Mar 31st 2016
AFTER last week’s horrific terrorist attacks in Brussels, lots of people began delving into the arcane internal politics of Belgium and asking whether there was anything unusual about that state’s relationship with its large Muslim community. It’s true that in relation to its population, Belgium has an exceptionally high number of young Muslims leaving for the battlefields of Syria and in some cases returning. It’s also true that the country’s chronic internal tensions between French- and Dutch-speakers have weakened the central government’s ability to do anything at all, let alone handle an ultra-sensitive problem. That’s one reason why, as a colleague has written, some of the most impressive work in countering radical ideology has taken place at local or municipal levels.
But some of the problems faced by the Belgian authorities are familiar in any European capital. Put simply, governments, even secular ones like that of France, want to have Muslim institutions with which they can do business, to keep extremism under control and help affirm the ideals of liberal democracy. Any institution which has been singled out for too much official favour is likely to lose credibility; government largesse can easily be a kiss of death. On the other hand, organisations which have a strong grassroots presence often turn out to have other, more dubious connections.
The problem of which partners to choose for co-operation (and how to avoid killing them with kindness) is especially acute in Belgium, which has a tradition, reflecting its Catholic heritage, of offering generous state help to religious institutions—above all, religious education. As explained in a recent article by Caroline Sagesser, of the Free University of Brussels, the Belgian state officially recognised Islam as one of the country’s religions, eligible for help, back in 1974. Ever since it has been trying to find a reliable Muslim body that can help certify mosques and schools (as deserving of official help) and is also genuinely representative of the community.
Only in 2007 did an “Executive of Belgian Muslims” start playing that role effectively, and it has been paralysed by internal quarrels, or by quarrels with the government, quite a lot of the time since then. The government’s need for a Muslim partner has grown more acute in the past couple of years since young zealots, mostly of Moroccan origin, began leaving for Syria. It recently earmarked €3.3m ($3.8m) to pay the salaries for 80 new imams; it still needs advice on where to find suitably moderate recipients of that money. (As of now, the country has around 300 imams, of whom about 160 are on the state payroll.)
The Executive has in recent weeks undergone some internal upheavals. An imam who had been president since March 2014, and complained that he was being undermined and threatened by hardline conservatives, stood down in favour of one who enjoys the formal backing of Belgium’s Moroccan community. The new president, Salah Echallaoui, has been serving as head of an association of Moroccans in Belgium which is also supported by the Moroccan state. In a sense, the Belgian and Moroccan governments are now co-managing Belgian Islam; that marks a big change from the Executive’s earlier days, when it was boycotted by Moroccans. Mr Echallaoui has been much in the news in recent days, condemning the terrorist attacks and insisting they had nothing whatever to do with the true message of Islam.
The emergence, and the government’s acceptance, of a leader with official Moroccan backing reflects a wider European trend. A decade ago, the talk in many countries was of fostering a “European Islam” which would put down local roots and gradually reduce the influence of migrant-sending countries like Algeria, Turkey and Morocco. But in the current situation, European governments are concluding that they need all the help they can get in keeping extremism under control; and if the governments of other countries can assist, so much the better. The Belgian government used to compete with Turkey’s religious affairs directorate, the Diyanet, for influence over Muslim newcomers; more recently it has welcomed the Diyanet’s help in preparing imams to work in Europe. The situation in other European countries with Turkish minorities has shifted in a similar way.
Another strong Muslim institution in Belgium, much heard in condemnation of the terrorist attacks, is the Ligue des Musulmans de Belgique (League of Muslims of Belgium) which in recent years has organised a high-profile exhibition of all things Islamic in Brussels. But the government is under international pressure to keep it at arm’s length. The United Arab Emirates, as part of its broader campaign against the global Muslim Brotherhood, has denounced the League as a “terrorist” organisation under Brotherhood influence. The League rejects that allegation, calling itself a peaceful organisation of mainly Moroccan-born Belgians which has no connection with Egypt (the homeland of the Brotherhood) or the Gulf. But the government keeps a careful eye on the speakers invited to the exhibition and it has banned at least one.
The problem is that any Muslim who wields enough clout to be a useful partner to the government is probably getting backing from somewhere, be it the governments of Morocco or Turkey, the Brotherhood or some other international network. And whenever the government starts grooming its own favourite Muslims, whose distinguishing feature is impeccable moderation, they can rapidly come to be seen as stooges by their own community. Many European countries, including Britain, face just that dilemma. But governments will keep trying to find the right partners because they feel they have no choice.