'Belgian Malcolm X' seeks office
Even as Europe's Islamic population rises, many Muslims feel marginalized and uncertain of their place in European society.
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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."