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Fear of Islamists Drives Growth of Far Right in Belgium - NY Times, USA

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  • Zafar Khan
    Fear of Islamists Drives Growth of Far Right in Belgium By CRAIG S. SMITH Published: February 12, 2005
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 14, 2005
      Fear of Islamists Drives Growth of Far Right in
      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
      politically engaged.

      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
      to militancy.

      "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
      Continent someday.

      "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
      their numbers.

      "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
      continues today.

      "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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