Brussels: European Capital or Islamic Center?

Brussels as the headquarters of the European Union is the nominal "capital of Europe."  One would expect the city to be the center of enlightenment -- the exemplification of political and social tolerance and freedom of speech, assembly, and religion, not to mention an advocate of human rights.  Disappointingly, recent events have shown that Brussels has increasingly become a place of lies, deliberate disinformation, political manipulation, anti-Semitism, and attacks on Israel.

Recent developments, particularly Islamist political as well as physical aggressiveness, justify this sad conclusion.  One is the election in November 2012 of two Muslim politicians of the new Islam Party, Lhoucine Ait Jeddig and Redouane Ahrouch, who won seats in two of the twenty municipalities of Brussels, Molenbeek-Saint-Jean and Anderlecht.  Considering  their unqualified stated objective to make Belgians understand the advantages of having Islamic people and Islamic laws, their assertion that "then[,] it will be completely natural to have Islamic laws and we will become an Islamic state" is quite chilling.

The Islam Party intends to continue running candidates in future Belgian and European-wide elections.  It is likely to gain further successes because of demographic changes in the country.  Calculations suggest that Muslims in Belgium now number 625,000, more than six percent of the total population.  Brussels contains 300,000 Muslims -- more than a quarter of its population.  It is now the largest Islamic city in Europe; by 2030 it will, according to the sociologist Felice Dassetto in her book The Iris and the Crescent, probably have a Muslim majority.

The heavily Muslim-populated districts of Brussels have become troubled areas, experiencing a considerable increase in crime, including about 250 gang-rapes a year since 2007.  For some years, these areas have been arenas of violence: in the riots of September 2009, the Muslim inhabitants attacked the Belgian police with Molotov cocktails, stones, and tear gas.  Among other consequences of this violence, the U.S. advertising agency BBDO in June 2011 left its offices in the Molenbeek district of Brussels after stating that there had been more than 150 assaults on its staff.  Other multinational corporations left the area for similar reasons.

Simultaneously with its declaration that its ultimate goal was to establish sharia law in Belgium, the Islam Party issued three main immediate demands: Halal meals in public cafeterias, national recognition of Muslim holidays, and insistence that all women publicly wear hijab coverings.  The danger of that ultimate goal of the Islamic extremists has now been recognized publicly in March 2013 by the Belgian foreign minister, Didier Reynders.  He made a point of saying he was not critical of moderate Islam views but was calling for more monitoring of the messages that some imams in Belgium, about 300 of whom obtain state subsidies, are preaching in their mosques.  He drew attention to those imans or other types of preachers "who adhere to more salafist and fundamentalist views, or who support radical movements, instead of having more moderate views."

Reynders, member of the Mouvement Réformateur, the largest Francophone party in Belgium, described his personal encounter with Islamic intolerance.  When he and other Belgian officials met in April 2012 with Abdellah Benkiran, the Muslim Brotherhood prime minister of Morocco, the latter refused to speak with Reynders's colleague, Annemie Turtelboom, the Belgian minister of justice, because she is a woman.  Reynders is conscious of the same problem in Belgium.  Muslim leaders have refused even to shake hands with women, including a local mayor, or to mix with women in public transport.

The problem is immediate and growing.  In Antwerp, a majority of elementary school children are Muslims.  The most common name for boys born in Belgium during the last few years is Mohammed.  The country has witnessed an increase in the number of mosques and minarets, more veiled women in public, and more extreme Salafist Islamic organizations.  The Muslim politicians and imams want to implement Islamic sharia law throughout Belgium.

In Antwerp, since September 2011, Belgium has had its first Islamic court, founded by the extreme group Sharia4Belgium.  The court consists of a self-appointed number of Muslim judges applying Islamic law, superseding secular Belgium law, on marriage, divorce, and child support issues.  The court's ambition is to expand its jurisdiction to include criminal cases.  Sharia4 Belgium itself was active in Antwerp in harassing people, shouting anti-American and anti-Israeli slogans, and distributing Islamist leaflets.  Its leader was sentenced to a term of imprisonment for inciting violent protest against non-Muslims in the streets of Brussels, and other members have been arrested for possession of illegal drugs.  Though it is not altogether clear, the group appears to have dissolved itself in October 2012.

The European Court of Human Rights in a case in February 2003 ruled that "sharia law is incompatible with the fundamental principles of democracy."  A legal regime based on sharia law "would diverge from the European Convention on Human Rights, particularly with regard to the rules on the status of women, and its intervention in all spheres of private and public life in accordance with religious precepts."  Sharia law is incompatible with universal human rights, and with democratic values of separation of politics and religion, equality of the sexes, the rule of law, and freedom of expression in all its forms.   

The Islamic upsurge and militancy in Belgium has also been both anti-Semitic and anti-Israel in character.  Jamal Ikabzan, a member of the Socialist party in parliament who is originally Moroccan, called for the removal of Hamas from the European list of terrorist organizations and referred to Claude Moniquet, an expert on counterterrorism who heads the European Strategic Intelligence and Security Center, as "Zionist scum."

Even worse was the publication in March 2013 of an anti-Semitic poster, a cartoon created by the French graphic artist Zeon, to advertise a debate on Zionism planned by the Socialist party in the Brussels district of Molenbeek.  The cartoon evoked the anti-Semitic caricatures and blood libels in the Nazi tabloid Der Stürmer of Julius Streicher.  It depicted an Israeli soldier wearing the mask of an ultra-Orthodox Jew who was tipping the scales of justice and thus dominating the world.  Indeed, Alain Destexhe, the Belgian Liberal Party senator who first complained of the cartoon, called it "worthy of Nazi propaganda about the all-powerful Jew."  To their credit, the Brussels district leaders heeded Destexhe's condemnation and cancelled the event.  The incident is even more poignant because it coincided with a more gratifying event in Brussels, where President Shimon Peres of Israel honored members of eleven families as Righteous among the Nations for saving Jews during the Holocaust.  

Brussels and the democratic world in general face an intensifying dilemma: can the Islamist ambition to instill sharia law in their lands be contained before it is too late?

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