I recently participated in a dialogue between American and Belgium Muslims in Belgium (Nov. 16-18), co-hosted by US 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 common themes discussed were issues of rising Islamophobia and 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 US, nearly 35% of American Muslims are 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 US, 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 US 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.
Belgium’s Muslims have a dearth of scholars and intellectuals as a result they are far behind American Muslims on the subject of adapting their faith to 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 US, but also national organizations and many prominent Islamic centers recognize the need to adapt Islam to American conditions. 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 American Islam 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 state 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.
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 US and also grateful for the incredibly low levels of discrimination and exclusion that we experience in the US. Most importantly, I am proud of the vibrant, intellectually alive and traditionally rich Islam that we practice in the US with no financial favors from the government.
M. A. Muqtedar Khan is Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science and International Relations at University of Delaware. He is also a Nonresdient fellow at the Brookings Institution. His website is www.ijtihad.org