Belgium begins long-overdue discussion on racism by looking to its ‘brutal’ past

Recognition and acknowledgement of the shameful parts of history are essential, however painful:

There is perhaps no greater symbol of Belgium’s failure to address the dark chapters of its colonial past than the Royal Museum for Central Africa. This weekend, it reopens after a five-year process to revamp the story it tells — a story many Belgians have never been taught.

The Royal Museum for Central Africa just outside Brussels has long been accused of complicity in perpetuating that distorted history.

Now housed in one of Leopold’s Versailles-like palaces, its roots date back to 1897, when the king built a special tramline so people visiting the World Fair in Brussels could also visit his own exhibition showcasing his colonial exploits.

He even built a “human zoo” of grass huts inhabited by 267 Congolese brought over to be a part of the display.

This is a look at King Leopold II’s original exhibit at the colonial museum. (Wellcome Collection)

There is perhaps no greater symbol of Belgium’s failure to address the dark chapters of its past than the museum, which has maintained its colonialist perspective for all these decades.

“We have one gallery, for example, with the names of the 1,600 Belgians that died between 1876 and early 20th century in the Congo Free State,” director Guido Gryseels said. “There’s not a single mention about the many Congolese victims of colonization.”

Until now.

Gryseels is the man behind a five-year renovation that he insists will “decolonize” the museum in form and message, delivering a more honest narrative when it reopens its doors to the public this weekend.

“That the Congo was not the story of bringing civilization, that it was not a story of eliminating the slave trade, that it was a story of brutal capitalism, looking for resources, looking for profits.”

Leopold’s private agents were given free rein in his African empire. They used slave labour to satisfy Belgium’s hunger for rubber and other natural resources. Those who fell behind in delivering their quotas could be punished with the loss of a limb, or worse.

That these horrors still feel somehow veiled from ordinary Belgians seems extraordinary.

Gryseels says it is an emotional issue for many Belgians, who will have had relatives who worked in Congo in one form or another over the years, in particular after the Belgian government took over from the king in 1908.

“Many people are very nostalgic about the past,” he said. “For many Belgians, our museum is a symbol of the times when Belgium was still a major power, in 1961, one of the richest countries in the world thanks to colonialism. And, of course, now it’s gone down.”

Immigration from Belgium’s former colonies, which also included Rwanda and Burundi, was not actively encouraged before or after Congo gained its independence in 1960.

But the Central African community here numbers well over 100,000 people. Whether to engage with the museum as it tries to reform and rebrand itself has been a difficult question for many.

Artist Aimé​ Mpane won a competition to design an installation for the main rotunda of the new museum.

It will serve as a contrast to statues still in place from the old era, portraying colonizers as civilizers, including a golden piece depicting African children cowering at the feet of a cross-bearing missionary.

A statue of a missionary and a young boy at the museum. (Lily Martin/CBC)

Mpane’s piece, titled New Breath, is a giant latticework head sculpted from wood and placed over a crown etched on the floor of the rotunda.

“I [wanted] to create one big piece that will take the place of King Leopold II,” he said. “That will replace this story, which links us all, with the good and the bad.”

The work also features a plant that seems to grow from the top of the head, in place of a crown, and draws the eye upward.

“There’s always a link between what’s on the ground and what’s in the sky,” he said. “And that’s to show the idea of genesis, of rebirth. We can rise above our past and reach something that’s ours.”

Mpane’s work, New Breath, in the museum’s rotunda. (Lily Martin/CBC)

Mpane says he initially had doubts about taking part, despite reassurances that proper context would be provided for the colonial statues.

“But when I started to dig a bit deeper into it, I realized we’re really talking about our history and we must try to make sense of it. If we don’t take part in it, who is going to do it?”

Return the artifacts

Others say true contrition for the wrongs of the past would require returning all the cultural artifacts taken from colonial Africa now lining the museum’s shelves, from ritual masks and sculptures to tribal drums and a wooden canoe carved out of a single log.

The debate in Belgium comes in the wake of a report commissioned by French President Emmanuel Macron that recommended the return of thousands of items taken from former French colonies without consent.

The report, which was penned by the French historian Bénédicte Savoy and Senegalese writer Felwine Sarr, has sparked debate in other European countries including Germany and Belgium.

The current Belgian king, Philippe, changed his mind and decided not to attend the Royal Museum’s reopening this weekend in the wake of the controversy.

