Everyone is afraid: the world according to Abou Jahjah

About the author
Rosemary Bechler is openDemocracy Editor. She chaired the National Peace Council and Peaceworkers UK and edited New Times before joining openDemocracy in 2000. For the British Council, she has edited four volumes of Britain and Ireland: Lives Entwined (2003 – 2012) and written Unbounded Freedom – a guide to Creative Commons thinking for cultural organizations (2006). Her compiled volume on the Convention on Modern Liberty was published by Imprint Academic in 2010. Her PhD was on Samuel Richardson: she has reviewed literature for the TLS and politics for Political Quarterly.
The charismatic leader, Dyab Abou Jahjah, is giving voice to a militant new form of Arab European identity. His Arab European League (AEL) is growing in Belgium, France and the Netherlands, and plans to expand across Europe. He demands that Europeans hear him and calls on Arabs to take the rights they feel they are denied. openDemocracy went to Antwerp to listen.

I Who is Dyab Abou Jahjah? A short biography

Dyab Abou Jahjah is president of the Arab European League.

He is 32 years old, has a rock-star presence, is flanked by crop-haired bodyguards at scenes of riot, and has been dubbed the “Doctor Frankenstein of integration”.

I meet him in the old community centre in Borgerhout, the Moroccan district of Antwerp, Belgium’s ancient port city.

Dyad Abou Jahjah

With him is a silent individual who sits and smokes at the back of the room. He turns out to be another of the five founder-members of the Arab European League, with a useful memory for dates and figures.

He denies the stories of police “no-go-zones” and Jewish businesses attacked in the city’s diamond district – although he will point out to us, smiling almost shyly, the nearby street dubbed by the locals the “frontline”.

Abou Jahjah re-seats us on less rickety chairs. He seems more like the scoutmaster that is one of his roles in life. He commands great respect in Europe amongst a younger generation of what the Economist – after the bomb attacks in Madrid – referred to as “disgruntled Muslims”. He is open and direct and has what some have called “enviable conviction”. He has written a 400-page book in an attempt to explain his philosophy to anyone in the rest of the Belgian nation who will listen.

An interview in April 2004 by a spokesman of the Arab European League, Ahmed Azzuz, contains what could be interpreted as a threat to Antwerp's Jewish population. His comments included the statement: "We want to warn Antwerp’s Jewish community in its entirety to be on its guard. The community’s support for Israel is no secret." Abou Jahjah responds: (May 2004) "these are totally manipulative quotes. All the AEL said is that we are afraid and concerned that an attack of terrorists might target our city for these reasons, just like it targeted Spain. It is its right as citizens to express concerns, and the reasons we upheld are factual and real. In no way did the AEL mean this as a threat or intimidation, but as a call for awareness and condemnation of the support by some of our compatriots (be it Jews or not) to the state of Israel that we consider as terrorist." What do you think? We welcome your views.

But there is undeniably something of the shape-shifter about him. This is not a psychological trait so much as a fact of his life. Son of a university teacher and a schoolteacher who remain in the Lebanon, he left at 19, having been refused a visa to take up an undergraduate course in the University of Michigan, thanks to the outbreak of the first Gulf war. Instead, he came to Belgium. Meditating on the “administrative” and patchwork nature of his first Lebanese identity, he will tell you how Palestine is so close to his family home that you can now see the Jewish settlements on the hills, and refer you to the story his grandfather told him about his father taking the new Lebanese identity cards given them by the French and setting light to them in the main square.

Some story involving the Hizbollah secured him asylum in Belgium. He was, he frankly admits, an economic migrant: it was “the only way”. Several jobs in the “black economy” were followed by a proper job in the nearby Antwerp airport, and what must have been a fairly rapid rise up the ranks of the second biggest trade union movement in Belgium, the socialist FGTB/ABVV, to a leading position looking after the interests of migrant workers.

Whether Abou Jahjah was right or not to see this route as a dead-end, the search was now on for him and a political circle of friends for an organisational framework that would enable them to do the job of a Muslim and Arab minority rights movement. This was the point at which they made a decisive shift in their thinking: from protesting socio-economic disadvantage to inventing a new form of identity politics. A few metamorphoses later, the Arab European League was born in February 2000, replete with a two-pronged programme – one mission for Europe and one for the Arab world.

Life since then has been rather eventful. In 2001, Abou Jahjah became chairman of the Sabra and Shatila committee, set up to take advantage of relatively new Belgian laws allowing foreign leaders like Ariel Sharon to be investigated for his alleged involvement in such crimes as the massacre of 3,000 Palestinians in the Lebanon in 1982.

By the end of 2002, Guy Verhofstadt, the Belgian prime minister, challenged by Abou Jahjah to come to the immigrant neighbourhoods of Antwerp and speak Arabic, signalled his will to open a dialogue with Muslim and Moroccan communities on Islamophobia and discrimination, while the Flemish Green Party and the Socialists called for a new “pact with immigrants”, Arab and non-Arab alike.

In 2003, the AEL responded to new “zero-tolerance” policing in Antwerp by setting up their own civic patrols to watch the police. In 2004, they launch their Liberty-Equality-Fraternity petition in France to defend women who choose to wear the hijab against the threatened ban.

As the federal AEL extends its member-organisations to the Netherlands and France, Abou Jahjah, having stood for the first time in the Belgian elections in May 2003, is now launching a new Muslim Democratic Party looking forward to elections in 2006. But he is not so interested in election politics as such. At a time when multiculturalism is under attack in Europe, Abou Jahjah is calling for a multiculturalism that works. The “enviable conviction” people talk about is channelled into the “empowerment” or the “mobilisation” of a community, and the active defence of multiculturalism necessary to achieve that end.

He says that he wants to engage in a dialogue with all sides of Belgian society, before moving on, further afield, in Europe. Reflecting on the length of our interview, he wryly commented: “The thing is, in the neurotically racist society where I live, I do not often get the opportunity to talk about the content of what we’re doing…”

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II Everyone is afraid: the full interview

This interview conducted for openDemocracy by Rosemary Bechler, took place on 16 March 2004

openDemocracy: You have been described as “a charismatic figure who has done for Islamic European identity what Pim Fortuyn has done for Dutch nationalism”. At this critical moment for Islamic European identity – what is it that you really stand for?

Dyab Abou Jahjah: Pim Fortuyn did not build a movement. He was not aiming at major structural changes in society. He was a populist politician, trying to translate the grievances of the Dutch population into policies. This was evident after his death, when the organisational framework of his party fell apart.

What we are attempting is totally different. The Belgian majority may only have woken up to our existence once we hit the headlines because our community is marginalised, but we had an established base within our community long before this. We remain a grassroots organisation.

Tjebbe van Tijen’s thoughtful reflection on the meaning of Pim Fortuyn’s assassination is worth reading still; see “The sorrow of the Netherlands” (May 2002)

What we believe is this: European society, especially on the continent, is fundamentally monocultural. Everything reflects this. What people propose as the pre-conditions for inclusion or “integration” seem to us primarily cultural in nature, rather than socio-economic or political. If you do not want to give up what makes you different – forgo your own identity – then you are socio-economically and politically excluded, and the attempt is made to justify this exclusion.

Of course you need to have a socio-economic platform of demands. But that is not enough for us. We must also mount a defence of our own identity. This is more than a response. It is the core issue.

One example? Belgium needs unskilled labour. It rejects Moroccan unskilled labour, preferring to import unskilled Polish labour. Why?

openDemocracy: What is this European monoculture which all the different European countries have in common?

Dyab Abou Jahjah: Europe is diverse, but the common aspect, recognised worldwide, is the western European Judeo-Christian heritage. This has both a racial connotation related to being white; and a civilisational claim, Judeo-Christian in character.

Step outside that framework, and diversity is no longer permissible. The mechanisms of socio-economic exclusion are deployed to push towards homogeneity along those traditional lines.

So exclusion is an instrument for applying pressure: If you don’t assimilate, I exclude you. You want a job? Housing? You wish to be recognised politically? Then assimilate and we will accept you. If you don’t, you have only yourself to blame, because you are simply not “integrated”. That is the logic.

It may be a more Anglo-Saxon approach to call upon ethnic minorities to deconstruct themselves into western-style “individuals” who can be self-reliant in the marketplace. At least you can “do business” with that. But it is still wrong.

