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Plan Canal in Brussels: Belgium vs Molenbeek

The Belgian government has unveiled a multi-million euro plan to combat radical extremism in 'Molenbeekistan'. But does it ignore Islam altogether?

Molenbeek, Belgium, and its canal. Kiev.Victor/Shutterstock. All Rights Reserved. Molenbeek, Belgium, and its canal. Kiev.Victor/Shutterstock. All Rights Reserved.The recent terrorist attacks in Paris have sent a shockwave through Belgium. As the links between the Paris attackers and Belgium became evident, the commune of Molenbeek, one of Belgium’s most impoverished suburbs (also heavily populated by people of an ethnic background) became the focus of the world’s media attention. Subsequently, Molenbeek soon gained notoriety as Europe’s terrorist capital: the Molenbeekistan.

Cleansing 'Molenbeekistan'

Echoing Nicolas Sarkozy’s statement that France’s citées (housing projects) had to be “cleansed with a Kärcher” after the 2005 riots, Belgium’s Minister of Interior, Jan Jambon, a member of the nationalist Flemish party (NVA), similarly, vowed to “clean up” Molenbeek. Two months after the attacks, Minister Jambon presented his “plan canal” (in reference to Molenbeek’s canal).

The plan aims at increasing the police presence in the area by a thousand agents before 2019. The Belgian government also vowed to invest millions of euros for the police and justice system to take action against "radicalisation, violent extremism and terrorism in the canal zone”. This means measures going from investment in new surveillance technologies to increased control over “places of worship” (and in this case of course one has to understand “Islamic places of worship”).

Saudi sponsors

The Great Mosque of Brussels, which was part funded by Saudi Arabia. William Murphy/Flickr. Some Rights Reserved. The Great Mosque of Brussels, which was part funded by Saudi Arabia. William Murphy/Flickr. Some Rights Reserved.However, the Belgian government knows that repression is not enough. The next step of the plan against radicalisation: 3.3 million to finance the salary of 80 new imams who will preach an “integrated Islam”. After decades of tolerance and turning a blind eye towards the importation of Wahhabism through Saudi sponsored mosques, Belgium decided that it is time to start regulating and controlling what is being preached in Belgian mosques. Ironically, Belgium has turned to the strategy of states such as Saudi Arabia or Iran: repression on the one hand and the control and moulding of religious doctrine on the other.

Contempt or neutrality?

President Obama visits the National Mosque of Malaysia in 2014. U.S. Department of State/Flickr. Some Rights Reserved. President Obama visits the National Mosque of Malaysia in 2014. U.S. Department of State/Flickr. Some Rights Reserved.There is no doubt that increasing the control over potential terrorists is needed. Yet it is materially impossible to control every potential “lone wolf” 24/7. There is no doubt either that the laissez-faire style of Belgium and other European states towards Wahabism needed to end. Yet how can the state legitimately try to influence what is being preached in mosques when there is such an attitude of contempt towards Islam in general in Belgian society and politicians preach an intolerant form of “neutrality” in the public sphere (basically a Belgian version of France’s laïcité)?

What about recognising Islamic identity as part of a broad, multicultural European identity? When the hijab wearing member of the socialist party in Molenbeek, Farida Tahar, confronted the “liberal” Richard Miller about “extremist secularism” on Belgian television, she mentioned Canada as an example to inspire Belgium’s multicultural reality. Indeed, she was right to mention the gap between Europe’s attitude towards difference and countries such as Canada, the US or even New Zealand.

It is worth mentioning an anecdote which reveals the gap between the two set of mentalities. When Barak Obama visited a mosque in the US at the beginning of the month, he appeared confidently in front of the cameras surrounded by women wearing headscarves. When the Prince of Belgium recently visited Molenbeek, headscarves suddenly disappeared from Molenbeek (while they are usually visible at every street corner in the commune) on the state TV channel news’ coverage.

Recognising Islam

Police patrol the streets of Brussels, Belgium. CRM / Shutterstock. All Rights Reserved. Police patrol the streets of Brussels, Belgium. CRM / Shutterstock. All Rights Reserved.

This is what the plan canal misses altogether: recognition. Islam is not recognized in Belgium, it is tolerated. When it is recognised, it is a bracketed, almost erased, form of Islam: the good Muslim who shares sweets at the end of the fasting month and eats couscous with his neighbours but hides his five daily prayers in his house, far away from Belgian’s public sphere. It is not the lady who complains because wearing a head scarf is a symptom of unemployment for her. It is not the teenager who asks for a space to pray at school.

Islam would, maybe, be the antithesis of European’s liberal and democratic values.  But who is to say it is? Is it the role of politicians to define who Muslims are or should be? Is it the role of Saudi sponsored Imams to control the identity of European Muslims? Europe’s current struggle against radicalisation is a struggle against democracy: it defines and divides Muslims but at no point does it give the opportunity to Muslims to express themselves in their identity and to make their own choices.

If Islam is really this perverted faith incompatible with the values of justice, freedom of speech and rationality then it should not be tolerated. It has no place in Europe nor anywhere else. If, however, Islam is not only compatible with, but even embodies at least some of these ideals, then the actual tolerance tainted with contempt and repression attitude of European authorities is not only unjust and in contradiction with “our” (who is the we?) values but it actually fuels the feelings of disrespect which political theorists such as Axel Honneth have described as the main motivational factors behind struggles for recognition. The current struggle for recognition in Europe has taken an agonistic turn. It is time to give it a democratic turn. 

About the author

Nicolas Pirsoul is a doctoral candidate in politics & international  relations at the University of Auckland. His research interests include issues around identity politics, indigenous recognition, democracy and Middle Eastern politics.      


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