“I think that giving back these works of art is a question of law and justice,” said activist Mireille-Tsheusi Robert, who came to Brussels at the age of three with her Belgian father and Congolese mother.

“The original owners whose objects were stolen are villagers, chieftains, whole villages — in short, a country.”

Keeping the works of art sends the message: “We vanquished them,” she said.

For now, returning the artifacts is a step too far for Gryseels, although he acknowledges the role of the museum in Belgium’s failure to see itself as a multicultural society and to reflect the diversity of its population in its public institutions.

“For the most Belgians, their first encounter with Africa is through a visit of our museum. If then, in this museum, you get the impression that Africans don’t have a culture of their own, that the European view is superior, then you can’t be surprised that that has an impact. So we take our responsibility.”

‘Only ignorance’

To really change though, the country as a whole must take on that responsibility, many Belgians say. To carry it out of the museum and into mainstream society.

Pierre Kompany says he believes his election is a sign Belgium is headed in the right direction.

But he also says the country must work much harder to acknowledge the past if it wants to free itself from it.

“When it comes to history, there is no compromise,” he said. “Only ignorance.”

Source: Belgium begins long-overdue discussion on racism by looking to its ‘brutal’ past

Giving up control of Brussels mosque, Saudi Arabia sends a signal

Positive step. Even if Salafism does not necessarily lead to violence, it is extreme and intolerant and not conducive to integration (as are most fundamentalist strains of religions):

Saudi Arabia has agreed to give up control of Belgium’s largest mosque in a sign that it is trying to shed its reputation as a global exporter of an ultra-conservative brand of Islam.

Belgium leased the Grand Mosque to Riyadh in 1969, giving Saudi-backed imams access to a growing Muslim immigrant community in return for cheaper oil for its industry.

But it now wants to cut Riyadh’s links with the mosque, near the European Union’s headquarters in Brussels, over concerns that what it preaches breeds radicalism.

The mosque’s leaders deny it espouses violence, but European governments have grown more wary since Islamist attacks that were planned in Brussels killed 130 people in Paris in 2015 and 32 in the Belgian capital in 2016.

Belgium’s willingness to put its demands to oil-producing Saudi Arabia, a major investor and arms client, breaks with what EU diplomats describe as the reluctance of governments across Europe to risk disrupting commercial and security ties.

Riyadh’s quick acceptance indicates a new readiness by the kingdom to promote a more moderate form of Islam – one of the more ambitious promises made by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman under plans to transform Saudi Arabia and reduce its reliance on oil.

The agreement last month coincides with a new Saudi initiative, not publicly announced but described to Reuters by Western officials, to end support for mosques and religious schools abroad blamed for spreading radical ideas.

The move towards religious moderation – and away from the extreme interpretation of Islam’s Salafi branch that is espoused by modern jihadist groups – risks provoking a backlash at home and could leave a void that fundamentalists try to fill.

But Saudi Arabia’s recent moves on religion are seen by Belgian diplomat Dirk Achten, who headed a government delegation to Riyadh in November, as a “window of opportunity”.

“The Saudis are disposed to dialogue without taboos,” he told Belgium’s parliament last month after the mission was hastily put together after the assembly urged the government to break Saudi Arabia’s 99-year, rent-free lease of the mosque.

But he also cautioned: “Some do not, or barely, admit that this form of Salafism leads to jihadism.”

Details of the mosque’s handover are still being negotiated but will be announced this month, Belgian Interior Minister Jan Jambon told Reuters.

The diplomatic contacts, led by the countries’ foreign ministers, were intended by Belgium to prevent what Jambon called an “exaggerated response” from Saudi Arabia — indicating the Belgian government had sought to ensure there was no diplomatic backlash.

This, he said, was “under control” following a visit to Belgium last month by Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir.

Before Saudi Arabia took control in the late 1960s, the Grand Mosque was a disused relic of the Great Exhibition of 1880 – an Oriental Pavilion.

Saudi money converted it to cater to migrants from Morocco invited to work in the country’s coal mines and factories. It is run by the Mecca-based Muslim World League (MWL), a missionary society mainly funded by Saudi Arabia.

Concerns about the mosque grew as militant groups such as Islamic State started recruiting among the grandchildren of those migrants, many of whom say they still feel they do not belong in Belgian society, opinion polls show.