On the European continent, however, in countries like Belgium, the Netherlands, France, Denmark, the assimilation process is steadily acquiring a “culturalist” aspect. People are increasingly sensitised to what they consider “our culture, our civilisation, our values”: and they try to impose these on people who do not share them.

openDemocracy: How would you say your struggle was affected first by the events of 9/11 and now by the bombing of innocent civilians in Madrid?

Dyab Abou Jahjah: Our problems are not simply a reaction to 11 September 2001, or to 11 March 2004 in Madrid. But of course, it makes things worse. Especially that attack in Madrid will give extra arguments to people who think in terms of repression and exclusion.

Indeed, in Belgium and France we are already beginning to hear that new tune, customary after such events. What previously would have been courtesy of a far right discourse, now becomes more mainstream and everyday, with people beginning to say: “Well, after all, perhaps we do need some kind of police state.”

But although it has always been difficult to argue as we do – and is surely not getting any easier – essentially what we are defending is the human right to be who you are and to be treated equally as such. We cannot drop this: if we did, we would have yielded everything.

openDemocracy: Do you understand the position of the people who bombed the train in Madrid?

Dyab Abou Jahjah: Do I understand the motivation of Arabs and Muslims who want to strike against Spain? I understand it completely. Had it been ETA, it would have been a different matter. That I would have regarded as absurd, because ETA’s struggle is imaginary. The Basque country has a nationalist party in power, and Spain is moving towards devolution and the granting of Basque rights without a fight.

But by supplying an occupying force for Iraq, Spain is inflicting suffering on Arabs and Muslims. What I do not understand is that this has to be translated into attacking Spanish poor people and people who demonstrated against the war in Iraq. That I do not accept.

There is, you see, a thin but necessary line we need to draw here. We must avoid having a hysterical populist statement forced out of us to the effect that we “condemn categorically the motivation of those who committed this atrocity” or we “don’t understand this irrational violence against our civilisation and our democracy” – the phraseology Bush reserves for 9/11. We must condemn the act, but we must be saying, as most of the Spanish people who reacted to these events are saying: “It is the fault of Aznar.”

openDemocracy responded to the terrorist attacks of 11 March 2004 by holding a public meeting in London, launching an online dialogue and publishing articles and forum posts. See “After Madrid: war, prevention, dialogue?”

I was agreeably surprised to see on TV how well the Spanish people understood the logic of the situation. Because there is a logic to these attacks. Of course they were terrified. They condemned it. Perhaps they were full of anger and hatred towards the perpetrators. But, they knew why it had happened.

openDemocracy: It is not only repression and exclusion that happens as a result of these events. As you say, poor people, ordinary people are also very frightened. And when they are told that mosques in Belgium are recruiting centres for militant Islamist movements – again they experience fear. Can you do anything through your actions to improve the situation?

Dyab Abou Jahjah: This is the international context. You cannot separate it from the local, that’s true; but you also cannot hope to solve it at the local level. We are in a global war, and the targets of a global oppression. The people responsible have been waging war against the third world, as well as the Arab and the Islamic world, for the last fifty years.

All we can do is say: “Listen, there are extremists, but they are marginal”, and that: “Anybody who breaks the law should be treated according to the law, arrested and punished accordingly.”

For our part, we obey the law. We fight our struggle within democracy for as long as democracy exists. The minute it ceases to exist, that’s another story. But as long as we have space to move within the civic democratic order, we are content to abide. The moment they start shooting us in the streets, or putting us inside concentration camps – I hope that day will never come – nobody would blame us if we then resorted to self-defence, or decided to pack our bags and go away. You never know!

People of course are afraid. They really are genuinely afraid of the terrorism which arises as a reaction against what imperialism does. But on the other hand, we are afraid too. We are afraid of the repression that will be precipitated by that terrorism, which is also just an escalation of the forms of oppression already in place in this society.

What is terrorism? See Fred Halliday’s “Terrorism in historical perspective” (April 2004)

And we are afraid of the racism that uses these fears instrumentally in order to gain greater legitimacy in society. So you see, everybody is afraid.

Antwerp, birthplace of the Arab European League

openDemocracy: In 2006, the far right Vlaams Blok looks set to win the mayoral elections in Antwerp. Its large orthodox Jewish population has prompted you to dub it the “European capital of Zionism”. You have also been vocal about the “cultural terrorising” which, as you see it, typifies Flanders in particular. Could this movement have started anywhere else?

Dyab Abou Jahjah: A movement for change like the AEL will be born where there is the highest level of oppression. Antwerp is that place in Europe: the most dramatic oppression of minorities; the strongest far right movement; and amongst the population at large, the highest levels of xenophobia.

On the Eurobarometer for xenophobia and racism, Belgium consistently scores top of the list with Greece; sometimes above, sometimes second. Break down your Belgian results into regions, and the Flanders proportion would skyrocket. Wallonia has an average European xenophobic rate, no higher than France. Taken alone, Flanders would be off the scale!

We don’t need the Eurobarometer to tell us this. We have visited family in other countries, and seen how community life compares. Analyse the number of drop-outs from the school-system, or the rate of unemployment. Compare the conditions of existence of the same immigrant community that came over to Flanders with those who went to live in the Netherlands, almost in the same years, and the differences are amazing!

In the community in Holland, someone with a university degree is no longer singled out for special distinction. Here, somebody who reaches university and takes a degree, let alone with a good job, is little short of a miracle! In this neighbourhood of Borgerhout, 60% of Moroccan youth are unemployed, as opposed to 10% in Holland.

So it is more than voting behaviour or the political terms of debate which sustain this sense of peculiar oppression. Where the social pressures are so high, some kind of eruption is always on the cards. But people are also more likely to organise themselves, saying: “We must find a way to struggle against that…”

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openDemocracy: Vlaams Blok has as its slogan, Eigen Volk Eerst (“Our people first”). Did the AEL begin as a local response to this kind of message?

Dyab Abou Jahjah: Initially, the five of us who founded the Arab European League had a think-tank in mind: not a political movement at all. We could clearly see the deep structural discrimination going on against our community. What could we do about it? We were driven by a kind of institutional logic.

Nick Ryan writes about the Vlaams Blok on openDemocracy

Many of us were in political parties such as the socialist party, or the trade union movement, which is held in high regard in Belgium. Flanders is a small country with only five million people. Unions such as the socialist FGTB/ABVV with one million members in its Flemish section – almost half the working population – can do a lot. I myself was in one of the two biggest trade unions in Belgium, having advanced to a leading position of responsibility for their migrant worker policy. Mine, however, turned out to be a purely ceremonial function.

I had no notion of cultural or identity politics at that stage. I was not alone being paid to combat discrimination in the labour market. I had fifteen colleagues alongside me. But they didn’t let us get on with it.

We were encouraged to organise events to enhance the union’s profile, and that of the socialist party to which it was linked. That was it. We were certainly not intended to have any structural impact on the problem. Studies by professional bodies both outside and inside the union had looked into the reasons behind discrimination. Everything pointed towards racism. But racism within the union, I discovered, was as problematic as it was in the rest of society. I was shocked.

One of the world’s foremost thinkers about race, Paul Gilroy, offers a distillation of his ideas in openDemocracy: see “Neither Jews nor Germans: where is liberalism taking us?”

We wrote manifestoes to be discussed in the union’s political bureau. I could attend these meetings, although I didn’t have a vote. It soon became clear to me that there was only one response: “That is too sensitive amongst our members!” “Our members” meant the white European members. The other members are an irrelevant minority, so why rock the boat?

The issue here was not jobs: it was whether or not the union should fight racism. We had concrete suggestions: some technical, such as affirmative action or quotas; others less so, for example, campaigns to raise awareness within the unions. Both were doomed. The union officials admitted and will admit today that around one quarter of their members have racist attitudes, but were unwilling to tackle the problem in case they lost a lot of them.

You simply can’t fight against such racism without fighting it. So we got started on our think-tank, al-Rabita, which means “the League”, in 1999. Now, we decided to take a PR approach ourselves. “OK”, we said, “let’s go and convince them that racism exists, that it is no good and they should do something about it…” Eventually, we saw the flaw in this logic as well. They didn’t have to be told about racism, because they knew all about it and simply didn’t care. It would have to be in their interest to do something about it. This, in turn, depended on our mobilising a considerable amount of support behind us.

