In early February, a story broke about a briefing being given to Belgian soldiers departing for Afghanistan. In this briefing, the speaker notably made the following points, as related by the Belgian newspaper Le Soir:
“[Having a] girl to a Muslim usually means that the man has poor sperm quality. I’m not joking. Manly men make boys and men who are not manly make girls. Also obviously because a girl must be married, [girls] costs a dowry; a girl, it’s a small catastrophe because you have to “marry her off” as we say in French (“il faut la caser”), she must get married. A boy is the strength, the warrior, having a boy is very important.”
But the speaker is no hardened military man, or at least, not exactly. Professor Jacques Rifflet is a Belgian lawyer, author, and scholar of religions. Furthermore, Rifflet is often asked to speak at interfaith gatherings and roundtables on religion and international politics.
The Belgian press took note of his comments, and one MEP (the CDH deputy Georges Dallemagne) was appropriately outraged. Dallemagne called Rifflet’s comments into question and said, “This briefing is important for our soldiers and their relationship with the local population. As such, it would seem necessary to avoid making such startling statements which can only be hurtful to Islam or to our allies.”
Furthermore, the Minister of Defense (via a party member acting as spokesperson), in the same parliamentary session, went a step further and “disassociated” himself from the comments in the briefing. Yet at the same time, the Ministry’s spokesperson offered up one weak explanation: that the briefing was in French for a primarily Flemish-speaking public, which necessitated words with “rich imagery.”
However, in this story, the mainstream press seems to be missing the point. It’s not about what he said being hurtful to Muslims or culturally insensitive. The real problem is that Rifflet is a so-called expert on comparative religion whom people listen to and respect: see the (quite scary French) comments here.
As pointed out in this blog post, Rifflet is a Doctor of Laws, journalist for the RTBF, and Professor Emeritus not only in International Politics but also Comparative Religions. He is often called upon by the Belgian government to speak to soldiers starting their missions, but also in more diplomatic roles. So Rifflet is “expert” on Islam who forgets, among other glaring omissions, that in Islam, the future spouse gives the dowry, not the wife’s family. And he’s still talking, most recently in late February for a Belgian organization called Food For Thought, specializing in “setting up stylish, personalized sessions at exclusive locations for a socially aware audience.”
These are the people that are allowed speak for Islam. Food for thought, indeed.