In a town in northern Belgium, an unofficial multicultural project is happening. Antwerp, with a population of 500,000, is a little Jerusalem. Around Centraal Station and the Stadspark live the largest population of Hasidic Jews in Europe. There is also a sizeable Muslim community, mostly hailing from Morocco and Turkey. A black population, predominantly from Belgium’s former colonial enterprises in the Congo and Rwanda, lives there too.
Jewish men replete with tall black hats and tsfillin walk to the synagogue past Muslims on their way to morning prayers at the local mosque. The hamam is just around the corner from the mikvah, and Kleinblatt, the quintessential Jewish bakery (specialty cheesecake), is just a few doors down from the (substantially) cheaper Moroccan bakkerij Zahnoun.
In the Stadspark on Saturday morning, Jewish families with three or more children walk to shule next to hipsters who roll cigarettesafter a late night out at one of Antwerp’s renowned parties while their dogs run off lead. Twice a year, Antwerp’s many designers have sales all over the town to sell off former seasons collections at ‘affordable prices’ of no less than €150. Bargain hunters, many from France, use purpose-designed maps to treasure hunt the location of the sales held around the town in fabulous urban warehouses or upstairs in lofts, nearly always down laneways, and other undeniably cool sites.
It all seems quite idyllic: people of varying nationalities, religions and cultures coexisting peacefully. It could be a blueprint for the perfect multicultural society. However, there’s something beneath the surface that is troubling to the western notion of modern liberalism. While Antwerp houses many different types of people, they all go about their business with minimal interaction. While there is marginal outward animosity, there is no real friendship or camaraderie either. It is not the gleaming, multicultural utopia liberals would like to believe is possible in the modern, western world.
Many examples of at best, disinterest or at worst, the disdain of some members of the population towards others can be observed. An artist falls of her bike only to have an orthodox Jew step around her rather than offer a helping hand. While the trend towards violent crime in Belgium is generally low, those of ‘non-European’ decent often have less access to education and employment, which in turn leads to an overrepresentation of those communities in crime statistics, under a predominantly white police force. Socio-economic disparity is rife.
In Australia, we don’t have to look too hard to find out own brand of racism or injustice. From the long running ill-treatment and disrespect of Australia’s indigenous inhabitants, to the days of the White Australia policy or the stance of successive governments on ‘illegal’ boat arrivals, Australia, has proven itself a country with boundless plains to share – but only, it seems, if you speak the right language, practice a suitable religion or have the correct skin colour. In a globalised era with unprecedented movement of people and access to information, Australia, as well as many other countries in Europe and across the western world, may have reached a pivotal crossroads in terms of their multicultural identity. The edict that all men should be treated equally without regard for their colour or creed predates Martin Luther King by thousands of years, yet policy and practice across the world deny that we have moved very far forward.
I am concerned that the version of multiculturalism playing out in Antwerp is the best that we can hope for – cultures living side by side, with socially appropriate levels of tolerance, rather than any genuine acceptance or understanding of difference. As right wing parties like UKIP in England, Vlaams Belang in Belgium and Front National in France gain ever greater popularity based specifically on their insular and anti-immigration policies, one could be forgiven for thinking that perhaps the default human state is to congregate with ones own tribe and to fear ‘the other’. This reality is a bitter pill for the idealistic liberal to swallow, accustomed as they are to envisaging a world where all cultures and religions can learn from, respect and enjoy each other’s differences.
However, there are faint glimmers of hope for the haphazard multicultural project in Antwerp. An eight-year-old Jewish girl has a best friend called Fatima who lives in the same street. While they don’t go to the same school, they play together nearly every day. The Imam of Moskee el-Nour hosted inter-faith dialogues and discussions during the most recent war in Gaza in July 2014, and fashion hipsters chat to black sales assistants as they shop for colourful African fabrics which will be transformed into their latest creations.
Our world is changing. Perhaps too fast for some, but it will not slow down despite them. In Antwerp, as elsewhere, different people live next door to each other and must do their best to get along, lest their own homes be turned into battlegrounds. While tolerance is the lowest form of multiculturalism we may hope for, there is no reason not to strive for something greater.
Image credit: ‘A Day in Antwerp’ by Fouquier ॐ