Belgium: A free speech and religion debate

After police 'anti-terror' raids, Belgians struggle to overcome 'misunderstandings' on religion and speech freedoms

BRUSSELS, Belgium — While it didn't turn out as deadly as in France, the people of Belgium are also having to reflect on difficult questions about freedom of speech and religion after an alleged plot to kill police officers was foiled. 

Police on Friday announced they had detained 13 men nationwide after a fatal gun battle killed two suspected plotters in the eastern town of Verviers, in what they described as the largest "anti-terrorism" operation ever carried out on Belgian soil. While authorities come to grips with the rising challenge of radicalism in Europe, for many living in the areas affected, the fixation with recent events is only distracting people from the wider issues at stake: how the West and its Muslim communities differ in their views on free speech, as well as the fundamental social and economic reasons for homegrown fundamentalism of some young Muslims.

In numerous interviews conducted after Belgium's "anti-terrorist" operations, Muslims — religious leaders and other locals living in the suburbs of Brussels — said while the attacks at France's Charlie Hebdo newspaper and those suspected of being planned in Belgium should be condemned, there is a misunderstanding between Muslims and others in Europe about how far free speech should be taken.

Respect religion

During Friday prayers, Adnan Feroz, the imam at one of 15 mosques in the Molenbeek commune of Brussels where nine people were detained on Thursday, condemned the attacks in Paris, as well as any Muslims in Belgium who might be planning further atrocities.

However, he had another message for the millions of people standing up for the right to publish caricatured images of the Prophet Muhammad.

"We are against all sorts of terrorism, whether it be religious terrorism or other types. But we are also against all sorts of discrimination or racism. We ask the government and the European community to respect our religion and everything that belongs to the Islamic faith," he said, alongside a group of senior mosque officials.

"We are also for freedom of speech. But as the Pope said, there is a limit. There is a limit to everything, and that is what we think too."

Like Feroz, many Muslims here say Charlie Hebdo should have thought twice about publishing images that some see as humorous, but others see as just downright offensive and against their religious beliefs.

"I ask Muslims and non-Muslims to read and educate themselves about the life of the Prophet … They will understand why Muslims love him so much, that is what they will understand," Feroz said, adding he had met non-Muslims who had changed their views about the Islamic faith after reading about the life of Muhammad. While the vast majority of Muslims here condemn terrorism of any kind, many also say that people in Europe should not shy away from entering into dialogue with those of the Islamic faith as to why drawings of Muhammad are deemed to be so offensive.

Knowing thy neighbor

Sebbata Omar, 28, who owns a newspaper agency across the road from where police conducted Thursday's raid in Anderlecht, said he and the rest of the community were shocked to hear that suspected attackers had been living so closeby.

He described the two men living on the fourth-floor apartment police searched on Thursday as about 30-years-old and of Algerian decent. "They had no beards and wore no djellaba [traditional robe worn in North Africa]. They were just normal," he said. "It's been a little while since I saw them. Did they go to Syria? We don't know."

Omar was also keen, however, to underline the importance of free speech for all groups in Europe and not just satirical newspapers such as Charlie Hebdo.

As the newspaper was selling millions of copies of its latest edition carrying yet another image of Muhammad last week, French authorities arrested Dieudonne M'bala M'bala, a French comedian, and charged him with "incitement of terrorism" after he posted "Je me sens Charlie Coulibaly" — "I feel I am Charlie Coulibaly" — on his Facebook page, a reference to the attacker who held up a Jewish supermarket in Paris.

"What he said is shocking, but for us as well what appeared in Charlie Hebdo was shocking," Omar said. "When we talk about freedom of speech it should be for everybody."

For others, there is a fine dividing line between the right to free speech and having respect for fellow citizens.

Blasphemy and fascism

"Yes, freedom of expression is important. But if I know it's going to hurt you then I remain quiet. That is called respect," said Malik Mohammad Ayub, a Muslim man originally from Pakistan who has lived in Belgium for decades. "One can criticize Islam, but one cannot ridicule Islam, especially the Prophet. There is a difference."

Under French law, blasphemy is not a crime, meaning offensive images of Muhammad are not illegal. French law does have provisions, however, making it a crime to "provoke discrimination hatred or violence towards a person or group of persons" because of their origin, nation, race or religion.

On Thursday, shortly before authorities started conducting security operations, Teresa Ruiz Gonzalez, a newspaper seller in the Jette region of Brussels, received a poignant threat in the form of a short letter.

"I recommend you not to propagate the caricatured image of our much loved Muhammad — may peace be with him — as shown in this disgusting magazine Charie [sic] Hebdo or risk facing repercussions both towards yourself and your shop," the note read. Police arrived that morning and told her to take the threat seriously.

But for Gonzalez, who grew up under the fascist regime of Franco in Spain, submission was not an option. She sold eight copies of Charlie Hebdo on Thursday and two more on Friday.

Those who have not been denied free speech cannot understand the luck they have and what they can lose.

Teresa Ruiz Gonzalez

newspaper seller

"If we respond to that kind of threat tomorrow they will decide that Belgian daily Le Soir is a subversive newspaper and eventually they'll ask me to shut my shop because they don't like it. We cannot start responding to this kind of threat," she said.

"I lived in Spain under Franco when there was a fascist regime. I think those who have not lived that do not know what it is like not to be able to enjoy freedom of expression. Those who have not been denied free speech cannot understand the luck they have and what they can lose."

Many Muslims also expressed the importance of recognizing the difference between radicalized Islamists and the wider Muslim community, and say national unity and moderation must prevail in such challenging times.

"It is also a huge problem for us," said Abdul Rasheed, a young Muslim living in Brussels, evoking memories of a massacre at a school in Peshawar where nearly 140 children were killed by fundamentalists in December.

"It didn't happen that long ago and we've already forgotten about it."

As Europe remains on high alert against further attacks, sorting out misunderstandings between Muslims and non-Muslims in Belgium may fall by the wayside, an outcome that would be a missed opportunity, according to Feroz, the imam in Molenbeek.

"Maybe if we sit down and have a talk, maybe we can explain our point of view better," he said. 

"Unfortunately, this world is not perfect and there is a lot of discrimination all over the world, like in Palestine and Gaza, in Syria, in Kashmir. Why the Muslim community? Because it's always happening in the Muslim countries.

"Maybe this is the answer why we are finding these kinds of people [extremists] in Muslims."

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