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Brussels' Salafist stronghold

Barbara Wesel/jsNovember 21, 2015

Brussels' largest mosque is bankrolled by Saudi Arabia, a Salafist regime. Mosque leaders have dissociated themselves from terrorism - but are not revealing everything. Barbara Wesel reports from Brussels.

The Great Mosque in the Cinquantenaire park in Brussels
Image: DW/B. Wesel

In an attempt to send a strong message to Belgian society, Mohamed Ndiaye, one of the Imams of the Islamic Cultural Center of Belgium at the Great Mosque of Brussels, said: "We would like to express our deep sorrow over the Paris attacks. Our thoughts are with the people of Paris and the victims' families."

The Islamic Center, situated in Brussels' (and Belgium's) largest mosque, stands at the edge of the Cinquantenaire Park in the center of the city's EU quarter, just a few minutes walk from the European Commission. As the faithful gather for Friday prayers, leaders of this house of worship are holding a press conference. They seek to counter the mosque's reputation as a hotbed for Salafist radicalization in Belgium.

Dialogue, in Arabic

Imam Ndiaye offers an overview of the Islamic Center's activities. Besides prayer services, the center offers Arabic courses, encounters with EU representatives and Belgian citizens, training for Imams, Koran classes for some 700 children and much more. He paints a picture of an institution entrenched in Belgian society, one which considers its task to be the furthering of cultural understanding.

Ndiaye delivers his presentation in perfect French. He is followed by the mosque's Chief Imam, Abdelhadi Sewif, who says, in Arabic: Islam is a religion of peace and charity. It has nothing to do with terror like that in Paris. The center's director, Jamal Momenah, doesn't want the mosque to be seen as being connected to the radical Islamists of Molenbeek either.

Such radicals have a false understanding of Islam. The situation, he says, is much like in a family in which some members do bad things. Momenah is the Saudi representative of the group, Sewif hails from Egypt.

Momenah deflects a question asking why his mosque, with its privileged position, has not undertaken steps to exert its influence over the hate preacher of Molenbeek, whose views have been known for years. Everyone is responsible for their own actions, he says, one works independently of other preachers. Momenah too, speaks to journalists in Arabic, though he has lived in Belgium for three years. Imam Sewif has been in Belgium since 2004.

What do they think about the idea of requiring mosques to hold their services in the native tongue of the host country? Their answer, everything is translated anyhow. They assert that an insistence upon preaching in Arabic does not encourage a parallel Muslim society.

Belgium's pact with the Saudi king

Critical media reports, however, stand in stark contrast to the positive self-representation of the Islamic Center. Just days before the Paris attacks, the French daily newspaper "Libération" wrote, "For thirty years, the Great Mosque of Brussels has been an active Salafist refuge, offering fertile soil for their networks to grow."

The paper quoted Islam expert Michel Privot of the European Network Against Racism: "Salafist sentiments are solidly anchored in the minds of Muslims in the Belgian capital." The phenomenon, he says, can be traced back to Saudi Arabia's missionary zeal in Brussels. "Belgian authorities have been playing with fire (regarding this issue) for 30 years."

The Great Mosque of Brussels is financed by the Muslim World League, which receives most of its money from the Saudi Arabian government. The story of the mosque began in 1967, when Belgium's state coffers were empty and the nation was looking for access to cheap oil.

Moschee in Brüssel
Mohammad Ndiaye, Jamal Momenah and Abdelhadi Sewif ((from left to right) say their institution promotes cultural understandingImage: DW/B. Wesel

This motivated Belgium's King Baudoin to cut a deal with Saudi Arabia's King Faisal Ibn Abd al-Aziz al-Saud: In exchange for cheap oil, Baudoin gave the Saudis a 99-year lease on the former Oriental Pavilion from the 1880 National Exhibition in Brussels, situated in Cinquantenaire Park.

At the same time, the Belgians allowed their Saudi friends to train Muslim Imams to preach to the growing numbers of African and Maghrebi immigrants coming into the country. It gave the House of Saud carte blanche to spread the message of Salafism.

Scandal surrounds mosque director

Last summer, WikiLeaks brought a dark chapter of the mosque's history to light - one that strongly contradicted the official insistences of mosque leaders who claimed they were engaged in fostering peace and understanding among peoples. In April 2012, the Saudi Arabian ambassador was informed that the Belgian government had a problem with mosque director Khalid Alabri.

"His sermons were Salafist, anti-Israel and anti-West. The guiding principle was the primacy of Salafism above all else," said a witness who spoke with the Belgian television station RTBF at the time. Alabri's sermons were so extreme that they even crossed the Belgians' generously drawn red line. Alabri was quietly removed from his post.

Belgien Brüssel Stadtteil Molenbeek nach Terroranschlägen in Paris
Molenbeek in the Belgian capital has been the target of several raids since the attacks in Paris last week.Image: Reuters/Y. Herman

For years, the official representative body of Belgian mosques, the Muslim Executive in Belgium, has felt that it has been forced to go on the offensive because of the Great Mosque of Brussels. The council intends to reorganize itself by the end of the year in order to counter the Saudi Arabia-controlled mosque. Moroccan Imams on the council claim that Salafists have also gained too much influence with the government in Rabat as well.

Belgian journalist and terrorism expert Claude Moniquet thinks that Belgium's particularly liberal interpretation of freedom of speech has led the state to be overly tolerant of radical teachings for decades. Further, politicians sought social harmony and thus steered clear of conflicts with immigrants. But now, it will be that much more difficult to get control of the situation and gain back all of the ground lost in the fight against Islamist sentiment over the years.