The recent start of the Belgian Iraq terror trial of six men accused of recruiting Europe’s first female suicide bomber has once again put the country’s Muslim minority in the spotlight, arousing significant levels of discomfort, concern and fear among Belgium’s Muslims (Le Soir, October 15). The fact that one of the accused is a converted Muslim accentuated the fear of growing local Muslim radicalism. Pascal Cruypenninck and four other Belgians of North African descent have been charged with belonging to a terrorist group that recruited, among others, Muriel Degauque, a 38-year-old female convert to Islam who killed herself in a suicide bombing in Baquba, north of Baghdad (Le VIF/L’Express, December 12, 2005). This case has convinced many Belgians that the country is quickly emerging as a jihadist hub for launching terrorist attacks in other countries, as well as their own (La Libre Belgique, October 15). Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt warned that the suicide bomber recruitment trial provided proof of “how well-rooted international terrorism networks are in western Europe,” (Belfast Telegraph, October 16).
The current trial is not the first of its type in Belgium. In February 2006, three leaders of a Belgian cell of the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group were found guilty for their role in the March 11, 2004 Madrid train bombings. Another case involved the conviction of 18 militants in September 2003, including a former professional soccer player from Tunisia, Nizar Trabelsi. The latter was found guilty for trying to execute orders from Osama Bin Laden’s network to bomb the U.S. air base at Kleine Brogel, housing U.S. military personnel and nuclear missiles (Expatica, November 2005). Another culprit, Tarek Maaroufi, was sentenced to six years in prison for his role in providing fake Belgian passports to the militants who killed anti-Taliban Afghan military commander Ahmed Shah Massoud on September 9, 2001 (PBS, January 25, 2005).
These trials and other arrests bring to light how Belgium has become a support base for terrorist organizations. One report by the Belgian parliament’s intelligence committee warned as early as 2002 that Islamic extremists were turning Belgium into a “launch pad for terrorists,” thanks in part to the country’s “open-door immigration policy” and “hands-off” approach to Belgium’s mosques. Perhaps the most controversial and unsubstantiated finding of the committee’s report concerned the claim that Belgium not only harbors many Islamic clerics linked to bin Laden, but also a fifth column that threatens to destabilize the country (The Daily Telegraph, June 3, 2002). These inflammatory statements unfortunately serve to fuel the conspiracy theories about Belgium’s half million Muslims, including 10,000 to 15,000 converts (Qantara.de, October 10). The European Commission against Racism and Intolerance has already warned of the increasing demonization of Islam and the dangers of populist political rhetoric becoming the defining condition of the new Belgium. The increasingly popular Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest) party is notorious for its Islamophobia. The party was called Vlaams Blok (“Flemish Bloc”) before it was found guilty in court for violating anti-racist laws. On the sixth anniversary of the September 11 attacks on the United States, police arrested two leaders of this extreme right party for staging an illegal march against the threat they claim Islam poses to the civilized world. The mayor of Brussels, Freddy Thielemans, had refused to grant permission for the protest “Stop Islamisation of Europe,” calling the organizers an inflammatory group. Terry Davis, Secretary General of the Council of Europe, called the protestors bigots: “It is very important to remember that the freedom of assembly and expression can be restricted to protect the rights and freedoms of others, including the freedom of thought, conscience and religion” (AFP, September 12).
Today, the only thing that seems to unite a divided Belgium—a country on the verge of breaking up into Dutch-speaking Flanders and French-speaking Wallonia—is a fear of immigration and Islam, not just as a radical fringe, but also as a religion (International Herald Tribune, October 9). There is a growing consensus that the country’s culture has suffered tremendously in the promotion of a failed multicultural policy that celebrated cultural distinctions and special treatments for a faith community that refuses to embrace the country’s values of tolerance, equality and freedom. As a result, the public discourse has become more culturalist and policy responses are increasingly colored more by ideology than by much needed pragmatism. To be sure, Belgians are understandably concerned about the threat that radical Muslims pose to the country. The Iraq terror trial is a clear example of the danger posed by terrorist groups using the country as a platform to launch terror attacks on other countries. It is not, however, Belgium’s multiculturalism that is to blame for the rise of home-grown Islamist terrorism and the current crisis of citizenship and unity, but rather the unsuccessful implementation of the multiculturalist model.