By Roberta Bonazzi
At the end of November, the controversial imam of the Grand Mosque of Brussels, Abdelhadi Sewif, won the first round of a legal battle over his right to remain in Belgium. The judgement was prompted by the decision of Secretary of State for Migration Theo Francken to withdraw the residence permit of the imam, whom he has described as "a follower of Salafism, radicalised, very conservative and dangerous to our society and our national security".
Irrespective of the individual legal proceeding, which is now due to be examined by the Belgian supreme administrative court, this case is emblematic of how non-violent extremism is being considered as a matter of security and an integral part of radicalisation processes. This dimension emerged clearly from one of the reports adopted by the Belgian Parliament Committee of enquiry into the March 22, 2016 Brussels terrorist attacks.
Adopted in October 2017, the report examines the overall Islamist phenomenon and acknowledges how the decades-long extremist ideology that has been allowed to spread in different forms across Belgium, has paved the way for radicalisation and violence. Against this backdrop, the inquiry stresses that ideologies do not need to be openly violent to pose a threat: there are fundamentalist discourses which plant the seeds of terrorism even without inciting it directly, as they inspire a sense of hatred against the liberal-democratic order and its values. They promote an “us vs. them” narrative and urge Muslims to isolate from the rest of society. This propaganda causes ghetto-mentality and polarisation, fuelling feelings of marginalisation, resentment and frustration that, with the right trigger, have the potential to translate into violence.
The inquiry identifies a number of Islamist ideologies spread in Belgium since the '70s, the most relevant being the Muslim Brotherhood's and Salafi-Wahhabism. Significantly, the Committee highlights how the two have built in Belgium a downright "joint-venture", characterised by strong ideological ties and material cooperation.
Brussel's Grand Mosque, controlled by Saudi Arabia since 1969, represents perhaps the most visible instance of this Islamist alliance. The Grand Mosque is heavily dependent on funding from the Muslim World League, an NGO based in Saudi Arabia and financed by the Saudi government with the goal of propagating Islam and advocating for the application of sharia law.
The inquiry, indeed, raises disquieting concerns over the kind of Islam which has been propagated inside the Mosque and the attached Islamic Cultural Centre, noticing a distinct Salafi-Wahhabi mark with "significant influence" of the Muslim Brotherhood's thought. The latter is evidenced, inter alia, by the Mosque's declared reference to the fatwas of the European Council for Fatwa and Research (ECFR), a Dublin-headquartered body which is part of the "Federation of Islamic Organizations in Europe" (FIOE) - a Muslim Brotherhood umbrella organisation. The ECFR is also headed by Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the Qatar-based cleric considered one of the most influential ideologues of the Muslim Brotherhood's galaxy.
The Parliamentary Committee underlines that such Islamist cocktail has brought about the propagation of a radical ideology incompatible with liberal-democratic values, as enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights and in the Belgian Constitution.
Several noteworthy aspects emerge from the foregoing analysis and conclusions, that should lay the basis for effective policies to prevent radicalisation.
Point one, the Islamist ideology is unequivocally identified as a threat to society in a twofold way: in itself, for promoting a version of Islam incompatible with liberal-democratic values and individual liberties; and in its potential effects, for lighting the fuse of terrorism. The literalist and exclusivist interpretation of Islam taught in the Grand Mosque, and in general spread by various Islamist actors, pursues the goal of a state where laws and citizens' rights are not contingent upon the Constitution, but upon shari'a. One does not need ISIS to be brainwashed into the utopia of an Islamic State. Understanding and accepting this fact is the first step towards tackling extremism.
Point two: this sort of Islamism has been spread thanks to powerful and rich godfathers. Gulf countries such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are identified in the report as the main sponsors of radical preachers and propaganda material. The taps of foreign funding for Islamist organisations must be turned off in order to drain the resources of radicalisation.
Point three: it has been a tragic mistake to imagine that any entity whatsoever could represent "the Muslim community": a liberal-democratic society is made of individuals, and all the more so in the case of Islam, which is a religion without a Church and without a Pope – hence potentially open to as many interpretations as the Muslims on earth. Islamist groups always purport to represent "Muslims" as such, because this fosters their takfiri argument - if you are against us, you are not simply outside our club: you are outside Islam.
Western states for too long have supinely acquiesced to this logic, in a desperate search for interlocutors that were, unmistakably, Islamist ones - the most powerful, rich and better organised. The Parliamentary Committee has eventually taken stock of this mistake, and paved the way for its solution.
It is high time we stop appeasing Islamists and their project of a shari'a-based state, and we began empowering progressive liberal-democratic Muslims, who do not brandish faith as a political weapon, but embrace it as a spiritual belief compatible with individual freedom.
Roberta Bonazzi is the president of the European Foundation for Democracy
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