those who had failed to “integrate” into European (multicultural) society and resorted to the only language they knew—Islamic extremism.

Indeed, it arguably was naïve—or, more accurately, hubristic—to think that an officially secular (“neutral”) state like Belgium could simply set from above, and based on past accommodations with the Catholic Church, the terms by which its multi-religious citizens could publicly express themselves without people eventually pushing back. And it was naïve and hubristic to act as if Belgium would not transform in the process.

But if the naïveté and complacency that Belgium, and Europe more broadly, is being currently accused of is the belief (or at least hope) that such dissensus would transpire more or less peacefully, then that is not a naïveté we should be willing to give up on. To do so would be to affirm a supposed incompatibility between Islam and whatever defines Belgium or Europe. It would be to ignore all the ways in which Islam—whether as a long-standing religion on the European continent or as a constitutive outside through which the idea of a (Christian) Europe was formulated—is immanent to and indissociable from Europe. It would be to envision a future along the lines laid out by Samuel Huntington’s self-fulfilling prophecy of a clash of civilizations. If that is what abandoning naïveté entails, then call me naïve.

Here it’s instructive to recall the scenes of collective sorrow and comfort in Belgium today. For scholars like myself—inured by too many similar events quickly exploited by state actors to justify aggressive foreign policies and constraints on civil liberties—such comings together are but evanescent, superficial moments that will quickly give way to a reality of prejudice, distrust and further violence. Even the attacks themselves fail to shock us, insofar as they seem but the inevitable blowback of US and European war-making in the Middle East—wars that were supposedly designed to keep the conflicts abroad, far away from “home,” but which from the beginning seemed sure to increase homeland insecurity. Cynics that we are, we have plenty of sympathy but ultimately little empathy for our students who break down in tears, who crave their parents’ embrace but are afraid to get on a train to see them. Welcome to the real world, we are inclined to say. You have somehow made it through your first 20 years naïvely protected from the effects of political violence, but for millions across the global south such is everyday existence. Your so-called innocence is a privilege you have done nothing to deserve.

But then we perhaps remember that these students are not just rich Flemish kids, but include twenty-somethings from places like Eastern Europe, East Asia and even the Middle East; from the very multi-ethnic neighborhoods of nearby (but cognitively distant) Brussels so derided in the press; from all sorts of socioeconomically under-privileged and racially under-represented backgrounds. Universities strive to be utopias (or maybe better, heterotopias, in Foucault’s terms—not no-places but different kinds of places), settings of collective striving for knowledge and betterment, where diversity of approach and background is precisely a strength, not an impingement on social cohesion. It was these students and their faculty and staff mentors who had come together in mutual care, support and solidarity, strengthening their own bonds and projecting a model of a compassionate society that could possibly come to be. Such a hopeful future requires forgetting what we think we already know from past experience about the world and how it works. It requires setting aside cynicism and taking inspiration from the Blakeian (or perhaps Lennonian) childlike innocence that had imagined, as much out of ignorance as wishful thinking, a peaceful globe where tragedy is not inevitably lurking in departure lounges and subway cars, at bus depots, music venues and malls. It may indeed require rejecting complacency with the world as it currently is, but only by doubling down on naïveté itself. In the end, all transformative politics is a naïve undertaking.

by Paul Silverstein
2015-2016 U.S. Fulbright scholar to Belgium

This article was first published on the Middle East Research and Information Project website (March 30, 2016) and was reposted with the permission of the author)

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