A so-called “Islam safari” organised by the Netherlands’ Geert Wilders and his Belgian allies has been stopped by police from proceeding through a neighbourhood of Brussels with connections to jihadist terrorism.
Wilders of the Netherlands’ far-right PVV party and Filip Dewinter of Belgian right-wing party, Vlaams Belang, had planned to visit Molenbeek-Saint-Jean to observe the “Islamification” of Europe, where “the mosque has replaced the city hall and the imam has replaced the mayor,” Dewinter said.
Molenbeek-Saint-Jean, more commonly known as Molenbeek, was home to the terrorists who committed the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris in 2015 and has received intense public scrutiny for its link to foreign fighters who travelled to Syria to fight for the Islamic State.
Françoise Schepmans, Molenbeek’s mayor since 2012, accused Wilders and Dewinter of deliberately “provocative language” and said that she could not “guarantee their safety” if they ventured into Molenbeek and preached Islamophobia in a majority Muslim district.
The “safari” was officially forbidden by Schepmans on Thursday, who said the organizers would be escorted by police back to the frontiers of Molenbeek if they crossed into the municipality.
While Wilders declined to venture into the neighbourhood on Friday because of security reasons, Dewinter attempted to cross the canal bridging Brussels and Molenbeek, only to be stopped by police officers.
“While this is an undemocratic offense to my rights as a Belgian, I respect the law and your powers as an officer,” Dewinter said before turning back.
In a press conference held at the Belgian Parliament on Friday, titled “Freedom from Islam,” Wilders and Dewinter called Schepman’s decision a “fatwa” and argued it proved that Molenbeek was a lost territory, out of the control of the Belgian government.
“Enough is enough. Parliamentarians should be able to travel freely into their own country. But mayors are telling us that this is forbidden, and they are saying Molenbeek no longer belongs to Belgium,” said Wilders.
Locals from the area expressed distaste at the inflammatory nature of the “safari”.
“This is a racist action. With the word safari, they compare Molenbeek with a zoo, as if the people who live there are animals objects without any value.,” said Erik, 37, a middle school teacher in Anderlecht who grew up in the Brussels neighbourhood.
“Molenbeek has problems as it is one of the poorest part of Brussels, but not because it is a ‘Muslim’ or jihadist neighborhood,” said Wilfred, 33, a Flemish man who recently moved to the Molenbeek canal district.
Representatives from the far right parties say, however, that their forbidden visit to Molenbeek all but confirms their deepest suspicions.
“[The mayor] doesn’t want to show us the way things really are in Molenbeek. It is wholly Islamized: you only see head scarves, no alcohol is served, there are no women around. It looks like Pakistan there, and she doesn’t want the world to see it,” said a spokesperson for Belgium’s Vlaams Belang.
The seeming uproar over a visit of two far-right parties, however, only confirms to some that the hubbub is giving far-right parties exactly what they crave most: recognition and commotion.
“The ‘islam safari’ is provocatively ignorant, the political equivalent of a banana peel placed out in order to make someone slip. With her enthusiastic ban, Schepmans has slipped right over it,” wrote Simon Demeulemeester, editor at Knack, a weekly Belgian news magazine.
By Alexander Saeedy