Monday, 3 December 2007

ARAB CIVIL-RIGHTS CAMPAIGNERS GO ON TRIAL IN BELGIUM

Belgium’s ‘Arab Malcolm X’ on trial

By Sukant Chandan

The deaths of two youths in a Paris suburb this week whose
vehicle collided with that of a police vehicle sparked
riots that once again demonstrate the volatility of the
relationship between youth of immigrant communities and the
authorities in Europe. These young people are resentful
against society against which they have a sense of
injustice which leaves them marginalised and in poverty.
Belgium, which hosts the capital of the European Union, is
no exception. What Belgium lacks in size, it seems to make
up for in its hatred for immigrant communities. Like many
young working class Muslims across the West, Belgian
Muslims, many of whom are of Moroccan descent, live in an
atmosphere of prejudice and exclusion from white society
compounded by the Belgian state’s disdain for a community
confident of its own identity and one which demands equal
rights with that of white Belgians. The two main national
components of Belgium, the French-speaking Wallonians of
the south and Dutch speaking Flemish of the north can
hardly get along themselves, with the country witnessing a
rising demand of the better-off Flemish to separate from
the French speakers. So unsurprisingly in the early 2000s
Belgium was hardly ready for the Arab European League and
its articulate and charismatic leader Dyab Abou Jahjah who
led Arab youth from the ghettoes of Belgium in a struggle
for self-respect and solidarity with Palestinians and
Iraqis, inspired and informed by an Arab Nationalist and
radical yet democratic Islamist discourse.

Belgium is perhaps better known internationally as a small
country of quaint pubs, beers, and chocolates, and as a
liberal country due to its foreign policy which is seen as
non-compliant with that of the US’s. However, race
relations in Belgium remain some of the worst in Europe
between whites and Muslims, and more generally between
Belgian whites and the African, Arab and Muslim
communities. While Belgium had known civil disturbances and
controversy in the past following the shooting of youth
from immigrant communities by police, the emergence of the
AEL became a cause for mass xenophobic hysteria across the
white population whipped up by the media and political
elite.

So what was the AEL? Who was this supposed firebrand from
Lebanon - Dyab Abou Jahjah? The Belgian media spun stories
such as Jahjah was a Wahhabi supported by the Saudis,
others claimed he was a crypto-Maoist, others that he was
an agent of Hizbullah intent on bringing down the Belgian
state through the stockpiling of weapons and the creation
of a private militia. None of these stories were true of
course, although the nature of the state crackdown of the
AEL showed that state institutions and large sections of
the public outside of the immigrant communities believed
these slurs to be true.

In reality Jahjah and the AEL were very possibly the first
contemporary mass grass-roots political movement of Arab
youth in the West that demanded an end to discrimination of
Muslims and Arabs, and stood in solidarity with those in
the Middle East. Those who bothered to talk to and listen
to Jahjah, putting aside the media hype for a moment, would
find a person who is at one with Arab youth from the
ghettoes of Brussels and Antwerp, and on the other hand can
also engage with good humour and firmness with Belgium’s
political class in national TV debates. Jahjah was not
well-informed of the Black radical Black Panther Party and
Malcolm X / Malik El Hajj Shabazz until the media dubbed
him Belgium’s ‘Arab Malcolm X’ and the AEL the ‘Arab
Panthers’. Subsequently Jahjah came to know more of the
struggles of the Black Panthers and Malcolm X, and
immediately saw the parallels with the struggle of
oppressed Blacks in the US and Arabs in Europe. Jahjah was
the leader of a movement that gave Belgium a real
opportunity to confront and resolve the challenges of
race-relations in this small country. The opportunity was
missed in an Islamophobic frenzy that was of the media and
political class’s own making.

