Confidently delivering a Friday sermon at El Mohsinien Mosque, Sheikh Sulayman Van Ael exhorts his faithful listeners to help young Muslims stake out paths of peace. Yet in the Berchem suburb of Antwerp, Belgium, it is a difficult struggle. About 80 young men have left the city to join various rebel groups fighting in Syria’s brutal civil war.
“We leave them to the Internet. We leave them to social media. We leave them to reading books,” he preaches, in Flemish mixed with Arabic verses. “But we’re not sure they’ll understand [those sources] correctly.”
“And after a while, it’s possible that the person,” he continues, “suddenly doesn’t show up anymore, has made other friends, went a different direction or whatever.”
Many Muslims say they feel unwelcome by Belgian society, with politicians and media often leveling hostile accusations at the Islamic faith as a whole. Van Ael says they are wrong. “What we have to teach people is that it’s perfectly possible for them to be Muslim here,” he says. “People think in terms of Islam or this [mainstream life]. I think both can be perfectly harmonized.”
He points out that the battlefields of Syria can turn out to be very different from anticipated. “Often people who get [to the battlefield] there are used or abused,” he adds. “The reality is often completely the contrary” of what initially allured them.
Muslims in Belgium, who make up about 6 percent of its population, have come under increased scrutiny recently, with the country contributing more fighters per capita to the civil war in Syria than any other European nation. An estimated 500 fighters means about 40 for every 1 million residents.
Recently the working-class Brussels area of Molenbeek became the focal point in the massive search for Salah Abdesalam, suspected of involvement in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks that resulted in at least 130 deaths. Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the deceased Belgian believed by police to be the mastermind of those attacks, grew up in immigrant-heavy Molenbeek.
Several others — including Mehdi Nemmouche of the Brussels Jewish Museum shooting and Amedy Coulibaly, the kosher-supermarket attacker who struck in conjunction with the Charlie Hebdo shooting — purchased their guns in Molenbeek.
Moad El Boudaati, a young Belgian Muslim who works with the local government in the town of Vilvoorde, says the reasons for the current identity crisis in his community are twofold.
First, he traces perceptions of government intolerance to a 2011 law against full face veils for women. In the Muslim community, some of the more religious men report feeling stigmatized if they sport a long beard or traditional Islamic garb. “It’s unlivable here. ‘You can’t live here as a Muslim.’ That’s how young people perceive it,” he says.
Second, he explains the impact of the war in Syria on local youths, especially those exposed to “horrible images of [President Bashar al-] Assad, who massacres his own people.”
Boudaati says the combination of domestic political pressure and the Syrian conflict radicalized a substantial number of his peers. He cites the fact that eight young men left for Syria from one block, among 28 total from the town. “Everyone in Vilvoorde knows someone who left,” he adds. “They were just people like us.”
He says the responsibility for the problem is shared by the whole of society. “The City Council, the mosques, parents, everyone made mistakes,” he says. “There was nowhere for young people to take their problems, their questions on religion or school.”
Van Ael talks to a young audience at a school in Antwerp and introduces himself by asking the young pupils to guess whether he is originally from Morocco or Turkey, in a nod to their predominant countries of origin. The answer, they soon find out, is somewhere else entirely. The man was born into a family neither Muslim nor Arab and was drawn to the faith 18 years ago while “looking for the meaning of life,” he says.
He is no stranger to controversy either, having taken a strong line against the actions of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. In May, after threats from the group, he announced in a statement that he would take himself out of the public eye. But, with a Facebook page full of fans and an outpouring of support, he re-emerged, defiant against any threats.
Last month, a fellow imam from Antwerp reportedly left to fight in Syria — which Van Ael roundly condemned. He concedes that efforts to persuade the new generation may be tougher than ever.
“You can’t talk to anyone about [Islamic identity issues], because they’re not interested,” says a 17-year-old recent Belgian convert to Islam in an hourlong session with Van Ael and Soufian, a counselor at Al-Miezaan psychosocial center.
“It’s like leading a double life,” the young man says, explaining his search for a balanced identity in a society that is at best apathetic, if not simply bigoted. “Are you a Muslim, or are you not a Muslim? ... You’re living in a system of two worlds.”
The teenager articulates feeling revolted by the excesses of Western pop culture and being rejected by Belgian society, saying, “They look at you as if you were an idiot.” He suggests that he has no long-term connection to Belgium and would consider moving to Saudi Arabia if he didn’t anticipate missing his mother.
‘It’s like leading a double life … Are you a Muslim, or are you not a Muslim? … You’re living in a system of two worlds.’
“You should try sometimes to put yourself in other people’s position, even if you disagree with them,” Van Ael tells the young man, advocating a balanced approach to being Muslim and living in Belgium. “If you don’t and you focus only on your own point of view, you will end up not understanding people’s reactions.”
Van Ael says after the session, “People do listen, but they need to be handled right. We’ve reached a point where we need to give clear, unambiguous answers and not beat around the bush. Simply say how it is and [not] how it should be.”
One of Van Ael’s loyal followers is Imad Ben, a Palestinian-Belgian who has also distanced himself from hard-line religious interpretations espoused by Salafist literature. “I’m not saying it’s bad, but it gives you only one [school of thought],” he says.
“Before you know it, you’re a sheep,” he continues. “You see what’s different as a threat, and it fills you with aversion. You really reject it, aggressively sometimes.”
“That is wrong,” Ben says. “There’s no tolerance, no sympathy for other visions.”