Muslims in Belgium: Only Integrated on the Surface
by Daniela Schröder
In 1974 Belgium recognized Islam as a state-supported religion. Today, the country is considered one of the most xenophobic in Western Europe. Daniela Schröder reports on the situation of Muslims living in Belgium
Divided into French-, Flemish- and German-speaking regions and governed from a bilingual capital, Belgium is also home to a good half a million Muslims − roughly five percent of the total population of 10.4 million.
More than half of the Muslims here are naturalized citizens. Another 37 percent come from countries with a majority Muslim population, while the number of Belgians who have converted to Islam now lies somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000. The rest are children of Muslim families born in the country.
People of Moroccan or Turkish origin form the two largest groups within the multi-ethnic Muslim community in Belgium. Together they account for around 88 percent of the naturalized Muslims and 67 percent of the immigrants from majority Muslim countries.
A good 35 percent of the Turkish and Moroccan Muslims in Belgium are younger than 18 years old, while among the Belgian-born Muslims this age group makes up a share of only 18 percent.
Belgium’s incrementally reformed naturalization laws are viewed as some of the most liberal in all of Europe. Children of immigrants born in the country, children with at least one Belgian parent, and all who have lived longer than seven years in the country have the right to acquire Belgian citizenship. Foreigners living in the country legally for longer than three years can participate in local elections even without a Belgian passport.
Representation for Muslims
Initiatives for creating a representative body for all Muslims in Belgium at first came up against resistance from the traditional Belgian parties, which feared that institutionalizing Islam could pave the way for religious fundamentalism.
Since 1998 the “Muslim Executive of Belgium,” a committee of elected representatives of the country’s Muslim communities, has been acting as the official voice of the Muslim population. Many Muslims have criticized this body, however, claiming that it has not exactly done its job of standing up for the rights of all Muslims living in Belgium and working to fight discrimination.
The EMB − “L’Executif des Musulmans de Belgique” − is in charge of arranging lessons in Islam for 55,000 pupils, distributing publicly funded salaries to around 700 imams and administering public subsidies for state-recognized mosques.
But relations between the government and the EMB have been rocky from the start. The candidates for the initial committee were first checked by the state for extremism, and nine years later the Belgian parliament pushed to move up the schedule for new elections.
Some EMB members had allegedly been lining their own pockets, and the chairman ended up in prison. Belgian security authorities accused the Executive of maintaining contacts with fundamentalists. But the EMB denied any involvement. In early September 2007, the EMB offices were temporarily closed; there is once again talk of fraud.
Belgian headscarf battle
The most recent case is grist for the mill for all those in the country who are against Muslims in the first place. Muslims ruffle feathers in Belgium in particular by wearing the headscarf. The debate conducted in 2003 and 2004 in France triggered heated discussions here as well, especially in Brussels and in the French-speaking Walloon region.
Some of the schools in the capital decided not to accept any headscarf-wearing pupils. Since the Flemish and Francophone Belgians tend to take different views on the headscarf issue, thus blocking the passing of a national regulation, the decision has been left up to the schools themselves.
Regulations do not exist on the Belgian job market either, although the veil is considered a clear career obstacle.
No uniform integration policy
In Belgium with its highly complex political structure, integration policy is the job of the local administrations. The French- and Flemish-speaking governments have developed disparate approaches to dealing with integration issues. The Francophone Walloon region invests very little in immigration policies.
The Flemish North by contrast places more faith in multiculturalism, based on recognizing ethnic and cultural minorities and supporting them in their political involvement. One of the motivations for these efforts is an attempt to win over immigrants living in Brussels as a way of expanding the Flemish influence in the French-dominated capital.
But the integration-targeted course taken by the Flanders administration is also driven by the need to stem the tide of popular right-wing extremist groups − above all the nationalist Vlaams Belang, which has become the people’s party in many areas.
In the parliamentary elections in June, the “Flemish Interest” party managed to win 19 percent of the votes. The party leaders like to talk of an “invasion of Islam,” warning of an imminent “civil war” with immigrants and voicing the intention of deporting naturalized Belgians with dual citizenship.
One of the Vlaams Belang party heads once had camels driven through the streets of Antwerp as a protest against the supposed foreign infiltration of the modern, cosmopolitan port city.
Political representation, but not equal treatment
A series of violent racist acts in the last few years has caused the once peaceful co-existence of natives and immigrants in Belgium to start to come apart at the seams. International comparative studies describe the nation, not even 180 years old yet, as the most xenophobic in Western Europe.
Muslims are represented in the highest political offices, with Muslim-sounding names found on every ballot. But when it comes to equal treatment on the job market or when looking for an apartment, Belgium’s Muslims often complain of discrimination.
They are only integrated on the surface, many Muslims say – even those who were born here. We are allowed to go into politics, but still prevented from leading a normal life in society.
Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor-Gaida