Videos showing a group of students dressed up as “Saudi Muslims”-- costumes that included, in one case, a fake belt of explosives--in their school in western Belgium has provoked heated criticisms on social media since the videos first appeared on February 27. The school principal says he and the students were just having fun and didn’t mean to offend.
The videos were filmed in the Paters Jozefieten Catholic High School in the town of Melle. The students dressed up as part of a week-long series of special events to mark the 100 days before graduation day for students in their final year.
In the video below (one of several posted online), a person playing an imam leads students in fake prayers in the school corridor.
Most of the students are dressed up in outfits that resemble traditional Saudi attire. One of them, however, is wearing a black face mask and a belt of fake explosives (at 0’22 in the video, then again at 1’12). Starting at 1’01, the students begin to dance.
In the video below, you see young women in a classroom wearing full veils.
“Belgium 2019: students ‘dress up’ as Muslims, make fun of women who wear the veil, some wear fake explosive belts, imitate prayers. All of this INSIDE THEIR SCHOOL.”
"A blend of racism and stereotypes”
The videos sparked an outcry online. Zaki Chairi, a well-known radio presenter, comedian and YouTuber in Brussels, responded to the scandal with his own video, which has now been viewed more than 18,000 times. He said that the students were falsely equating Islam and terrorism. He called the video a “blend of racism and stereotypes” and a clear-cut case of Islamophobia.
"I don’t know if there are Muslims in this school but I would have felt extremely uncomfortable,” he said. He called on people to write to the principal and said that he himself would be happy to come to the school to talk with students.
Many people posted similar responses on Twitter or Facebook, accusing the students of falsely equating Islam with terrorism.
'This is sadly similar to blackface. We thought we had finished with all that. This mocking and degrading attitude. Turns out the fight against racism is far from over".
The teacher is to blame… the students are just doing what they were told. The school needs to be held accountable.
There were some people, however, who took to social media to say that they didn’t understand the videos critics and that we should be allowed to make fun of everyone and play with stereotypes.
"We are in 2019 and everyone has the right to make fun of whomever they want or make jokes about whatever they wish. If that bothers you, stop snivelling all the time, you are exaggerating".
Personally, I don’t see any Islamophobia in it. These are just young people having fun with stereotypes but know that’s all they are. It’s just a joke-- a little dark, I admit-- but no more so than people who dress up like nuns or priests and act like idiots.
"A carnival-like atmosphere, where you see certain clichés emerge"
Our team contacted the Paters Jozefieten High School. They didn’t respond to our questions, but they did send us a statement by the school principal, Jan De Gendt. The same statement was posted on the school Facebook page:
As is traditional for our 100 days [celebration], the students wore costumes. One day, they dressed as tourists. The next day, the chosen theme was the 1920s. On Wednesday, the theme was Saudi Arabia. The 100 days is a carnival-like atmosphere, where you do tend to see certain clichés emerge. During these activities, we didn’t want to insult or hurt anyone. We are sorry that people in the school or outside the school were offended by our 100-days activities.
The values that we are attempting to transmit to our students are those of a Catholic school open to dialogue. That’s why we try to teach our students to respect all other people, no matter what their beliefs, and we welcome anyone who wants to engage in this dialogue.
In this vein, we will soon be inviting a representative of the religious community in question to speak with our students to come to a better understanding and more mutual respect.
At time of publication, the principal has not apologised, as some critics have demanded.
This article was written by Chloé Lauvergnier (@clauvergnier).