Wallonia, the French-speaking southern region of Belgium, has officially renamed the four major Christian holidays on the Belgian school calendar with secular names.
Critics of the move say it reflects an ongoing effort by politicians in Belgium to remove Christianity from public life to accommodate a burgeoning Muslim population.
The French Community of Belgium -- which has its own institutions, parliament and government, and has jurisdiction over the five provinces of Wallonia and over the Francophone population of Brussels in the areas of education and culture -- adopted a framework decree that formally establishes the new secularized names in the interests of "administrative simplification."
As reported by the center-right newspaper La Libre on March 26, school calendars within Belgium's French speaking community will permanently use the following terminology: the Christian holiday previously known as All Saints Day (Congés de Toussaint) will now be referred to as Autumn Leave (Congé d'automne); Christmas Vacation (Vacances de Noël) is now Winter Vacation (Vacances d'hiver); Lenten Vacation (Congés de Carnaval) is now Rest and Relaxation Leave (Congé de détente); and Easter (Vacances de Pâques) is now Spring Vacation (Vacances de Printemps).
Although these secularized appellations have been used intermittently over the past several years, the new decree formalizes their use on a permanent basis.
The move to "de-Christianize" the Christian holidays has been roundly criticized by those opposed to the relentless spread of multiculturalism in Belgium.
Some of the most vocal opposition has come from the Reformist Movement (Mouvement Réformateur, MR), an alliance of four center-right parties that together comprise the largest classical liberal political formation in French-speaking Belgium.
MR leader Françoise Bertieaux accused the Wallonian Minister of Education, Marie-Dominique Simonet, of pandering to Muslims at the expense of Christians. "Minister Simonet wants to push religion [Christianity] out the door, but the new decree actually opens the way for reintroducing religion [Islam] through the window. Under the guise of letting go of [Christian] religion and tradition, this text opens the way to new vacation days for other religions [Islam]. MR firmly regrets this new formula," Bertieaux said.
According to Bertieaux, Article 9, Paragraph 3 of the new decree provides Muslims with a waiver that would allow them to add Islamic religious holidays to the official school calendar.
The dust-up in Wallonia comes just months after city officials in Brussels removed the traditional Christmas tree in city's Gothic central square and replaced it with a politically correct structure of abstract minimalist art.
Critics accused the Socialist mayor of Brussels, Freddy Thielemans, of declaring war on Christmas by installing the "multicultural" structure of lights to avoid offending the city's growing Muslim population.
Historically, a 20 meter (65 foot) fir tree taken from the forests of the Ardennes has adorned the city's main square, the Grand-Place. In 2012, however, it was replaced with a 25 meter (82 foot) new-age-like structure of lighted boxes (see picture here). In addition, the traditional Christmas Market in downtown Brussels was renamed as "Winter Pleasures 2012."
The mayor's office, where more than half of the city's eleven councilors are either Muslim or Socialist or both, said the non-tree -- which cost the taxpayers of Brussels a total of €44,000 ($57,000), compared to €5,000 for the traditional tree -- was part of a theme celebrating "light."
City Councilor Philippe Close said the aim was to show off the "avant-garde character" of Brussels by blending the modern and the traditional to produce something new and different.
But Bianca Debaets, a Brussels councilor from the Christian Democratic and Flemish party, told the Flemish newspaper Brussel Nieuws that she believed an argument over Muslim religious sensitivities had prompted the Brussels City Council to put up the light sculpture.
"I suspect that the reference to the Christian religion was the decisive factor in replacing the tree," Debaets said. "For a lot of people who are not Christians, the tree there is offensive to them. What will be next? Will all Easter eggs be banned in Brussels because they refer to Easter?"
In an interview with the BBC News, Erik Maxwell, a resident of Brussels, said: "We think the tree has been put up for cultural reasons. A tree is for Christmas and Christians but now there are a lot of Muslims here in Brussels. So to avoid discussions they have just replaced a tree with a couple of cubes!"
After all the efforts to make Belgium more Islam-friendly, however, many Muslims say they still feel alienated from Belgian society.
According to a new survey of Muslim youth in Flanders, the Dutch-speaking northern half of Belgium, only 30% of Muslim males between the ages of 15 and 25 feel as though they are accepted by Flemish society. This figure drops to 25% for Muslim females in the same age group.
The survey, which was published by the daily newspaper Gazet van Antwerpen on April 19, shows that 60% of Muslim youth believe that they will never be integrated into Belgian society. One in three of those surveyed say that he or she has been discriminated against at school, and one in five say they have been discriminated against at work. More than 50% say they have been victims of racism. Although 93% of those surveyed have Belgian citizenship, 42% of them say they consider themselves to be foreigners.
The results are virtually unchanged from a similar survey conducted in 2005, and imply that years of government efforts to make Belgium more multicultural have done nothing to change the minds of Muslim youth.
According to the Flemish Minister for Integration, Geert Bourgeois, Muslim youth should work harder and complain less. "That so many young people feel discriminated against and do not feel accepted means that our society still has a lot of work to do. It's actually an 'us-them' story. We as a society can and should still make an extra effort, but conversely, Muslim youth should do more as well. Perhaps an inverted research shows that we just think that young Muslims do not belong because they do not want to belong," Bourgeois said.
If Belgian multiculturalists have their way, however, asking Muslims to do more to integrate into Belgian society may soon become a criminal offense.
In February, six Belgian senators (three of whom are Muslim) introduced a draft resolution in the Belgian Federal Parliament that would make "Islamophobia" a crime punishable by fines and imprisonment.
The draft text -- which, among other objectives, seeks to equate "Islamophobia" with anti-Semitism -- is audacious in scope and if passed would pose a devastating blow to the exercise of free speech in Belgium.
According to the authors of the resolution, a person would be guilty of Islamophobia if he or she:
- Considers Islam to be a single monolithic bloc, closed and static, incapable of adapting to new situations;
- Considers Islam to be separate and "different," devoid of having any aims or shared values with other cultures, not influenced by other cultures and not influencing other cultures;
- Considers Islam to be inferior to the West, to be barbaric, irrational, primitive and sexist;
- Considers Islam to be violent, threatening and supportive of terrorism, actively engaged in a 'clash of civilizations';
- Considers Islam to be a political ideology, used for political and military purposes to establish its hegemony;
- Rejects out of hand criticisms made by Islam of 'the West';
- Shows hostility towards Islam to justify discrimination and social exclusion of Muslims;
- Accepts hostility toward Muslims as natural and normal.
This definition of Islamophobia, which is based on a 1997 report published by the London-based Runnymede Trust, would effectively outlaw any critical discussion of Islam in Belgium under the guise of combatting racism.
The draft resolution has outraged free speech activists, who are demanding more public scrutiny of what they say is a "draconian" measure that is contrary to liberal democratic values. But the sponsors of the text remain unapologetic.
In an interview with the daily newspaper Le Soir, Senator Richard Miller from Wallonia accuses critics of the resolution of trying to make the draft text say things it does not say.
Miller, a member of the same Mouvement Réformateur that has accused other Belgian politicians of pandering to Muslims, claims his measure is not meant to prohibit the criticism of Islam, but only to "fight against those who often use a variety of arguments, with the result of creating unease in the Muslim population."