Belgium’s Muslim Beggars
How do Muslim communities living in the West view each other?
December 15, 2005
The dialogue with Muslims in Belgium was getting depressing and had a dampening effect on my usually upbeat attitude toward the future of Western Muslims. After two days of fish, salad and disheartening conversations, I decided to step out of the Crowne Plaza Hotel and look for a halal sandwich.
I took a stroll down the Rue du Jardin — and it did not take long to find a place that served shawarma sandwiches to go.
As I bought the sandwich, I noticed a woman in black Hijab and Jilbab walking purposefully towards me. I smiled at her, wished her Assalamu Alaykum — and continued with my vital commerce. A moment later, I was shocked to see this rather young and dignified woman push an empty Starbucks coffee mug into my face. She was begging!
In the land of welfare, on the road of gardens, in this country whose exports per capita are ten times those of the United States, one finds Muslim women begging for a living on nearly every corner. Theory, philosophy, ideology aside, this pathetic reality is a poignant commentary on the condition of Muslims today.
The Muslim world has become such a pathetic, violent and miserable place that Muslim women would rather beg in foreign streets.
The West — with all its critique of Islam and the Muslim World and its self-congratulatory discourse on human rights, tolerance, pluralism and democracy — cannot rise above the kaleidoscopic images of Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, Katrina victims, suburban riots and Hijabi beggars.
I went back to the hotel, angry, frustrated and depressed. I took no part in the conference that day. I had my plenary session in the streets of Brussels. I kept wondering if we needed to reinstitute the Marshall Plan to help Europe deal with its poor and marginalized Muslims — in the suburbs of Paris, in the ghettoes of Birmingham and in the streets of Brussels.
I was in Brussels to participate in a U.S.-Belgium Muslim dialogue, co-hosted by the U.S. Ambassador to Belgium, Tom Korologos and Ambassador Claude Mission, the Director General of the Royal Institute for International Relations.
An interesting group of 32 U.S. Muslim scholars and intellectuals, community leaders, journalists and activists joined 70 of their counterparts from the Belgian Muslim community. They got together to discuss their mutual condition and explore possibilities for further dialogue and civic cooperation.
Belgium has a population of ten million people and 5% of them — over 500,000 — are Muslim. Muslims also constitute about 20% of the population of Brussels, the capital of the European Union. Over 300,000 Belgian Muslims are of Moroccan ancestry and over 160,000 are Turkish. The rest include Balkan Muslims, South Asians and some non-Moroccan Arabs.
Like in France, Muslims in Belgium have enough presence to now become the “other” against whom Belgian indigenous identity is constructed. Repeatedly, one heard Muslim and non-Muslim Belgians refer to even second-generation Turkish and Moroccan Muslims as “foreigners” or immigrants, even though they were Belgium-born, Dutch and French-speaking legal citizens.
Unlike U.S. Muslims, Belgian Muslims enjoy strong representation in the government. They boast two national senators and five members in the lower house of parliament.
But unlike U.S. Muslims, they have very few civil society institutions. There are no Muslim organizations that fight for civil rights and oppose discrimination. Even though there are over 350 mosques in tiny Belgium, Muslims there remain underrepresented in most institutions of the civil society, as well as the Belgian state.
A peculiar aspect of the Belgian Muslim community is the presence of government-paid Imams and teachers. The Belgian government employs over 800 Imams and teachers who teach Islam and Arabic in schools and lead prayers in mosques recognized by the government.
It is clear that the Belgian government has tried to co-opt Islam by hiring the Islamic teachers, financing and supporting mosques and by now creating an Executive that will govern Islamic affairs in Belgium.
The beggars in the street notwithstanding, Belgium’s government has been very generous towards its Muslim population. Not only are a large number of Muslims on welfare, the government also finances mosques and Imams.
In a way, this has made the Belgian Muslim community dependent on the state and it has therefore failed to create institutions — other than mosques — that can work and fight for their political and economic welfare.
I was part of a taskforce on civic affairs and led the taskforce on Ijtihad (on how Muslims in the West were reinterpreting Islam to suit their new conditions). In the civic affairs taskforce, the common themes discussed were issues of rising Islamophobia and the meaning of acceptance, multiculturalism and pluralism.
Both communities found the challenge of constructing identities, which incorporated both the Islamic dimension and citizenship in the West, fascinating.
Americans found that the presence of a large indigenous Muslim population in the United States — nearly 35% of U.S. Muslims are black, white and Hispanic — made the collective identity formation of U.S. Muslims more complicated than that of Belgian Muslims, whose fault lines were primarily ethnic.
While U.S. Muslims lamented their inability to have a role in policymaking in the United States, Belgian Muslims’ primary concern was systematic discrimination in the market place.
Muslims with law degrees could not find jobs for years. Applications for jobs and for renting apartments were simply rejected based on their Muslim names. U.S. Muslims were shocked to hear some of the stories of discrimination and humiliation that Belgian Muslims faced on a daily basis.
As I sat listening to the stories of Muslim life in Belgium, I caught myself repeatedly touching the tiny U.S. flag on my lapel. Uncle Sam sure looked mighty friendly and hospitable from across the pond. While discrimination against Muslims in the United States has certainly risen after 9/11, it looked insignificant compared to what Muslims in Belgium faced routinely.
Unemployment is also very high among Belgian Muslims. Xenophobia and welfare are preventing the Protestant work ethic from taking root in much of the Belgian Muslim community. Apparently, some Belgian Muslims refuse to look for jobs since the welfare check is normally 70% to 80% of their income.
For those who were married with children, welfare provided comfortable living. And with low property values, even those on welfare could actually own homes. The educated younger generation that sought work felt surrounded by glass walls that barred access to public and private-sector jobs.
I find this welfare business quite distressing. In the United Kingdom, some rather dubious Muslims — members of Hizbut-Tahreer and the continuously morphing al Mahajiroun group — actually live on welfare and spend their free time campaigning against the very society and state that feeds them for free.
In Belgium, welfare has become a barrier to civic integration. The only positive consequence of the xenophobia-welfare combination that we found was that those few among the youth who were educated and dynamic were turning toward entrepreneurship. The Turks and South Asians in particular were doing well in this sector.
The institution of welfare also prevents the empowering of the community with necessary linguistic, professional and cultural skills for success. Welfare is an unintended means to prevent the Europeanization of Muslims and the Islamization of Europe. It also disables the community from having a dignified relationship with the state and the society at large.
In the Ijtihad taskforce, we found the subject of Islamic economics taking center stage. I was surprised to hear stories of young couples with children forced to sell their homes by Imams who claimed mortgages were haraam (not permissible). Islamic economics is one of many Saudi-sponsored global Islamic initiatives. Perhaps we should call it Economic Wahabism.
Islamic economics does little to eliminate poverty, create jobs or empower the poor. It has very little to offer in terms of strategies for economic development. In the Muslim World, it serves to legitimize undemocratic governments that use Islamization of the economy as a way of justifying their credentials. In the West, it manifests as a racket by mediocre businessmen who prey on the faith of middle-class Muslims for profit.
I find it interesting that “good Muslims” in Belgium are worried that mortgages may not be halal, and we see intense debates on the subject. But I also have noticed that there is absolutely no debate about the permissibility of taking welfare money from governments whose policies are deeply intertwined with interest-based economics. Indeed, often welfare is paid through public financing based on interest-based transactions.
It is only the Muslim middle classes who worry about interest and have relatively little to lose by foregoing it. The upper classes that depend on global capitalism for their wealth and the poor who depend on welfare are not too enamored of economic Wahabism.
Belgium’s Muslims have a dearth of scholars and intellectuals. There is very little local Ijtihad (interpretation of Islam). Belgian Muslims seem to either abandon Islam in favor of a secular humanistic ethos or import Islam from the Middle East with its attendant anachronistic excesses. There is no clearly marked middle path.
The condition of Belgian Muslims underscores the absolute necessity for collaboration — intellectual, political and developmental — between the various Western Muslim communities.
On the subject of interpreting Islam in the local context, U.S. Muslims are years ahead of other Western communities. Not only is there a large number of scholars pushing for this in the United States, but also national organizations and many prominent Islamic centers are in principle amenable to the idea and willing to introduce into practice the initiatives advancing the realm of ideas.
An excellent example of this is the adoption of the guidelines for women-friendly mosques — developed last year by U.S. Muslim organizations — by many Islamic centers. We can see the product of U.S. Ijtihad in the progressive role that women play in the U.S. Muslim community and in Islamic scholarship. Another important indicator is the absence of embedded radicalism in U.S. Islam.
Muslims in Europe are connected to the state, but marginalized from the mainstream society. U.S. Muslims are alienated from the state, but are quite integrated in the society. European Muslims benefit from state largesse, while U.S. Muslims have enjoyed the fruits of U.S. multiculturalism, religious tolerance and economic and educational opportunities.
Muslims in Europe cause a sense of uneasiness among the host population that is racist, xenophobic and fearful. U.S. Muslims, on the other hand, are more accepted. As it becomes more and more evident that U.S. Muslims had nothing to do with 9/11, the barriers to their reentry into the mainstream are slowly melting away.
Islam is the second-largest religion in the United States and Europe — and also the fastest-growing faith on both sides of the Atlantic. The various Muslim communities in the West are evolving on different trajectories, influenced by the socio-political context of home states, the nature of immigration, the relationship between the host nation and the Muslim World and the quality of Islamic scholarship and community activism.
Muslim communities have a lot to learn from each other’s experience and so do state and civil society institutions in the West. We need more dialogues of this kind.
I came home from Belgium wishing that, like Belgian Muslims, we too had a senator or two and a few congressmen to represent us in the highest corridors of power.
But I also came home with a greater appreciation for the enormous opportunities we enjoy in the United States and also grateful for the incredibly low levels of discrimination and exclusion that we experience in the United States.
Most importantly, I am proud of the vibrant, intellectually alive and traditionally rich Islam that we practice in the United States, with no financial favors from the government.