Book Review: Undercover in Little Morocco

Undercover in Klein-Marokko, Achter De Gesloten Deuren Van De Radicale Islam (Undercover in Little Morocco, behind the closed doors of radical Islam) by Hind Fraihi.

Fraihi went searching for radical Islam in the Brussels neighborhood of Molenbeek. She found it, but her book left me with many questions. After all, she also found radical Islam in much more unlikely places. Like other books on the subject, she finds that the unemployed, disenfranchised youth are the easiest prey for radical preachers and jihad recruiters, but she also finds that there are many well-off youth who become radicalized.

I also didn't understand why Fraihi, who is a journalist, went undercover as a sociology student. Do people really talk more if they think their words will be published in a study than if it will be published in a paper?

A bit about Fraihi herself: both her parents come from well-off Moroccan families and could have done well in Morocco. Her father came to Belgium in the 60's to seek his fortune and had worked on and off since. Her mother immigrated after getting married, but insisted that if they live in Belgium they live together with Belgians and not in a neighborhood full of immigrants. Fraihi therefore grew up in the country. Her Islam is an open religion, or as she sees it an anarchist religion with flower-power. Her parents have always stressed to her the importance of education and the equality of women.

She chooses Molenbeek for her investigation as the most Moroccan neighborhood in Belgium. A Muslim village where the prices are low, chaos reigns, Arabic in the primary language and the meat is halal. Morocco is far and so Molenbeek, in the center of the country, attracts Moroccans from all over Belgium who want to feel a bit at home.

Molenbeek is also a dangerous area. A 'no-go' zone where policemen don't hang around unless they have to, as it is deemed provocative. Fraihi is advised that she shouldn't be out after 7pm, when the youth rule the streets. It is interesting that she mentions that in Morocco, like 86% of women there, she had been sexually harassed on the streets. Though she first walks about alone, after meeting threatening youth in Molenbeek, she enlists her younger brother to act as a bodyguard.

In this neighborhood, she rarely sees a woman walking about without a headscarf. She meets women with burqas, most of whom refuse to talk to her. The only one who does agree to talk with her turns out to be a Muslim woman from a non-religious family, who had become religious on her own. Fraihi sees this as Muslim punk culture - a visible way of being 'anti'.

She starts off by becoming a roommate to a Moroccan woman named Amira. Amira had met a Belgian-Moroccan who had come to Morocco to get married, and after being wooed for three days, against her family's advice, she left a good job and loving family in order to come to a foreign country to get married. Once in Belgium, her husband turned out to be a stingy wife-beater. Though not religious, he expected Amira to uphold to the highest Muslim standards. And so Amira fled, and got herself an apartment.

Amira first tells Fraihi that she first wants to get her papers together in order to get government benefits before going back. When she hears Fraihi's parents pay for her studies she tells her that there's no need, she could get the government to pay for it. Later on, she tells Fraihi that she might go back, sometime. Though she has nothing in Belgium and every good reason to go back to Morocco, she prefers staying.

Fraihi seeks out the youth who hang around the neighborhood, especially in the evenings. Why do they hang out? Because they can make money without working too hard: trading in drugs, stealing, people smuggling. They blame the Belgians for discriminating against them, for not thanking their parents, who had slaved away to build the country's rail-system. But they also don't work because its much easier not to. They say the Belgians, who work hard, pay taxes and barely finish the month, are the real victims. They, on the other hand, make easy money. And girls can get 10,000-15,000 euro in fake marriages

She meets boys all over who claim that they will blow themselves up, that the Arab leaders are not protecting Muslims and that somebody must do it. But throughout the book, she doubts whether she this is just 'macho' talk or not. Whether it is or not, it strikes her that these youth so easily talk about martyrdom, in a way that she hadn't experienced even when she was in Israel. These boys do admit that there are jihad recruiters who walk about, trying to get these youth to join in though, she's told, they aren't that successful. She does not get to meet one, and she suspects that's because she's a woman.

She meets boys and girls who speak Modern Standard Arabic quite well, which shows they have gone on long study periods in Arabic speaking countries. She doesn't meet girls who hang out, as its not considered proper. The girls spend their time studying Islam, and Fraihi considers that they might either bring about a revolution, or radicalize their faith even further.

She meets three boys in the metro-station who tell her they spend their entire day there. They serve as lookouts for the minor kids, who go stealing.

