I have lived and worked in Belgium from June 2010 till June 2013. In that period a lot of time and energy was spent by Sikh activists on trying to get more access to secondary schools for those of our youngsters who wear patkas or turbans.
In 2010 there was only one secondary school that allowed students wearing religious ‘headgear’ in Sint-Truiden. When I left in 2013 there were none. When I arrived most primary schools allowed patkas, now only the ‘free’ (Roman Catholic) primary schools allow them.
Instead of going forward we have gone backward. The history of Belgium is quite different from that of France and the Netherlands. Belgium only became an independent country in 1830. During the time when what is now Belgium was ruled by the Spanish and later the Austrian Habsburgs the state, and therefore education, was dominated by the Roman Catholic Church.
Initially after independence the same condition applied and it was only after a long struggle that ‘neutral’ state schools were founded, and there is still in the state school sector a tendency to keep all things ‘religious’ outside the schools. The schools are not really neutral, they are humanist or agnostic schools.
Add to this the modern factors of xenophobia/islamophobia and you understand why there is such a strong movement for neutral schools and neutral government services.
But it is not all bad news. The current chair of the socialist party of the Dutch (Nederlands) speaking region has proposed abolishing of bans on the wearing of religious symbols. This was followed up in Gent, where employees of the city who in any way deal with the public could not wear religious symbols.
Since the last local election the city is ruled by a coalition of Socialists, (conservative) Liberals and Greens. They had agreed to leave the ban in place, but their hand was forced by a petition against the ban. The petition had sufficient signatures to force the council to have a debate followed by a vote.
As Greens and Socialists have a majority in the council and there was also some support from others (but not from the Liberals) the ban on the wearing of religious symbols was abolished.
The Liberals indentify strongly with the fight for neutral state schools, but also many members of the Socialist members identify with it. The debate in the socialist party is far from over, although even its Antwerpen branch has come out against the ban.
But the political reality in the Dutch speaking part of the country is that there is a good chance that the nationalist NVA will win up to 40% of the vote in the 2014 elections. And that party is totally against the wearing of religious symbols in ‘neutral’ schools and government buildings.