Arab Malcolm X on trial
French riots add fuel to an increasingly xenophobic Belgium, argues Sukant Chandan
The deaths of two youths in a Paris suburb this week hit by a police vehicle sparked riots that once again demonstrate the volatility of the relationship between youth of immigrant communities and the authorities in Europe. These young people resent a society which leaves them marginalised and in poverty. Belgium, which hosts the capital of the European Union, is no exception. What Belgium lacks in size, it seems to make up for in its hatred for immigrants. Like many young working class Muslims across the West, Belgian Muslims, many of whom are of Moroccan descent, live in an atmosphere of prejudice and exclusion from white society compounded by the Belgian state's disdain for a community confident of its own identity and one which demands equal rights with those of white Belgians.
The two main national components of Belgium, the French-speaking Wallonians of the south and the Dutch- speaking Flemish of the north can hardly get along themselves, with the country witnessing a movement by the better-off Flemish to separate from the French speakers. So unsurprisingly in the early 2000s Belgium was hardly ready for the Arab European League (AEL) and its articulate and charismatic leader Dyab Abu Jahjah who led Arab youth from the ghettoes of Belgium in a struggle for self-respect and solidarity with Palestinians and Iraqis, inspired and informed by an Arab nationalist and radical yet democratic Islamist discourse.
Belgium is perhaps better known internationally as a small country of quaint pubs, beer and chocolates, and as a liberal country due to its foreign policy, which is seen as non- compliant with that of the US. However, race relations in Belgium remain some of the worst in Europe between whites and Muslims, and more generally between Belgian whites and the African, Arab and Muslim communities. While Belgium had known civil disturbances and controversy in the past following the shooting of youth from immigrant communities by police, the emergence of the AEL became a cause for hysteria in the white population whipped up by the media and political elite.
So what is the AEL? Who was its founder, this supposed firebrand from Lebanon, Abu Jahjah? The Belgian media spun stories such as Abu Jahjah was a Wahhabi supported by the Saudis, others claimed he was a crypto-Maoist, others that he was an agent of Hizbullah intent on bringing down the Belgian state through the stockpiling of weapons and the creation of a private militia. None of these stories was true of course, although the nature of the state crackdown against the AEL showed that state institutions and large sections of the public outside of the immigrant communities believed these slurs to be true.
In reality Abu Jahjah and the AEL were very possibly the first contemporary grassroots political movement of Arab youth in the West that demanded an end to discrimination of Muslims and Arabs, and stood in solidarity with those in the Middle East. Those who bothered to talk to and listen to Abu Jahjah, putting aside the media hype for a moment, would find a person who is at one with Arab youth from the ghettoes of Brussels and Antwerp, and on the other hand can also engage with good humour and firmness with Belgium's political class in national TV debates. Abu Jahjah was not well- informed of the Black radical Black Panther Party and Malcolm X/Malik Al-Hajj Shabazz until the media dubbed him Belgium's Arab Malcolm X and the AEL the Arab Panthers. Subsequently Abu Jahjah came to know more of the struggles of the Black Panthers and Malcolm X, and immediately saw the parallels with the struggle of oppressed Blacks in the US and Arabs in Europe, and came to embrace the epithet. Abu Jahjah was the leader of a movement that gave Belgium a real opportunity to confront and resolve the challenges of race- relations in this small country. The opportunity was missed in an Islamophobic frenzy that was of the media and political class's own making.
Belgium's second city Antwerp is a stronghold of the far-right fascist party the Vlaams Blok, now Vlaams Belang, who has successfully invested much effort in marketing themselves to white Flemish Belgians as respectable politicians. The ever-growing and powerful Vlaams Blok has many members and supporters in Antwerp's police force. In late 2002 Vlaams Blok leaked a document from the police to the media which exposed ethnic profiling in the Antwerp's police force entitled "Integrated plan: Moroccans". In response the AEL decided to launch civil patrols which monitored the police in immigrant areas, a campaign that started the same day the plan was to come into effect 15 November. These patrols were attacked by the establishment as militias aimed at setting up no-go zones in immigrant areas. While it was later proved in court that the AEL were doing no wrong, but were actually exercising their democratic right to monitor a public institution, this didn't stop the press and government representatives accusing the AEL of attempting to create a militia, although the patrols were often conducted by young Moroccan women armed with nothing more than notebooks, cameras and leaflets explaining to members of their community their rights vis-à-vis the police.
It was in this atmosphere of state intimidation of the AEL and Arab and Muslim community that on 26 November in Borgerhout, a poor area of Antwerp, Constant Van Linden, a man known for his racist views, murdered 27-year-old religious teacher Mohamed Achrak while shouting "Taliban!" Achrak also coincidentally happened to be the younger brother of Abu Jahjah's close friend Satif Achrak. Spontaneous rioting by Moroccan youth in the city followed the killing. The only reason the rioting was not more widespread and devastating was that the AEL and particularly Abu Jahjah managed to calm the youth out for vengeance, in order to avoid further blood letting. The police reacted by pepper spraying Abu Jahjah and other members of the community in Borgerhout while well-known activists of the Vlaams Blok stood behind police lines goading the local Arab population at this time of grief and anger.
The Belgian state and media went into anti-AEL overdrive and ransacked Abu Jahjah's home, spreading false reports that weapons were found. Abu Jahjah handed himself in, and was arrested by police snipers, with helicopters hovering overhead. He was eventually found innocent of inciting to riot. The tense social situation in Belgium and the anger of the Moroccan youths' anger may have contributed to Abu Jahjah being released relatively quickly.
In a recent phone interview with Abu Jahjah in Brussels he stated that police allegations against him and the AEL were "rigged and manipulated" and that Antwerp city police chief "Luc Lamine himself admitted in press interviews that my role that evening [of Achrak's killing] was constructive and reasonable. We even know that he insisted to be present during the search of my apartment because he was suspecting other colleagues of planting evidence in order to convict me."
On 30 November, Abu Jahjah along with former AEL leader Ahmed Azzuz and Youssef Rahimi went on trial accused of blocking police investigations into the disturbances following Acrak's killing. The prosecution are hoping that after five years during which the AEL has rocked the status quo in Belgium, that the AEL will now be criminalised for their political stance and scores will be settled. Abu Jahjah is calling this a straight-forward political trial, a trial he says that "puts in the dock the whole liberation movement of oppressed communities in the Europe" and is appealing for progressive and democratic forces to come to the support of the defendants. Abu Jahjah explained later in the interview that there are "many things that were revealed in the last couple of years about that period showing un-constitutional manoeuvres by the government, breaches of our rights committed by the police force and media manipulation that took place in the public debate."
Abu Jahjah believes that there is no case against Rahimi, Azzuz and himself, and hopes that the judge will see the prosecution "for what it is, unfounded and ridiculous", but he is also familiar with Belgian politics which makes him doubtful of impartiality considering the political atmosphere which will inevitably accompany the trial. This trial will show what kind of message the Belgian authorities would like to send out to Muslim and Arab people the world over as to how Europe treats those who stand up for their democratic rights.