When we asked ourselves what kind of political pressure we could apply, the answer was glaring. We had no capital: our community was completely lacking in high-level representation in society as a whole. Without educated leaders, there was nothing going for us except the possibility of a mass movement, which didn’t at that time exist. So we said, let’s go and start a mass movement.

We now looked for an already-existing structure that could be turned into a mass movement. In 2000, we joined a Belgian umbrella organisation for some seventy local Moroccan groups, which we thought might afford us an ideal basis.

Another stark lesson! The people who worked for this federation were paid by the state. Their member-organisations were also subsidised by the state, to carry out only those cultural activities that remained within a framework approved by the state. So, when we took our political package into that organisation, we jeopardised their grant-funding. Such a structure couldn’t begin to adjust itself to our goals.

Some of the leaders had sold out long ago, and others who had started out with an ambition to do something for their community, had soon become completely institutionalised, looking upon their activity as just a job. After a while, together with some other members of the federation we demanded that it should be made open to individual members, to pave the way for a political movement. But we met with great resistance to the idea that political mobilisation was possible within an ethnic minority. They said it would be a waste of time.

This was going nowhere. Worse – there were no alternative organisations. Those that existed were dependent on the establishment, and over a period of time the establishment was hoping that an imperceptibly gradual assimilation process would take place, until we were lost in the grey mass of people. The last thing they wanted was for the minority to form an emancipatory movement.

Eventually, we concluded that only an independent movement could perform this function, a movement which – to this day – has no dependency at all on subsidies. Was there a basis for it? We didn’t know. But we thought: it must be possible to mobilise politically for a just cause. People wanting to change their conditions have driven the whole of human history.

openDemocracy: Did you have historical antecedents in mind – the sans papiers movement in France, or the conflict in the Middle East? You have, haven’t you, often been described as “Belgium’s Malcolm X”.

Dyab Abou Jahjah: I only discovered Malcolm X when people started comparing me to him! No, it was our personal experience that shaped how things developed. Of course, I was politically active in the Lebanon before I left at the age of 19: I studied politics. The same was true of the others in the founder group. We could analyse the dynamics of the situation.

There was, however, no guarantee that this initiative would work. But it did, and the way it worked amply vindicated our original thesis. At the old Federation, if we wanted to “attract” fifty or sixty young people from this neighbourhood of Borgerhout, we needed to offer a music concert or free food before we could try and drum whatever the message was into them.

Now, we make them pay to come and listen to AEL political speeches. And they do it!

openDemocracy: Why?

Dyab Abou Jahjah: We treat them as normal human beings and adults. When you are regarded as a problem from the off – “you will only come and listen if you get something out of it” – you behave that way. You realise immediately that those people have very low expectations of you, and you say to yourself: “OK, I will come, and I will eat, and I won’t listen to you and then I’ll go!”

Whatever space we have, we fill: two or three hundred minimum. Of course we are quite young ourselves, with the advantage of never having been distanced from the community. We played in football teams. We knew a lot of guys who would never have been reached by older, more traditional leaders.

At the same time, we got our analysis right. We went to the cafes that nobody went to, regarded as “drug cafes where criminals hang out”. This is where we sat. These were neither drug-infested nor criminal: but it was where the most excluded group of youth went because they were rejected from all other venues.

People had a real fear of these youngsters. They were having meetings, coming up with all sorts of theories about how to deal with “them”. But they never talked to them.

As educated, university graduates who were politically active, our profile is not exactly that of the masses; true. But we went to them, rather than trying to make them come to us. Ours was not a missionary approach, telling them what we were going to do for them. We went and said: “Look, do you want to stay a loser, or do you want to do something, for yourself and for your community?”

We began with what we called “preaching moments”. Ten or fifteen youngsters would turn up saying: “What are you going to do for us?” – because that was the mentality inculcated in them by all those predecessor organisations. But the groups kept growing, because we would say: “No, we aren’t going to do anything for you. If you want to do something for your community, then join us. If not, then you can leave.” That was our approach, and we meant it. It is a good tactic as well! But we really believe in that.

And we also came up with the goods for our community. We started growing and we had street credibility…

openDemocracy: Because you did things for them?

Dyab Abou Jahjah: Because we did things on a par with them. If they had a fight with skinheads, we went and fought alongside. We were not the ones saying, you shouldn’t. No. We don’t go and aggress anybody. But if a skinhead comes to beat you up with a baseball bat, you return the favour. That was our attitude: a different attitude from the traditional one.

Eventually, it gained us all the respect we needed from people who are very cynical. They are extremely intelligent politically. They don’t have the intellectual jargon to think in, but they are highly astute. They trusted us: and we deserved it.

They became us and we them: they became the AEL. What we did then was to reject the approach which gives key positions to chosen “cadres”. Instead we said: “We believe that someone who has never studied, or been active politically, is perfectly capable of sustaining a leading position in this movement once the structures have been clearly explained to them, if they are given a chance to take responsibility.” In the beginning, the benefits of that approach were not always obvious! But eventually it started working.

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A two-pronged vision

openDemocracy: From the beginning this was not just your normal local movement, was it? This community you make representations on behalf of has its own international agenda. You have personally been very involved as chair, for example, of the Sabra and Shatila campaign which sought to indict Sharon for war crimes allegedly committed in 1993. Where does that fit into this movement?

Dyab Abou Jahjah: From the very beginning of al-Rabita, as you say – and this is something you can check out – our mission-statement, “Vision and Philosophy”, was in one part focused upon the community in Europe, and in the other upon the Arabic world.

The ideological framework of what is still called “Vision and Philosophy” has been bulked out by further explanations. The principles remain the same today. For the community in Europe, we stand for empowerment, responsibility, pride, identity. Go to the Arabic world and there is another set of goals: unity, democracy, pride and identity.

These have never changed. Now when people accuse us of having a double agenda – we say: “You bet, and if you haven’t noticed we have had an open double agenda from the first! It has never been hidden!’’ Do we take an interest in the Palestinian cause, or mobilise ourselves on Arab issues? Of course we do.

openDemocracy: You are an advocate of Arab nationalism…

Dyab Abou Jahjah: I am, and I am proud of that. “Arab” is a nationality or a nation that has been formed after the Islamicisation period, and in that sense, being “Arab nationalist” does not exclude diversity.

In the AEL, we define our identity on three levels: the primary ethnic group, say “southern Lebanese”; second, nationhood; and lastly, the international Muslim community – an ideological category. We believe our identity is defined only by these three levels, and that they are not mutually exclusive. So it is a complex business: but identity is complex!

openDemocracy: Which comes first: a movement of Muslim immigrants, or Arab nationalism?

Dyab Abou Jahjah: Arabism and Islam are complementary. Too often, Arabs have been confronted by an unnecessary choice: either you can be a good Arab national and dream of building a modern Arab state, or you can be a good Muslim, in which case you have to seek to unite all Muslims together and forget about individual nations. That was a smart way to dissipate people’s energies with ideals that could never be realised, and that are in fact unnecessary in Islamic terms.

Islam does not stipulate the necessity for political unity. It is a community of believers, international in nature and without any territorial basis, based upon a framework of thought.

“Arabity” – the fact of being Arab – is actually a civilisational and national movement. It claims that the Arabs are not actually Moroccans and Lebanese and Algerians, but one people and one nation that has diversity within it, but which can be adequately translated into a federal state.

It rejects the colonial heritage and in particular the Sykes-Picot Treaty, dividing the Arabic Mashreq in 1916. It argues that decolonisation can never be complete while we are still living in the boundaries created by the coloniser, and that the state must be built within national boundaries – the same sort of nation-building process that Germany underwent relatively recently, after all. Moreover, we believe that this Arab nation, unlike the Turkish or Iranian nation, was created by Islam.

Before Islam, a few tribal societies called themselves “Arab”, sometimes culminating in kingdoms around a particular city, which spent their time harassing the people surrounding them. Islam brought a new nation-building dimension to the region which Arabised the Arabs. It did not Islamise all of them – there are Arab Christians – but it Arabised them. It did not Arabise the Iranians or the Turks.

