Belgium: Benno Barnard update
Update 2: Abu Imran is Fouad Belkacem, and he's already made headlines in the past.
Update 1: Added sub-headings
Antwerp mayor Patrick Janssens, Minister of the Interior Annemie Turtelboom and the liberal, Flemish-nationalist and extreme-right parties all voiced support for Dutch-Belgian author Benno Barnard, whose lecture was canceled after Muslims got up to disrupt it.
Flemish nationalist parties N-VA and Lijst Dedecker were indignant as to why the police made no arrests. Extreme-right Vlaams Belang lodged a complaint against Sharia4Belgium, as did Barnard.
Benno Barnard claimed he had been threatened again, though he did not give any detials.
The city of Antwerp is asking for a summary judgment against Sharia4Belgium, for undermining freedom of expression by preventing Benno Barnard's lecture at the University of Antwerp (UA). The alderman college said that as the municipality is charged with ensuring respect for the law, and in order to prevent such attacks in the future, they want Sharia4Belgium to be fined 25,000 euro as a penalty.
Turtelboom (Open-Vld) said she will have the Sharia4Belgium website permanently followed, and if there's anything criminal there, it will be passed on to the justice department.
"I'm as indignant as Benno Barnard. This is an obstruction of the constitutional freedom of expression and should not be allowed (...) The action testifies of lack of respect for our basic right. I positively condemn this. Moreover, I think it's dangerous. Radicalism has no place in our society and should be fought against."
Ben Weyts (N-VA) and Filip De Man (Vlaams Belang) were not happy with this response. Vlaams Belang says that website should be banned.
The Sharia4Belgium site was taken offline Friday by the provider. At last count it had 86 members.
Sharia4Belgium spokesperson Abu Imran on Friday: "Anybody who speaks Dutch won't find on our site any hateful message or texts which incite to violence. Due to the commotion, the provider simply decided to temporarily block our site. Due to the propaganda language of Turtelboom, Dewinter and also Janssens they want to figure out the site. They won't find anything and will notice that the accusations are false. Soon Sharia4Belgium.webs.com will be accessible again."
Indeed, the site is now back online, claiming they've been wrongly attacked. British radical Anjem Choudary also posted a video in support of Sharia4Belgium.
Muslim community response
The Muslim community of Antwerp held a press conference where they distanced themselves from the website and the behavior of the youth during the lecture.
Representatives of the Moroccan associations, Turkish associations, Bosnian mosques and various various politicians of Moroccan or Turkish origin such as Ergun Top, Fauzaya Talhaoui, Youssef Slassi Nahima Lanjri and Karim Bachar asked not to generalize about the entire Muslim community.
They regret that the youth disturbed the lecture and say that the 'perpetrators are just a minority'. "None of us knows them, but they get all the attention. They preach nonsense, but who are they?"
Spokesperson Eric Bogaerts, a convert to Islam, said in a press conference in the De Koepel mosque in Borgerhout (Antwerp): "We deeply regret the misconduct of a few in the name of our faith. Additionally we think it's a pity that their behavior is now being attributed to the entire Muslim community."
"We, Antwerp residents of Islamic background, are well aware of the fact that tolerance and respect for freedoms are very important principles which should be respected by everybody. As the Muslim community, we're deeply aware that freedom of expression is a precious thing, and an important element for last dialog between the communities."
"Therefore we also ask that the incidents which took place should be judged on an individual basis and not attributed to a certain community. It is also obvious that their outrageous behavior and their mistakes should be pointed out to the youth concerned by the courts, their parents and other pedagogues."
"99% of us aren't like that. We are moderate. We are not different from you. Don't point the finger at the whole community, but at the perpetrators."
Groen! (Greens) parliament member Meyrem Almaci condemned Sharia4Belgium's action and said she expects the Muslim executive to say the same. "Because these sort of cases are the grist to the mill of extremists. Only via defended debates can you work on constructive solutions, not by pressure. Anyone can and may write opinion pieces and/or disagree with Barnard's opinion."
