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Life On The Front Lines

10 minute read
Vivienne Walt

Along the windswept sidewalk of Hollandstraat in Antwerp North, the half-built shell of what was meant to be the neighborhood’s first official mosque is boarded up, with only the stumps of two unfinished minarets poking above the construction site’s walls. Work was shut down more than a year ago, thanks to a stop-the-mosque campaign orchestrated by Filip Dewinter, the leader of Belgium’s far-right Vlaams Belang party; non-Muslim residents protested against it and lawyers acting for anti-immigrant groups sued its builders for fire-code violations. “Look at this,” says Dewinter now, waving a dismissive hand at the mosque’s shell. “It’s just a few doors from the church.”

As he strolls through Antwerp North, a residential area on the edge of town, Dewinter, 42, is soon recognized; African men and Muslim women in head scarves yell “Racist!” at him as he passes. Africans began moving into Antwerp North about 10 years ago, and white residents were soon fleeing to the suburbs. Today, the streets are dotted with stores offering ethnic food and cut-rate telephone calls to Rwanda. But even here Dewinter has his supporters. Spotting him from the window of her apartment, one Belgian woman leans out and shouts: “You’re doing great things, Dewinter. Keep it up!”

The ferocious, polarized responses Dewinter evokes in Antwerp North mirror the immigration debate that’s raging throughout Belgium — and across Europe. As anti-immigration parties grow in strength in countries like Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands, mainstream conservatives are tacking right, arguing that immigrants must be compelled by law to assimilate by adopting Europe’s secular values and even turning their backs on their own Islamic traditions. It is, the politicians argue, the only way to counter the frightening nexus of immigration and Islamic terrorism that hits the headlines virtually every week. Late last month Belgian police briefly arrested a Moroccan immigrant whom they suspect of involvement in the massive March 11 al-Qaeda bomb attacks in Madrid. Four other Moroccans were charged in Spain earlier this month with involvement in those attacks. And last November, after a Dutch-born Islamic radical was arrested for the murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, a vociferous critic of fundamentalist Muslims, many Europeans wondered whether their liberal attitudes had given immigrants too free a rein — and whether assimilation itself was even possible.

In the wake of the Van Gogh killing, Geert Wilders, a right-wing Dutch M.P., called suspected terrorists “Islamo-fascist thugs” and proposed freezing all non-Western immigration for five years; he received death threats and now lives in a safe house and travels only with bodyguards. In Germany, where surveys suggest that voters worry more about immigration than about terrorism itself, opposition leader Angela Merkel declared late last year that “the idea of a multicultural society cannot succeed. It is prone to failure from the start. Multiculturalism is not integration.”

At issue is nothing less than what it means to be European. In the U.S., the ideal of the cultural “melting pot” has allowed ethnic communities to flourish without preventing immigrants from regarding themselves as true Americans. But the same sort of multiculturalism has been less successful in Europe, where small nations that have for centuries been defined by distinct languages, customs and cultures now feel besieged by fast-growing ethnic populations. Several countries find themselves with large immigrant ghettos for the first time. In Sweden, for example, about 15% of the country’s 9 million people are immigrants, many of them concentrated in mainly Muslim areas inhabited by Kurds, Iranians, Iraqis and Somalis. What does it mean to be European when, say, a Swede may speak Kurdish at home, Arabic with friends and Swedish at work? “Traditionally, a European is just a citizen from a European state,” says Carl Devos, a professor of political science at Belgium’s Ghent University. “But there’s a more philosophical discussion going on about European values. The fact that [second-generation Muslims] are still thought of as immigrants means we have a big, big problem. They’re born here. They pay their taxes. They speak the languages. They are not guests in the European house; they’re co-owners.”

You won’t hear many mainstream political leaders talk that way. With an eye on majority opinion, governments are flying to the defense of their national identities. In the Netherlands earlier this month, Immigration Minister Rita Verdonk announced that immigrants would from now on be compelled to pass an examination on Dutch language and culture — and attend 350 hours of classes — before becoming permanent residents. The French government will begin to teach Western history and law classes this year for all Muslim imams, while in Britain, the Labour Party and opposition Tories are both promising to cut numbers of immigrants and asylum seekers to favor the highly skilled and make it harder to settle permanently. Polls show that because of public disgust with the current system, this is one area where the Tories are beating Labour in the run-up to the general election expected in May (see following story).

Many Muslims see these moves as racist. They argue that only a tiny proportion among them supports extremist views, and that Europeans’ fear of extremism is a pretext for discriminatory policies. They insist that Islamic ideals can coexist with European values. And they say that both sides should try to close the gaps in income and hiring through affirmative action and antidiscrimination programs, because second-generation immigrants — born and bred in Europe — are coming of age in large numbers, and continue to have trouble finding places for themselves. It’s a fundamental argument — do the immigrants not want to assimilate, or do their hosts not want them to? — that’s playing out every day in places like Antwerp North, where an estimated 9,000 Muslims coexist with about 18,000 non-Muslims.