You must understand, if you go and talk to Arabs, nobody knows Lawrence of Arabia. People saw the movie of course. But as far as they are concerned, he was an agent of the British foreign office trying to defend the interests of the British empire – which he did quite well, at the cost of the Arab revolution.

The Arab nation lived united under the Arabic empires, and was still united under the Ottoman empire. The atmosphere was one of the free interaction of people and cultures up until the 1920s. Of course you had a gradual process of colonisation – but it was not a divisive occupation. The whole Arab nation was kept intact. It is only with the gradual collapse of the Ottoman empire that Arab unity was lost.

What came afterwards was something different: colonial occupation and division. I am from the south of Lebanon. Palestine is one kilometre away: you can see it with your own eyes from my village. Today, unfortunately, you can see Jewish settlements there. I always remember my grandfather telling me how even in the 1930s, after the declaration of the Lebanese state, his father took those new Lebanese identity cards from the French, and they burned them in the main town square as a protest against that so-called new identity. What is Lebanon after all? I say I am Lebanese because I carry that passport, and it is a reality too, albeit an administrative reality. But Lebanon is a pastiche of three provinces from different geographical regions and with different dialects. These Frankenstein stories – a piece here, a piece there, that’s a state! – are everywhere.

Furthermore, the post-colonial period was characterised by the building of dictatorships. This is why our struggle for Arab unity has to work for democracy, and vice versa. Dictatorships are exclusivist in nature: they do not even include the people, let alone recognising supranational structures of power, and they feed off division. Dictatorship cannot regionally integrate.

But once dictatorship is removed, integration will follow naturally, because we have a common language for, let us say, 280 out of 300 million Arabs in the world today. The 20 million remaining members constitute an ethnic minority who should be emancipated and granted their rights and autonomy – but not independence. We stop short of independence, because we believe that these people belong to the Arabic people too, as citizens. Arabity is a form of citizenship.

Of course, when we say Arab and Islam is not contradictory, you have to understand, it is because others – the traditional Islamists – say it is. So when we say this, we are addressing them.

openDemocracy: How far does your democracy programme extend? Would you advocate that Saudi Arabia stop attempting to assimilate white women into its dominant way of life?

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demonstration
Dyab Abou Jahjah: The AEL is maybe the only organisation in Europe that has demonstrated against the Arab regimes. On 13 December, two years ago, we had a demonstration which stopped in front of every Arab embassy in Brussels, protesting against the dictatorships, the oppression of Arab people and the selling out of our people to the west and to America.

It’s a funny thing about the Arab world: its dictatorships are linked to the west. You named Saudi Arabia, but you could have cited Egypt, where in my opinion there is even greater repression of political opinion, and an abhorrent record in suppressing freedoms, despite its apparently civilised veneer. The same goes for Morocco, for Tunisia, Kuwait.

There is in general a need for democracy, not only confined to elections, but accepting diversity as well. You singled out Saudi Arabia. Fine. We have always criticised that regime. We want regime change. But we don’t want regime change imposed on us through occupation. We want our own people to change it. We are quite willing to fight alongside dictators who are fighting against occupation…

There is a principle at stake here: that you cannot be liberated – you liberate yourself. This we deeply believe.

But let’s return to this question of diversity as applied to western European women in countries like Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt or Lebanon – maybe twenty of the twenty-two Arab countries. I think on the whole they are privileged.

Are Belgians resident in Morocco faced with any requirement to integrate, let alone assimilate? I know people living in the Lebanon for twenty, thirty years who don’t speak a word of Arabic. They speak to us in French, and we speak to them in French. Honestly speaking, we don’t mind. The huge immigrant Armenian community living in Lebanon have their own neighbourhood in Beirut. The city of Beirut issues statements jointly in Armenian and Arabic. There are Armenian schools. We adapt. I was never aware of any of this until I went back to the Lebanon from here. I just thought it was normal.

Saudi Arabia is indeed a generally oppressive regime based upon a very narrow-minded interpretation of religion, not only for people from other cultures, but for its own people as well. That is a fact and we are against it. But when it comes to cultural diversity, the Arabic world is more freewheeling than Europe, and yet in relation to European culture it sometimes has an uncalled-for inferiority complex.

Europeans have often told me: “When we go somewhere in the world, we adapt ourselves: why don’t you adapt yourselves?” Hell, no, you don’t. Wherever you go, you impose your culture and try to ‘enlighten’ the local population: South Africa, the Congo – the list is long!

Much to declare, nothing to hide

openDemocracy: Returning to Europe, did the far right in Antwerp rise in reaction to the Jewish community or to the latest waves of immigrants?

Dyab Abou Jahjah: The right in Antwerp is not “neo-Nazi”. Led by Filip Dewinter, it is a populist European right-wing movement which flirts with a Jewish community with which it has very good contacts. To be fair, only 10% of the Jewish community votes for the Vlaams Blok – but saying that, you already begin to see what we are dealing with.

When they were still linked to the SS, dating from the days of Flanders’ collaboration, Vlaams Blok was a marginal group. They broke through in 1991 when they took the decision to distance themselves. Whether they still have sympathies in that direction, who knows? What you can say is that they do not show them to the world at all.

openDemocracy: Does the AEL feel at all responsible for this 10% of the Jewish population voting with the Vlaams Blok? You emphasise the fact that your criticism is levelled at Zionism, which is just another political ideology, and the Israeli state, which you have described as run by “neo-nazi Zionists”. Whatever the distinctions between this stance and anti-Semitism, isn’t it bound to filter down amongst the ranks of your supporters as inflammatory?

Dyab Abou Jahjah: Why! If you believe what Vlaams Blok or various Zionist organisations are telling people – that we are terrorising the Jewish community here – well, of course. They would like to make us responsible, sure! But this is totally unproven.

Let’s analyse the incidents people cite when they accuse us of anti-Semitism. These are fights between kids, where one kid is calling the other, “filthy Jew!” and getting called a “filthy Moroccan” back.

Look at the much higher number of Muslims attacked by skinheads in Belgium, and you will discover substantial direct evidence of racism (a skinhead attack is not the same thing as kids fighting). Why don’t we look at anti-Arab or anti-Muslim feeling which is on a much more massive scale, has more impact on the mainstream discourse, and has indisputably actually taken place.

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openDemocracy: What measures do you take within your movement to prevent hostility to the Jewish community here, and to ensure that your supporters take seriously the distinction between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism?

Dyab Abou Jahjah: Well, on the ideological level, they do distinguish, of course. But not always on the emotional level. This is just a reality. The answer to it cannot be that we defend Zionism.

Every movement carries the risk of some emotional reaction not intended by its leaders. But we should talk more about Zionism and anti-Zionism, precisely because there is such a strong perception in our community that “Jews are Zionists”. If we didn’t talk about it, we would be strengthening the idea that all these Jews are identical to the Jews who are shooting Palestinians.

Many Jewish intellectuals have distanced themselves from this ideology, of course, who they then refer to as “self-hating Jews”. These are old tricks we all know about.

As for hostility from within the movement, it is not an issue because it doesn’t happen. This is Provinciestraat, right? This street is half occupied by Arab, half by Jewish inhabitants. Our new offices have two kosher shops facing them with Hebrew on the doors. People describe this situation as if we were waiting behind our barricades, with them lurking behind theirs. Not at all. Go and look at everyone milling about these shops and offices.

In one year throughout the whole country, twenty-three events were reported as having something to do with anti-Semitism. Not all of these involve Arab or Muslim youth. And what kind of situations are they? There has never been a killing. No one has ever been beaten up and hospitalised. The ones we knew about here in Antwerp were kids fighting. Now go and ask how many Muslims have been shot by racists – in Brussels, in Antwerp, in Charleroi. Then you would have a list of killings!

We get a bit angry when everyone concentrates on anti-Semitism. Of course, we understand the trauma and the stigmatism of recent European history! Fine! You can blow everything out of proportion, but please don’t neglect to look at the murder of a whole Muslim family, for example, in May 2003 year, after the French elections. At least on that occasion, they admitted that it was a racist act. Here in Antwerp, somebody shot a Moroccan teacher dead, calling him “Taliban!” as they did it, and they said the guy was crazy but that racism didn’t play any part.

We Arabs don’t have that complex about the holocaust, that trauma in our culture like many Europeans do. We were not responsible. Of course we condemn it. But, where does that leave us? Does it mean we can’t criticise a political movement, or a colonial or racist state?

openDemocracy: What happened to the Sabra and Shatila committee which you chaired?