Belgium has sent more foreign fighters to Syria per capita than any other European country. Belgian officials now suggest the Muslim Executive of Belgium, a group seen as close to Moroccan officialdom, should run the Grand Mosque.

Although the Saudi government has denied any role in the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks against the United States which killed more than 3,000 people, 15 of the 19 airplane hijackers who carried them out were from Saudi Arabia and linked to late Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, the plot’s Saudi-born mastermind.

Bin Laden was a follower of Wahhabism, the original strain of Salafism which has often been criticized as the ideology of radical Islamists worldwide. Yet many of Islamic State’s positions are far more radical than Wahhabism, the ultra-conservative branch of Islam dominant in Saudi Arabia and founded by 18th century cleric Mohammed ibn Abd al-Wahhab.

A classified report by Belgian security agency OCAD/OCAM in 2016 said the Wahhabi branch of Islam promoted at the mosque led Muslim youth to more radical ideas, sources with access to the report said.

“The mosque has influence to spread this hateful ‘software’,” a senior Belgian security source said. “Nobody paid attention for decades.”

Belgium’s parliament said what it preached was “a gateway or even a predisposition to a more combative Islam that is violent”, calling in October for an end to the Saudi lease.

The same month, immigration minister Theo Francken tried to expel the Grand Mosque’s Egyptian imam of 13 years, calling him “dangerous”, but a judge reversed that decision.

But Belgian security sources say there is no proof imams at the Grand Mosque preached violence or have had links to attacks.

Some who went to fight in Syria had studied there but men are more prey to recruiters for militant groups online and on the streets of underprivileged boroughs such as Molenbeek, in Brussels, where some of the Paris attackers lived, they say.

Tamer Abou El Saod, who was appointed director of the Grand Mosque in May, says there are problems over the way it is perceived but denies it espouses a fundamentalist version of Islam. He says he is ready to work with Belgian officials.

“There are changes happening already and there are even more changes coming in the very near future,” he told Reuters.

Belgian leaders say they want the mosque to preach a “European Islam” better aligned with their values – a familiar refrain across Europe following the Islamic State attacks of the last few years.

But it is unclear who will operate the sprawling mosque complex, which receives about 5 million euros ($6 million) a year through the MWL which has for decades promoted a hardline interpretation of Islam at dozens of institutions worldwide

The MWL has recently adopted a more conciliatory tone. In just over a year since being appointed, its secretary-general, Mohammad bin Abdul Karim al-Issa, has met with Pope Francis and taken a public stance against Holocaust denial. Issa told Reuters in November the organization’s new mission was to annihilate extremism.

For Saudi Arabia, the mosque is a chance to prove it is turning over a new leaf after years of accusations it turned a blind eye to – if not actively endorsed – extremist ideology.

Crown Prince Mohammed has already taken some steps to loosen ultra-strict social restrictions, scaling back the role of religious morality police, permitting public concerts and announcing plans to allow women to drive this summer.

The changes, however, may be too late since most militant groups that emerged at some point from Saudi networks have grown independent, says Stephane Lacroix, a scholar of Islam in Saudi Arabia.

“That this is going to solve the problem of radical Islam because if the Saudis change, everything’s going to change: It’s not the case,” he told Reuters.

Source: Giving up control of Brussels mosque, Saudi Arabia sends a signal

A Close Look at Brussels Offers a More Nuanced View of Radicalization – The New York Times

Interesting contrast between Turk and Moroccan-origin communities, and the impact of failing to deliver on integration expectations:

At a Turkish mosque in Molenbeek run by Diyanet, Turkey’s state-controlled religious affairs agency, the imam, who speaks only Turkish, expressed revulsion at the March attacks in Brussels and said that he and his worshipers never tolerate extremist views. He stressed that his congregants respect and follow the law.

Worshipers at a nearby Moroccan mosque angrily shooed away reporters, accusing them of fanning “Islamophobia” and stigmatizing their neighborhood as a haven of jihadists.

In contrast to Belgium’s Turks, the Moroccan community is far more divided and resistant to authority, in part because many of the early immigrants came from the Rif, a rebellious Berber-speaking region often at odds with the ruling monarchy in Morocco. “When emigration to Europe started, the king was happy to get rid of these people,” said Bachir M’Rabet, a youth worker of Moroccan descent in Molenbeek.

