Dominant Counter-Narratives to Islamophobia – Case review: Belgium

Dominant Counter-Narratives to Islamophobia – Case review: Belgium

Dr Elsa Mescoli


Through ethnographic research conducted in Belgium on the counter-narratives to Islamophobia, it was possible to collect a set of best practices implemented to fight Islamophobia in the country and to explore the tools and messages aimed at reversing the racist discourse and practice affecting Muslims.

Fieldwork activity lasted from April to November 2017 and reached a variety of research participants among local and international key stakeholders in the issue under study active in the country.

The emergence of narratives – meant as discourse and practices – aimed at countering Islamophobia occurred in a context that promoted secularisation and where anti-racist discourse lacked attention to discrimination linked to religious belonging. The need was to recognize Islamophobia as fact and not only as notion. The positioning of UNIA in 2008 in this debate played a crucial role in this process. At least since then, monitoring Islamophobic acts was more effective and it permitted the development of measures to counter specific forms of discrimination. Nevertheless, Belgium still lacks an overt political recognition of Islamophobia at the federal level to improve these monitoring and measures. Contradictions emerge because of this lack of a clear positioning on Islamophobia by the federal state. In fact, the segmentation of Belgian state power into a variety of governmental institutions and of politics competences attributed to each to manage societal issues makes it difficult to establish a clear framework of reference to deal with Islamophobia as it deploys concretely at various levels of everyday life. Notwithstanding some positive outcomes of the struggle (such as general recommendations or specific rules against practices discriminating Muslims, as well as some successful law litigations), moving within this political landscape is certainly hard task for the actors involved in the fight against Islamophobia.

The description of the counter-narratives to Islamophobia in Belgium is structured through considering the connection between each of them and the narratives of hatred identified during the previous phase of this research. This means that the collected material in terms on the one hand of practices and tools and on the other hand of discourses expected to counter Islamophobia has been organised through associating each counter-narrative to the narrative of hatred that it aims at opposing to. Such organisation, while it does not necessarily depend on direct references by the interviewees to specific narratives of hatred to explain their actions, contributes to arrange the variety of collected data into groups of practices and discourses that are related to each other thanks to similar objectives and concerned sub-themes.

The ranking of counter-narratives in Belgium emerges as a result of this organisation, i.e. the position of each of them in the overall list is related to the relative position of the narrative of Muslim hatred that they are expected to counter. The rationale justifying this ranking is that the relevance of counter-narrative with regard to their impact – attested or potential – is considered as proportionate to the relevance of the associated narrative of hatred.

The following table provide with an overview of counter-narratives to Islamophobia operating in Belgium, and the examples presented more widely in the report are proved to have contingent positive outcomes. However, some tools and discourses may appear as still responding to a social hierarchy positioning Muslims as outsiders of full Belgian citizenship – in reason of the socio-cultural alterity assigned to them and not in terms of their legal status – and in need of gaining credit to access it. The path toward the recognition of Muslims as full Belgian citizens is still ongoing, even though Muslims’ active role in Belgian society is largely proved – as the report on counter-narratives to Muslim hatred in Belgium testifies.

Contrary to the following messages (and to the tools that are put in place to promote them) is the tension between the will of “making commonplace of Muslims”, of “normalising” their presence through making their moral positioning a common character among others, and the need of claiming rights that are specifically disregarded when dealing with Muslim people. The tension is between indistinctness and visibility, between normality and exceptionality. The implemented actions resulting from this conceptual polarisation consist of promoting initiatives of inclusion of Muslims as full citizens of the local society on the one hand and of countering initiatives against Muslims’ exclusion from the local society as incomplete citizens on the other hand. This tension, that may affect the conceptualisation of the analysed practices and discourse in a coherent framework, does not prevent actions that follow one or another of these apparently opposing poles to come together toward a common aim, and to be effective in which they operate targeting different layers of the issue at stake.


  Islamophobic Narratives Counter-narrative to Islamophobia Tools
1 Islamic practices need to be secularised to be accepted in Western societies Muslims are professional experts Success stories, professional networking
2 Veiling/the headscarf is incompatible with Western values and local rules Feminism can be Islamic Promotion of Muslim women, Reaction to discrimination
3 Islamic belonging (claimed or assigned) is a prior identity marker Being Muslim is something that is normal rather than exceptional Promotion of Muslim individuals, Reaction to discrimination
4 Islam threatens Belgian traditions Islam is compatible with European values Informative initiatives, intercultural events
5 Brussels is turning into a Muslim city Muslims are resources Enhancement of urban diversity, mobilisation of Muslims’ resources
6 A process of radicalization of Muslims is underway in Belgium Muslims are not dangerous for the society Creation of (and training on) Islam of Belgium
7 Islam is (and Muslims are) a problem for Western societies Muslims are partners for solutions Contribution to social inclusion building
8 Islam is an easy object of derision Muslims are autonomous subjects Empowering Muslims, targeting cyber-hate
9 Islamic religion legitimates extreme forms of women oppression Muslim women’s stories are diverse Training on gender, individual stories
10 Mosques do not have their place in the local context Muslims’ claims are major rights Prioritization of right over culture



The description of the counter-narratives to Islamophobia developed in Belgium presented here testifies the fact things are moving in the country with regard to the fight against Islamophobia. Notwithstanding the lack of a clear and univocal state positioning on the matter, and despite the difficulties that this engenders at the grassroots level – both to Muslim citizens and to activists –, several tools are discussed, elaborated and implemented by a multiplicity of local and international social actors. Their work informs the development of the effective messages to counter stereotyping representations and discriminating actions targeting Muslims that are summarized in the above table.