By Tommaso Virgili
Terrorism seems to have sadly become the reality of our times. While this is not a new occurrence in many parts of the world, recently Europe has been witnessing a surge of attacks that caught it repeatedly unprepared, in both preventing and correctly analyzing the phenomenon. The result was a sense of incredulity with every new tragic event (even as they were intensifying at an unseen pace), combined with the perpetuation of old mistakes and the refusal to address the root causes of extremist violence.
Among EU countries, Belgium has emerged as a particularly weak spot, not only in light of the atrocities perpetrated on its soil on 22nd March 2016, but also given its emergence as a worldwide hub of violent and non-violent extremism.
The traceability of several attacks across Europe to Belgian cells; the dramatically high proportion of foreign fighters relative to the population; the phenomenon of parallel societies, especially in the Molenbeek neighbourhood – epitomised in the people taking to the streets to protest against terrorist Salah Abdelslam’s arrest — all constituted an abrupt wake-up call for the kingdom hosting the European Union’s main headquarters.
Alarm bells had actually already rung loud in the past. The hard-core Salafi group Sharia4Belgium openly called for the destruction of the tahghut (idolatrous) government and its monuments for years, before being listed as terrorist organization in 2015. More than 10 years ago, the Belgian journalist of Moroccan descent Hindi Fraihi spent two months undercover in the Moroccan community of Molenbeek, and sounded a clear warning on the radicalization lurking beneath the surface of the Brussels neighbourhood – but garnered little general attention and even less policy action.
It was only after the March 2016 attack on the Brussels airport and metro that the Belgian Parliament decided to launch a series of formal inquiries into the overall extremist phenomenon.
The fourth of these reports, released in October 2017, is devoted not to security aspects or terrorist violence per se, but to what constitutes its all-too-often-overlooked but necessary premise: the spread of a radical ideology in the name of which terrorists act.
The inquiry has several merits. To begin with, it provides a clear definition of radicalism as the pursuit of drastic social changes that may jeopardize the democratic order, possibly though non-democratic means. Hence, violence is merely one among several types of action, some of which can be pursued through lawful and democratic means.
The document also defines radicalism, in a more general way, as the will to embrace the extreme consequence of an idea, and to put it into action. While one does not need to resort to violence to be radical, all terrorists, irrespective of the individual triggers, have embraced a radical ideology. Ideology is the ultimate cause of terrorism.
What is specifically behind Islamist radicalism is an extreme worldview that rejects the liberal-democratic order in favor of a utopian, sharia-ruled “Islamic state.” The process of radicalization is clearly explained in the report in terms of a constant friction between the Islamist dogma and the values it promotes, and the values and laws of the surrounding society. By instilling a sense of hatred towards all that is considered kufr, the Islamist ideology “isolates the individual from a society that he aims nevertheless to transform.” This irreconcilable tension creates frustrations that, with the right trigger, are poised to explode.
Who is behind this spread of Islamism in Belgium? According to the report, the answer amounts to a “joint-venture between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Wahhabis.” The Parliamentary Committee stresses that the two brands of Islamism, although politically divided in many parts of the world, share a conception of Islam that governs all aspects of human life at the individual, societal, and political levels. The latter, in particular, involves the aspiration for a state based on sharia law that the Muslim Brotherhood shares with all Islamist groups – as testified by the response of the International Union of Muslim Scholars to ISIS. Furthermore, the review stresses that the Muslim Brotherhood, no differently from Salafists, espouses a conservative approach vis-à-vis the sacred texts of Islam that leaves no room for criticism or reinterpretation.
These features of Islamism are at odds with liberal-democratic values, thereby keeping Muslims apart from the societies they live in.
A relevant example of this joint-venture between Salafi-Wahabbism and the Muslim Brotherhood is constituted by Brussels’ Grand Mosque and the attached Islamic Cultural Centre. Ceded to Saudi Arabia by the Belgian Government in 1969, the Mosque has been traditionally described as a hotbed of Salafi-Wahhabism. What has been traditionally overlooked, however, is the Mosque’s link with the Muslim Brotherhood. In fact, the inquiry speaks of “a significant influence of the Muslim Brotherhood’s thought on the kind of Islam propagated by the Grand Mosque and the Islamic Cultural Centre.” This aspect is clearly evidenced by the testimony of the Grand Mosque’s imam, Galaye N’Daye, and the Islamic Cultural Centre’s director, Jamel Saleh Momenah, before the Belgian Parliament. From their hearings, it has emerged that the Mosque and the Cultural Centre align their fatwas with those of the European Council for Fatwa and Research. This body, headquartered in Dublin, is chaired by Yusuf al-Qaradawi, one of the most influential ideologues of the MB galaxy, based in Qatar. The European Council for Fatwa and Research also happens to be an affiliate of the Federation of Islamic Organizations in Europe (FIOE) – a de facto MB umbrella organization.
The influence of the Muslim Brotherhood in Belgium goes far beyond this conspicuous case. While it is impossible to assess the magnitude of the propagation of the MB ideology, the reports says, it is safe to assume that many Muslims are exposed to it and embrace those ideas, whether consciously or unconsciously, thanks to a network of mosques and individuals well trained to spread the movement’s ethos.
