Brussels: The visibility of Islam

Brussels: The visibility of Islam

Earlier this week I posted a translation of an article about demographics in Brussels from the French-language Belgian weekly Le Vif/L'Express. The following is another article from the same series, this time about the reality of Islam in Brussels.


In certain neighborhoods of Brussels, new cultural and religious codes are enforced. Religious demands enter uninvited into public life, work, school, hospitals. Islam, faith or collection of customs, is becoming more and more visible in Brussels.

Why speak of 'Muslims' when the ethnic patchwork of Brussels allows a thousand other labels? Because there's much that claims this characteristic loud and clear. In 2009, a survey by the King Baudouin Foundation on the population issues of the Moroccan immigration found that 55% of Belgian-Moroccans defined themselves first as Moroccans (compared to just 7% as Belgians). 36% of them also put being Muslim first. In 2008, the same sort of survey on Belgian-Turks again showed that 40.6% of Belgian Turks define themselves as Turks, and 31% as Muslim Turks.

[ Ed: The study here in PDF. Q: What defines you most? A: Turkish citizen: 21.8%, Turkish: 28.8%, Kurdish: 2.8%, Muslim: 19%, Muslim-Turk: 31%, Belgian citizen: 4.8%, Belgian-Turk: 19.8%, Euro-Turk: 3.8%, World citizen: 10.5%, Eu citizen: 3%]

The weight of the cultural systems of origin is far from fading away to a lasting presence, validated by access to double nationality.

Unlike Paris, where the minorities live in the suburbs (banlieus), in Brussels they rather have a tendency to gather in the central municipalities, inside the 'little belt' and on both sides of the canal. It's also where poverty shows up the most, where dropping out of school is at its maximum, where more than 50% of the youth are unemployed, and sometimes occupied by the 'business' of looking for things to steal. Recently those neighborhoods seemed to spin out of control. The quiet is back. But sudden clashes between youth and police, between 'Whites' and 'immigrants', and between urban religion-based gangs (Arabs Muslims against Protestant Pentecostal Africans) are always possible.

At other times these tensions have been explained by economic insecurity and uprooting. Why add the religious ingredient?

"Religion in itself says nothing about social issues," says sociologist Eric Corijn (Vrije Universitiet Brussels). "You always need the link between religion and other social phenomenon. In the 1960s and 1970s, immigrants defined themselves by their work. With the economic crisis they found warmth, mutual aid and protection within their own communities. They've become more dependent on the economic plan which emphasized their ethnic, cultural and religious identification. But its' always unhealthy and even dangerous to cover these social dynamics with generalizing prejudices towards religions."

All the more so as a large number of Muslims in Belgium try to succeed in their integration, adapting to the entirety of our society, and enriching it. Nonetheless, certain social dynamics appear under a religious label, presenting problematic aspects. Description in four points.

1. Neighborhoods tend to become halal and suffocating

The exclusive presence of a community can create ghettos, resulting sometimes in truly difficult relationships between the residents.

The arrival of Europe [ed: the EU offices] in the Schuman district led to the progressive disappearance of working-class life. The same goes in the neighborhoods where there's an overwhelming Muslim majority. The 'others' feel excluded. A paradox: while the Muslim community is trying to obtain the preservation of its peculiarities, in very stereotypical neighborhoods, a non-Muslim will look in vain for a non-halal butcher, or an alcohol bar. The simple effect of market law? Undoubtedly. But it changes daily life and modifies perceptions. With regrets and sadness for some. With anger for others.

In 'old Molenbeek', for example, alcoholic beverages aren't served anymore in the social restaurant and the cultural center, supported by the municipality, and in the small cafe across from the police station, run by a Turk. In the public markets Arabic is spoken and the veil is omnipresent, but it's the religious atmosphere that's disturbing.

Alderman François Schepmans says that a few months ago she told Le Vif/L'Express that the fact that the center of Molenbeek looks like Marrakesh isn't a problem, but that it shouldn't be allowed to be transformed into Peshawar. She says she was attacked by the socialists, who belong to the same coalition as she does, and that she had to explain to certain fellow party politicians that she didn't intend to emphasize ethnic origin, but rather the dangerous grip of a religion on life and society.

In the cafeterias of certain municipal schools pork also disappeared, but no municipality has crossed over to imposing halal meat, despite attempts by some elected officials in Molenbeek and Schaarbeek.

The new social codes enforced in the street are difficult to attribute to a religion rather than lack of parenting and respect for the 'other'. But the facts are thus: girls too shortly dressed or without a veil are called 'whores'. Malika (a pseudonym), a North African police agent, disinclined to ban the veil, revised her position. She says when she was in the Molenbeek market, she got disagreeable remarks from certain merchants just because she was dressed as a European. "Life isn't easy for the girls in the district," she says.

In certain streets an 'immigrants' who walks around with a visibly Belgian friend risks quickly being shouted at 'what are you doing with this Fleming?" [Belgian]. Gay couples and prostitutes don't have a saintly smell either and are sometimes attacked by the little hoodlums who emerge as the defenders of Islam.

During Ramadan or when leaving the mosque, the cars are double-parked and are a disaster, without anybody daring to comment. Guido Vanderhulst, activist for promoting heritage in Sint-Jans-Molenbeek (La Fonderie), former partner of Philippe Moureaux (PS) when the latter welcomed immigrants in the 1990s, says there was so much laxity regarding this uncivil behavior that only an authority to develop citizenship is capable of bringing back mutual respect in the streets. Due to the deterioration of the situation, he advocates setting up a committee of the wise to restore the rules of life together.