Karim Bachar, SP.A. municipal councilor in Antwerp said that Sharia4Belgium got what it wanted: attention. "We therefore ask the youth not to make fools of themselves. Be adults."
Mohamed Chakkar of the Federation of Moroccan Associations says they're a marginal group. "This type of action is not new under the sun. Such actions happen very often all over Flanders. But now it's Muslims and therefore the entire country is up in arms." Chakkar says the politicians are overreacting and calls for calm and a calm debate. "Let us reduce the problem to true proportions, without minimizing it."
Chakkar says all Muslim are being targeted. "If there's a group that's being watched, it's the Muslims. These sort of exaggerated responses create a wrong picture of us and harms the relations between the groups."
Ergun Top, CD&V municipal councilor of Turkish origin: "None of us had heard of these clowns till Tuesday. Their ideas don't belong in Western society." Top also said: "In the past we did much worse things. After Black Sunday [1991 elections, when Vlaams Blok did well] we threw tomatoes at Filip Dewinter." Top asks why the police didn't arrest the rioters to enable the lecture to go on.
Support for Filip Dewinter
Benno Barnard was quoted supporting Filip Dewinter, in the Gazet van Antwerpen: "For twenty years I've called Filip Dewinter a fascist. I was mistaken. The fascists are by the Muslims. Dewinter was always right. And that says an old Leftist boy like me."
And in De Standaard: "I've studied Islam thoroughly, by reading the Koran but also by reading other books. Currently I think Filip Dewinter is a prophet. In the past I called him a racist, but then I also had blinkers on. He realized very early the true nature of Sharia. As a Belgicist (supporting Belgium Federalism), I've no lover of Vlaams Belang."
In a column in De Standaard Barnard hits out at the journalists who covered the story, at the opinion-columns who accuse him of being extremist himself, and at the rector of Antwerp University, Alain Verschoren, who had accused him of having 'extreme opinions'. Verschoren had told him that he practices 'active pluralism', but Barnard accuses him of teaching Sharia law and facilitating Salafism. [see below for the UA response] Barnard says Verschoren is an idiot savant, as are hundreds of academics in Belgium and Europe.
Barnard says provocation is an old rhetoric method which has been accepted in our culture since Socrates and Hippias.
Barnard also says that he was quoted saying Filip Dewinter was a prophet of Islamization rather than a fascist, but without his intonation and his sarcastic reference to the 'immoral Bedouin', as Kemal Attaturk called the Prophet [ie, Mohammad].
"There are naturally many ethical highly-principled Muslims," Barnard writes, "And some of them apologized to me for something they had no part in, and that truly touched me."
Antwerp University response
University rector Alain Verschoren says that the lecture shouldn't have been canceled. Verschoren said that plainclothes police-agents were present due to the plans for protest announced on the Sharia4Belgium site.
The rector wasn't present during the lecture and says that the university employees who were there made a stupid mistake when they decided to evacuate the hall. Verschoren says he feels personally responsible and thinks Barnard should come back to finish his lecture. He doesn't think the disturbance could have been avoided, though, as it would be racism to deny entrance to people with a beard or of darker complexion.
The University of Antwerp denies it is teaching Sharia in its post-academic training for Islam teachers. The program was established in order to provide high-school Islam teachers with through study at an academic level of Islam in the context of Western society.
"In this way the UA wants to raise the quality of education in Flanders on Islam and prevents radical, foreign groups from propagating variants of the Islam in an unscientific and political-Islamic educational offering," says Professor Walter Nonneman.
Nonneman says that the Flemish government finances this program, "which includes Koran and Hadith teachings, Islamic theology, philosophy and law, but also diversity and pedagogical skills." The UA collaborates with the Belgium Muslim Executive on the program, and is responsible for its academic quality. Therefore, there's no issue at all of teaching Sharia.
Who is Abu Imran?
The spokesperson for Sharia4Belgium is Abu Imran (27). His real name is Fouad.
