21st Mar 2018


Bearded infidels in the EU capital

  • Street party in Molenbeek, which is, for the most part, culturally diverse and relaxed (Photo: Michel van Reysen)

The Molenbeek district in Brussels became known as a centre of Islamic radicalism after the Paris attacks.

In fact, its daily life is, for the most part, relaxed and culturally diverse.

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  • The Saudi-funded Grand Mosque said it provides social services for Muslims of all creeds (Photo: William Murphy)

But Salafism - the hardline creed invoked by Islamic State (IS) - made inroads long ago.

It’s stoking enmity among the normal Muslims who live there and Belgian authorities ignored warnings on the danger.

“To them [Salafists], we are kafirs,” said one Shia Muslim in Molenbeek, using the Arabic word for infidel.

Harassment allegations

Muhammad Nour can barely contain his frustration, both with local police and other Muslims.

He runs a prayer hall for the small Iraqi Shia community in Molenbeek, a mixed neighbourhood in the Belgian and EU capital.

He’s a Belgian national and he’s sitting in the three-story house he bought five years ago. It has since been turned into the Al Hassan centre - a non-profit organisation, used for prayer and socialising.

From the outside, it looks like a residential building. Flower pots hang in the windows. Curtains are drawn.

It has a large metal-gated entrance, opened by a secure keypad, and watched by CCTV.

Inside, a dozen or so shoes lie beside steps which lead to the basement.

The room is covered in plush carpet and adorned with paintings which glorify Islam. There's a separate prayer room, behind a glass partition, for women.

Nour, who looks to be in his 40s, is sipping mint tea. He complains of harassment by a new police chief and of discrimination by local Salafists.

"In one month he [the police chief] knocked on our door more than five, six times. We’d been here for five years. Nobody had ever come here. He said: 'I don't want you … in this community’,” says Nour.

He says Salafists hold top jobs in Molenbeek’s local administration and withhold housing and other social benefits from the Shia minority.

"You go to the commune … in Molenbeek [and] you find Salafists and Wahhabis [an alternative name for Salafists] in important posts, like at unemployment and insurance [offices],” he says, in broken English.

He installed extra security at the Al Hassan centre, in part, because of a sectarian murder in 2012.

An attacker fire-bombed a Shia mosque in the neighbouring district of Anderlecht, killing the imam, who left behind four children. The attacker may have been mentally ill. But he shouted anti-Shia slogans and was instigated, police say, by Salafist radicals.

Nour says his faith tells him to respect people of all beliefs. That’s why, he says, Shia Muslims in Belgium reacted peaceully.

But the killing made a mark. Nour adds that: “For us, the Wahhabi, they're not Muslim people. They're not people, not from human [sic]. Even we cannot say this is animal because an animal, when it sees something [bad], it stops.”

Another Shia local in Molenbeek, who asked not to be named, told EUobserver: “To them [Salafists], we are kafirs.”

A third Shia local said they also feel intimidated.

Centuries-old rivalry

Salafism is an ultra-conservative school of Sunni Islam, named after the Arabic phrase “al salaf al salih,” meaning “pious forefathers.”

It's also known as Wahhabism after Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, an 18th century preacher in what is today Saudi Arabia.

It calls for a return to spreading Islam by the sword, as in the days of Mohammed, the Islamic prophet and conqueror.

The broader rivalry between Sunni and Shia sects also goes back to the Middle Ages.

It returned to the fore after the Islamic Revolution in Iran, a Shia power, in 1979 which prompted a struggle for regional hegemony against Sunni Gulf states.

The Shia-Sunni rivalry has grown to geopolitical proportions in Iraq and Syria, where Russia and the US back different sides. The Anderlecht fire-bombing shows how it reverberates in Europe’s Muslim enclaves.

Jamal Habbachich, who presides over more than 20 Sunni mosques in Molenbeek, told EUobserver the Middle East wars play out on satellite TV in cafes and in people's homes in Brussels.

"Even if we respect each other from a distance, at its base, when the Shia think of their brothers, they think of Yemen, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon," he said, referring to states in which Shia minorities are, to a greater or lesser extent, in conflict with the Sunni majority.

He said the West made matters worse.

He noted the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were followed by Sunni-Shia massacres. He also accused the US and EU of giving Gulf states a free rein to support Sunni radicals.

"Democracies have closed their eyes for the past 50 years to what’s happening in other countries, and I'm not just talking about what’s happening in Saudi Arabia,” he said.