Another source of anger in his community, he added, is that many Turks often speak poor French and no Dutch, Belgium’s two main languages, and cling to their Turkish identity, while most Moroccans speak fluent French and aspire to be accepted fully as Belgians. This, he said, means that many Moroccans feel discrimination more acutely and, at least in the case of young men on the margins, tend to view even minor slights as proof that the entire system is against them.

Philippe Moureaux, who served for two decades as Molenbeek’s mayor, described this as “the paradox of integration.” A less-integrated Turkish community has resisted the promise of redemption through jihad offered by radical zealots. Yet, a Moroccan community that is more at home in French-speaking Brussels has seen some of its young fall prey to recruiters like Khalid Zerkani, a Moroccan-born petty criminal who became the Islamic State’s point man in Molenbeek.

“The Turks suffer much less from an identity crisis,” Mr. Moureaux said. “They are proud to be Turks and are much less tempted by extremism.”

Suspicion of and hostility toward authority, particularly the police force, run so deep among some North African immigrants in Molenbeek that when the police mobilized in the area this month to prevent a group of anti-immigrant right-wing hooligans from staging a rally, local youths, mostly young men of Moroccan descent, began hurling abuse and objects at the police.

Molenbeek immigrants of Turkish or other backgrounds generally have a less hostile view of the police. A Turkish shopkeeper who runs a general store near the police station said he feared not the police but aggressive North African youths who accuse him of being a bad Muslim because he sells alcohol. He noted that the youths steal, which is also forbidden.

Emir Kir, the Belgian-Turkish mayor of Saint-Josse-ten-Noode, a heavily immigrant Brussels borough that is worse off economically than Molenbeek, said the only Turk he knew about who had tried to go to Syria was a young man who had fallen in love with a girl of Moroccan descent. He got as far as Istanbul before being sent back. “This was a love affair, not an act of extremism,” he said.

Source: A Close Look at Brussels Offers a More Nuanced View of Radicalization – The New York Times

ICYMI – Islam, Europe and Belgium: Belgium’s dilemmas over Islam are common to Europe | The Economist

Hobson’s choice:

The problem of which partners to choose for co-operation (and how to avoid killing them with kindness) is especially acute in Belgium, which has a tradition, reflecting its Catholic heritage, of offering generous state help to religious institutions—above all, religious education. As explained in a recent article by Caroline Sagesser, of the Free University of Brussels, the Belgian state officially recognised Islam as one of the country’s religions, eligible for help, back in 1974. Ever since it has been trying to find a reliable Muslim body that can help certify mosques and schools (as deserving of official help) and is also genuinely representative of the community.

Only in 2007 did an “Executive of Belgian Muslims” start playing that role effectively, and it has been paralysed by internal quarrels, or by quarrels with the government, quite a lot of the time since then. The government’s need for a Muslim partner has grown more acute in the past couple of years since young zealots, mostly of Moroccan origin, began leaving for Syria. It recently earmarked €3.3m ($3.8m) to pay the salaries for 80 new imams; it still needs advice on where to find suitably moderate recipients of that money. (As of now, the country has around 300 imams, of whom about 160 are on the state payroll.)

The Executive has in recent weeks undergone some internal upheavals. An imam who had been president since March 2014, and complained that he was being undermined and threatened by hardline conservatives, stood down in favour of one who enjoys the formal backing of Belgium’s Moroccan community. The new president, Salah Echallaoui, has been serving as head of an association of Moroccans in Belgium which is also supported by the Moroccan state. In a sense, the Belgian and Moroccan governments are now co-managing Belgian Islam; that marks a big change from the Executive’s earlier days, when it was boycotted by Moroccans. Mr Echallaoui has been much in the news in recent days, condemning the terrorist attacks and insisting they had nothing whatever to do with the true message of Islam.

The emergence, and the government’s acceptance, of a leader with official Moroccan backing reflects a wider European trend. A decade ago, the talk in many countries was of fostering a “European Islam” which would put down local roots and gradually reduce the influence of migrant-sending countries like Algeria, Turkey and Morocco. But in the current situation, European governments are concluding that they need all the help they can get in keeping extremism under control; and if the governments of other countries can assist, so much the better. The Belgian government used to compete with Turkey’s religious affairs directorate, the diyanet, for influence over Muslim newcomers; more recently it has welcomed the diyanet‘s help in preparing imams to work in Europe. The situation in other European countries with Turkish minorities has shifted in a similar way.