Belgium’s second city Antwerp is a stronghold of the
far-right fascist party the Vlaams Blok, now Vlaams Belang,
who has successfully invested much effort in marketing
themselves to white Flemish Belgians as ‘respectable’
politicians. The ever-growing and powerful Vlaams Blok has
many members and supporters in Antwerp’s police force. In
late 2002 Vlaams Blok leaked documents from the police to
the media which exposed ethnic profiling in the Antwerp’s
police force, this document was entitled ‘Integrated plan:
Moroccans’. In response the AEL decided to launch civil
patrols which monitored the police in immigrant areas, a
campaign that started on the same day as the plan was due
to come into effect, November 15th. These patrols were
attacked by the establishment as militias aimed at setting
up no-go zones in immigrant areas. While it was later
proved in court that the AEL were doing no wrong, but were
actually exercising their democratic right to monitor a
public institution, this didn’t stop the press and
government representatives accusing the AEL of attempting
to create a militia, although the patrols were often
conducted by young Moroccan women armed with nothing more
than notebooks, cameras and leaflets explaining to members
of their community their rights vis-à-vis the police.

It was in this atmosphere of state intimidation of the AEL
and Arab and Muslim community that on November 26th in
Borgerhout, a poor area of Belgium’s second city of
Antwerp, Constant Van Linden, a man known for his racist
views shot dead 27 year old religious teacher Mohamed
Achrak while shouting ‘Taliban!’. Achrak also
coincidentally happened to be the younger brother of
Jahjah’s close friend Satif Achrak. Spontaneous small scale
rioting by Moroccan youth in the city followed the killing.
The only reason the rioting was not more widespread and
devastating was that the AEL and particularly Jahjah
managed to calm the clamours of the youth for vengeance in
order to avoid further blood letting. The police reacted by
pepper spraying Jahjah and other members of the community
in Borgerhout while well-known activists of the Vlaams Blok
stood behind police lines goading the local Arab population
at this time of grief and anger.

The Belgian state and media went into anti-AEL overdrive
and ransacked Jahjah’s home spreading false reports that
weapons were found. Jahjah handed himself in, and was
arrested by police snipers and helicopters. He was jailed,
but eventually found innocent of inciting to riot. The
tense social situation in Belgium and the Moroccan youth’s
fast diminishing patience that could have put the whole
country upside down in a show of uncontrolled anger may
have contributed to Jahjah being released relatively
quickly from prison.

In a recent phone interview with Jahjah in Brussels he
stated that police allegations against him and the AEL were
‘rigged and manipulated’ and that Antwerp city police chief
“Luc Lamine himself admitted in press interviews that my
role that evening [of Achrak’s killing] was constructive
and reasonable. We even know that he insisted to be present
during the search of my apartment because he was suspecting
other colleagues of planting evidence in order to convict
me”.

Now Jahjah along with former AEL leader Ahmed Azzuz and
Youssef Rahimi are being put on trial accused of blocking
police investigations into the disturbances following
Achrak’s killing which starts this Friday, 30th November in
Belgium. Perhaps the prosecution are hoping that after five
years from the time that AEL rocked the status quo in
Belgium, that the AEL will now be criminalised for their
political stance that they took and scores will be settled.
Jahjah is calling this a straight-forward political trial,
a trial he says that “puts in the dock the whole liberation
movement of oppressed communities in the Europe” and is
appealing for progressive and democratic forces to come to
the support of the defendants. Jahjah explained later in
the interview that there are “many things that were
revealed in the last couple of years about that period
showing un-constitutional maneuvers by the government and
also breaches of our rights committed by the police force
and media manipulation that took place in the public
debate”.

Jahjah believes that there is no case against Rahimi, Azzuz
and himself, and hopes that the judge will see the
prosecution “for what it is, unfounded and ridiculous”, but
he is also familiar with Belgian politics which makes him
doubtful of the impartiality of the political atmosphere
which will inevitably accompany the trial. This trial will
show what kind of message the Belgian authorities would
like to send out to Muslim and Arab people the world over
as to how Europe treats those who stand up for their
democratic rights.

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Sukant Chandan is a London-based freelance journalist,
researcher and political analyst. He runs two websites:
OURAIM and Sons of Malcolm and can be contacted at
sukant.chandan@gmail.com

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