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The Free University of Brussels sick from a lack of free examination!

30 May 2024 Expertises   5912  

Nadia Geerts

Since 6 May 2024, activists have been occupying a building at the Université Libre de Bruxelles. In their press release, they shamefully claim to have taken this decision “after more than 7 months of genocide and 76 years of an uninterrupted Nakba”, without a word, of course, for the pogrom of 7 October.
It took just two days for the co-president of the Union des Étudiants Juifs de Belgique (UEJB), Gad Deshayes, to be hit in the face and stomach by an activist who then tried to strangle him, and for two students who had the nerve to pass by with an Israeli flag to be attacked to the sound of “Zionists, fascists, you’re the terrorists!”

A few days later, rubbish and paint were thrown at the rectorate building because “For more than a week, the ULB authorities have been taking us for a ride, scorning our demands and listening to nothing! We have no choice but to step up our fight for the Palestinian people, against genocide, for an end to colonisation and an end to ULB’s complicity”.

The activists’ demands include the cessation of “active partnerships between ULB and the Israeli Zionist entity” and the immediate cancellation of Élie Barnavi’s visit to ULB, scheduled for 3 June. After all, Élie Barnavi was, horresco referens, Israel’s ambassador to France from 2000 to 2002.

When Élie Barnavi was informed of the attempt to prevent him from attending, he denounced the “abysmal ignorance” of these students, who wallow in their good conscience, thus making themselves the objective allies of both Hamas, a genocidal organisation, and the extremist Israeli government.

Indeed, to call for a boycott of Élie Barnavi is to know nothing about the career of this brilliant intellectual who is fiercely opposed to the occupation and who taught for three years at the University of Al Quds in occupied Palestine. It’s obeying a Pavlovian reflex which consists of making an agent of evil out of anyone who has any link whatsoever with Israel. And this reflex has a name: anti-Semitism.

Is it the same abysmal ignorance that explains why the occupied building has been renamed after Walid Daqqa, a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) who recently died in prison? Why is a banner bearing the image of the Lebanese terrorist Georges Ibrahim Abdallah and a banner of a woman in a keffiyeh, Kalashnikov in hand, displayed on its facade? All in all, a fine picture in the glory of terrorism – sorry, “resistance”!

We can only welcome the fact that Rector Annemie Schaus made it very clear that she would never give in “to intimidation, pressure or threats”, and that Elie Barnavi would therefore be present on 3 June for debates that “will give a voice to the few voices that manage, against all odds, to escape the din of postures that pit us against each other and perpetuate the cycle of violence, in the Middle East as here”. The ULB has also announced that it will lodge a complaint following the acts of violence committed against the president of the Union of Jewish Students of Belgium and the security guard who tried to intervene.

But the occupation of the building continues, as do the clandestine prayers in areas of the ULB privatised for this purpose. The ULB is aware of this but does nothing. Why is this?

Admittedly, the Université Libre de Bruxelles has been ill for several years. Sick of its free examination, or rather of the instrumentalisation of the latter for purposes that have absolutely nothing to do either with any examination of the ideas put forward, or with the freedom to examine them with all the distance required.

As long ago as 2012, the essayist Caroline Fourest, invited to give a lecture on the theme “Has the far right become acceptable?”, was obnoxiously heckled and prevented from speaking by a few activists, including a researcher and assistant, Souhail Chichah, a member of the ULB staff.

The event, which has sadly gone down in history as “Burqa bla-bla”, was advertised on Facebook: the aim was to find one hundred people willing to don a burqa to take part in a “Burqa Pride” in the venue where the conference was to be held. Private messages sent by Chichah went into more detail about the project, including a full-scale burqa bashing.

This was not the first time Chichah had called an eminent ULB professor a “Zionist cocksucker”. This time, however, ULB announced the launch of disciplinary proceedings likely to bring Souhail Chichah before the Disciplinary Committee, the only body competent to impose major disciplinary sanctions. In fact, he was suspended for one month, without loss of pay! He then voluntarily left ULB, and now teaches at Williams College in the USA. His research focuses on the theory of capital, the anthropology of whiteness and the genealogy of racism, and in March 2023 he published an article with François Burgat, “L’islamisation de la France: acteurs et ressorts d’une dangereuse rengaine” (The Islamization of France: actors and sources of a dangerous refrain).

