Dominant anti-Muslim narratives, Case review: Belgium

The report on Muslim hatred in Belgium has been written by Elsa Mescoli, anthropologist, post-doctoral researcher at the Centre for Ethnic and Migration studies of the University of Liege (CEDEM, e.mescoli@ulg.ac.be), on the basis of previous research experiences and new investigations, as well as with the contribution, in terms of further information and revisions, of Hassan Bousetta (CEDEM, hassan.bousetta@ulg.ac.be).

Assessing whether Islamophobia is or is not recognized as a racist act and discourse against Muslims in Belgium is not an easy task. While this seems quite clear at the social society level, where different organisations employ this term, this is definitely not the case at the political level, where the federal government does not take an overt position on this matter.

A fairly  large corpus of civil society literature addressing directly or indirectly the issue of Islamophobia includes:

  • the Interfederal Centre for Equal Opportunities (UNIA) annual reports that overtly speak of Islamophobia and make this issue an integral part of their publications since 2008 (Centre, 2008);
  • the European Network Against Racism (ENAR) Shadow reports on racism in Europe that generally denounce the increase of Islamophobic trends in various European countries among which Belgium;
  • several international NGOs reports that present a focus on discrimination towards Muslims and address this issue within the Belgian context, among others, such as the Amnesty International “Choice and Prejudice, Discrimination against Muslims in Europe” report, published in 2012;
  • reports by local organizations such as the annual activity reports of the Collective against Islamophobia in Belgium (CCIB), that describe Islamophobia as one among the contemporary forms of racism (2016: 2) made of three main dimensions: a socio-psychological dimension (determining fear of Islam based on an altered vision of it); a dimension connected with law and anti-racism and including violent and discriminating acts; a sociological dimension, pointing out the “construction of a Muslim problem” (CCIB, 2016: 6).

This literature has impacted the political domain, even if the triggered process did not result in concrete legal measures. In Belgium during 2013 the notion of Islamophobia, while it appeared in debates some years before, became the central object of a legal proposal  recalling first the pertinence of the use of this notion on the basis of the 1997 Runnymede Trust report. Secondly, starting from the local civil society assessment of the increase of Islamophobia in Belgium, this proposal was formulated with the aim of combating Islamophobia by reinforcing the application of the legislation against racism and discrimination[i] with particular attention to this form of racism. The proposal aroused intense debates and criticism, and there was no following up of this measure, which remained unapproved.

This situation precludes taking legal action against Islamophobia as such and thus limits the applicability of the anti-discrimination laws in which some acts do not fulfil the requirements to be identified as breaching them, and are thus not punishable. In other cases, law is not properly applied, and the result is the same.

As a consequence, the report on the most dominant Islamophobic narratives in Belgium does not necessarily (or not only) describe those discourses and practices that have been recognized and treated as discriminating by the law, but rather (or also) those discourses and practices that impact the life of Muslims in Belgium.

Several examples of this impact are brought to support the analysis carried out throughout this report and its outcomes. They are taken from the grey literature cited, from previous fieldwork experiences of the author of the report and from press review. The analysis takes into account the scientific literature that concerns anti-Muslim hatred in Belgium.

Within the academic area, among the Belgian scholars who adopt the term of Islamophobia, Sami Zemni (Middle East And North Africa Research Group, Ghent University) describes it as the “culturalisation” of social problems (Zemni, 2011). This means that political and social problems “[…] are diluted in a culturalist explanation that targets Muslims’ unsuitable cultural and religious background as the reason for economic exclusion and marginalisation.” (Zemni, 2011: 29).

The appropriateness and efficacy of the notion of islamophobia have been questioned by the scholars of the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research on Islam in the contemporary World (CISCOW[ii]). Felice Dassetto describes islamophobia as set of racist attitudes toward Islam; the etymology of this expression would recall a fear and an irrational rejection which would be, in principle, total (Dassetto, 2009: 13). Indeed, for this scholar the notion of Islamophobia would not cover as many behaviours and facts as those associated to it by other actors. Its use would thus prevent from a real comprehension of all dynamics at stake and would put strain on intercultural relationships, finally showing the counterproductive character of this term (Maréchal et al., 2016). In a similar opinion, Djelloul and Maréchal point out the ineffectiveness of “surfing on the wave called Islamophobia to denounce the society’s incoherencies” (2014: 98).

Worth of note within these debates is Nadia Fadil’s approach on issues related to islamophobia. Starting from the statement that islamophobia is “a contested concept, both in and outside of academia, which also accounts for the reluctance in its adoption” (Fadil et al., 2014: 251), Fadil accounts for the political prevalence of this term as well as for the connection between acts associated to it and broader political issues. Indeed, her analysis brings interesting insights on “the persistent suspicion that rests over Muslims” (Fadil, 2016: 2266). Fadil connects this suspicion and related acts of racism (such as those addressing the question of the veil) to issues of state sovereignty which place “these politico-theological questions […] at the heart of political life” (Fadil, 2016: 2266). Her approach invites consideration of the “Muslim question” as an entry point of examination of broader and diffuse political matters, among which the reiteration of state sovereignty is a crucial one. This opens to new directions of studies on Islamophobia and on racism in more general terms in the contemporary context: “[a] central challenge for a proper analysis of ‘race’ in a post-racial context seems, consequently, to reside in a persistent engagement with the relationship between sovereignty, race and religion and how the latter find new expressions in today’s troubled contexts” (Fadil, 2016: 2266).