Another strong Muslim institution in Belgium, much heard in condemnation of the terrorist attacks, is the Ligue des Musulmans de Belgique (League of Muslims of Belgium) which in recent years has organised a high-profile exhibition of all things Islamic in Brussels. But the government is under international pressure to keep it at arm’s length. The United Arab Emirates, as part of its broader campaign against the global Muslim Brotherhood, has denounced the League as a “terrorist” organisation under Brotherhood influence. The League rejects that allegation, calling itself a peaceful organisation of mainly Moroccan-born Belgians which has no connection with Egypt (the homeland of the Brotherhood) or the Gulf. But the government keeps a careful eye on the speakers invited to the exhibition and it has banned at least one.

The problem is that any Muslim who wields enough clout to be a useful partner to the government is probably getting backing from somewhere, be it the governments of Morocco or Turkey, the Brotherhood or some other international network. And whenever the government starts grooming its own favourite Muslims, whose distinguishing feature is impeccable moderation, they can rapidly come to be seen as stooges by their own community. Many European countries, including Britain, face just that dilemma. But governments will keep trying to find the right partners because they feel they have no choice.

Source: Islam, Europe and Belgium: Belgium’s dilemmas over Islam are common to Europe | The Economist

Belgian theater director Luk Perceval: ′We should see multiculturalism in a positive light′| DW.COM

Interesting interview but too simplistically links marginalization to violence. As others have noted (e.g., Gurski), the backgrounds of extremists and terrorists vary, although marginalization does play a role:

The great power of theater is that we don’t only recognize ourselves on stage, in one of the characters, but that we also feel included. On stage, questions are asked that every person deals with: questions of love, death, war, everything that we don’t know or are unsure of in life. The moment when we feel this sense of not knowing, this insecurity in the group, and we can laugh or cry together about it – that’s when a feeling of community is created.

Art is suspending for a moment people’s feeling of being alone. It is feeling that we are all part of humanity and we have the same problems and doubts.

To what extent should theater deal with current social issues?

I grew up in Belgium, a country that has seen so many wars in the past and has become a kind of thoroughfare for Europe. Here you’re confronted with so many cultures and languages. That’s why I personally feel the need to tell people to watch out and not erect fences. They won’t help with anything.

Should theater always send that message? I don’t know. Only if there is an honest commitment behind it. But after Paris and Brussels, it’s necessary to talk about our shock. And I think it’s important for theater to create space where people can discuss their feelings.

How optimistic are you about the future? 

I’m afraid that this is just the beginning of something horrible. I hope that the peace talks in Syria can achieve constructive results. Diplomatic solutions must be found for this war. It’s not just about the criminals in Brussels. Salah Abdeslam was able to hide in Brussels for four months. That shows how powerful the network behind him is. The fundamental question is, though, to what extent terror is also linked to tremendous injustice in the world – particularly in the Arab World.

I really am concerned that things will escalate as long as the gap between rich and poor – not just in Brussels, but worldwide – doesn’t change. Until then, I’m afraid these murders won’t end.

Source: Belgian theater director Luk Perceval: ′We should see multiculturalism in a positive light′ | Arts | DW.COM | 29.03.2016

Why Foreign Fighters Come from Francophone Countries | Foreign Affairs

Interesting take by William McCants and Christopher Meserole (thanks to those who brought it to my attention), and another indicator of the failure of the French (and Belgian) models of integration (and in the case of France, laïcité):

As with the Francophone finding overall, we’re left with guesswork as to why exactly the relationships between French politics, urbanization, youth unemployment, and Sunni militancy exist. We suspect that when there are large numbers of unemployed youth, some of them are bound to get up to mischief. When they live in large cities, they have more opportunities to connect with people espousing radical causes. And when those cities are in Francophone countries that adopt the strident French approach to secularism, Sunni radicalism is more appealing.

For now, the relationship needs to be studied and tested by comparing several cases in countries and between countries. We also found other interesting relationships—such as between Sunni violence and prior civil conflict—but they are neither as strong nor as compelling.

Regardless, the latest attacks in Belgium are reason enough to share the initial findings. They may be way off, but at least they are based on the best available data. If the data is wrong or our interpretations skewed, we hope the effort will lead to more rigorous explanations of what is driving jihadist terrorism in Europe. Our initial findings should in no way imply that Francophone countries are responsible for the recent horrible attacks—no country deserves to have its civilians killed, regardless of the perpetrator’s motives. But the magnitude of the violence and the fear it engenders demand that we investigate those motives beyond just the standard boilerplate explanations.

Source: Why Foreign Fighters Come from Francophone Countries | Foreign Affairs

Belgium’s big problem with radical Islam – The Washington Post

One of the better pieces I have seen, although over-mechanically emphasizes some of the causes of radicalization:

Of all the countries in the West, Belgium has produced the greatest number of foreign jihadists per capita who are fighting in Syria. The actual figure, according to researchers, is variously estimated at 470 to 553. Roughly a third of those who left to fight in Iraq and Syria have returned; many have not faced prosecution, with authorities struggling to prove that the fighters joined violent organizations such as the Islamic State, which is also known as ISIS and ISIL.

According to an analysis by the Royal Institute for International Relations, or Egmont, a Brussels-based think tank, the majority of Belgian jihadists are young (ages 20 to 24), have lower-than-average education levels and are mostly of Moroccan heritage.

The prevalence of Islamist extremism in Belgium predates the incidents of the past year, as well as the advent of the Islamic State. And this is not the first time an Islamic State proxy has struck on Belgian soil: In May 2014, a gun-wielding French national who had spent time in Syria killed four people in the Jewish Museum of Brussels.

The root causes of radicalization are largely familiar: high unemployment, marginalization, discrimination and a sense of alienation from the wider society.

BuzzFeed’s Joshua Hersh spent time in Molenbeek and came away with this picture of a downtrodden, disgruntled community:

“Unlike the infamous banlieues of Paris — the rundown high-rise suburbs that symbolize France’s failure to integrate its own Muslim immigrant residents — Molenbeek is practically in the middle of Brussels; it’s just two metro stops west of the central train station. Still, Molenbeek can feel deeply isolated. The immigrants of Brussels, most of them Muslim and of North African descent, are highly concentrated there — the schools they attend, shunned by white Belgian families, are disparagingly referred to as “concentration schools,” after the high percentage of immigrants enrolled, and the poor conditions. “I didn’t believe it was this bad when I first started,” said a teacher who works at a mostly immigrant school near Molenbeek. “The schools, all they do is accentuate the problems the students face in their daily lives.””

Moreover, as my colleague Michael Birnbaum reported, Belgium’s pronounced linguistic divisions between Dutch-speaking Flanders, the largely French-speaking city of Brussels and the region of Wallonia to the south have made it difficult for some immigrant groups to assimilate. This is particularly true of those living in Flanders, where far-right Flemish nationalist parties hold real sway and inveigh against the dangers of Islam.

“The Islamic State is giving them what the Belgian government can’t give them — identity, structure,” Montasser AlDe’emeh of the University of Antwerp told Birnbaum. “They don’t feel Moroccan or Belgian. They don’t feel part of either society.”

According to the Egmont report, the current crop of Belgian extremists are significantly younger than earlier generations, which went off to join the ranks of al-Qaeda and other fundamentalist groups. That radicalization is driven less by religious fervor than by more local factors, and it is shaped also by ties to gangs and other criminal activity:

“Their acquaintance with religious thought is undoubtedly more shallow and superficial than their predecessors’, as is their acquaintance with international politics. Geopolitics is less important to them than it once was to their predecessors, who felt motivated by the struggle against the superpowers. Injustice was often a starting point with their predecessors’ journey towards extremism and terrorism. This has now largely been overshadowed by personal estrangement and motives as the primary engines of their journey.”

Source: Belgium’s big problem with radical Islam – The Washington Post

Belgium, Christianity and Islam: In and around Brussels, the practice of Islam is outstripping Christianity | The Economist

Interesting article regarding religion in Belgium and the implications of greater religiosity among Muslims:

All that is part of the background to a study of religious attitudes among Francophone Belgians, conducted by the Observatory of Religion and Secularism, a helpful resource for the study of faith in Europe.  Respondents came in equal numbers from Wallonia, the country’s Gallic-oriented south, and the Francophone majority in Brussels.