About 5% of Belgium’s 10.3 million people are Muslim immigrants, largely from Morocco and Turkey. Some 50,000 of them live in northern and eastern Antwerp. Growing numbers of East Europeans and Asians have also come to Belgium in recent years, but these groups — and to a lesser extent, Africans from Belgium’s former colonies — have remained largely irrelevant to the heated arguments about immigration, which Dewinter calls a “Trojan horse for importing Islamic fundamentalism.”

To fight this perceived threat, Dewinter wants to cap the number of mosques in Antwerp and freeze all new immigration. “Multiculturalism is an illusion,” says the lanky politician, who was first elected to Belgium’s federal Parliament at 25 on a campaign to declare the Flanders region an independent country. “Most immigrants are not integrating. They are sticking together in ghettos around the smell of their own food and their own way of life.” He wants to prevent Muslim immigrants from marrying in their home countries and bringing their spouses back to Belgium. He wants to deport immigrants who break Belgian laws, and compel immigrants to learn Belgian language and culture. And, following France’s lead last year, he wants to prevent Muslim girls from wearing head scarves in public schools. “They have to behave like we do,” he says. “There has to be separation of church and state. Rivers of blood have been spilled in Europe to ensure that.”

The provocative rhetoric of Dewinter and his Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest) party has helped attract the support of an estimated 24% of Belgians. In regional elections last June, Dewinter’s party captured a third of the vote in Antwerp and nearly a quarter of the national total, making it the biggest single political party in Flanders. At the Vlaams Belang’s local office in Antwerp North, just a few blocks from the unfinished mosque, Luisa vanden Bulck, 72, speaks for most party supporters when she says, “The streets are so full of Moroccans and Africans that we don’t feel like we are in Antwerp.”

Muslim leaders are enraged by such sentiments. Belgian-Lebanese activist Dyab Abou Jahjah is trying to do something about it. At one recent appearance, Abou Jahjah told a packed hall in Antwerp that it was time to mobilize to fight right-wingers like Dewinter. “The problem is the ignorance and stupidity of the Belgian people,” he stormed during a long, rabble-rousing speech to an audience of about 500. Four years ago, when he was 29, he founded the radical Arab European League and recently moved to Brussels from Antwerp to try to confront his right-wing foes in Parliament through the Muslim Democratic Party, the League’s new political wing. Many children of Antwerp’s Muslim immigrants, young people born and raised in Belgium, say they want to assimilate — but worry that they’ll be treated as foreigners no matter what. “People are afraid of the unknown, but they don’t want to know us,” says Moussa Abdulaziz, a 27-year-old Antwerp-born accountant standing at the back of the hall during Jahjah’s speech.

Abdulaziz’s parents moved from Morocco to Belgium during the 1960s. His father worked as a silver smelter in an Antwerp factory for 30 years. He and his wife had 10 children, all of whom now have Belgian passports. Abdulaziz himself speaks Dutch as well as Arabic, French and Berber. “We are not foreigners,” he says. “We were born here, yet we are born with this stamp on our forehead that says ‘foreigner’ that will never go away.”

Some members of Belgium’s Muslim community agree with Dewinter that certain aspects of Islam — like insisting women are veiled in public or condoning the murder of women who commit adultery — are incompatible with European values. Indeed, some Muslims say they follow the teachings of their clerics as closely as they do Belgium’s national laws; for a few of them, religious teachings remain more important. Hence some French Muslim girls have defied the law banning head scarves in public schools.

In the small working-class town of Mechelen, halfway between Antwerp and Brussels, young men gather each morning at the Rzoezie immigrant advice center, which offers job-hunting advice to unemployed Muslims. Staff have already called several prospective employers, frequently noting in pencil on job advertisements, “Doesn’t want Moroccans.” Those stipulations are illegal, but Rzoezie employees don’t have the resources to sue employers. Says Yassin El-Abdi, 23, who came to Rzoezie hoping to find a job: “It’s hopeless. It’s too late for Belgium to change.”

Yet many companies know they need immigrant labor. With European birth rates at historically low levels, immigrants have become the most dependable source of population growth for many countries, including Belgium, France, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain. In Spain, which has one of the world’s lowest birth rates, the government this month began offering permanent residence to some illegal immigrants who could prove they had jobs. The program could legalize as many as 800,000 immigrants. Dewinter fears plans like these will create an “explosive cocktail” of ethnic groups. “Islamization is Europe’s biggest problem right now,” he says, “and if we don’t do something fast, it will be too late.”

Dewinter plans to run for mayor of Antwerp next year. His main rival is likely to be Ahmed Azzuz, a goateed 28-year-old son of Moroccan immigrant factory workers. Azzuz is the local head of Jahjah’s Arab European League, and is seen as a test candidate in the new Muslim Democratic Party’s strategy to win local races. “Dewinter can probably win in 2006,” says Azzuz, sitting in a teahouse and wearing a sweatshirt that reads muslim by nature. “But in 2012, we can.” Until the two sides learn to live together, nobody wins.

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