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Did they or didn’t they? The battle for control of Brussels’ Grand Mosque

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It’s hard to prove beyond doubt a direct causal link between militancy and Saudi-inspired ultra-conservative forms of Sunni Muslim Islam. That hasn’t stopped Belgium’s parliament from attempting to wrest control from Saudi Arabia of Brussel’s downtown Grand Mosque after three years in which Belgians played a prominent role in Islamic State attacks in the Belgian capital as well as Paris.

At first glance, the battle for the mosque, Europe’s largest and most influential Saudi-funded institution that in 1969 was leased to the kingdom rent-free for 99 years by Belgian King Baudouin in a gesture of friendship, constitutes an attempt to counter militant Islamic ideology. It raises nonetheless prickly issues.

Breaking the contract would amount to equating various strands of Saudi-inspired ultra-conservatism with militancy and political violence – a tenuous assertion given that it propagates Muslim supremacy but in a majority of its expressions rejects violence and often refuses engagement in politics.

That is not to say that militants and ultra-conservatives do not draw on the same textual sources, deny that some militants hail from ultra-conservative backgrounds, or ignore the fact that Saudi-inspired ultra-conservatism has fuelled intolerance and greater conservatism in countries like Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia. Belgium boasted the highest number of Islamic State foreign fighters per capita of the population.

Breaking the contract would also put the Belgian government in the awkward position of determining what constitutes good or bad Islam, raising questions of whether that is the role of a democratic administration, and potentially compromising the separation of church and state as well as freedom of religion and expression.

A Belgian move to break the contract, which could take up to a year to complete, would create a precedent in Europe and beyond that the kingdom may not welcome, despite a vow earlier this month by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to move Saudi Arabia, that adheres to Wahhabism, an 18th century puritan and literal interpretation of Islam, to an undefined, more moderate form of the faith.

Some analysts suggest that a Belgian move would strengthen his efforts to curb the power of the kingdom’s ultra-conservative religious establishment derived from a power-sharing agreement with the ruling Al Saud family that dates to the founding of Saudi Arabia. Ultra-conservative religious leaders have bent over backwards to endorse Prince Mohammed’s reforms and the rollback of their powers, despite evidence that they have misgivings.

The battle for control of the mosque also has implications for escalating tension between Saudi Arabia and its arch rival, Iran. The Brussels mosque is operated and funded to the tune of $1.2 million a year by the World Muslim League, a government-sponsored group, that for decades served as a prime vehicle for the propagation of Saudi-inspired ultra-conservatism.

The League, whose staff was believed to be close to the Muslim Brotherhood, was a major beneficiary of up to $100 billion that Saudi Arabia invested globally over the last 40 years in religious and educational facilities as well as groups that often adhered to ant-Shiite, and by implication, if not explicitly, anti-Iranian positions.

The League’s secretary general, Mohammed bin Abdul Karim Al-Issa, a former Saudi justice minister, has in the last year sought to project the group as “a global umbrella for Islamic people that promotes the principles and values of peace, forgiveness, co-existence, and humanitarian cooperation” by organizing inter-faith conferences and meeting the Pope.

On a visit to Brussels earlier this year, Mr. Al-Issa denied that Saudi Arabia had funded extremism and sectarianism. “Islam is a 1,400-years old religion. It cannot be equated and judged by the few events and attacks, carried out because of political or geo-strategic interests. As a religion, Islam teaches humanity, tolerance, and mutual respect,” Mr. Al-Issa told a conference in the European parliament on Islam and Islamophobia

Mr. Al-Issa has also positioned the League squarely behind Prince Mohammed by backing the Saudi-UAE led diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar and allegations that the Gulf state supports extremism.

report by the conservative Henry Jackson Society charged in July that  Saudi Arabia was the primary funder of extremism in Britain as well as elsewhere. It said the kingdom “since the 1960s has sponsored a multimillion dollar effort to export Wahhabi Islam across the Islamic world, including to Muslim communities in the West.”

A prominent Indonesian scholar, wittingly or unwittingly, lent justification to the Belgian move rooted in calls for the furthering of a more tolerant, pluralistic, European version of Islam by unequivocally linking ultra-conservatism to extremism.

“There is a clear relationship between fundamentalism, terrorism, and the basic assumptions of Islamic orthodoxy. So long as we lack consensus regarding this matter, we cannot gain victory over fundamentalist violence within Islam,” said Yahya Cholil Staquf, the 51-year old general secretary of the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU).

NU, one of the world’s largest Muslim movements that was founded almost a century ago in Indonesia in opposition to Wahhabism, but includes prominent figures who espouse Saudi-style anti-Shiite and anti-Iranian attitudes.