As for Caroline Fourest, who no longer plans to set foot in ULB since this Burqa bla-bla of shame, she had already been the victim of an act of harassment in 2007, on the same university premises, and (ironically) in the context of the “values workshop” set up by the academic authorities to try to answer the question “What does free examination mean today”, under the leadership of Emmanuelle Danblon, adviser to the Rector Philippe Vincke. More specifically, the aim was to “invite the university community to engage in a collective process of reflection in order to redesign together the conditions for the exercise of the Free Examination at the beginning of the 21st century. This invitation involved redefining our current vision of the values traditionally promoted by the Libre Examen, i.e. the values inherited from the Enlightenment: reason, progress, secularism, freedom and scientific truth.”1

But while Caroline Fourest was twice manhandled at the ULB, the preacher Tariq Ramadan, grandson of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood Hassan el-Banna, was allowed in, until the rector Philippe Vincke decided to cancel his visit. Caramba! How dare anyone censor the visit of the famous preacher! This was clearly a sign of a guilty “aversion to new cultural and religious diversities”, and gave rise to the Collectif des cent valeurs, which was immediately conceived by certain members of the academic body as a counterweight to the values project, and which was quick to invite… Tariq Ramadan, but this time alongside Malek Chebel and Youssef Seddik. Two student circles were co-organising the meeting on the relationship between “Islam and enlightenment”: the Cercle du libre examen and the cercle des étudiants arabo-européens (CEAE). The event, held in the 1200-seat Emile-Janson amphitheatre, was packed to capacity, in the presence of the Minister for Higher Education himself.

The Cercle des étudiants arabo-européens is probably one of the most dynamic student circles at ULB. In recent years, it has organised numerous events, sometimes in collaboration with the Cercle du Libre Examen, giving the floor to a number of key figures on the Franco-Belgian Islamic scene: Malika Hamidi, Mahinur Özdemir, Marwan Muhammad, Yacob Mahi, Mehmet Saygin, Fatima Zibouh, Asmae Bakach, Myriam Lhboubi, Mustapha Chairi, Ihsane Haouach, Kaoutar Boustani, and others. Some of them are known to be close to the Muslim Brotherhood, as are others to the AKP. And today, the CEAE proudly proclaims its support for “Free Palestine”, including by recently inviting BDS and the lawyer Salah Hamouri.

But let’s go back to 2007. The rift between the supporters of a “Values Workshop” and the followers of the Hundred Values Collective finally led the ULB Board of Governors to simply bury the Values Workshop on 15 September 2008. In the immediate aftermath, the name of the values advisor was simply crossed off the list of the rector’s team, without any announcement being made either to the university community or to the press.

From the very discreet burial of the Chantier valeurs in 2008 to the occupation in 2024 of a building in support of Palestine, or even Hamas, not forgetting Burqa blah blah and the clandestine places of prayer, which have long been known to the academic authorities, ULB is clearly trying not to make waves, and only resorts to disciplinary procedures with the greatest reluctance. This concern to give free rein to the expression of a variety of ideas could be a source of honour, since it is rooted, at least in part, in the institution’s sincere commitment to free examination. But in reality, what we are witnessing more and more under the guise of free examination is a veritable seizure of power, emanating from activists and/or bigots, not all of whom are likely to be ULB students, far from it, but to whom nobody apparently thinks of asking for their student card, let alone their definition of free examination or their opinion on Hamas.

On 23 May, Rector Annemie Schaus, accompanied by Marius Gilbert (Vice-Rector for Research) and three ULB professors – Corinne Torrekens (specialist in Islam), Andrea Rea (specialist in migration) and Olivier Corten (professor of international law) – were even received in this giant squat. The occupants were clearly unwilling to make the slightest compromise on either content or form, and why should they have been, given that their guests supported their struggle to the very last detail? Corinne Torrekens, for example, had no hesitation in declaring to the occupants of the building “I am proud of you”, and Olivier Corten had no hesitation in affirming his support in principle for the armed resistance, without the Rector being moved by it.

So, it comes as no surprise that the Academic Council voted on 27 May to end all collaboration with Israeli universities, adding for good measure that there would be no partnership with a Palestinian university either. What’s more, around twenty academics have announced that they will be going on a “proctoring strike”, meaning that they will allow students to cheat in their exams. They explain that they will be recognisable because they will be wearing pins, stickers or keffiyehs in the lecture theatres and examination rooms.

It’s high time we called a halt to the game, so that everyone can once again feel at home and safe on this university campus. Otherwise, the venerable institution will become more and more the preserve of activists more attached to the veil and Palestine than to the noble project set out by its founder, Pierre-Théodore Verhaegen, in his speech to King Leopold I on 1 January 1854:  “To examine, outside any political or religious authority, the great questions affecting man and society, to probe freely into the sources of truth and goodness, such is the role of our University, such is also its reason to exist”.

     1- Emmanuelle Danblon, Le Libre Examen et les valeurs de l’U.L.B. Un chantier de réflexions, https://www.amub-ulb.be/system/files/rmb/old/412