The dialogue with Belgium Muslims was getting depressing and had a dampening effect on my usually upbeat attitude towards 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 a 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 that of the U.S. 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 re-institute the Marshal 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 an American-Belgium Muslim dialogue (Nov. 16-18), co-hosted by 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 American Muslim scholars and intellectuals, community leaders, journalists and activists joined 70 of their counterparts from the Belgium Muslim community to discuss their mutual condition and explore possibilities for further dialogue and civic cooperation.
Belgium has a population of ten million and 5% of them – over 500,000 – are Muslims. Muslims also constitute about 20% of the population of Brussels, the capital of the European Union. Over 300,000 Belgium 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 American Muslims, Belgium Muslims enjoy a strong representation in the government. They boast of two National Senators and five members in the lower house of Parliament. But unlike American 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, Belgium Muslims remain underrepresented in most institutions of the civil society as well as the Belgium state.
A peculiar aspect of the Belgium Muslim community is the presence of government paid Imams and teachers. The Belgium 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 Belgium 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 not withstanding, the Belgium 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 Belgium 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 in the West, 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 U.S., nearly 35% of American Muslims are either Black, White and Hispanic, made the collective identity formation of American Muslims more complicated than that of Belgium Muslims whose fault lines were primarily ethnic.
While American Muslims lamented their inability to have a role in policy making in the U.S., Belgium Muslims’ primary concern was systematic discrimination in the market place. Muslims with law degrees could not find jobs for years. People’s application for jobs and for renting apartments was simply rejected based on their Muslim names. American Muslims were shocked to hear some of the stories of discrimination and humiliation that Belgium 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 cross the pond. While discrimination against Muslims in America has certainly risen after 9/11 it looked insignificant compared to what Muslims in Belgium faced routinely.
Unemployment was also very high among Belgium Muslims. Xenophobia and welfare was preventing the protestant work ethic from taking root in much of the Belgium Muslim community. Apparently some Belgian Muslims refused to look for jobs since the welfare check was normally 70% to 80% of the salary. 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 U.K. 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 it has become a barrier to civic integration. The only positive consequence of the xenophobia-welfare combination that we found was that those few amongst the youth who were educated and dynamic were turning towards 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 nothing to eliminate poverty, towards job creation, or empowerment of 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 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 by economic Wahabism.
Belgium’s Muslims have a dearth of scholars and intellectuals. There is very little local Ijtihad (interpretation of Islam). Belgium 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 Belgium 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, American Muslims are streets ahead of other Western communities. Not only are there a large number of scholars pushing for this in the U.S., but also national organizations and many prominent Islamic centers are in principle amenable to the idea and willing to introduce into practice the initiatives advanced in the realm of ideas. An excellent example of this is the adoption of the guidelines for women friendly mosques, developed last year by Muslim organizations, by many Islamic centers. We can see the product of American Ijtihad in the progressive role that women play in American Muslim community, and in Islamic scholarship. Another important indicator is the absence of embedded radicalism in American Islam.
Muslims in Europe are connected to the states but marginalized from the mainstream society. American Muslims are alienated from the state but are quite integrated in the society. European Muslims benefit from state largesse, while American Muslims have enjoyed the fruits of American 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. American Muslims on the other hand are more accepted. As it becomes more and more evident that American 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 U.S. 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, and the relationship between the host nation and the Muslim World and by 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 Belgium Muslims we too had a senator or two and a few congressman to represent us in the highest corridors of power. But I also came home with greater appreciation for the enormous opportunities we enjoy in the U.S. and also grateful for the incredibly low levels of discrimination and exclusion that we experience in the U.S. Most importantly, I am proud of the vibrant, intellectually alive and traditionally rich Islam that we practice in the U.S. with no financial favors from the government.