533. The Man in Blue – The Vote in Gent (Ghent) Council

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.

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532. The Man in Blue – Should we follow the messengers or should we follow God ?

Recently when travelling to Hasselt by bus I met a man who had served in a major Roman Catholic Monastery on the Dutch-Belgian border. And on the return trip from Hasselt to the Sangat Sahib Gurdwara I met him again.

He was friendly and open-minded. We agreed that the problems that face the Christian churches these days have nothing to do with the teachings of Jesus. Most of the Christian churches have emphasised too much on their structures, their hierarchies and neglected the inclusive spiritual message of Jesus.

On the way back he asked me what role Jesus played in my life. My first reaction was that that I now understand Jesus and his teachings better than before I became a Sikh. I see Jesus as a great spiritual teacher, whose teachings mostly agree with the core teachings of the Guru Granth Sahib.

I love reading the ‘dharmic’ stories (the parables) that Jesus used to teach his disciples (chelé), which like the Guru Granth emphasise Godly behaviour rather than complicated belief systems.

But I also said that I first and foremost believed in God, who is the source of the power, the insight of the great spiritual teachers. I hear God speak through the Sikh Gurus, through the Bhagats, through the Guru Granth Sahib. Similarly I hear God through Jesus and through other spiritual teachers.

I am now staying in Iver, in between Hillingdon and Slough, and I brought a small picture of Guru Nanak which is on the little press next to my bed. So I have a connection with Guru Nanak, and with the Nanak who signs off the shabads by the Gurus in the Guru Granth Sahib.

But the Nanak that speaks to me in the Guru Granth Sahib is the conduit through which I can hear the One, the All-Powerful, Omnipresent.

Many Sikhs do hero worship, and I try to avoid that. Our Guru and famous personalities from Sikh history were heroes, but they were heroes because they walked in God’s way. Their power comes from God, the words they spoke or wrote come from God.

The Guru Granth Sahib stresses this again and again. Be with God, listen to God, try to understand God’s word and apply it in your delay life. We should not follow people, we should follow God. Guru Gobind Singh also explicitly told the sangat not to worship him. Respect for the Guru leads to love for God.

This is what gives me strength, this is what keeps me happy. This is what makes me, in spite of being an ‘old age pensioner’, return from a comfortable life in Belgium to new challenges in the UK.

I also came back to enjoy the beautiful Kirtan that you can daily hear in the Southall Gurdwaré, and which help me to stick to the path, that is as narrow as the cutting edge of the sword, that leads to God.