Shadowy New Website Encourages Belgians to Spy on Muslim Neighbors and Report Their Religious Practices
On Wednesday, April 6, Vlaams Belang, the far-right, nationalist political party promoting independence for the Flemish region in Belgium announced a new website, Islam Watch. This website calls upon Belgians to report any act of so-called Islamization, whether it be the opening of a new halal restaurant or butcher, or the appearance of a veiled teacher in the local school, or even a new mosque in the neighborhood.
The site goes as far as encouraging citizens to spy on Muslims, ensuring that they are not performing ritual slaughter in their bathrooms. Moreover, it encourages anyone to come forward and report acts of self-censorship with regards to their potential Islamophobic rhetoric: “Non-Muslims, non-heterosexuals and women who have to censor themselves in a Muslim neighborhood.” The press release reeled off a litany of fantastical controversies, exposing the extent of imagined fears of so-called Islamization that far-right movements across Europe have stoked over the past decade.
According to Vlaams Belang, the attacks in Brussels on March 22 has brought a prime opportunity for fascist organisations to denounce the failure of European governments to address the “real issues”—not the political violence of Islamic extremists but Islam itself. Being a Muslim and practicing one's religion in public or in private is now considered an act of passive terrorism that will eventually lead to massacre. Ironically, by denouncing the apparent first causes of Islamization, fascist movements like Vlaams Belang — historically affiliated with neo-Nazi groups—see themselves as the inheritors of the anti-Nazi resistance movement, albeit combatting a new invader.
Filip Dewinter, the leader of the Vlaams Belang party, the only Flemish far-right party in Belgium, is listed as a speaker at the upcoming gathering of American Renaissance, the leading white nationalist organization in America. He is scheduled to deliver remarks on, “The Islamization of Europe: How Europe becomes an Islamic State.” European far-right parties like his have promoted the idea of the “great replacement,” whereby the white, Christian population of Europe will be one day replaced by a Muslim, brown one. The children of immigrants from North Africa and the Middle East, ever more visible in the public sphere as a minority and thus demanding equality in law and in practice, are perceived by these racist movements as a threat to their eternal, unchanging identity. Islam and Muslims cannot be integrated nor absorbed into European society because of this essentialist incompatibility with European values, culture or women's rights. They thus call for a new “reconquista” of “lost territory” in Europe. The emblematic figure for their movement is not Jeanne d'Arc, but Charles Martel, who has in turn become a symbolic figurehead for the clash of civilizations narrative.
Filip Dewinter's Islamophobia was made apparent as early as 1989, when he proposed a law to the Belgian Federal Chamber of Deputies that would have stripped Islam of its status as an officially recognised religion. The same year saw the first scandal concerning the wearing of the veil in schools in France. Neither the political career of Filip Dewinter nor the evolution of Islamophobia in Belgium can be analysed without understanding the evolution of Islamophobia in France and the connections which exist between far-right movements in these two countries. GÃ©nÃ©ration Identitaire, or as Filip Dewinter has called them, Green Peace, is a well-known neo-fascist group in France, and was the first to stir up controversies concerning halal food and mosques through their direct actions at fast food restaurants and mosque construction sites. This group nevertheless failed to capitalize on these actions enough to gain political recognition. What their actions did achieve, however, was to fuel the narratives of more established political parties, from the far-right National Front to the mainstream right-wing Socialist Party. Today, debates over the place of Muslims have spread across Europe and into the heart of Belgian society, thanks in large part to Vlaams Belang.
On March 28, about a week after the attacks in Brussels, a group of roughly 300 football hooligans led by members of the far-right and escorted by the police marched to the memorial of the victims of attacks on Place de la Bourse under the banner, "Casuals Against Terrorism."
After intimidating mourners, attacking some men and delivering Nazi salutes, the black-clad thugs left again under the protection of the police. A call was made by GÃ©nÃ©ration Identitaire to fascists from around Europe to demonstrate once more on April 2 in the Muslim-majority neighborhood of Molenbeek with the goal of purging the area of Islamists. Anti-fascist and anti-racist activists mobilized for a counter-demonstration, also on Place de la Bourse, against Islamophobia and the far-right. To prevent new waves of violence, the Brussels municipality decided to ban all demonstrations in the capital.
The passivity and goodwill shown by police toward the far-right hooligans' unplanned march a week earlier sharply contrasted with the violent repression of anti-fascist demonstrators who gathered to protect Molenbeek. A large police presence was deployed, which led to nearly 100 people being arrested, including the president of the anti-racist Human Rights League, as well as tourists and customers at nearby cafÃ© terraces around the square, before the gatherings had even begun. Later in the day, the citizens of Molenbeek, expecting the arrival of fascists from across Europe, were treated instead to baton-wielding police officers. Wanting to return to Place de la Bourse, the anti-riot police officers sealed off the neighbourhood, preventing the citizens of Molenbeek from leaving.
Since November 2015, Molenbeek has become the focal-point of far-right efforts to retake territory supposedly in the hands of Muslims. Riss, one of the survivors of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, and figurehead of the movement distorting the discourse of free-speech to racist ends, argued in his editorial of March 30 that veiled Muslim women and bearded Muslim men have been passively, yet knowingly, participating in the terrorist attacks of November and March. The Islam Watch website of Vlaams Belang is just another step on the dangerous march of far-right Islamophobes into the European mainstream and towards the “reconquista.”