2. The 'deals' between mayors and mosques

The mosques are more than a place for prayer. They direct and govern the Muslims, better than the phantom Muslim Executive of Belgium. The politicians realized that, as did Philippe Moureaux, who goes several times a year and congratulates himself for their collaboration.

The mayor of Schaarbeek, Bernard Clerfayt (FDF) is determined to have their attention, even as he gave up his 'courtesy visits' during the elections period.

Not very well known to the public, the presidents of the mosques have access to real power of influence. Yet they're without democratic legitimacy and sometimes dependent on their country of origin. In Schaarbeek the president of the Turkish mosque seats on the municipal council for MR. Philippe Moureaux himself was proposed one day the presidency of a Moroccan mosque. A beautiful tribute to a man with practical experience, but nonetheless a confusion of genres.

According to Corrine Torrekens, author of Islam in Brussels, two municipalities give an annual subsidy to Muslim places of worship: Molenbeek (35,000 euro to be distributed by the advisory council of mosques) and Schaarbeek (50,000 euros to the Association of Mosques, which need to use it in part to organize the Festival of Sacrifice). Sint-Joost, in contrast, refuses to speak formally with the 'spiritual chiefs'. Emir Kir, regional minister for urbanization (PS), often presented as the successor of mayor Jean Demannez (PS), regrets that.

In the Brussels region, there are 80 mosques and 116 Catholic churches, 17 Protestant churches, 13 Orthodox churches, 2 Anglicans and about fifteen synagogues. According to Corinne Torrekens, 80% of the Muslim religious resources and associations are concentrated in the five municipalities (Molenbeek, Anderlecht, Brussels City, Sint-Joost and Schaarbeek) where 75% of the Muslims of Brussels live. And less and less Christians and Jews.. Is it conceivable that certain deserted places of worship are regained by the local Muslim communities? In the current climate, such a transfer will be perceived symbolically in terms of losing or gaining territory by the extremists on all sides, says a priest of a parish concerned with the issue. In principle, Cardinal Danneels has always been opposed. "The Catholic Church prefers to entrust its properties to the new Catholic arrivals, or to other Christian communities."

On Eloy street, in Kuregem, not far from the new apartment of Archbishop Léonard (Primate of Belgium), the St. Francis Xavier church is today taken over by Catholic Africans, but its stained-glass windows have already been broken in the past. The old synagogues of Anderlecht and Schaarbeek have been abandoned, both because the more well-off Jewish families moved to Vorst and Ukkel, but also because of the feeling of insecurity which reigns in the area.

Chief Rabbi [of Brussels] Albert Guigui explained to newspaper La Capitale that they're opened only for the Jewish high-holidays.

3. The clash of memories and debates

What attention will be given to the small museums, the religious edifices, the architecture and statues, testimony of a history that Muslims know poorly, with which they don't identify much, to which they're sometimes hostile? Or does the future or Brussels lie in their hands? The forming of these future municipal elites is crucial.

"You don't create a city by starting with a clean slate from the past," expects Giudo Vanderhulst. He says that in a historical continuity, the new communities must act like those that preceded them, that's to say, assuming part of the old heritage, from which follow the values such as democracy and solidarity.

The presence of Islam brings about new debates and 'memories' which sometimes enter into a conflict with the old. While the senate recognized in 1998 the existence of the genocide of Christians in the Ottoman Empire, sanctioned as 'jihad' by the Muslim scholars of the era, socialist Laurette Onkelinx, Justice Minister (PS) hedged in 2005 in order to avoid enabling the penalization of the denial [negationism] of the Armenian genocide. She was seeking then to be mayor of Schaarbeek, where there's an important Turkish community. The PS didn't want to deprive itself of its regional champion, Emir Kir, an author of negationist sentiments.

Another wound, antisemitism, is awakened under cover of solidarity with the Palestinian people or 'anti-Zionism' with Iranian sauce. In Ukkel the Jewish holidays must be guarded. Certain satellite TV channels continuously pour out anti-Western discourse and reinforce the phenomena of identifying with distant wars (Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan). In the margins of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, certain community leaders test out their influence on Belgian diplomacy, and when they crash into failure, it leads to sentiments such as this: 'Don't wait for these young Brussels residents to be so estranged and stigmatized that they'll adopt 'your' values, because the latter are bloody red! As far as I'm concerned, a young delinquent has even more credit, and a right to even more respect than a minister, a politician or the parties who make their dough from the blood of children and the civilian population.. (blog of Mohsin Mouedden)

4. Less freedom of expression in the public space

As areas become homogeneous, the risk also exists that freedom won't be guaranteed anymore, to avoid offending part of the population quick to explode. An exhibition in the center of town showing red high-heeled shoes on a prayer mat was shut down after threats. Elected immigrant officials again demanded within the PS, that the route of the Gay Pride parade will be diverted. Debate on Islam is soon perceived as blasphemy and exposed to the accusation of 'Islamophobia', to an uproar, even to physical intimidation. The former have been aimed at Muslims themselves, when they distance themselves from their group.

Source: Le Vif/L'Express (French)

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