In the debate surrounding immigration, integration, religious fanaticism and radicalism, all too often the debate is about the migrants, but not involving migrants. Today, Dr Sid Lukkassen discusses these topics with Manel Mselmi: a young woman of Tunisian origin who is active for Mouvement Réformateur in Belgium. She is currently a PhD candidate in environmental humanities, a talk show host and a blogger. Sid published several books on topics such as geopolitics, humanism, media analysis and the culture wars and, from 2010 – 2018, he was active as a city councillor (VVD)
Manel: I am happy to begin this discussion. An Islamic political party was recently created in Belgium. Hasn’t something similar happened in the Netherlands?
Sid: A few years ago, two MPs split off from the Labour Party (PvdA) and established DENK. The MPs were from a a Turkish background and the party is focused on migrant issues. I would not hesitate to call this identity politics. This party is on the rise, particularly in major cities.
Manel: I noticed that identity politics is also a theme in my municipality. Some years ago, a large share of cultural subsidies were used for a film festival that accentuated a particular migrant community, but the general cultural curriculum was ignored.
Sid: Did you speak out about it, at the time?
Manel: It bothered me because it was so one-sided: things like Western literature were ignored as a result. I could not escape the impression that Labour were doing this to win migrant votes. People from my community said that the left was doing to help migrants and that I, being of migrant descent, shouldn’t criticise. However, I pointed out that this approach only pushes migrants into a group identity; liberals should do the opposite and emphasize the opportunities and rights of individuals.
Sid: What you noticed back then, was the cocoon of identity politics being spun. The Party Islam is the butterfly that hatched from that cocoon.
Manel: At least now the left is forced to see what they have created, directly or indirectly. What bothers me is that we have no parties with real values at the core of their programs. In any case those values are so watered down that the main parties appear to be the same. By contrast, the Party Islam exudes a strong sense of identity that will appeal to many who feel spiritually and politically uprooted.
Sid: I guess we can say that the left never demanded integration as part of its message to the migrant voter. Instead, they wanted to tap into this electorate through migrant identitarian statements. For example, party programs written in foreign languages or by advocating policies with some Islamic accents here and there. But now, politically active Muslims realize that the left doesn’t offer a strong base for the future. The left – especially the cultural left – hasn’t done much to support traditional families. However, family is a core value of Islam. The left tries to tweak society, but Islam, especially when it becomes political, presents its own model of society.
Manel: That adds up with what I said before, that all the parties begin to look more alike, with the Party Islam then being a strong and demographically viable alternative. If this continues, we move to a state of society where the demographic question takes over the political sphere. Then, labels like ‘liberal’ or ‘social democratic’ will mean less and less in practice.
Sid: Do you consider yourself mostly as a politician, public intellectual or academic?
Manel: I may be a woman from a ‘minority’ background, but I feel mostly driven to defend the Western liberties. I never allowed any identitarian issue to hold me back in my career. Personally, I see you as a fellow relevant thinker on today’s debate on identity and Islam. You can be a successful politician, but your problem is that you are brave enough to be direct and straightforward when presenting your ideas. I can relate to how it would mean that one is sometimes criticised by their own community.
Sid: Politics is a snaky business, and moving up in politics has more to do with in-crowd networking than with developing original ideas. Many politicians seem not to care about that. They are formed by decades of peace and prosperity, and cannot see the real danger of a society becoming dysfunctional.
Manel: Sometimes I am disappointed because democracy can be very vulnerable. I do believe strongly in Western values but it is complicated – we are in an ideological war. It’s strong but also risky that you address these concerns in a direct manner.
Sid: I am confident that my direct style will reach people, even if it takes time. People will hear me better once the system of the current elite begins to crumble. This could be quite fast given that they [the elite] ignore constructive criticism, as you’ve noticed.
Manel: We have to raise awareness among young people about the need to be engaged in politics and fight against extremist parties. Secularism and individual liberties need to be preserved.
Sid: In that sense, you and I have something in common with the Party Islam. Meaning that we try to build awareness and political influence not from the top – as the top tends not to listen – but from the bottom.
Manel: We need truly driven people for this political challenge: convinced and determined ones to build networks.
Sid: It is the only way. From my activities in the media, academic world and by being an elected representative for eight years, my impression is that if you go knock at the gates of the elites to give report from society and to tell them the story from the streets, then you will be portrayed as a ‘racist’.
Manel: This is definitely true. But they forget that values, once you lose them, are hard to grow back as a basis for society. In any case our media activities are a good step to create awareness. Following from this, migrants stop to trust the left parties and they begin to see how they have been used.
Sid: DENK attacks and shames the migrants who are active for other political parties. By doing this, they seek to unify the migrant community as one solid political block. They try to distance those other politically active migrants from that group. But if their aim succeeds, then there is always the chance that all the other blocks will team up against them, since the migrant vote at that point won’t benefit any other party.
Manel: Things will get more polarized from now. Whatever happens – I am glad to share these thoughts with you and to develop our ideas. I feel that I am not alone in this struggle, and hope that our discussion will inspire other young intellectuals.
To conclude, a critique of the identitarian left is often perceived as being disrespectful towards minorities and as violating their rights. The left fears that such criticism leads to ‘second rate citizens’, but they cannot argue with demography; nor can they play their victimhood status trump card when the critical voices come from the minorities themselves, who have experienced what political Islam means in their countries of origin. The left thus generally avoids this debate, as engaging in it could jeopardize their morally superior status.