Fear of Islamists Drives Growth of Far Right in Belgium - NY Times, USA
- Fear of Islamists Drives Growth of Far Right in
By CRAIG S. SMITH
Published: February 12, 2005
ANTWERP, Belgium - Filip Dewinter, a boyish man in a
dark blue suit, bounds up two flights of steep stairs
in his political party's 19th-century headquarters
building where posters show a Muslim minaret rising
menacingly above the Gothic steeple of the city's
"The radical Muslims are organizing themselves in
Europe," he declared. "Other political parties, they
are very worried about the Muslim votes and say let's
be tolerant, while we are saying - the new political
forces in Europe are saying - no, we should defend our
From the Freedom Party in Austria to the National
Front in France to the Republicans in Germany,
Europe's far right has made a comeback in recent
years, largely on the strength of anti-immigration
feelings sharpened to a fear of Islam. That fear is
fed by threats of terrorism, rising crime rates among
Muslim youth and mounting cultural clashes with the
Continent's growing Islamic communities.
But nowhere has the right's revival been as swift or
as strong as in Belgium's Dutch-speaking region of
Flanders, where support for Mr. Dewinter's Vlaams
Belang, or Flemish Interest, has surged from 10
percent of the electorate in 1999 to nearly a quarter
Vlaams Belang is now the strongest party in Flanders,
with support from a third of the voters in Antwerp,
the region's largest city. Many people worry that the
appeal of antiIslamic politics will continue to spread
as Europe's Muslim population grows.
"What they all have in common is that they use the
issue of immigration and Islam to motivate and
mobilize frustrated people," said Marco Martiniello, a
political scientist at the University of Liège in the
French-speaking part of Belgium. "In Flanders all
attempts to counter the march of the Vlaams Belang
have had no results, or limited results, and no one
really knows what to do."
Fear of Islam's transforming presence is so strong
that even many members of Antwerp's sizable Jewish
community now support Mr. Dewinter's party, even
though its founders included men who sympathized and
collaborated with the Nazis during World War II.
Many of those supporters are Jews who feel threatened
by a new wave of anti-Semitism emanating from Europe's
growing Muslim communities. The friction is acutely
felt in central Antwerp, where the Jewish quarter
abuts the newer Muslim neighborhood of Borgerhout.
There, Hasidic diamond traders cross paths daily with
Muslim youths, for many of whom conservative Islam has
become an ideology of rebellion against perceived
oppression. Israeli-Palestinian violence produces a
dangerous echo here: anti-Israel marches have featured
the burning in effigy of Hasidic Jews, and last June a
Jewish teenager was critically wounded in a knife
attack by a group of Muslim youths.
"Their values are not the right values," said Henri
Rosenberg, a Talmudic scholar and lawyer who is an
Orthodox Jew, speaking of the Muslim community. Though
he is the son of concentration camp survivors and his
grandparents died in camps, he campaigned on behalf of
Vlaams Belang, then named Vlaams Blok, in regional
elections last year.
As the right rallies beneath an anti-Muslim banner,
European Muslims themselves have become increasingly
The community is far too divided along religious,
racial and national lines to present a unified
political force, so most of Europe's Muslim
politicians have allied themselves with socialists or
other left-leaning parties. But radical Muslims are
also getting involved, and in many ways they are
helping to validate the fears that keep parties like
Vlaams Belang alive.
Behind the wooden door of a brick Brussels town house,
Jean-François Bastin, 61, a Belgian convert to Islam,
holds court before a steady stream of Islamic
activists. His fledgling Young Muslims Party is one of
the new groups aggressively pursuing pro-Muslim
agendas in Europe.
He calls Osama bin Laden "a modern Robin Hood," and
the World Trade Center attacks "a poetic act," "a pure
abstraction." His 23-year-old son is in jail in Turkey
on charges that he was involved in the bombings there
that killed 61 people in November 2003.
But Mr. Bastin argues that his son's troubles are
evidence that Muslim youths feel politically excluded
in Europe. He says political engagement is an antidote
"There is deviance because people don't find their
place here," he said, a long, hennaed beard falling
over the front of his Arab-style tunic, his graying
hair tucked beneath a turban fashioned from a
multicolored head scarf. "If we deny that political
voice that can judge and determine what is good for
Muslims, from the point of view of their religion and
their citizenship, their children are going to look
for adventures elsewhere."
Mr. Bastin, who converted to Islam in 1972 after a
spiritual quest led him to Morocco, dismisses the far
right's fears of an Islamization of Europe, even if he
does dream of an Islamic theocracy governing the
"Were not talking about Shariah now," he said,
referring to the Islamic legal code that
fundamentalist Muslims believe should be the
foundation of society. "Were talking about Belgian
Muslims being recognized on the same footing as other
confessions and ideologies."
In many ways radical Islamists like Mr. Bastin are
holding Europe's broader, moderate Muslim population
hostage, attracting attention disproportionate to
"You have, in the current context, people who feel
legitimized being anti-Muslim," said Mr. Martiniello,
the political scientist. He cited the case of a
Belgian man who had received death threats for
employing a woman who wore a Muslim head scarf.
Many of the extreme right's supporters see Islam's
growing European presence as the latest, most powerful
surge of a Muslim tide that has ebbed and flowed since
the religion spread to the Continent in the eighth
century. They warn that lax immigration policies,
demographic trends and a strong Muslim agenda will
forever alter Europe.
The Continent's Muslim population, now 20 million,
grew from a postwar labor shortage that was filled
with workers from North Africa and Turkey. By the
1980's economic malaise and rising unemployment had
created tension between the largely Muslim immigrants
and the surrounding societies.
But family reunion policies, which granted visas to
family members of immigrants already in Europe, fueled
another, more sustained wave of immigration that
"We were very naïve," Mr. Dewinter said of the liberal
policies. He called tolerance Europe's Achilles' heel
and immigration Islam's Trojan horse.
The trend is even more distressing to the far right
when considering the low birthrate of Europe's
traditional populations and the likelihood that more
workers will need to be imported in the coming decades
to broaden the tax bases of the Continent's aging
Already about 4,000 to 5,000 Flemish residents are
leaving Antwerp every year, while 5,000 to 6,000
non-European immigrants arrive annually in the city,
Mr. Dewinter said. Within 10 years, he predicts,
people of non-European backgrounds will account for
more than a third of Antwerp's population.
"It's growing very, very fast," Mr. Dewinter said.
"Maybe that will be the end of Europe."
More about Islam and Muslims in Europe at:
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