Like Nour, Habbachich said Salafist radicals are a menace to normal Muslims as well as to Western society.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Salafist leader of IS, once told his fighters to "deal with the rafida [Shia] first ... then al-Sulul [Sunnis] ... before the crusaders and their bases.”

Culture of defiance

Molenbeek is, for the most part, culturally diverse and laid back.

It’s home to people from 135 different nationalities, including African and Western Balkan states.

It has about 25 mosques, two of which are Shia, one each for Iraqi and for Pakistani worshippers. It has no synagogue. But it also has Greek, Russian, and Serb orthodox churches. Pentecostal churches serve the Congolese diaspora.

For his part, the police chief who knocked on Nour’s door denies he’s guilty of harrassment.

"These are his [Nour’s] own views. If we knocked twice on his door, it was because we needed to contact him. He was supposed to be summoned,” the police chief, who asked not to be named, said.

He noted that his unit, of seven officers, contains Belgians of Algerian, Moroccan, Romanian, and white-Belgian background. He himself has Indian roots.

But despite the diversity, the fact the main Paris attacker, Salah Abdeslam, a Belgian-born Moroccan, used Molenbeek as his base is no accident.

The fact IS has lured 440 Belgians to become foreign fighters in Syria, around 80 of them from Molenbeek and nearby municipalities, is no accident either.

One reason for IS popularity is that Molenbeek’s Moroccan and Belgian-Moroccan majority, which accounts for 30 percent of residents, has its roots in defiance to authority.

Most of them follow the Maliki school of Sunni Islam and come from the Rif region in north Morocco, where Berber tribes have resisted royal rule for centuries.

The Rif region is, in modern times, also a leading source of hashish smuggling to Europe, compounding, Belgian police say, the Rif Moroccan culture of lawlessness.

But another reason is neglect of Salafist proselytising by Belgian authorities.

The Saudi connection

Habbachich says Malikis in Molenbeek have been "intoxicated by certain radicals that came from the Middle East, like from Saudi Arabia.”

He estimates that Saudi Arabia gives between €500,000 and €1 million a year to Sunni mosques in Brussels. Some individual ones in Molenbeek took sums of €30,000 to pay for renovations.

He adds that Saudi Arabia also invites Belgian Muslims to train as imams in its schools, where Salafism is widespread.

Some students come from poor families and have low levels of education. But they return to Brussels as wealthy and influential people.

The Belgian state, in December, agreed to the possibility of creating a national academy for imams. But it did so after more than a decade of appeals from moderate Muslim communities.

"We had to wait more than 12 years. We begged them," Habbachich says.

He said most of the Saudi money comes via the Islamic Cultural Centre, or Grand Mosque, an institution located in the heart of Brussels’ EU quarter.

The man who runs it, Jamal Saleh Momenah, is an affable Saudi national in his 50s, who wears purple velvet suits.

Momenah told EUobserver the money doesn’t come from the Saudi government, but from the Muslim World League, a pan-Islamic NGO based in Mecca, Saudi Arabia.

He said the Grand Mosque welcomes Sunnis and Shias and provides social services, such as education and healthcare.

He distanced himself from the Salafist association.

"This [the Grand Mosque] is the place where you find peace,” he said.

"The jihaddists, radicalists, terrorists - nobody [like that] comes from this place. They come from cafes, bars, jobless people, and we’re trying to help these kind of people, these kind of young people. Nobody takes care of them.”

Fear of Islamophobia

But for their part, Molenbeek’s local authorities echoed Habbachich’s concern on Saudi radicalisation.

Ann Gilles-Goris, an elected official working for the Molenbeek mayor, told EUobserver: “We know that some mosques are subsidised by Saudi Arabia.”

She noted that eight of the 25 mosques and prayer halls haven't registered with the state.

Sarah Turine, who heads Molenbeek’s social cohesion office, said the absence of an Islamic university in Belgium means “that most imams come from other countries.”

Looking at Islamic bookshops in her district, she said: "What is translated into French is financed by Saudi Arabia, but they only translate what follows Wahhabist lines … All this information and literature is mostly from Saudi Arabia.”

Turine plans to investigate Nour’s claim that Salafists who hold senior posts in the Molenbeek administration discriminate against the Shia minority.

She admitted that “there’s tension between the Shia and Sunni communities.”

"We closed our eyes to this identity crisis because we thought that if we worked on it we would play into the hands of Islamophobia. When in fact we should have [done more],” she said.


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