Bruce Riedel, a former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operative who as a young officer lived across the street from the Brussels mosque, described it as “not a house of worship, but a museum to teach Belgians about Islam and the Middle East.”

The mosque is a mere 16 kilometres from Molenbeek, Belgium’s second poorest neighbourhood, that emerged as a hotbed of militancy, with many of the Belgian perpetrators of attacks in recent years in Paris and Brussels hailing from the area. At least two Belgians, who travelled to Syria to join the Islamic State, studied Islam at the mosque, according to Belgian intelligence.

A Belgian parliamentary inquiry into last year’s attack on Brussels’ international Zaventem airport and a metro station in the city in which 32 people were killed, advised the government to cancel the mosque contract on the grounds that Saudi-inspired ultra-conservatism could contribute to extremism.

Saudi-inspired “Salafist sentiments are solidly anchored in the minds of Muslims in the Belgian capital. Belgian authorities have been playing with fire for 30 years,” said Michel Privot of the European Network Against Racism. Mr. Privot estimated that 95 percent of Muslim education in Belgium was provided by Saudi-trained imams.

“There is a huge demand within Muslim communities to know about their religion, but most of the offer is filled by a very conservative Salafi type of Islam sponsored by Saudi Arabia. Other Muslim countries have been unable to offer grants to students on such a scale,” Mr. Privot said.

The US embassy in Brussels, in a 2007 cable leaked by Wikileaks, reported “there is a noted absence in the life of Islam in Belgium of broader cultural traditions such as literature, humanism and science which defaults to an ambient practice of Islam pervaded by a more conservative Salafi interpretation of the faith…. Discrimination in housing and employment has produced clear lower-class ‘ghetto’ areas of greater Brussels, such as Molenbeek, Schaerbeek and St. Josse, disproportionately inhabited by Muslims regardless of their education and income.”

The cable noted that “according to the OECD (Organization for Cooperation and Economic Development), unemployment among foreign-born residents is twice that of indigenous Belgians…  Saudi Arabia continues as a source of material support to the Islamic community.  A member of the Muslim Executive told us that the Saudi embassy keeps mosques furnished with Korans and help with such material needs as mosque upkeep and repair,” the cable said, referring to the Belgian Muslim community’s umbrella organization.

Controversy over the Brussels mosque has simmered for several years. In 2015, the Belgian government advised Saudi ambassador Abdullah bin Yahya Almoa’limi that it had problems with the mosque’s director, Khalid Alabri, who was also on the embassy staff.

“His sermons were Salafist, anti-Israel and anti-West. The guiding principle was the primacy of Salafism above all else,” a worshipper told Belgian Radio and Television RTBF. Mr. Alabri was quietly removed from his post.

In the latest round, Belgium is effectively expelling the mosque’s recently resigned imam, Abdelhadi Sewif, an Egyptian national, by refusing to extend his residency permit because he used his 13-year tenure to espouse Sunni Muslim ultra-conservative.

Mr. Sewif “is a dangerous man to the national security of our country,” said Belgian state secretary for asylum and migration Theo Francken told RTBF. Mr. Al-Issa, the World Muslim league head, denied the allegations, noting that investigations of the mosque had cleared it of wrongdoing.

The League, in a bid to counter criticism of the mosque returned its Saudi director, Jamal Saleh Momenah, to the kingdom, and replaced him with Tamer Abou el Saod, a Luxemburg consultant who has Swedish nationality. Mr Momenah, who like Mr. Alabri, enjoyed diplomatic status, was removed after deputies walked away from his parliamentary testimony in Arabic in March convinced that it would be impossible to work with him.

“You can’t build an inclusive society with someone like that. This is an enemy of our Western values. He doesn’t even know the European Treaty on Human Rights,” said Flemish nationalist member of parliament, Christoph D’Haese.

Mr. Sewif was succeeded by Ndiaye Mouhameth Galaye, a Senegalese national who teaches a more liberal interpretation of Islam but has yet to convince parliamentarians that he will take the mosque in a different direction.

In an apparent underestimation of Belgian sentiment and the kingdom’s tarnished reputation, Saudi Islamic affairs minister Ibrahim Al-Zaid this week offered Belgian deputy foreign minister Dirk Achten to train Belgian imams. A “hypocritical suggestion,” quipped a Belgian news website.

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New Concept for Europe: Sustaining European leadership and values into the 21st century

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Europe’s leaders must embrace a bold and innovative programme of reform across the policy agenda to secure a peaceful, prosperous and stable future. This is the finding of a new research paper, New Concept for Europe, published today by the World Economic Forum.

The paper is the result of a six-month consultation with leaders from business, government, academia and civil society and young people aimed at building a vision for a stronger, modern and resilient Europe. One of the key findings of the paper is that Europeans, especially younger people, believe that a core set of European values, based on inclusion and equality, openness and diversity, democracy and inclusiveness and sustainable growth are coming increasingly under threat.

To preserve these values for the future, the paper outlines a number of innovative ideas aimed at addressing the region’s challenges. These suggested interventions are spread across five major policy areas: human-centric economy; security and defence; migration and borders; democracy and governance; and energy and sustainability. Collectively, these themes cover more than two-thirds of the policy areas where most Europeans say they want greater intervention by the European Union.

Among the ideas put forward by the group are:

Universal Right to Learn (URL): A major training and reskilling effort aimed at building creative, entrepreneurial and technological skills for the Fourth Industrial Revolution

European Technological and Human Ethical Commission (ETHEC): A multistakeholder body to anticipate threats and opportunities posed by Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies

Vote at 16: Building on successful experiences in Scotland and Austria to broaden the base of democracy

Secure Cities: Strengthening city diplomacy through a network that connects cities in the fight against terrorism, crime and violence

European Security Force: To augment national defence systems as well as provide new roles such as coastguard and border patrols

Common digital identity for refugees and asylum seekers: To better manage migration flows and improve integration of immigrants

Opening access to energy data: To give consumers better choice and enable more sustainable energy supply

Zero-emission new buildings by 2030: Improving efficiencies in buildings, which account for 36% of carbon emissions in the EU

“2018 will be a decisive year for Europe’s future. What we need is a narrative which is innovative, comprehensive and responsive to the expectations of Europe’s citizens and particularly Europe’s young generation,” said Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman, World Economic Forum.

The recommendations highlighted in the paper will be shared with leaders from Europe during the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2018 this month.

Driving Europe’s Innovative Potential

A second paper, released today by the World Economic Forum, finds Europe’s economy at risk of losing ground to other regions in the world if it does not leverage the respective strengths of start-ups and corporates in order to forge stronger connections and create value. The paper, Start-ups and Corporates – A Practical Guide for Mutual Understanding, aims to help Europe develop more world-class technology companies by providing a blueprint for greater collaboration between the two worlds.

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Scotland – 45 years in the European Union

Alina Toporas

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The possibility of Scotland leaving the UK is looming large the closer we get to March 2019. This comes despite all the immediate defense and prospective EU membership concerns the country is facing. All warnings aside, Scottish PM Nicola Sturgeon seems to believe that ‘no Brexit is preferable to no-deal’ amongst news of a NO DEAL Brexit Minister to take form. In the same vein, a recent poll showed that almost half of Scots said they would leave the Union (with the UK) if a second referendum were to be granted by Westminster. However, even if Theresa May gets compassion for Holyrood, this vote cannot take place before the UK officially exists the EU, which makes for a long wait for those 49% anti-unionists. A word of caution, almost half is not even half which means that predictions cannot possibly make for an accurate portrayal of the feeling/temperature in Scottish rooms, not to mention a conjuring of a post-Brexit scenario.

Nevertheless, the reality remains that we have now officially entered the last full year of the UK – and hence, Scotland – enjoying membership in the EU. Therefore, I found it appropriate to sketch a brief picture of the Scottish-European relations throughout time.

The year of 1295 brought with it the signing of the Auld Alliance, a treaty between Scotland and France through which France became Scotland’s closest ally, both being united by the hatred they carried for the English. From the 1295 until the 1707 Union with England, Scotland enjoyed close relations with a number of European nations, namely Scandinavia, the Low Countries, Ireland, Italy and Poland, having a notable mercantile presence in Copenhagen, Bergen and Danzig.

Fast forward to the 1970s when Europhile UK PM Edward Heath decides to apply for European Economic Community (EEC) membership. While a majority of Scottish MPs did vote against entry in the House of Commons vote, seven Scottish Tory politicians published an analysis named Scotland and Europe: seven viewpoints, supporting entrance into the EEC. After the accession treaty was signed in 1972, four Scots were sent to Brussels to represent the UK, amongst which the noteworthy mentions would be Scottish MP George Thomson, who was one of the founders of the European Regional Development Fund and Lord Mackenzie Stuart who was appointed to the European Court of Justice.

In terms of EEC funding, Scotland has received more than twice the national average per head of population in the form of grants and loans throughout the 70s. The money was routed via the Coal and Steel Community, the European Social Fund, the European Investment Bank and the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF). The funds also helped with the inexorable population decline the Highlands region was suffering from which could not have been easily bypassed. This downward spiral was stopped in its tracks three decades later when the EU transitional support funds came through and helped boost local business and SMEs. Everything from infrastructure, financial services and biotech up to culture, lifestyle and tourism benefited from the transfer of knowledge both ways, namely from local to international markets and vice versa.