Faisal (24) started stealing when he was 15, mostly from the Flemish, as they carry more money then Walloons or Brussels residents. When he reached the age of majority he stopped since he doesn't want to end up in jail. Now he still steals money from the Flemish, but he gives it all for the holy wars in Chechnya, Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan and their victims.

Why only from the Flemish? Isn't that racist?

The Flemish have money and he doesn't want to steal from the Arabs who are poor and are willing to fight in the Jihad. He himself, he says, is willing to commit an attack, just give him the money for it. The Flemish state is rich, but does nothing for Chechnya, Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan. Pickpocketing the Flemish becomes a political action and might even be a divine virtue. Stealing from the Flemish to give to the Jiahd is a good cause, which compensates for his bad deeds.

His two friends don't agree with him. Aboubakr (17) sees no reason to give his money to anybody, but he has his own logic for stealing. He doesn't want to use the money his parents give him for things which are 'haram', like cigarettes. For those things, he steals. His conscience does bother him, but the thief in him wins.

The three tell her that the cops abuse Moroccans and that they're at war with the police. One time they caught a cop and beat him, in retaliation for being beaten in the police department. What about their parents, she asks? If their parents know anything, they are powerless to stop them.

She visits mosques as well. The first time she visits a mosque in Schaarsbeek, a nearby neighborhood, the imam preaches that the believers should give up their lives and money for jihad.

In another mosque she finds a Saudi-Arabia pamphlet with very strict instructions for women (don't use the phone, don't go anywhere without your husband's permission) and she speaks about it to Jamal, an Arabic teacher in the mosque. Jamal turns out to be extremely moderate, and gives her a whole lecture about how the youth are drawn to radical teachings instead of a tolerant Islam. For Jamal, Islam is a religion that supports openness, respect and tolerance and therefore Muslims should be able to live in the West and in Belgium without any problems. The extremists want to increase the rift between Muslims and non-Muslims and that is why the Saudi-Arabians are banned from the mosque.

She meets more people like Jamal, but she feels they're fighting a losing battle against the fundamentalists. She says that the moderate Muslims are walking a tightrope, between the Muslim fundamentalists and the right-wing (ie, nationalist) Flemish extremists. I had trouble understanding what she meant, but she later brings example of Muslims who vote for Vlaams Belang. I doubt most Muslims are in danger of becoming nationalist extremists, though. As Fraihi says, if they vote for Vlaams Belang, they do it out of protest, fear and disillusionment.

As one example she brings Fatima, a Moroccan immigrant in her 60s. She doesn't see herself as integrated and doesn't think she acts any different in Belgium then she did in Morocco. She came in 1968, got a hearty welcome, worked with Belgians and generally enjoyed herself. She followed up on her kids - went to PTA meetings and made sure she knew where they were going at all times. A friend of hers complains that her son lives off benefits, even though he could work. There is discrimination, she says, but the 2nd and 3rd generation don't want to work and just use it as an excuse. These youth are coddled by multicultural and integration organizations, all in the name of tolerance.

According to Fatima the problem-youth are problematic because they have become fully Flemish. She suffers from the extremist Muslims who demand that she wear a headscarf, soemthing that she'd never done in morocco. The moderate Muslims are the first victims of Muslim extremism, but nobody takes care of them. She supports the Vlaams Belang program: stopping immigration, reducing marriage immigration and cutting off the integration sectors. She sees Vlaams Belang as the only party which is upset at Muslim extremism, who wants to treat immigrants strictly but justly. Moderate Muslims are fed up and feel that they've been left on their own. Fatima wants to vote for a more moderate party, but only after the danger from Muslim extremism is dealt with.

She meets a worker at a youth center who tells her he blames the parents, imams and Belgian authorities for the Islamization of the youth. The parents blindly follow the Moroccan imams, who preach that almost everything is a crime, though many of them are former criminals themselves who have become 'born again' Muslims. Some have traveled to Afghanistan and are therefore barred from going back to Morocco, and yet the Belgian authorities don't seem to care. The parents were also not that religious when they were kids, but they expect much more from their children. Not only that, the parents had realized their dreams, but their children don't reach as far, don't get anywhere and are therefore easy prey for terrorist recruiters.

As she repeats in her interview, she feels the 'integration' sector has no reason to actually solve the problem, since that would take away their reason for being.