Shortly after the media discovered this organization, Het Nieuwsblad managed to get an interview with the group. Several people with beards and traditional clothing showed up. Abu Imran explained that they're the shura (council) for the media and they take care of communications. "Additionally there are shuras for safety, theological questions etc. Everybody has their own specialty and confer about it with our leader, who wishes to remain unknown."
Asked about their links with Choudary, Abu Imran answered: "Our personal relationships are besides the point. Sharia4Belgium is not about who we are are or who we know. But what we stand for. We represent the demand for Sharia, but plan no terror. Our faith is against violence. I've never heard a Muslim call to kill innocent people." Osama Bin Laden? "No, him neither."
Asked about Sharia, Abu Imran explained that The West has a completely wrong image of Islamic law, since there's no example of it. "Afghanistan, Somalia, Saudi-Arabia and Iran are not Islamic states. There is no single land today that lives by the true word of Allah."
Abu Imran says that under Sharia there will be no crime, and claims that this was the case during the Ottoman period. Adultery would be punished, but as polygamy will be allowed, that won't be an issue. As for homosexuality, he says they think the same as Catholics and Jews, there is no place for gays and they will probably be executed.
As for other faiths, he says that under Sharia, Jews and Catholics will have their own courts, but they will soon see that only Islam preaches the truth. There will be some rules, though, such as banning the sale of alcohol and clothing requirements for women.
The Sharia4Belgium site said that democracy is the real essence of heresy and falsehood, and has no place in Islam. Asked how they would introduce Sharia, Abu Imran answered they would so so through wada (missionizing). "When Allah wants it, Europe will realize that Islam is the only solution for all problems. The power will be peacefully transferred to the Muslims." Abu Imran claims this already happened in Spain, France and Switzerland around 750 AD, and that Muslims brought medicine, algebra, education and civilization to Europe, at a time when the Europeans didn't even know how to bathe.
"That I'm being called a hate-preacher doesn't bother me. Because it's not true." he doesn't want to say much about himself, saying he's not going to cry like Barnard (whom he derogatorily calls 'Bennooke') on TV about unsafe he feels, though he does say he's gotten death threats.
when asked about himself, Abu Imran repeats: "The messenger is not important, for us it's purely about the message." The Flemish media gave him a lot of space this past week to express his message: the group wants to remove the Belgian king and prime minister and instead install Sharia law.
AEL (Arab-European League) chairman Karim Hassoun says Imran had been a member. "He was a member for about a year, had even posted posters for the Muslim Democratic Party (MDP), with which the AEL participated in the elections of 2004. But our visions clashed, without it every leading to a confrontation. AEL wants a secular state, Abu Imran wants a religious one. Therefore Abu began his own movement with several other AEL-sympathizers. That's his right, as long as everything remains within the boundaries of what's legal."
Hassoun says that the administration of Sharia4belgium is just a couple of people, but he doesn't rule out that they have many sympathizers, certainly after Wednesday's stunt.
Not much is known about Abu Imran. He lives somewhere in Borgerhout (Antwerp) and has a son. After much urging, he admits he's been a member of the AEL. "Whether I'm the new Abou Jahjah? No comment. Who I am, you should ask the police services. For a while I've been constantly followed. From my front door to work and back. In my spare time I teach Dutch to Muslims. Also there agents have already shown up."
Peter Velle of the former Flemish Committee of Ex-Muslims claims that Sharia4Belgium has very good contacts with Middenweg, an Antwerp Muslim youth organization, some of whose members have gone to Pakistan and returned to Antwerp radicalized and aggressive.
Abu Imran claims his organization doesn't preach violence and rejects terrorism, but on the Dutch internet forum Ansaar.nl the same Abu Imran who promoted the Sharia4Belgium site earlier this month, also posted in November: "Mullah Omar Zindabad, Sheik Osama Zindabad, Taliban Zindabad!!!".
Zindabad means "long live" in Urdu. Abu Imran has many other posts on the site in support of the Taliban and against the infidel crusaders.
Sources: Nieuwsblad 1, 2, 3, Telegraaf, HLN 1, 2, Standaard 1, 2, GvA, Radio-1, Volkskrant (Dutch). h/t Tanguy Veys