Dyab Abou Jahjah: Well, it failed. Quite early on, the AEL component in the leadership of that campaign changed its strategy, realising that a judicial approach would not work. That brought us into conflict with some lawyers and other members of the committee. But our analysis was: “Listen, this is a case that allows us to expose the racism and the colonial nature of the state of Israel.” “No”, they said “this case is about one individual – Ariel Sharon.”

We didn’t see Ariel Sharon as an individual, but as someone who represented a certain structure and approach. We wanted the campaign to be made up of Arabs and non-Arabs, but this became an aspect of the cleavage: the Arab members saw it as a political campaign; the non-Arabs as a purely judicial process. They argued against attacking the state of Israel.

In fact the whole episode left us with enemies in the pro-Palestinian movement, who now consider us as extremists, counterproductive for pro-Palestinian solidarity work. The European pro-Palestinian movement, in Belgium anyway, supports a two-state solution, and goes in for a rhetoric which condemns violence on both sides, equating the Israeli army with militant Palestinian groups, when one is a state formation and the other an uncontrollable bottom-up movement. We by contrast clearly favour a one-state solution, condemning Israel as a colonial and racist state, not only as an occupier.

For in-depth analysis of the background of the Middle East conflict, see Eyal Weizman’s two projects on openDemocracy“The politics of verticality” (April 2002) and “Ariel Sharon and the politics of occupation” (September 2003)

openDemocracy: What about that other well-publicised AEL campaign to set up patrols to watch the police in Antwerp – is that still going?

Dyab Abou Jahjah: We are still operating in Mechelen, but not in Antwerp. Most people don’t understand that this patrol was set up in particular circumstances, linked to a specific police operation in October last year, when the Belgian police declared a new “zero-tolerance” policy in the city of Antwerp.

What was new was that it was ethnically oriented. They called it, “integrated plan: Moroccans”. Zero-tolerance is anyway a wrong-headed approach that leads to police brutality and abuse, as has been proved in many cities around the world. But if you have a zero tolerance policy which explicitly targets one community from the outset, that’s clearly racist. It’s totally unacceptable.

We knew we had to react, and when they announced that the operation would start on 11 November, we said, “Well OK, we’ll mount a civil patrol to observe the police, starting on 11 November”, which we did. The slogan was “Bad cops – we’re watching you!” Belgium nearly exploded! They called us a provocative vigilante group, terrorising the streets. But isn’t “integrated plan: Moroccans” a provocation?

All we were saying was: “We are citizens, and have the right to observe the police, whose salaries we pay for.” Their reaction is: “Who the hell are you to monitor our police in our country? If you don’t like it – go back to where you came from!” That is precisely why everyone got so hysterical. No-one had ever confronted them with the unpalatable fact that we are citizens before. Our civil patrols were the most citizen-like actions carried out by minorities in Belgium to date.

openDemocracy: There was an allegation that your civil patrols dressed in black in a manner which instilled fear in older members of the population, only too easily reminding them of Nazi occupation?

Dyab Abou Jahjah: That is a myth. Yesterday, as it happens, I read the manuscript of a book coming out shortly by someone who has researched that whole episode in detail. He is a reputable journalist, so perhaps people will believe him. Nobody ever believes us.

He reports on how the media manipulated the facts. What happened was that we said to our people who were going to be in the civil patrols: “Dress well. Look smart!” It’s a cultural thing. Go and look at some Arabs. Most of what we dress up in is dark! We all have black jackets. That’s all it is! So people dressed up to the nines, because they wanted to make a good impression.

One chap had a white shirt on. When they printed the photos they had airbrushed him out of the picture. This journalist has the evidence.

After that first patrol, which we knew would have a lot of media attention, we told them: “Don’t dress in black. Dress in colours!” They never did that again. That was all that was about!

openDemocracy: Let’s turn now to your Liberty-Equality-Fraternity petition against the French ban on the hijab in state schools – that is the public sphere.

Tariq Modood has argued in openDemocracy that this aspiration to have a recognised Muslim identity in Europe is a characteristically European enlightenment path of emancipation. This would perhaps make your movement “radical democrat” in the sense that Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe deploy the term, simply continuing the European tradition of adding new liberties, which force new equalities and lead to further, future emancipations. Is that how you see it, as a continuation of a European tradition?

Dyab Abou Jahjah: Read the text of the petition: there is nothing new here. The European Convention of Human Rights grants rights of religious worship and observance in public and private. We are just asking them to apply the law to everybody: they are not doing so. It’s hardly challenging.

It may be novel in practice, however, because Europe has issued a plethora of nice-sounding, humanistic declarations, which tend to be confined to the ethnically European. Human rights certainly should not be upheld on that restricted basis.

There are, in addition, contradictions to this approach. The debate over the hijab in Belgium has led to calls for an authoritative religious interpretation. Bring 300,000 experts in Islam together to tell you that the hijab is not mandatory, and while one girl somewhere in a village in Flanders thinks that it is, it is her freedom to believe as she does. Are we going to bring some church into this which can legislate on what we should all believe?

In the final analysis, individuals should make the interpretation on the basis of personal belief. That is what we say.

openDemocracy: Many French Muslims, including many women, have welcomed the ban imposed by a secularist state, presumably as a foundation for pursuing greater freedom within their own community.

Dyab Abou Jahjah: Can you fight for freedom of religious practice with a ban? If there is social pressure within a community, it cannot be fought with laws. You can fight it by changing people’s mentalities. But there is nothing illegal about social pressure, and it can’t be changed through law.

Does it ease that social pressure? First of all, you will be violating the rights of people who freely choose to wear the hijab, because they exist too and are probably in the majority. Second, you will be giving those people every reason to be more on the defensive. So as a tactic, it is counter-productive. Furthermore, it is against human rights.

You have a law in Europe which stipulates three cases in which you can limit, not ban, the practice of religion: if you breach the rights of third parties; for public order purposes; or for public health. None of these apply to the hijab. The ban is simply illegal in Europe.

Secularism, you will note, is not a human right. It is something that has to be politically negotiated and renegotiated once again in the next, new context. Some extremists in our community think the AEL is “secular” – why? Because we have women members with and without the hijab, because we have mixed meetings, and defend ideas that are too liberal for them. According to others, I am “fundamentalist”.

I don’t know how to define these things. But I am a democrat: that, I can define. Here is the democratic system and the rules of the game. You abide by them. If you don’t like them, you change them by using the same, democratic means. That’s how it is.

You have a global framework of human rights, and these are the only criteria that you have to permanently respect. They bind you: you always stick to them. This gives you your protection, a safety-belt. Everything else is subject to change.

You won’t convince me that smoking a joint is worse than drinking a beer. But if you legalise drugs, it is the same as legalising alcohol. You are not breaching human rights. This is just the operational functioning of a society.

When you infringe human rights, however, you are going against democracy, because democracy is not only dependent on its mechanisms and rules. It also depends on respecting these rights. We in the AEL are consistent about rights, both here and in the Arabic world.

openDemocracy: Surely the human rights you invoke are not the same as those in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?

Dyab Abou Jahjah: I like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. You can philosophically haggle over some things – but I don’t have any reservations about any of these human rights, actually.

openDemocracy: Let’s look at another source of disquiet with which you are involved – asylum-seeking. In Britain, David Blunkett has been promoting the thesis that it is the abuse of asylum-seeking which prevents him from persuading the British people that they should take a positive attitude to economic migrants, whom we also need in our economy. This describes your own history rather well. You pretended to be an asylum-seeker to come to Belgium. Aren’t you letting genuine asylum-seekers down?

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In cooperation with the think-tank Demos and the Dutch specialist Theo Veenkamp, openDemocracy hosted a major series on European migration, “People Flow”

Dyab Abou Jahjah: Again it is an international problem: actually the structure of this world we live in. Wealth and opportunities, not necessarily confined to financial wealth – even the perception of wealth – are concentrated in certain areas. The majority of the world population are excluded from this. Some areas attempt to turn themselves into fortresses to keep the flow of human beings at bay who, as a species, will always look to new horizons and perspectives to solve their problems. Confronted by such obstacles, human beings will reach for any solution that might work.

