Beyond Neutrality and Discrimination Within Our Public Administrations
Written by John De Coster, Member of the Editorial Team of Libertas
This late summer, the Kingdom of Belgium has in part been moved by a question surrounding the so-called neutrality of our public administrations: should public servants be allowed to wear any distinctive religious (or political) sign at work? I was asked by Libertas’ editorial team to modify my initial article on the subject and to be bolder in my statement. I indeed strongly (and liberally) believe the principle of neutrality should evolve and come to reflect the diversity of our cosmopolite European society. The revision thereof is a debate our liberal family should proudly put its hands on in order to launch a vast societal reflection embodying the kind of courageous and federating liberalism we so direly need today.
Brussels, anno 2020
A bit of context first. Late in June, then this September, news broke out that the authorities of two of Brussels nineteen districts (communes), namely Molenbeek-Saint-Jean and Schaerbeek, had opened a discussion aiming at possibly modifying their terms of employment. The goal was to determine whether public servants should be allowed to wear any distinctive religious sign while on duty, hence abolishing any form of discrimination within local public administration.[i] This builds on what has slowly become somewhat of a constitutional principle -that of neutrality- which is, however, but loosely defined in the Belgian Constitution and explicitly applies only to its education system. Its broader scope comes from the numerous subsequent interpretations published by the Council of State.[ii]
Markedly, considerations regarding Islam and the Muslim faith swiftly hijacked the public debate. These motions took place in a singular context. It followed a ruling of the Belgian Constitutional Court siding with Francisco Ferrer high School (Brussels) refusing access to female students wearing a hijab in the name of neutrality[iii], and a consequential opinion published by Samia Bachiri on the Flemish news channel asking why she had to remove her headscarf to pass through the school gates.[iv] Unsurprisingly, many observers, no matter their political or philosophical side, were quick to assume a certain correlation between the geographical situation of these political inquiries, and the existence of large Muslim communities within the involved districts. Local council majorities were sometimes even accused of pursuing populist electoral ends by instrumentalising the question in order to attract the votes of said communities.
The whole of it is an utterly intricate topic. The constitutional baseline is not the same in every member state, oscillating between French strict secularism and Belgian neutrality, where cults are publicly recognised and funded. Worse still, this type of controversy is often deeply embedded in a specific political culture, which renders the exercise of analytic generalisation even harder. Lastly, the question at stake is extremely divisive. The whole discussion is oversimplified and represented by two as hypothetical as hermetic opposing sides; a pro-revision, anti-discrimination side and a revision-sceptic, per se xenophobic and Islamophobic one, so to speak. This is, of course, ridiculous[v] (even if one must admit that although everyone denies any Islamophobic inclination, Islam is the only religion we talk about). However, what we shall all agree upon is that such a sterile deadlock will not get us anywhere. I believe our answer lies deeper. In truth, what we face now is a foundational, pivotal moment. We must urgently ask ourselves what kind of society we aim at fostering, and what kind of liberalism we intend to promote.
Liberal Pride and an Appeased Society
How to make a compelling case in favour of the revision of the principle of neutrality but not simply by answering those who oppose my views? In the end, this is but a question of values. No one is intrinsically right or wrong. Therefore, one must inspire to progress. To challenge the notion of neutrality simply means affixing another lens on our civilisation. It is transformative and rest on one sole necessity: the neutrality of administrative acts.
Before being a principle, neutrality is its own story, its own narrative. That of a once “pilarised” society opposing liberals and more or less pious Christian politicians in a struggle to shape our institutions. Neutrality really is an inherited and reified concept, whereas the whole societal context has dramatically changed. So, thus, should our take on it. I think we should reshape to whole idea of neutrality and actually rethink our society through from the ground up. More importantly still, we have to reconsider the way we get along with one another. We have got to get over this fear so profoundly instilled in so many of us that any religious divergence will inevitably lead to a differentiated treatment. We have become so obsessed with our opposition to religious signs and appearances we forgot that we, in the end, manage the way we behave towards them.
Public administrations and institutions should always mirror our society’s composition, which is ultimately made out of individuals who must be seen and acknowledged in all their respective complexities for it to work. And we, as individuals, should educate ourselves in order to foster a society, a community in which people can trust one another despite visible diverging allegiances. This, I think, encapsulates the kind of ambitious, federating and tolerant liberalism that will win us the heart and commitment of our European youth in the years to come.
[i] RTBF, June 28, 2020 – https://www.rtbf.be/info/regions/detail_signes-religieux-dans-l-administration-molenbeek-va-modifier-son-reglement-de-travail?id=10531591, Elodie Blogie (2020), ‘’Après Molenbeek, les signes religieux s’invitent à Schaerbeek’’, Le Soir – https://plus.lesoir.be/325272/article/2020-09-16/apres-molenbeek-les-signes-religieux-sinvitent-schaerbeek
[ii] For the sake of concision, this is nothing else but a by-product of Belgium’s intricate institutional landscape and very dynamic, to a maddening level, constitutional debates. – “Guide de délivrance du programme d’intégration citoyenne aux personnes primo-arrivantes”, Module 2 Fiche n°5, 2013
[iii] RTBF, June 4, 2020 – https://www.rtbf.be/info/belgique/detail_une-haute-ecole-peut-interdire-les-signes-religieux-estime-la-cour-constitutionnelle?id=10515564
[iv] Samia Bachiri (2020) “Waarom moet ik mijn hoofddoek afleggen als ik de shoolpoort binnenstapt”, vrtnws – https://www.vrt.be/vrtnws/nl/2020/07/07/tegen-het-hoofddoekenverbod/, Jurgen Slembrouck (2020) “Een hoofddoekenverbod op neutrale plaatsen beschermt net de hoofddoek” – https://www.vrt.be/vrtnws/nl/2020/07/09/hoofddoekenverbod-beschermt-de-hoofddoek/
[v] François De Smet (2020) “Assimiler neutralité et discrimination est irresponsable”, L’Echo – https://www.lecho.be/opinions/carte-blanche/port-de-signes-religieux-assimiler-neutralite-et-discrimination-est-irresponsable/10252207.html
About the author:
John De Coster is 24 years old and he was born and raised in Brussels. For about three years, he was one of LYMEC’s member through the Belgian French-speaking « Fédération des Etudiants Libéraux » (FEL). Since then, despite having to renounce any involvement in said organisation, he has tried to keep a foothold in LYMEC’s circles. Entering our editorial team through Libertas then appeared to be a rather stimulating and thrilling experience. Plus writing can be fun!