In June 1978, on the occasion of the first direct elections to the European Parliament Winnie Ewing from the SNP – who later began contributing to the development of the Erasmus programme-  became the first of Scotland’s ‘appointed’ Members of the European Parliament to win a democratic mandate. With her election, 21 million pounds were given through the ERDF to Scotland. The money was used in the construction of harbours, roads, water infrastructure and sewerage in both the Islands and the Highlands. In 1983, Scotland received another 4.5 million pounds to modernise its fishing fleet and create fish farms. What is more, Scotland benefited from many other types of European grants so that by 1984, Scotland was receiving more than twice the EEC’s average rate of financial assistance. Apart from the fishing industry, EEC funding went into training Scottish workers, into the gastronomy industry of Glasgow (through a 2 million-poundloan for a pie and sausage factory), into modernising airports around Scotland and into art festivals (e.g. Pitlochry Festival Theatre). Research has showed that for every 40 pence Scotland put into European aid, they got 1 pound back.To put it into perspective, in 1983, Scotland has contributed 325 million pounds to the EEC and has received funds worth 410 million pounds.

Secessionist thoughts were wondering through Scottish minds even in the 80s when MSP Jim Sillars published a pamphlet called Moving on and moving up in Europe. This movement only gained traction when in 1988 the SNP’s annual conference was carried under the motto ‘Independence in Europe’ which became SNP’s official policy as well.

A year later, in the 1989 EP elections, Scottish politician David Steel became the first British politician to campaign and deliver a party political broadcast in another European country, in this case, Italy. While he did not become MEP, he did make history through his vicious attacks at Thatcher, calling her a ‘woman out of step with others’.

Starting with the entrance in the new decade, the entrance of the European Union into Scotland became gained just as much significance. Between the 1990 and 1992, Ian Lang – the Secretary of State for Scotland –made his political life’s missions to emphasize the role of Scotland into the ‘Europe of the regions’. He underscored the part Scotland Europa plays in promoting Scotland’s business across EU bodies and focused attention on the European Central Support Unit’s Scottish office. In December 1992, the European Summit took place in Edinburgh, also named the ‘Athens of the North’. The Summit was hugely successful and truly memorable having played the part of putting the Community back together and put us all back on the track for recovery’ according to PM Sir John Major. Apart from the Scottish Chamber Orchestra playing ‘Ode to the Joy’, a 25.000-strong march through Edinburgh also took place during EU’s leaders’ meeting at Holyrood Palace. Alex Salmond, SNP leader at the time and future Scottish PM, had seen the manifestations as ‘a chance to tell the world that the solution to the Scottish question is independence in Europe’.

Later on, Scotland directly benefited from the creation of the Committee of the Regions (CoR) which included five Scottish members directly nominated by Scotland’s main political parties. Not long after, on June 1999, three Labour MEPs and two Conservative MEPs were elected. Back in Scotland, a European Parliament office was established in Edinburgh as one of the six regional offices of the EU. Its first head, Dermot Scott, believed that ‘the more closely the two parliaments work together, the better Scottish interests will be represented in Europe’. Edinburgh, alongside Glasgow, also became part of the Eurocities network and could ‘twin’ themselves with cities across the EU.

With the creation of the single market, 61% of Scottish exports went into the EU, while Scotland was an exporter on branded personal computers (35%), banking machines (65%), workstations (80%) and electronic notebooks (51%). These Scottish exports increased to the point whereScottish Development International created an office in Dusseldorf. The European Elected Members Information and Liaison Exchange (EMILE) forum was later established by future Minister Jack McConnell where Scotland’s 8 MEPs, members of the CoR and the European Committee met twice a year. A Scottish European Green Energy Centre (SEGEC) aimed at exploiting Scotland’s potential on the European energy market was also established.

Regardless of the 2008 financial crash which affected the EU budget just as much as the United States, various projects from Scotland continued to be beneficiaries of the 2007-2013 structural funds. These funds have in the past supported the construction of the Fife’s Ferrytoll park and ride scheme and the Falkirk Wheel. Apart from the Structural Fund programme, many Scottish students continued to benefit from Erasmus placements (e.g. 1243 Scots in 2010-2011), while Scottish universities have managed to attract a great deal of investment used for the purposes of research.

