Plan Canal in Brussels: Belgium vs Molenbeek

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.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.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.

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. 

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