On vacation in New York a couple of years ago I was asked to describe my adopted home country:
“Belgium is a Catholic country with a gay Prime Minister where it is possible to buy hard liquor in the middle of the night but only from a Muslim”. I said.
And though Elio Di Rupo, who spoke better Italian than Flemish it’s said, is no longer our PM the joke still plays well here.
Especially among Belgians. A people aware that their country is viewed as something of an absurdity and generally rather proud of it.
But beyond its humour is a truth worth pondering, and yes worth cherishing this week. In catholicism, homosexuality, alcohol and islam, you see, it unites and equates four things that are either of fundamental importance in your life or else have no relevance to it whatsoever.
It just depends on the thoughts in your head and the feelings in your heart.
In practice, and it must be said that there is a bit of a marked distinction between practice and law here, you are completely free to choose between them or among them as you wish.
You are perfectly free to worship whoever you want, wherever you want, whenever you want (for the record 47% of the Belgian population identify as Catholic, 5% as Muslim and 43% as non believers).
You can hold hands whenever you want. You can kiss wherever you want. And you can marry whoever you want just so long as you are are both eighteen years old.
You can drink wine in a fish shop at eight o’clock in the morning if that’s your thing. And you’re free to build your house in whatever style you like and then to paint it in whatever colour you chose.
About the only thing you’re compelled to do in fact is vote. And to do so both regularly and frequently
Belgium has six governments and Brussels is the capital of three of them. It is the seat of The European Parliament, well one of them anyway, The European Commission and The European Council.
It has nineteen mayors and, at the risk of repetition, six, yes six, police departments serving a population of 1.2 million.
Because you’re also compelled to obey the law. Whoever you are.
So let’s turn off the eye denting idents of our rolling tv news for a moment. Log off our sociopathic social media. And mute the machismo of our geopolitics and its geopoliticians.
And focus instead for now on the altogether simpler subject of criminals and criminality.
We do not know what thoughts were in the heads of Brahim and Khalid el Bakraoui when they detonated their bombs at Zaventem and Malbeek on Tuesday morning. Or what feelings were in their hearts when they stopped going. We never will.
But we do know that both were gangsters. Violent criminals with a string of convictions for armed robbery and firearms offences.
And we know too that it is among such that DAESH finds its most wiling recruits and those most happy to shelter them in communities often wary of the law.
They are not soldiers and this is not a war. To accept that narrative is to be as willing fools as they.
They represent radical Islam no more than the Cosa Nostra represent radical Catholicism or the Yardies radical Rastafarianism.
In the words of a neighbour of their associate Salah Abdeslam ” if you’re a gangster, IS is just the biggest gang in town.” If you’re a hammer, in other words, everything is, pardon the unfortunate expression, a nail.
And nor is Belgium, whilst we’re on the subject, a failed state, nor anything close to one.
It is a secular democracy whose constitution enshrines freedom of religion and the rule of law.
And ‘bonne continuation’ to that and all it demands of us today.