This ethos is based on a binary division between Muslims and “unbelievers” or “crusaders” – a rhetoric that, according to the report, has been consistently spread in Belgium since the 1980s. It is a downright takfiri logic that essentializes Muslims under the banner of the Brotherhood’s idea of Islam, excommunicating all those who, albeit believers, embrace a different understanding of religion. In other words, if you are not with them, you are not simply out of that specific circle, but outside the boundaries of Islam tout court.
Concerning the aspect of violence, the report acknowledges that Muslim Brothers in Belgium do not seem to incite to violence, “at least in an outspoken and direct way.” However, it also underlines their frequent recourse to “double-speak,” namely the tendency to use a sensibly different language depending on the audience: “What they say in public, during preaching or conferences, differs sometimes very, very significantly from the conversations following these interventions, during which the remarks are more incisive, tendentious, and, in any case, remarkably less consensual.” In other words, the analysis finds, it seems that a “front stage” works as a communication tool and as a “magnet” for a “back stage,” where the discourses become much less smooth.
These strong statements should actually come as no surprise if one considers, for instance, the record of radical and anti-Semitic preachers, linked to the global Muslim Brotherhood, invited to take part to the Foire Musulmane (“Muslim Fair”) – an event organized in Brussels from 2012 until 2015 by the Ligue des musulmans de Belgique, a body which is widely considered the emanation of the movement in Belgium. One invitee in particular, Tareq al-Suwaidan, was even inserted by Belgium in the blacklists of the Schengen Information System because of his anti-Semitic positions. The Kuwaiti preachers, one of the few who explicitly declares his belonging to the movement founded by Hasan al-Banna, has repeatedly incited hatred against “the Jews,” and has explicitly defended the concept of violent jihad.
Whatever the direct connection with violence, in any case, the report is clear in identifying detrimental effects descending from Islamist ideology per se, in terms of radicalization and polarization of Muslims in Belgium. It is about an “us vs them” narrative that draws a sharp line between “pious Muslims” and the rest of society, instilling hatred against the latter and its values. A relevant example among the others: a Wahhabi publication distributed for free in Belgium in the 1980s and ’90s advocated the death penalty against homosexuals by throwing them off roofs – something which was later enacted by ISIS.
Broadly speaking, the report at last takes stock of a reality which was previously neglected, either out of imposed preconceptions or ignorance: Islamist terrorism does not happen out of the blue; whatever the individual trigger, even when related to purely personal factors, the framework that pushes someone towards violent action is a function of a precise ideology, nourished of hatred toward the liberal democratic society in favor of the utopia of a mythological, sharia-based, “Islamic state.”
Hence it is of paramount importance that European states tackle this radical dogma if they want to prevent terrorism. Understanding the link between the two is the first step in order to prevent the spread of the radical ideology, detect vulnerabilities and early signs of radicalization, and promote alternatives and counter-narratives.
Concerning the first point, we should be wary of overemphasizing the role of the Internet. While it is true that social media is yet another vehicle of propaganda and recruitment, radical preaching and material spread in ghettoized neighborhoods, mosques, cultural and recreation centers, etc., remain extremely dangerous and powerful tools. They create, indeed, a separate cultural environment anathema to liberal-democratic values and particularly receptive to the radical narrative. This is why the Parliamentary Inquiry recommends a thorough control on “all vectors of dissemination” on a certain territory, with the involvement of local authorities, in order to prevent religious, socio-cultural, sports, and organizations from concealing activities behind a façade. This control should extend to foreign sources of financing, with particular attention to those Gulf states (namely Qatar, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia) that the report identifies as having sponsored radicalization in Belgium for decades.
Control and supervision also mean something more: For too long, European authorities have not merely avoided tackling, but also supported, Islamist activities, in the name of a misguided multiculturalism or under the delusion of an Islamist contribution to the fight against terrorism. The Parliamentary Inquiry paves the way for a change in the paradigm, recommending that Belgian authorities at every level scrutinize the non-profit activities they support, and immediately stop funding all entities involved in radicalization.
This leads me to the last point: No counter-narrative can be successfully pursued by those who, albeit disagreeing on the means, nevertheless endorse the goals of terrorists. No sensible person would imagine involving non-violent Nazis in preventing the radicalization of violent ones. In the same vein, European authorities at all levels ought to stop empowering Islamists in the fight against terrorism, as they are actually part of the problem – responsible for promoting the divisive, takfiri ideology that ultimately leads certain individuals toward violence in order to realize the utopia their ideology envisions.
Conversely, our common struggle should be in favor of the first victims of Islamists: those men and women of Muslim backgrounds who, irrespective of their individual creeds, refuse to be essentialized in what Islamists think they should be, and promote instead a vision of Islam reconciled with individual freedom.
This liberal vision of Islam is the alternative narrative that we should contribute to disseminate in our problematic neighborhoods, mosques, schools, recreation, and social centers – that is, wherever Islamists attempt to make individuals feel like foreigners in their own countries and attempt to impose their views.