Organizers of the rally in Brussels had expected some 20,000 people to arrive from Germany, Britain, and Denmark to rally peacefully to demonstrate their concerns about the growing influence of Islam in Europe.
Participants intended to protest what they called the “creeping” influence of Islam and introduction “by stealth” of Shariah law in Europe. The march -- timed to coincide with the anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terror attacks in the United States -- was to conclude with a minute of silence for the victims of the attacks.
But last month, Brussels Mayor Freddy Thielemens banned the march. An administrative court last week upheld Thielemens’ ban, but the demonstrators have one last chance. Today, Belgium’s Supreme Court is due to hear their appeal and make a final ruling.
Fears Of Violence
Thielemens, a Socialist, has further angered the march organizers by authorizing a march two days earlier, on September 9, by a group called “United for Truth.” Its members say they have deep suspicions that the “9/11” attacks were orchestrated not by Al-Qaeda, but by the Bush administration itself.
Thielemens, who agreed to speak with RFE/RL after the Supreme Court decision, has argued that there is a risk the “Stop the Islamisation of Europe” could turn violent. Some far right-wing groups have said they will take part in the rally, raising fears that there could be clashes with Muslim counterprotestors.
The rally organizers, who disassociate themselves from the far right-wing groups, say they oppose racism but are concerned that there are real dangers lurking in Europe’s Muslim communities.
Udo Ulfkotte, a German journalist who has spent years reporting on Islamic extremism, is chief organizer of the rally. He told RFE/RL that many people, especially politicians, avoid addressing certain pressing issues for fear of upsetting the Muslim community.
"We have high-ranked members of the Muslim Brotherhood, for example -- that is, the mother organization of most of the terrorist organizations in the Islamic world -- who threaten us now," Ulfkotte said. "And we have representatives of those groups here in Germany, here all over in Europe, who are absolutely free to do whatever they want to do. And they speak to the politicians as so-called partners in dialogue, but they are not. They are threatening us. They are lying.”
Organizers say their goal is to prevent Islam from becoming a dominant political force in Europe. And they claim Islam is incompatible with democracy.
'A Provocative Instrument'
In Brussels, a city where 20 percent of the population is of Muslim heritage, such statements are clearly provocative.
Fauzaya Talhaoui, a Flemish-speaking Belgian lawyer of Moroccan heritage, is a former senator from a small left-wing party from Antwerp. A moderate Muslim, she says Islam is in need of serious internal debate on key issues, such as the role of women and the separation of religion and state. But she disagrees that the 9/11 march should be allowed.
“There are a lot of subjects we must have a debate about, but in the right way: by dialoguing from person to person, from organization to organization," Talhaoui said. But the planned march, she said, is instead "a very provocative instrument;" a demonstration held close to the residences of many Muslims in Brussels, "where those people can take it in a provocative way against their people and against their religion.”
Talhaoui adds, however, that she agrees that the rally should be banned because of security concerns, and not only because it is provocative.
Still, it’s the idea of not wanting to offend Muslims that riles Ulfkotte and his colleagues. They say things have become so “politically correct” that Europeans have become fearful of standing up for their own values in the face of Muslim demands.
Ulfkotte points to compromises that Europeans from Glasgow to Greece seem to be making with their Muslim fellow citizens. He cites examples such as a recent call by the National Health Service in Scotland for employees to refrain from eating at work during Ramadan, in order not to offend Muslim employees. Or a call by some Muslims in Antwerp to ban Christmas trees or Easter eggs in public places to ensure a strict neutrality of treatment among religions.
“To give you an opposite example, if a Hindu, somebody of the Hindu religion in Europe or in the United States, were to stand up and say, ‘It’s offensive to my religion to slaughter cows and to eat beef’... He’s right. This is really offensive to his religion. But what would we do in that case?" Ulfkotte asked. "We would never, ever give up our values and parts of our culture and just stopping eating beef -- we would never do that. But just [with] Muslims, we do that, and we say, ‘What else could we do not to be offensive to you?’ ”
To be sure, some in Europe have not hesitated to provoke. Cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad that appeared in a Danish newspaper in late 2005 sparked protests across the Islamic world. And recently, a Swedish newspaper printed a cartoon of Muhammad as a dog, saying it was doing so simply to exercise its freedom of speech.
Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan have protested.
For now, although the protest in Brussels remains banned, many demonstrators due to arrive from Denmark, Germany, and Britain have said they will march anyway. Ulfkotte is urging them not to, calling instead to rally later today in Cologne -- a two-hour train ride from Brussels in western Germany -- where authorities say the protest can take place.
CHALLENGES AND OPPORTUNITIES: Boston College professor Peter Skerry, a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, led an RFE/RL briefing on issues related to integrating Muslim communities in Western societies.
LISTENListen to the entire briefing (about 55 minutes):
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