'Belgian Malcolm X' seeks office

Even as Europe's Islamic population rises, many Muslims feel marginalized and uncertain of their place in European society.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Editor's Note: First in a two-part series: To Be Muslim in Europe. On Monday, a profile of a more moderate leader.

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.

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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.

Abou Jahjah also argues that he has never had terrorist connections - and he rejects the Muslim fundamentalist label. "We're not folkloristic clowns who want to force Islamic law on other people," he says.

For example, Abou Jahjah says he supports Belgium's legalization of gay marriage - an idea that would be anathema in Muslim countries. The parliamentary candidate also says Europe should adopt anti-discrimination policies like those of America.

Among his other stated goals: Designating Arabic the official fourth language of Belgium, and founding Islamic schools that would receive the same state funding that Jewish and Catholic schools receive in Belgium.

In his outspoken anti-Semitism and the threatening undertones of his speeches and editorials, Abou Jahjah clashes with moderate Muslim immigrant leaders in Belgium who have stressed integration.

These Muslim moderates, such as Mimount Bousakla, a young member of the Antwerp district council, question the activist's motives. "Who is Abou Jahjah?" she muses. "He is just a guy from the Middle East who wants to fight the conflict they have there in the streets of Antwerp."

Most Belgians first heard of Abou Jahjah last November, after his arrest for allegedly inciting race riots after a mentally disturbed Belgian killed a young Islamic religion teacher.

Five days later, Abou Jahjah was released because of insufficient evidence. But the incident thrust the topics of immigration and prejudice - which mainstream politicians had been reluctant to openly discuss - into the limelight, revealing deep cultural divisions and resentment between predominantly Catholic Belgians and the country's almost 400,000 Muslims.

AEL activities have fanned many Belgians' worst fears about the group's motives. Weeks before last November's riots, the AEL organized Muslim "civilian patrols" to monitor alleged police brutality in immigrant neighborhoods in Antwerp. The patrols carried video cameras, and they wore black, which reminded older Belgians of the black uniforms of prewar Nazi brigades.

In Antwerp, which Abou Jahjah refers to as the international capital of Zionism, due to its large Orthodox Jewish population, the AEL organized a pro-Palestinian rally last April that drew 3,000 young Muslims, with protesters chanting "jihad" and "Osama bin Laden." The march ended in riots in Antwerp's commercial center.

"Groups like the AEL "are a growing factor because of the growing population rates of immigrants - and because, I think, we still fail on measures of integration, acceptance, and tolerance," says Hannes Swoboda, vice chairman of the European Parliament's Committee on Foreign Affairs.

According to the Vienna-based European Monitoring Center for Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC), Europe's ethnic minorities are more likely to be unemployed, hold less-secure jobs, and receive lower pay. In a study following the Sept. 11 attacks, the EUMC found signs of increased interest in Islam among Europeans, but also evidence of a worsening situation for Europe's Muslim immigrants. The report concluded that immigrants felt increasingly isolated by suspicion as the political debate over immigration collided with a crackdown on terrorist threats.

"When people have so much fear and are looking for simple solutions, that means you'll find all the 'isms' increasing - fundamentalism, nationalism, extremism," says Beate Winkler, director of the EUMC. "There [can be] positive aspects [such as the beginning of dialogue], but political leaders have to show leadership, there must be concrete actions that counter them."

In neighborhoods like Borgerhout, crime is on the rise, along with unemployment, which is 40 percent for immigrants under age 30 - compared with Belgium's overall unemployment rate of 11.6 percent.

"Many of us are angry," says Hafid. "You can't get a job, you can't get an apartment, and most of the Belgians don't even speak to you. That's why a riot is like a party."

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