'Belgian Malcolm X' seeks office
Even as Europe's Islamic population rises, many Muslims feel marginalized and uncertain of their place in European society.
Editor's Note: First in a two-part series: To Be Muslim in Europe. On Monday, a profile of a more moderate leader.Skip to next paragraph
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To his supporters, Dyab Abou Jahjah is a hero, a champion of Europe's Muslim immigrant underclass.
But to many Belgians, the young, Lebanese-born activist embodies the Continent's growing fear of extremism within its Muslim population.
Now, the man sometimes called the "Belgian Malcolm X" is trying to make the leap from activism to political office: He is running for a parliamentary seat in a heated election Sunday in which immigration is a pivotal issue.
Mr. Abou Jahjah's confrontational style is forcing Belgians to consider questions echoing elsewhere in Europe: Are immigrants welcome? What does it mean to be a European?
Railing against high minority unemployment and government inertia, Abou Jahjah says he wants to form a Continent-wide political movement to defend Muslim rights.
"I am not going to be docile, I am not going to tell you what you want to hear," he says repeatedly in public appearances, separating himself from mainstream moderate Muslim politicians who have emphasized integration.
Handsome, clean-shaven, often dressed in jeans, Abou Jahjah is a charismatic debater. With a master's degree in international politics and fluency in four languages, he has all the right European credentials.
Since founding the Arab European League (AEL) two years ago, he has attracted a following of thousands of jobless, frustrated young immigrants who feel shut out by mainstream European society.
The AEL now has growing branches in France and the Netherlands.
"He says what we all think," says Hafid, an unemployed Moroccan-Belgian from Borgerhout, an impoverished immigrant neighborhood in the port city of Antwerp. "They don't want us in Belgium. They call us monkeys. But we were born here. This is our country, too. But what do we get? Everybody thinks we are terrorists and criminals."
Abou Jahjah is among a handful of young Muslim leaders emerging in Europe. While their religious emphasis and methods vary - some borrow protest techniques and slogans from the US civil rights movement - their message is the same: Improve conditions for the Continent's minorities.
Professor Herman De Ley, director of the Centre for Islam Studies at the University of Ghent, attributes Abou Jahjah's popularity to a new assertiveness among the children of the Muslim immigrants who began arriving in Belgium to fill labor shortages after World War II.
"This generation ... demands their rights as citizens and are willing to use radical means to have their demands met," he says. The expansion of the AEL "is not dangerous," he says. "Rights have to be fought for."
But Belgian authorities view Abou Jahjah as a danger, a "fundamentalist agitator" whose militance is apparent in his editorials in Arabic newspapers and his AEL activities. In a piece for an Egyptian paper, for example, he wrote that after Sept. 11, "in the Arab ghetto in Brussels, people were smiling."
Police have blamed Abou Jahjah for fomenting recent racial violence. They have also investigated him for alleged links with "criminal elements" and for suspected funding from extremist organizations in the Middle East. Recently, however, Belgian State Security released a report saying it had found no evidence of terrorist ties, and has categorized him as a radical Arab Nationalist.
Abou Jahjah received political asylum in Belgium in 1991 after telling authorities he had fled Lebanon because he had had a falling out with the armed group Hizbullah.
Now, however, he says he never belonged to Hizbullah, but fought in the Lebanese Civil War within Arab Nationalist factions who sought an end to the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon.