Belgians' Fear of Radical Islam Takes a Front Seat

Brussels bus drivers and sanitation workers accused of extremism as politicians tentatively address sensitive issue.

Shlomo Papirblat
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A bus stop in Brussels, 2012.Credit: Corbis
Shlomo Papirblat

BRUSSELS – A heated debate has broken out in Belgium in recent days concerning the growth of Islamic extremism among public-service workers in the capital.

The following was just one of many stories recounted over the past week: “The bus on one of the public transportation routes in a suburb of the capital was stuck in a traffic jam. The driver seemed very stressed – not because of the traffic problems, but because the time for prayer had arrived and he, as a devout Muslim, did not see any way other than turning off the engine and fulfilling the commandment of his faith next to the [driver’s seat].”

Islamic extremism is one of the most sensitive issues in Belgian society, and the politicians discussing it look like they are walking on eggshells. Brussels is also widely considered to be the European “laboratory” for relations with the Muslim community. Some 33 percent of the capital’s 1.2 million residents are Muslim. In a few of the Brussels region’s 19 municipalities, such as Saint-Josse-ten-Noode, Sint-Jans-Molenbeek and Schaerbeek, the Muslim population is an absolute majority. Therefore, it was enough for the half-sentence uttered by Fadila Laanan, the state secretary for Brussels responsible for waste management and collection, to incite a fierce debate.

In an interview with the radio station Bel RTL, Laanan noted, in passing, that she thought there was a process of growing extremism in a number of public corporations. The term is often used in the local lexicon as a way of describing Muslims who have become more religious and their cultural isolation – which in some extreme cases has led to jihadism, with young people from the Islamic community leaving to fight for Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

The public firms Laanan was referring to were agencies for sanitation and cleaning services, as well as STIB – the regional transportation company that runs the metro, tram and bus lines. Together, they employ more than 10,000 public workers.

The Archbishop of Belgium talking with a Muslim man during a march for peace, in Brussels, March 15, 2015.Credit: Reuters

Rudy Janssens, general secretary of the Belgian public services trade union CGSP, joined the fray and said in a newspaper interview that women looking to be hired today by the regional sanitation company are rejected with various excuses. Janssens added that they find themselves facing men who refuse to shake their hands, and that there are extremists in various positions in the company who refuse to hire women.

Vincent de Wolf, a parliamentarian and the mayor of Etterbeek – another municipality in the Brussels region – added fuel to the flames when he told a newspaper that police sources confirmed that these extremists work in public corporations in the region, and that it was very worrying that the management was doing nothing to deal with the matter.

In response, Brussels’ transportation minister, Pascal Smet, said that the transportation company was simply a mirror of Belgian society, and therefore it was of course possible to find extremists among its employees. The government was working with the security forces to supervise the risks – and he had no information on specific and immediate dangers on the matter, he added.

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