The pollsters were surprised by how many respondents still professed some attachment to a religion. Among all respondents, 20% called themselves practising Catholics and 43% non-practising Catholics; 6% were practising Muslims and 1% non-practising Muslims. With other religions accounting for a few points each, that left 26% who called themselves atheist or agnostic. Jean-Philippe Schreiber, a professor of religous studies who co-commissioned the poll, said a remarkably high number of Belgians “claimed a religious identity” even if it did not affect their behaviour much. That certainly applied to loosely affiliated Catholics; and it might also be true that not every respondent who identified with Islam actually prayed and fasted as the rules lay down.

Then turn to Brussels, some parts of which host large communities of Moroccan and Turkish immigrants, mostly from religiously conservative regions of those countries. Among respondents in the city, practising Catholics amounted to 12% and non-practising ones to 28%. Some 19% were active Muslims and another 4% were of Muslim identity without practising the faith. The atheist/agnostic camp came to 30%.

Among all respondents, levels of active adherence to Catholicism seemed to diminish dramatically with age, while the practice of Islam increased correspondingly. Thus among respondents aged 55 and over, practising Catholics amounted to 30% and practising Muslims to less than 1%; but among those aged between 18 and 34, active adherence to Islam (14%) exceeded the practice of Catholicism (12%). Admittedly the sample (600 people in all) is small. But if this trend continues, practitioners of Islam may soon comfortably exceed devout Catholics not just in cosmopolitan Brussels, as is the case already, but across the whole of Belgium’s southern half.

The pollsters are struck by the fact that many Belgians retain a cultural loyalty to the Catholic faith. albeit a diminishing one. The percentage of avowedly “practising Catholics” far exceeds the numbers who actually turn up at mass, as any cleric will confirm. But one thing is pretty clear. If anything holds Belgium together through its third century of existence, Catholicism will not be the glue.

Source: Belgium, Christianity and Islam: In and around Brussels, the practice of Islam is outstripping Christianity | The Economist

ICYMI: ‘We did not come to be a burden.’ Belgian artists mail letters from migrants to an uncertain public | Toronto Star

Creative approach:

It’s not a letter home, but a letter of introduction to a new home.

Amid the increasingly xenophobic political rhetoric in Europe, a pair of Belgian artists is sending letters written by recently arrived migrants to local residents.

Moving Stories” is a public art project that seeks to break down the invisible barriers between the migrants and those who have, somewhat reluctantly, welcomed them into safety.

“We wanted to invite people to get in touch with each other and talk to each other instead of about each other,” said the artists’ agent, Anouk Focquier. “That’s what’s missing in this entire debate.”

Dirk Schellekens and Bart Peleman got 13 migrants living in a Red Cross shelter in Antwerp to pen letters explaining why they left their homes in Africa, the Middle East and Eastern Europe, and how they arrived in Belgium. The letters were then translated from the migrants’ mother tongues into Flemish and copied 166 times — one for each of the nationalities present in the city.

On Friday, the missives and their translations were put into envelopes and posted to random addresses across the Antwerp, along with return postcards inviting the recipients to send back a response.

The messages, written in Arabic, Kurdish, French, Russian and English, describe persecution at the hands of Al Shebab in Somalia, domestic abuse in northern Mali and forced conscription in Syria — not to mention hardships endured on the journey to Europe.

Focquier said the artists asked the migrants to use pen and paper in order to undermine the knee-jerk opinion forming that takes place on social media.

“When you write a letter, you sit down and think. And we wanted to slow down the process of forming opinions because that’s going really fast right now.”

Schellekens & Peleman, as the artists are collectively known, have focused their recent work on the European refugee crisis, floating a six-metre inflatable sculpture of a migrant on a small boat through Venice, Italy in November.

The “Inflatable Refugee” sculpture is made from the same materials as the boats that transport migrants across the Mediterranean Sea — “too fragile to withstand the waves,” the artists write.

“Do we see him as a human or as a problem? Is his presence an opportunity or a threat, devoid of human characteristics?”

Source: ‘We did not come to be a burden.’ Belgian artists mail letters from migrants to an uncertain public | Toronto Star

Why Does Belgium Produce So Many Radical Islamist Militants? – The Atlantic

Good and interesting article on Belgian, the EU country with the highest per capita number of extremists:

Belgium has just 11 million people, and Pew estimated that about 6 percent of the population was Muslim as of 2010. But Belgian and French nationals make up around a quarter of the Europeans who went to fight in Iraq in the mid-2000s. While the government has acknowledged that hundreds of Belgians have gone to fight with ISIS or for other groups in the Syrian civil war, Pieter Van Ostaeyen, an independent researcher, calculated in October that 516 Belgians had fought in Iraq or Syria, far higher than the government’s figures. Based on his numbers, Belgium has contributed more fighters per capita to the fight in the Levant than any other European country.