In conclusion (and potentially in contrast to the tone of the article), it is important to note, as mirrored in the beginning of this article, that ‘the EU is founded on the treaties which apply only to Member States who have agreed and ratified them. If part of the territory of a Member State woukd cease to become part of that state because it were to become a new independent state, the treaties would no longer apply to that territory’. In other words, this newly independent state would become a third country in relation to the EU. This segment of EU law is particularly noteworthy as talks of further devolution to the point of independence keep the headlines in Scotland. Nevertheless, no matter the outcome, Scotland has very much laid its path towards a central role in the EU.

The numbers are taken from the Scotsman, the Aberdeen Press and Journal and the booklet Scotland: 40 years in the European Union.

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Brexit Second Referendum: Will Britain Have a Sudden Change of Heart?

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The Brexit referendum results provoked an unprecedented upheaval and political meltdown in the United Kingdom; as a result, in March 2017, the United Kingdom became the first country in history to invoke Article 50 of the Treaty of the European Union and in setting the exit of this organisation in motion. It was only last week, though, that Nigel Farage, of the drivers and strong supporters behind the country’s decision to leave the EU, spoke in favour of holding a second referendum. This is now an entirely new idea, as it is something was first proposed by the Liberal Democrats just days after the results of the June 2016 referendum became public. The difference lies in the motivation to hold this second referendum, while for the Liberal Democrats is to give citizens another chance to stay in the EU, for people like Nigel Farage and the millionaire Aaron Banks the second chance would confirm the support for a clean break with the European organisation.

Is a second referendum even likely to happen? This is a very hard question to answer as it is only the Parliament who can authorise it after a proposal has been put forward by the government itself or by a coalition of opposition parties. This is a highly politicised decision with too much at stake and judging by the political conditions prevalent in the United Kingdom at present, I do not see any politician willing to play this game.

Both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn have ruled out such a possibility as this would mean a breach of trust with the citizens, and the United Kingdom might see itself engulfed in a “neverendum”, first coined by Quebec, where ever since the province has had two referendums to break away from Canada, the campaign for independence has not stopped. Allowing a second referendum in Britain may well reinforce the idea that the establishment will just keep holding referendums until they get the result they want. Therefore, it is highly unlikely Britain political establishment will agree to hold another referendum.

Regardless of what the people feelings on the result are, this was the vote of most of the population in Britain and as such, it deserved to be respected. Attempting to reverse the exit process by calling to a second referendum would further wound the state of democracy in Britain. Democracy is, by definition, the rule of the people, even if the Leave Campaign had been won with just one vote, the results still stand. The victory, however, was carried out with over a million votes, in one of the largest voting turnouts in contemporary British history, and it would be a travesty to disregard such a difference as unimportant. Holding a second referendum would be making a mockery of the democratic exercise and the mandate the people gave their rulers on that day. It would further split the country and weaken Britain’s negotiating stance with the EU as if the result does not change, this would shatter all their hopes for a Soft Brexit deal.

It is also important to remember that there is no evidence whatsoever that supports the notion that if a second referendum is held this year or early next year at the latest, the outcome would be any different. Citizens are becoming more and more sceptical of Brexit talks and of the ability of the establishment to deal successfully with the exit deal, this does not mean, however, that Brexiteers have in any way changed their mind.  There was also a very clear age division in the results of the referendum, 75% of the elderly voted to leave, while 75% of the young adults voted to remain. There is no evidence as well that either of these age groups have changed their minds. Therefore, should a second reference even take place, the result may stay the same. Such a division also poses an important dilemma: democracy is the greatest social equaliser in contemporary societies. Placing a weight on someone’s vote that accounts for their age, income level, education, social status, geographical location, etc. will eventually destroy this sense of equality and with it, democracy itself.

The reality is that there is very little support for a second referendum to even be considered seriously by the Parliament. The only ones who has publicly voiced their support for it are the Liberal Democrats, who have nothing to lose since they are only a minor factor in the House of Commons with 12 seats. It is also unclear if such a process could even be reversed. There are two likely scenarios: All EU members would have to agree to Britain’s revocation of the Article 50, although one vote would be enough to veto this process; and secondly, Britain could unilaterally withdraw the Article 50 notification and take its case to the European Court of Justice, both scenarios would take the country and the whole continent into completely unchartered territories.

Overall the one that has been hurt the less has been the EU, while it is true that Brexit has weakened the EU, the panic and shock have been greater than the actual damage. Many predicted several countries following suit and triggering Article 50. However, it had become evident that the lack of planning and complete disarray shown by the British government has served as a crude example to those that in the past were considering leaving the organisation.  The disintegration of a political system does not necessarily start with the desire of leaders to do so, but rather with their own mediocrity and inability to pull themselves out from the swamps of their own political waste and mess.

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