Economic migrants may not be as threatened as political asylum-seekers. But there are legitimate necessities that fall short of the death-threats or threat of imprisonment mentioned in the Geneva Convention. People “abuse asylum”, because this is not recognised in this imbalanced world. Or at least, they redefine for themselves what asylum is, and say: “To hell with your Geneva Convention: that doesn’t really cover it.”

OK – in my case, perhaps I didn’t have a sufficiently urgent justification for resorting to that exit route. But most people in a third world country just want to leave, and actually, so did I.

You cannot just want to see somewhere different from the third world. Somebody from Europe who decides to go to my country will get a visa and be there tomorrow! I have Belgian friends who have become rather interested in Arab culture. They live now in Lebanon: they just live there! Well, hell! That’s unfair. Our borders are open. Let these borders be open too: let all borders just be open.

If that happens, they tell you, it will create economic destabilisation. The world is already destabilised economically! Maybe that will reinforce the urge to solve global economic destabilisation. People will have to share more, since they are sharing more of the problems.

So, I have news for this gentleman in Britain: they will keep finding ways of coming in. Clamp down on asylum-seekers now, or whatever: immigration has always existed and always will.

In Belgium, when they try and make me ashamed for coming here, I have no complexes at all about this. I am proud of it. I came here because this is my planet and I am a human being, and will decide to live where I decide to live.

openDemocracy: When you announce that you “want to polarise society, because you want a discussion, and you want people to see that their democracy doesn’t work for you”, it is easy to imagine that this goes down well with your younger members, and has a certain media appeal.

But, as you prepare to embark on a party political career in the run-up to elections in 2006, will this unfortunate polarisation really advance understanding of your whole programme?

Dyab Abou Jahjah: Normally our “objective” allies, the working class, vote far right. They have always voted far right – not because of us. So we are on our own here. You have some intellectuals who, as a result of their intellectual analysis, support us – but outside that few, we are consistently criminalised.

Our goal was not to talk to people sweetly and make them feel good about us. That had already been tried, and we weren’t naïve. We had all that experience in political parties and trade unions behind us. So we know how it is.

Our main goal is to mobilise our community, to exert pressure on the majority and then to negotiate. They are not going to do anything for us if we smile sweetly. So, basically, I don’t count on the votes of the majority. I count on a long-term negotiating position: not now but later. And we are patient.

Now, within our community, we have the beginnings of a leading “cadre”. Three people in the whole of Flanders belong to our community and work in a university: one is a member and two are sympathisers. In Holland, there are more. We don’t only have excluded youth as members. We also have some intellectuals, and some artists. We are getting a bit more of a “salon” image.

But for us, it is the motivation that counts. If we started fighting for the “salon” effect, we could turn into the very organisations we left behind us: the ones that didn’t work. So, we did focus on mobilising our community, and we did build the structures we needed to empower ourselves and conduct negotiations on our behalf – we invested in that plan.

In the process, I think our intentions have been honest. If people ask us about them, we can explain. If they are willing to understand, they will recognise that we are not aiming at the segregation of communities, or at oppressing anybody. It is a misleading cliché that we only speak in un-nuanced terms. We set things out clearly – but we are also perfectly willing to offer a deeper analysis. I have written a 400-page book mainly addressed to Belgium’s majority population, which explains AEL’s ideology and what we want to do. So we do make an effort to be understood as well.

I am not going to guarantee that people will not stand up and fight here for Borgerhout, if the far right gained power. If you had seen Filip Dewinter close yesterday’s congress like Aragon on the walls of the Evil City, with the quote from the Lord of the Rings, “Men of the West, stand up and fight!”, you would understand that I can’t make those promises.

By the way, I loved the film. I insisted on seeing all three of them. But of course I was extremely offended by the way they approached those sequences: there were the forces of good, fighting against monsters and orks and Arabs! They might not call them Arabs, but you only had to look at the dark faces. The orks at least could talk: the “Arabs” were just an impersonal mass. It was amazing. At the end, there they all are – apart from the midget of course – blonde, tall, Aryan, fighting against the evil made up of people from the south, actually, and then we were treated to that speech shouted to the “Men of the West!”

J.R. Tolkien was of his time, and Eurocentrism is an inevitable part of it. You don’t have to be a drama-queen about these things. But America has quite a “politically correct” culture. When they set out to make the movie of the book, couldn’t they have put one “good Arab”, let’s say, on the side of Aragon? They didn’t of course. Then, along comes someone like Filip Dewinter, who winds up his meeting with that quote. It was on the news. So that is what I want to say in answer to your question about polarisation.

We don’t really believe in a PR approach, and I don’t think this will change. We believe in the balance of power, and we know that it is far too early for us to have that kind of power. We conclude that the only way to reach that negotiating position is to keep working on the mobilisation of our own community, on a European level. Because this is where our strength comes from.

Indeed, had we only organised in Belgium, they would have successfully eliminated us by now: certainly marginalised us for ages. But we are working in the Netherlands, and we are now breaking through in France. Moreover, we are invited by outside observers to international conferences, because they see that the AEL is the only organisation in Europe to fight coherently on behalf of immigrants of Arab and Muslim origin, on political terms. The rest are closer to what you call NGOs. The AEL is something else altogether. It is structured as a basic political movement, and I think one day, we will become a factor.

As for election politics: in this country, voting is mandatory, and we do not want our people to vote for the existing parties, not a single one. We cannot say: “These are bad – these people are using us – these are not offering real solutions”, and then go home. You have to offer them an alternative.

So in the last elections we formed “Resist!”, a front with the far left. We scored quite well. Out of only 7,000 possible votes from our community in the city of Antwerp, we got 6,500. Maybe 1,500 votes from the majority indigenous people. Look at the vote for our partners as individuals: they got barely 1,000 votes, whereas here in the city of Antwerp I got 4,500. Not everybody can vote. Not all are above 18.

In 2006, when the next elections take place, a really big group that is now 15 or 16 years old will be able to vote. Many who do not have nationality now will by then, because we are encouraging them. We don’t really believe in the current campaign for the rights and votes of immigrants. Ideologically, it sounds nice. But is it more than a decoy manoeuvre? We know what it means politically, and we are asking people to apply for Belgian nationality.

So in 2006, we will have a higher vote and perhaps win one or two representatives in city hall. In short, we are taking part in electoral politics from now on because we want to keep our electorate together. The main target in 2006 is seats not only in Antwerp, but in Notre Dame, Utrecht, certainly Amsterdam. (There are municipal elections in the Netherlands in the same year.) This will be the first time that a European trans-national party will have seats in two countries! By then, the approach to the AEL may be rather different.

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A new identity politics

openDemocracy: Would you claim, as you have been described, to be a “militant multiculturalist”?

Dyab Abou Jahjah: Absolutely! You have the level of laws and regulations which are binding for everybody. These are culturally determined, and so have to be constantly renegotiated, but they are regulated by a system that is normative and can be written down. It isn’t eternal, but if I find a law defective and culturally biased, I have to abide by it even while I am trying to change it. That is the level of citizenship and it acts as a regulatory regime.

In all other spheres, I believe in the freedom of people to express themselves, within schools, political parties, youth movements, media, not only at home. If we can reach a harmony between these two levels, we recognise that there is no mutual contradiction between having wide-ranging diversity in society and also a democratic culture. People can be deeply opposed to each other, as long as they trust the institutions and know that they can also have access to the media to express their point of view.

Dyad Abou Jahjah
I am actually in favour of more freedom of speech than you have here in Europe. I don’t mind someone who is a racist telling me what he thinks of me. Let him tell me that he hates me and that he thinks he is superior. That’s OK, as long as I trust institutions and know that I have access to the media to tell him what I think; and that I can vote in elections for somebody who believes what I believe.

The one thing I can’t accept is exclusion. You can think somebody is a bad lot, but you have to treat that person equally. That is what dialogue is. The only way you can have an honest debate, and perhaps achieve change, reconciliation, compromise, or whatever positive evolution is possible, is to talk openly. Tell the truth how it is, instead of inculcating a culture of fear of words and opinions.

I am not afraid of Dewinter’s arguments. I have had two or even three debates with him. What I am afraid of is him keeping his argumentation to himself, faking his opinions to other people, and saying he is not a racist when he is, so that they vote for him. Maybe if they knew he was a racist they would not vote for him.