In Schaarbeek she goes to the Al-Hadith library financed by the Saudis, in a youth cultural center. There are many books there in French and Arabic and she picks up one of the few in Dutch: 'Islamistiche Richtlijnen' (Islamic Guidelines). The book calls to kill Jews and those who leave the faith, it advises parents that their daughters should wear a headscarf from the age of 7, and cover their face from puberty, and it calls for Jihad. El-Tamami of Al-Hadith doesn't understand why she thinks its extremist. After all, it's translated from Arabic and it's meant for people who study and analyze Islam, not for "disco-goers".

She finds this book elsewhere in Brussels. Like most of the Dutch language Islam literature, this book is published by Al-Tahweed in Amsterdam, and she goes to visit the publishing house there. The Al-Tahweed mosque is a known extremist mosque. When she arrives there's a police car outside, which according El-Tetouani of the Al-Tahweed publishers, is there to prevent reprisals against the mosque.

She gets to the women's section of the mosque, where she is immediately covered with a chador. The women explain to her that since the murder of Van Gogh, the mosque is closely watched, and that the infidels do nothing but attack Islam. El-Tetouani later tells her that they publish diverse books, and that they expect that their readers aren't dumb and will not be influenced by one quote from here or there.

She finds radical literature quite accessible in Brussels, including books which go into detail about Jihad.

Fraihi says that its not only the poor, unemployed youth who are drawn to extremism. She has a cousin in Morocco who had become radical, though he comes from a good , open family. A girlfriend of hers, from the Barbant village where she grew up, had also slowly radicalized. She complains that she can't find a job, but she wears a headscarf, refuses to shake hands and demands to work only with other women (though later she backs down and agrees to work with men, as long as she's not the only woman).

In Molenbeek there are mosques almost everywhere, but they are impossible to find. How will anybody know what's preached in them? Is the answer to extremism government control? How does that fit with freedom of religion? On the other hand, how is the fact that she was sworn at in one mosque for not wearing a burqa a sign of freedom of religion? She easily found radical Islamic literature, including books with detailed plans for Jihad and which call to kill Jews and ex-Muslims. Is that freedom of the press or tolerating a declaration of war?

She had met with Syrian sheik Bassam Ayachi, the most famous radical Muslim in Brussels, head of the Islamic Center of Belgium (CIB). The Belgian authorities acted against the center only in 2006, and Ayachi fled and currently lives in Syria. How did the authorities stand by for so long and let such a dangerous figure go on unhampered?

Fraihi doesn't give any answers, but she has many questions. Her book was written in order to encourage the debate about extremism in general and Muslim extremism in particular.

See also: Undercover in Klein-Marokko

4 comments:

Ares23 said...

In the nicest possible way, that post should have been much shorter and framed as an argument not reportage.

The story is unexceptional in modern Europe. It literally is "the way it is" in many parts of Europe.

You'd do well to explain what you make of it and why.

Best,
Ares

Esther said...

Hi Ares,

This book is not available for English speakers and my intention was therefore to give a summary of the book and the main highlights, rather than arguing with it. You're welcome to write your own review and give your own arguments pro and against whatever it is you want to argue about.

If you noticed in previous reports of mine, I generally try to give the highlights of the book, rather than just telling people whether I liked it or not.

As for being unexceptional - I would be interested in other such books. Do you know of any?

Rudi said...

The book is really a valuable one. One of the first results was that her own brother, Tarik Fraihi, against which a complaint of antisemitism has been lodged (http://www.antisemitisme.be/site/event_detail.asp?eventId=574&catId=31&language=NL) as responsible for an "intercultural" site, has changed a lot his own opinion after having read the stiry.

Jamal said...

Its such a shame that whenever a person chooses Islam as their way of life and wants to practice the faith properly, they are deemed radical, fundamental or extreme. I became Muslim at the age of 19, and am now 34. In all my life as a Muslim no one has ever advised or instructed me to engage in any terrorist acts. I do not deny however, that Muslim extremists exist. There seems to be a grave mistake on many journalist's part though, which is to confuse this extremism with the desire to practice Islam or live an Islamic life. If many of Belgium's rebelious youth embrace Islam properly then the citizens of Belgium have absolutely nothing to fear. It would result in decorum and mutual respect in society. Islam can co-exist in a non-muslim country. The scare-mongering needs to stop though.