Sunday

5th Jul 2020

Belgian radicals: Bring me your unschooled, your jobless

  • Turkish/Moroccan district in Brussels, which hosts more than 160,000 Muslims (Photo: William Murphy)

Islamic State (IS) recruiters are targeting young and jobless Muslims in Brussels, the director of the city’s biggest mosque has said.

“Some of them are here recruiting young people. They give them wrong information about what they’ll find there [in Syria] and they’re trying to send them to hell. When they go there, they find out the truth by themselves,” Jamal Saleh Momenah, the director of the Parc du Cinquantenaire mosque, the largest in the Belgian capital, told EUobserver.

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“If people had jobs and opportunities here, they wouldn’t go [to Syria], believe me,” he added.

Momenah spoke to EUobserver before the Paris attacks and before the Brussels terrorist alert.

But his words shed light on a long-standing issue.

He said recruiters are approaching “young people who have no experience of life.”

He also said lack of jobs makes them more vulnerable.

“Free time isn’t good for the young. They need to be engaged, whether that's working in a factory, or for a company, or they have to be in school. There’s a saying in Arabic: 'If you have youth and free time, you will do something bad.’ With free time, you begin to think about bad things, whether that's sex, or money, or other bad things.”

Momenah, who came to Belgium from Saudi Arabia three years ago, said things were better before the economic crisis.

“The older generation [of Belgian Muslims] is more lucky than this generation. When they came, everything was available. They found good opportunities here. But for the new generation, it's difficult to find a job, to get good healthcare. It’s because of the economic situation in Europe. Now, nothing is like it was. Everything’s changed in Europe.”

Abdelkader Dahmihi, who works in the mosque’s Islamic and Cultural Centre, echoed the director.

He told EUobserver the centre has helped convince about 400 Belgian Muslims not to go to Syria.

“I’ve spoken to some young men who went there and came back. They were bitterly disappointed. They said it’s nothing like what the recruiters promised,” Dahmihi noted.

For its part, the US Department of Homeland Security said, already in February, that individual districts in and around the Belgian capital - Molenbeek, Laeken, and Vilvoorde - have the world’s highest per capita numbers of IS recruits.

Brussels is home to about 1 million people.

According to its last census, in 2001, it hosts 126,000 Moroccans and 36,000 Turks, who first arrived as economic migrants in the 1960s and 1970s.

The main concentrations of Moroccans are in the districts of Anderlecht, Brussels centre, Laeken, Molenbeek, Schaerbeek, and St Gilles, while Turks cluster in the St Josse and Schaerbeek areas.

According to 2012 figures, the highest levels of youth unemployment (over 40% in parts of Molenbeek) overlap directly with the Moroccan and Turkish quarters.

Rif culture

A Belgian security contact, however, said that culture, as well as economics, is a factor.

The contact, also speaking before the Paris attacks, told this website that the Turkish community in Brussels is “closed” to IS recruitment.

But he said that young men who originate from the Rif region in north Morocco are more prone to radicalisation.

He said the Rif community is marked by low levels of education, a “more tribal, more aggressive culture,” and lawlessness linked to hashish smuggling.

“Some entire streets in Laeken [the Brussels district] have decamped to Syria,” the security contact noted.

“People talk a lot about Internet radicalisation. But the real problem is penetration by networks of individual recruiters, in mosques and in Islamic bookshops,” he added.

“It’s not like Laeken has better Internet connections than St Gilles.”

The role of Saudi Arabia and of mosques in the propagation of Wahhabism, a hardline form of Islam, in Belgium has also been highlighted since the Paris attacks, but the Parc du Cinquantenaire's Momenah said: “Nobody like this [an IS recuiter] can come here. I wouldn’t allow them to come to this place and they understand my way.”

Asked about Moroccans from Rif, he replied: “If you’re educated, you understand. You recognise whether the recruiter is telling the truth or giving you false information. Most of them [IS recruits] aren’t well educated.”

Police methods

The Belgian security contact said Brussels’ police is a relatively positive factor.

He said relations between police and Muslim communities are good, with incidents almost never ending violently despite the wide availability of illegal firearms.

“Everybody in Brussels has weapons. People easily buy and sell pistols and machine guns,” he said.

He noted that police lack knowledge of Muslim quarters, however. He also said some Flemish-speaking police use “harsh” methods, which cause tension.

“Many Brussels police come from provinces that don’t have Muslim districts, while Moroccan and Turkish police prefer to work in other districts to avoid conflict,” he said.

Momenah praised Belgian security services.

“I’ve had many contacts with the police … They speak in a very polite way, a very respectful way, and this is what we need,” the mosque director said.

He said Belgian Muslims more broadly, including people from Albania, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Somalia, “are happy to live in this country. They feel at home. They don’t feel like foreign people.”

“In Brussels, especially, it’s very open. They have good relationships, also with Belgian families, and this makes me happy,” he said.

“When I first came to Brussels I didn’t think I’d feel comfortable. But ever since I’ve lived here, I feel that it’s different to any other European country. I was in London. I was in France. But here, I feel like I’m home. I feel like in Saudi Arabia.”

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