The largest and most famous carnival celebration in Belgium is the one of the Flemish town of Aalst, 35 kms to the west of Brussels. Several groups parade through town in a pageant with floats, bands, and jesters, making fun of recent national and international events. The tradition goes back centuries, to mediaeval times. With carnival [mardi gras, as they say in Louisiana] approaching (28 February), the authorities are afraid that some groups might use the Danish cartoon crisis to dress up – God, or rather Allah, forbid – as the prophet Muhammad.
The carnival in Aalst is known for its disrespect of just about anything. This has never caused trouble in the past, though Aalst’s most popular group is a raucous, vulgar bunch of men dressed up as women, and calling themselves the “voil jeanetten” (“dirty fagots”). Mind you, the bawdiness and vulgarity is restricted to carnival, and these people are respectable, civilized, straight citizens throughout the rest of the year. Everyone, the participants and the public, know that the indecent and disrespectful behaviour is all in jest and until now nobody has ever taken offense.
Today, the organizers of the carnival are wondering whether to ask the participating groups – “dirty fagots” and others – not to refer to the Muhammad cartoons. Knowing the “voil jeanetten,” they are capable of wearing pig masks and pretending to be Muhammad. The parade organizers are meeting the police and the mayor this week, as they do not exactly know what policy to follow. “Prohibited certain things might have the opposite effect,” Nicole Ringoir, the president of the organizing committee, told a Flemish newspaper. “Perhaps we should trust that the carnival revellers know how far they can go.” In other words: count on the fact that even dirty fagots fear for their lives.
“We cannot censor the parade. During carnival the inhabitants of Aalst mock everything and everyone, including the Pope and the King,” Anny De Maght, the mayor of Aalst says. “I trust that our groups will know what limits to respect.” After last year’s parade the organizers received a protest letter from the Arab League, stating that the event had been “insulting and offensive to Muslims and their culture.” Some “dirty fagots,” as usual dressing up as women, instead of putting on corsets and bras, had put on burqas.
One thing is certain: in the coming age of Eurabia the mediaeval tradition of carnival will be abolished. I guess that is the price Europe will have to pay for “progress.”
Meanwhile, another price is being paid. The Flemish daily newspaper De Standaard reported today that the authorities in Antwerp have warned secondary schools not to discuss the cartoon riots as it is “not expedient” to do so. The authorities interfered last Friday when there were tensions in a number of schools about the cartoon affair. The Antwerp inner-city schools have high rates of immigrant Muslim children.
In Ghent, the third town of Flanders after Brussels and Antwerp, the authorities have not forbidden schools to raise the topic, but Kristien Coppenholle, a civil servant responsible for the municipal schools, said that teachers should be carefull about which issues they discuss in class. “The results of these discussions can be shocking,” she explains. “There was one project in which students were allowed to make a videotape about their culture and their environment. Most of the students were of immigrant origin. The videos contained quotes such as ‘we are tomorrow’s rulers’ and ‘the Flemings will be our slaves.’”