I am against that law which bans “racist expression”, because I think it is counterproductive. You shouldn’t ban any kind of expression, only deeds – racist acts: real discrimination you have to ban. But this law is protecting Dewinter from himself. If he didn’t have to pay close attention to everything he says in order not to fall foul of the law, he would have made many mistakes, and said many racist things in public by now that would have discredited him among quite a section of the people who currently vote for him. That law is building him a “clubbable” reputation that he doesn’t deserve.

People ask me why I debate with him! I do so because I knew it would be an easy debate. You can corner him. He only has to say “Our people first”, and I say: “I’m your people. I’m Belgian – right!” He says: “No, no”, so I ask: “Well, what’s your definition of the legal status of our people?” and he can’t answer. He can talk about culture. That’s fine – I can talk about it too. He can talk about identity – that’s fine. But when he talks about “the people” as a nation-building entity, without drawing on nationality as the normative category underpinning this – he has to talk about race. Then he loses the debate.

So I believe in freedom of expression for everybody – not only verbally but also in institutions – scout movements, schools and the arts. I believe in this not only for existing but also for new identities. Part of any identity is given, and part is always constructed and renegotiated. But they are still real, and still different from each other.

openDemocracy: What about the conservative family values in the community you represent? You call for a real dialogue in which people can change each other, but some non-Muslims may begin to be worried about your values “taking over”. What would you say to them? Do you believe you have something to offer the rest of Belgium?

Dyab Abou Jahjah: Simply having different perspectives increases the insights on all sides. Either you convince each other, or you create new thinking. On some issues, I may be rather revolutionary, but when it comes to what you call “conservative values”, I do believe in conserving what is good, and discarding bad things.

For example, I believe in the family as a good structure for raising kids. These are values that are being dismantled in this society. Some people, who think in terms of linear lines of evolution, believe that such values are “pre-capitalist”. You can deconstruct everything in that way. Others say that you shouldn’t judge people. Well, you shouldn’t judge people as “good” or “bad”. But you can judge structures as “good” or “bad” and you should.

openDemocracy: So for example, you are against gay marriage?

Dyab Abou Jahjah: We are not for it. We think marriage is linked to family-building, and family-building is about having and raising children. You cannot recognise gay marriage without recognising gay adoption, because we believe a child has the right to have the model of both a mother and a father. But what we say is, “eliminate discrimination”. I am against equating heterosexuality with homosexuality. It is not the same. We consider heterosexuality as a norm, and I think the majority in Europe shares that opinion but doesn’t dare express it.

But you have homosexuality as well, and individuals who are homosexual are discriminated against. You have to fight that. You have to make sure that these people are not discriminated against in employment, in housing, in politics, or anywhere. I would be in favour of affirmative action on these fronts. If couples are losing out on a judicial or economic basis because they do not have married status – then fine, you should regulate that, so that gay couples who want to live together are treated the same as married couples. This is a valid complaint. But people advocating gay rights should not fall into the trap of demanding a homogenised culture in which all distinction between homosexuality and heterosexuality disappears. They are not the same.

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openDemocracy: Are you for or against intermarriage between people of different communities?

Dyab Abou Jahjah: I’m not against it at all, which doesn’t mean to say that I am for it either. I don’t care. People marry when they fall in love with somebody. It is their individual choice. But I wouldn’t go about promoting it, because that can be as racist as being against it. You marry the person you would like to marry.

openDemocracy: Do you believe in the equality of women? Am I equal to you?

Dyab Abou Jahjah: Of course. But I believe we are different and reject the traditional feminist approach.

People say that women are unable to do some things, or they differentiate between men and women intellectually. It makes me very angry. I am talking about internal discussions in the movement. Sometimes I get accused of being a “feminist”. Not at all.

There are differences between the genders. I don’t believe in gender assimilation or putting pressure on a woman to act like a man, or vice-versa. Go and develop whatever identity you choose for yourself, and if women choose, as they often do, to be housewives, or indeed careerists – they should not be given the impression that they are letting down some ideological notion of femininity.

When it comes to a couple – let them make their own agreements. A man asks his woman to breast-feed their children when they get married. I don’t think he is oppressing her: I don’t believe in that. As long as she has a chance to say “No, if that’s what you want, I don’t want to marry you.” That’s normal human interaction.

Luckily these values are rising again in the west, linked with ecological thinking. We have moved beyond the 1960s and 1970s, with its sometimes militant will to conform. I believe there are problems, and there is abuse and that some women are oppressed by power structures both physical and economic. But the way to fight these is to submit them to democratic and legal criteria, not to use a feminist agenda.

The Arab European League’s “Vision and Philosophy” declaration can be read on its own website

If you want people to fight social pressures, you have to empower them to be able to tell the difference between abuse and non-abuse. You have to emancipate them by making them aware of their rights. We know that in our community a lot of men tell their women to abide by so-called rulings which arise from their religion. But these rulings are false. We don’t immediately call upon the law to forbid such behaviour. We say to the women: “You have to know your own rights, as believers.” We have a women’s section in the AEL, and we raise their awareness of their rights in Islam, as a believer. Then they can go home with arguments and say: “No, it’s not true. According to Islam, I even have the rights to this, this and this…” It can be incredibly emancipatory, especially if both are believers, because you can completely convince him that he is under an obligation to change his behaviour!

openDemocracy: The Belgian prime minister, Guy Verhofstadt, has described you and the AEL as a “threat to society”, only interested in accusation and confrontation. Meanwhile allegedly moderate Muslim speakers in Antwerp’s city council say that you can only “deepen hatred” and create further antagonism.

Whatever you think of these statements, if you put this in the context of the “war against terror” after 9/11, the call for securitising migration flows world-wide, and the upping of security stakes in general – let alone the dominant trend towards the homogenisation of national cultures, and the backlash against cultural diversity on the grounds that it radically undermines social cohesion. Under the circumstances, don’t you think that your willingness to visibly challenge and polarise society just underscores the most negative developments in both the national and international arena?

Aren’t you just feeding the divisiveness that some of the less constructive forces in society like to equate you with?

Dyab Abou Jahjah: Not doing as we are doing would just be undergoing this process that you describe.

We are indeed developing a counter-discourse and a counter-strategy. But these are essentially democratic. You do have other people who are both marginal and extremist compared to us. You invoke the “moderate Muslims”, but that is exactly who we are.

Take the extreme assimilationists who hate their own culture, on the one hand. That is their right. They need not remain Muslim. But when they start prescribing assimilation to the rest of the community who don’t wish to do so, then that is not alright. These are extremists.

Then there is the other group. You call them “fundamentalists”. We don’t know what that means. But we do call them extremists. They are in favour of pulling out of society altogether, and condemning it in terms which are irrational. They have no solution to propose except some theological absurdity. They exist too.

So we are the moderate ones. We say: “we believe in identity”, and we try to define it. We try to defend it within a democratic dialogue, but it has to be a dialogue. We want to talk, but we do not want to be dictated to. As long as no real dialogue, which involves mutual respect, takes place – you cannot really blame us for what we are unable to deliver.

Yet both these extremists come and blame us, for segregation and polarisation, for example. The point is, we are not asking others to change. That might be polarisation. But we are simply saying – please don’t make us change. We want to change only when we decide to do so. Don’t tell me what I have to become, when I am a law-abiding citizen, fulfilling all my obligations, even trying to participate in debate. I am not closing down on society at all. So, are you just trying to provoke me?

On the other side, we get accused of betraying Islam by being the “softies”, helping the people who want to destroy Islam, or Arabism.

Now, we don’t exactly see a role for ourselves as a “safety-valve” for the west, steering people away from violence. We have our own focus: we know what we want to do. But I can tell you that this is how it works. If certain grievances are not democratically channelled, they can be built on for altogether different purposes. It’s a fact.

Some very marginal extremist networks are operating, trying to recruit young people. The oppressed do not always see things in perspective, and are natural prey for these people. They are no competition to us in cities where we are strong. In Antwerp, the situation seems stable to me. But, where there is no AEL, who knows?

Meanwhile, we have more than 60% of the community vote in cities like Antwerp or Mechelen. We are not a marginal group. People just have to realise that there is another mainstream that has a different epistemological framework from the mainstream beyond it. This is what diversity is.