Within this main scholarly context, a number of other scientific studies focus on this issue and they are listed in the report. This working paper aims at contributing to this landscape by acknowledging previous works on Muslim hatred in Belgium and at the same time by bringing new insights at the level of the identification and study of narratives that are related to it.

Among these narratives, the following ten have been described and ranked as most relevant in Belgium, in reason of the significance and estimated coverage in contemporary times of the Islamophobic acts that they are connected to.

  1. Islamic practices need to be secularized to be accepted in Western societies
  2. Veiling is incompatible with Western values and local rules
  3. Islamic belonging (claimed or assigned) is a prior identity marker
  4. Islam threatens Belgian traditions
  5. Brussels is turning into a Muslim city
  6. A process of radicalization of Muslims is underway in Belgium
  7. Islam is (and Muslims are) a problem for Western societies
  8. Islam as an easy target of derision
  9. Islamic religion legitimates extreme forms of oppression against women
  10. Mosques do not have their place in the local context

We deem that the social pressure exerted on Muslims to eventually (re)orient their practice of their faith has significant impact in de-legitimizing the role of Islam in Belgium society. The issue of veiling is one among the most addressed practices in this process. We also find that the use of a univocal reading lens to position Muslim representatives in the intellectual and political local sphere as mere bearer of religious interests is an equally strong instrument of discrimination and, moreover, it puts constraints to eventual changes. We then classified the narrative stating that “Islam threatens Belgian traditions” as highly significant since it is often the starting point – or the implicit message – on which further narratives rely on. This narrative goes together with denouncing the demographic increase of Muslims in Belgium[iii]. The narratives concerning recent violent facts associated to Islam – terrorism and radicalisation –, while being equally significant and partly rooted in past processes, come later because of their strong link to temporality, which may let us foresee possible changes. The last three narratives, despite their potential and effective violence, are listed below because of the estimated low quantitative incidence of the Islamophobic acts that they concern.

Works cited

Amnesty International (Amnesty). 2012. Choix et préjugés. La discrimination à l’égard des musulmans en Europe. London: Amnesty International.

Centre pour l’égalité des chances et la lutte contre le racisme (Centre). 2008. Rapport annuel 2008. Brussels: Centre pour l’égalité des chances et la lutte contre le racisme.

Collectif Contre l’Islamophobie en Belgique (CCIB). 2016. Rapport d’activités 2015. Brussels: CCIB.

Dassetto, F. 2009. Interculturalité en clair. Question en marge des « Assises de l’Interculturalité ». Unpublished paper. [Online]. [Accessed 17 April 2017]. Available from: https://www.uclouvain.be/cps/ucl/doc/espo/documents/Interculturalisme.pdf

Djelloul, G. and Maréchal, B. 2014. Muslims in Western Europe in the late twentieth century. Emergence and transformations in “Muslim” revindications and collective mobilization efforts. In: Tottoli, R. ed. Routledge handbook of Islam in the West. London; New York : Routledge, pp. 85-105.

Fadil, N., El Asri, F. and Bracke, S. 2014. Chapter 5 Belgium. In: Cesari, J. ed. The Oxford Handbook of European Islam. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 222-262.

Fadil, N. 2016. ‘Are we all secular/ized yet?’: reflections on David Goldberg’s ‘Are we all post-racial yet?’. Ethnic and Racial Studies. [Online] 39(13), pp. 2261-2268. [Accessed 17 April 2017]. Available from: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/01419870.2016.1202424

Maréchal, B., Bocquet, C. and Dassetto, F. 2016. Islamophobia in Belgium. A Constructed but Effective Phantasm? Journal of Muslim in Europe. 5(2), pp. 224-250.

Zemni, S. 2011. The shaping of Islam and Islamophobia in Belgium.  Race & Class. [Online]. 53(1), pp. 28-44. [Accessed 17 April 2017]. Available from: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0306396811406781

 

[i] Law of 10 May 2007 (MB 30.V.2007) modified by the law of 30 December 2009 (MB 31.XII.2009) and the law of 17 August 2013 (MB 5.III.2014, refer to http://unia.be/files/Z_ARCHIEF/10_mai_2007.pdf, accessed 19 April 2017.

[ii] In French CISMOC, Centre interdisciplinaire d’études de l’Islam dans le monde contemporain.

[iii] Muslims in Belgium account for around 5-6% of the overall population (Maréchal and El-Asri, 2012: 29). At least 55% of Muslims in Belgium (Amnesty, 2012: 12), up to 2/3 of them, have Belgian citizenship (Maréchal and El-Asri 2012: 29). Concerning the origins of Muslims who have a migrant background, they are mainly located in Morocco and Turkey.