The central figure in Belgian militant Islamism is Fouad Belkacem, a 33-year-old preacher and founder of the group Sharia4Belgium. He was born in Belgium to Moroccan parents, and is a disciple of the British radical Islamist Anjem Choudary. Belkacem, who had been arrested for various petty crimes, organized burnings of American flags after 9/11 and harassed gay Muslims. Sharia4Belgium became a major feeder for fighters in Syria and Iraq, including Jejoen Bontinck, whom Ben Taub profiled in an excellent New Yorker story. Bontinck, a former TV dance-show celebrity, was a convert, as many of the most prominent European ISIS fighters have been. (Van Ostaeyen calculates that only 6 percent of Belgian-national ISIS fighters are converts, however.) Others, like Abaaoud, came from secular or mildly observant Muslim families, but became radicalized. In December 2014, Belkacem and 45 other members of Sharia4Belgium were found guilty of membership in a terrorist group. He is serving a 12-year prison sentence.

Belgian jihadism seems to mimic French Islamist militancy, only more concentrated—as befits the smaller country. Both have large numbers of immigrants who are poorer and isolated from the dominant culture. Both countries have also seen far-right, anti-immigrants parties rise by loudly declaring a Muslim menace. Experts also say it is comparatively easy to acquire illegal guns in Belgium, making it an attractive base for operations. The Washington Post notes that Belgium’s unusual bilingualism—Flemish and French—makes it hard for immigrants who only speak French to find work and assimilate. And deep distrust between French- and Flemish-speaking government officials has created an elaborate and sclerotic security apparatus that doesn’t always deal with threats efficiently and promptly.In particular, Belgian jihadism is concentrated in Molenbeek. It’s a neighborhood of nearly 100,000 people in Brussels, northwest of the city center, which has had a large Muslim population for many years. There are 22 known mosques in the district. Molenbeek shares some characteristics with the banlieues in French—densely populated, large immigrant populations, very high unemployment, complaints of inadequate government services, isolation from the central city and corridors of power. In other ways, however, Molenbeek is rather different: It has a strong middle class, bustling commercial districts, and a gentrifying artist class.

“I notice that each time there is a link with Molenbeek,” Prime Minister Charles Michel said Sunday. “This is a gigantic problem. Apart from prevention, we should also focus more on repression.” (That unfortunate wording may be a failure of translation.) Interior Minister Jan Jambon added: “We don’t have control of the situation in Molenbeek at present.”

Jambon’s statement has reawakened concerns about Muslim “no-go zones” in European cities. It’s an idea Bobby Jindal, the Louisiana governor and Republican presidential hopeful, was heavily pushing in January. According to the myth, there were large zones that police forces had simply ceded to sharia gangs, and into which neither non-Muslims nor law enforcement dared to go. When I looked into it at the time, there was no evidence that such areas actually existed. Even Daniel Pipes, a leading alarmist about the threat of radical Islamism, argued that Jindal was mistaken in describing the banlieues that way. But there were disturbing reports of gangs of men intimidating or beating non-Muslims or residents whom they deemed insufficiently observant.

Does Molenbeek prove that no-go zones are real? On the one hand, there’s Jambon’s statement. But in other clear ways, Molenbeek doesn’t appear like a Muslim exclave in the middle of Brussels. Jambon himself pointed this out in his remarks on TV on Sunday, mentioning Molenbeek’s non-Muslim mayor and its own constabulary: “I see that Mayor Françoise Schepmans is also asking our help, and that the local police chief is willing to cooperate. We should join forces and ‘clean up’ the last bit that needs to be done, that’s really necessary.” Journalists seem to be having little trouble reporting from the area; Politico sent a reporter and photographer out in the neighborhood, and found that while residents were not eager to speak to the press, it looked in many ways like a typical, somewhat run-down district.

“Daily life in Molenbeek works well—but that’s maybe what has fooled us: that in ordinary life, there are no difficulties,” Schepmans, the mayor, said. “And next to that, there are people living in the shadow. And we have left them living in the shadow. We didn’t ask ourselves the right questions.”

Source: Why Does Belgium Produce So Many Radical Islamist Militants? – The Atlantic