The debate is wide open. Sure enough, there is also a trend to turn away from diversity, drop multiculturalism and move towards “culturalism”. This couldn’t be further removed from what we are saying, which is, “be diverse! It’s a reality. That is how reality is.” It is a democratic struggle we might lose – but we have to go through with it. We cannot drop it.

What do I want for my community? I want them to be active in the whole process of change that we are initiating. This process we are trying to unleash has several different dimensions – a political party, a youth movement, a project for Muslim schools, media projects, arts projects. They can choose where they fit in best to this whole process. But that is what it is: a mobilisation!

What do we give to Europe? Well, we are part of Europe. We want to live, like anyone else, as human beings. You don’t just eat and drink and sleep. You also want to talk, to express yourselves. We don’t have to give anything extra as citizens. We just want to be able to live.

But if you ask me not what we have to contribute, but what we might give to Europe – as I said, it is always stimulating to have different insights. A lot of ideas in Europe, like a lot of ideas in our community, are rather ethnocentric, and are considered universal when, well, they are not!

It is always good, I think, for a human being to relativise him or herself. Europeans help us to do that – perhaps a little too much! – here in Antwerp. Maybe, in the long-term, we can do that for you.

openDemocracy: You must have seen the biopic of Malcolm X. That rather important scene where he is walking upstairs and is accosted by a young white woman who says: “I want to help your movement. What can I do?” And he says: “go home”. What would you have said?

Dyab Abou Jahjah: I have to tell you, I have become a specialist on Malcolm X. He fascinates me. That encounter was in his Nation of Islam period. Later, he changed his approach. When he developed his organisation for Afro-American unity, he began to say: “You can help us, but you can’t join us!”

Well, we go a step further. We have people who are non-Muslim and non-Arab in the AEL. They are fully signed up activists, with voting rights in Congress and the opportunity to lead AEL working-groups. But they cannot lead the organisation. This is the only bottom line: the president must be either Arab or Muslim, because we are a movement of emancipation, and we believe that a struggle for emancipation must be led by the people who want to emancipate themselves.

So you can join us and help us, but you cannot lead us!

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III What does the AEL want? Jahjah's demands

openDemocracy: What are your key demands now?

Dyab Abou Jahjah: Well, let’s start with our global platform. Our overarching demand is for equal rights with preservation of identity. We couple these things together.

We have four concrete demands. First, we demand that a multicultural society accepts its diversity as a fact, a right, a norm. Second, to preserve a minority identity, you need structures. The Arab European League (AEL) calls for a freedom of educational choice to match the freedom of education in society at large. For example, here in Belgium, we have all sorts of schools: Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Rudolf Steiner – but not one Muslim school. Say you would like to start one, and the response comes back: “That’s not a good idea because it is detrimental for integration.” We are accused of being “segregationists”. We say this reflects an unacceptable policy of assimilation.

In fact, the same principle applies to scout movements! We started a Muslim scout movement in Belgium, but people went crazy, asking: “Why on earth don’t you join the regular scout movement?” We said: “Which is that?” And they answered: “The VKS”. VKS stands for the Vlaams Katholic Scouts. How, exactly, are we supposed to join that? When we complained, they started with: “Well, we were here first!” Such a low-level discussion! Sometimes it is truly impossible to debate with them.

The third demand that we have is socio-economic, though it is linked to identity issues too. We have a major unemployment problem in our community – a result of structural discrimination against Muslims. We demand measures to fight discrimination: affirmative action of all kinds, including its clearest, most aggressive form – quotas for non-European minorities.

We call for the redistribution of work to combat the global nature of the unemployment problem. We demand an affirmative action period in Belgium to close the distance between minorities and the majority already created by the job market. And we propose a 32-hour week, which will create new jobs. These jobs should be distributed equally, without any discrimination.

Now, housing. There is a lot of discrimination against people with Arabic names in the housing market. They are systematically rejected and driven into concentrated ethnic minority areas. This is not a problem for us, actually. But combined with socio-economic deprivation, it can become a problem. We are demanding laws governing house rentals on the basis of first come, first served. This, plus greater government funding for social housing.

The fourth demand has to do with education. In Belgium, 60% of students don’t finish their schooling. There is clearly a major structural problem. The system isn’t working. It has to be made to work. It has to change. And that means listening to demands of the Muslim community. Why can’t you choose Arabic as an extra language at school? Why Polish and not Arabic? I am calling for regular state schools to give children a chance to study Arabic. This way, their parents don’t have to send them off to mosques after school or at the weekend to learn Arabic there. This way, they have time to play!

openDemocracy: You are the Arab European League. But is it really possible to have one overarching European strategy?

Dyab Abou Jahjah: Every nation provides a different context, but the Arab-Islamic community has some global features as well as national distinctions. Just compare Belgium to the Netherlands! Here in Belgium we have not one Muslim school, while in Holland they have thirty-seven. Holland has Muslim TV on its public network. The Muslim community in Belgium has no media expression.

The AEL is a federal organisation, with three national branches – one being built in France which will take around a year, and two fully operational ones in Belgium and the Netherlands. After that, Italy and Spain. We are leaving Britain for later – after France, which has a Muslim community of 6 million people, twice the population of Lebanon!

For a thoughtful analysis of the AEL’s political strategy, see Dirk Jacobs’s “Receive or take rights? Belgium’s Arab European League” (October 2003)

This federal structure allows us flexibility to deal with different contexts. We have a central committee, elected by delegates from all the branches, who determine the ideology, global strategy and structure. We have a political bureau elected from that central committee which takes ideological decisions regarding our global strategy. But all the other competences are local. Do we want to participate in national elections or not? It is the “local” branch that decides and chooses political alliances and so forth.

openDemocracy: How do you relate to the Turkish community in Europe – for example, in Germany?

There is no contact with the Turkish community in Germany. We have some contacts with the smaller Arab community there which is spread all over Germany. Our contacts are mainly with Palestinians in Berlin.

Some Turkish candidates will however join the list of the Muslim Democratic Party, the new party which we are launching to take part in the 2006 general elections.

The link is on that level, rather than organic between our respective movements. The Turkish community has its own organisations. It is another national community. We are both Muslim – OK. But we also have our national differences.

In the Mashreq as opposed to the Maghreb, the only Arab region which was not occupied by the Ottomans, there is still some feeling today about the brutality of the Ottoman occupation. Especially in the first world war, there was a massive deportation of people to work in the camps of the Turkish empire. My grandfather, for example, lost ten brothers. They went to Anatolia and never came back. People in Syria, Lebanon and Egypt remember that, and it still plays a role in the Middle East, because Turkey up until its recent change of government adopted a pro-Israeli stance. That might change now that they are rediscovering their Islamic roots and sense of belonging. But history plays a role.

openDemocracy will be publishing Rosemary Bechler’s interview with Tariq Ramadan soon
openDemocracy: What do you think of Tariq Ramadan’s argument that Muslims in Europe can be a special source of renovation for Muslim thinking?

Dyab Abou Jahjah: It’s not true. When it comes to renovation, Muslim thinking in the Arabic world is far more democratic than Muslim thinking in Europe. Take Tariq Ramadan himself as an example. Compare him to writers like Fahmy Howeidy or Tariq al-Bishri, or the whole group of mainstream thinkers sometimes called “the new Islamists”, who are more innovative, and far-reaching in their proposals. They identify themselves as “the middle ground”. They are highly regarded and well-known. The only problem is that their thinking is not much translated. Only exotica is translated from the Arabic.

Tariq Ramadan still shows signs of the old Muslim Brotherhood ideology. That is his right, but the people doing the renovation are in the Arabic world, in Egypt. The issue I have with European Islam is that it neglects ethno-cultural identity. It is a route to assimilation. Islam is a religion, but identity is not only Islamic. I am not only a Muslim. I am also an Arab. I have a language. I have culture. I have music. I have art, theatre, things which are important to me because I don’t only think about God and how I pray.

It is easier to mobilise if you talk only about Islam. But we chose a more difficult and complex route. Having taken up that challenge, we are succeeding, despite the obstacles. This is because, when you talk to people for a while they realise that their identity is more complex than just their religion. They know it in themselves.

Photographs by Michael Rebehn, design by Simon Tickner for openDemocracy.

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