'Arab Malcolm X' poised to put a flame to Belgium's powder keg
The Observer, 1st December 2002 13:34
Behind the race riots that followed the murder of a Moroccan immigrant lies a sinister organisation
Andrew Osborn in Antwerp
A thick hail of stones lashes a passing car, the frightened driver is set upon by an angry mob and, minutes later, the ubiquitous sirens of the riot police resonate across the darkened city.
Against a bleak teargas-choked backdrop of broken glass and vandalised cars, battle is joined and soon what began as a nasty incident has escalated into a riot. It isn't the West Bank and it isn't the Los Angeles of old: it is Antwerp, Belgium's second city and a racial powder keg waiting to explode.
Racial tension in this port city, where one in three voters supports the far-right anti-immigration Vlaams Blok, has been brewing for years and last week it came to a head. The murder of Mohamed Achrak, 27, an Islamic religious affairs teacher of Moroccan origin, by a white Belgian neighbour in the Borgerhout district of Antwerp, sparked rioting on an unprecedented scale.
The motive for the killing is not clear. The perpetrator, Constant Van Linden, 66, was notoriously unstable and has been in and out of mental institutions.
The police say it was an isolated incident by a madman, but the city's 30,000 Muslims are crying foul - they believe it was a racist murder and an ominous sign of the times.
At the centre of the controversy is the shadowy figure of Dyab Abou Jahjah, 31. Dubbed the Arab Malcolm X or the Dr Frankenstein of integration depending on who is doing the dubbing, Abou Jahjah, the president of an organisation called the Arab European League (AEL), has the Belgian establishment running scared.
Shortly after Achrak stopped breathing, Abou Jahjah was spotted in the middle of the gathering crowd, holding forth to hundreds of second-generation Moroccan teenagers. A little later, Antwerp's police had the first of many riots on their hands and the finger of suspicion fell on Abou Jahjah.
He claims he was merely trying to calm the crowd, but the Belgian authorities see things differently. They accuse him of fomenting violence and have jailed the self-confessed Arab nationalist who models himself on Nasser.
With a general election on the cards next year, feelings are running high in Belgium and there are growing calls to ban the AEL from across the political spectrum.
Abou Jahjah, who emigrated to Belgium from Lebanon when he was 19 and fought against the Israelis, has had the Belgian establishment spitting blood before. Earlier this year, he caused outrage when he was quoted as suggesting that Arabic should become Belgium's fourth official language (along with French, Flemish and German).
Abou Jahjah claims he was misquoted but continues to strike a defiant tone. Arabic should be offered as a second language at the very least, he argues.
But it was the AEL's controversial decision earlier this month to institute 'Arab patrols' that has alarmed the government most.
The patrols, led by Abou Jahjah's right-hand man, Ahmed Azzuz, were seen as a provocation. Armed with cameras, notebooks, mobile phones and dictaphones, the patrols began shadowing Antwerp's police force to guard against allegedly racist behaviour.
The patrols meet at eight most weekday evenings on the Turnhoutse Baan, a long, drab tram-lined road that runs into the centre of Antwerp. Muscular young men, many of whom wear traditional Arab headgear, can be seen filing into an unprepossessing internet café long before then.
Outsiders aren't welcome. 'Go home before we beat your fucking white ass,' is how one group of young men greet The Observer .
Passing police cars are bombarded with a barrage of expletives and spittle. When tension was particularly acute last week anyone with a white face was singled out for abuse. White shopkeepers in this largely Moroccan district were dragged from their shops and beaten, and the area became a virtual no-go zone.
But Abou Jahjah, who claims he has no desire to see ethnic bloodshed, talks a more sophisticated game. Fluent in five languages, a student of international relations and a man who knows his history, he is a very different proposition. In an exclusive interview before he was jailed, he outlined AEL's European ambitions.
Sitting in his Spartan Antwerp flat that has since been ransacked by the police, he makes it clear that the AEL has plans to expand into the UK, Germany, France and the Netherlands within two years. It also intends to field candidates in Belgium's general election.
The league officially numbers 1,000 members across the continent, but that is said to be a conservative estimate.
'The global strategy and ideological structure will be the same,' he enthuses. 'Our first aim is to bring about a change in the way in which Arab communities are treated and live in Europe. We have 16 million people in Europe - more than the Belgians - but we don't have a political voice.' A federal democratic Arab state in the Middle East, complemented by a powerful Arab presence at all levels of power in Europe, is the AEL's ultimate aim, but it is its rejection of integration that has caused most controversy.
'We reject integration when it leads to assimilation,' says Abou Jahjah. 'I don't believe in a host country. We are at home here and whatever we consider our culture to be also belongs to our chosen country. I'm in my country, not the country of the Belgians. We are citizens, not foreigners.'
And if the political establishment does not start accommodating such views, Abou Jahjah warns of trouble ahead. 'If they don't get the idea and keep excluding, they will create another no-future generation,' he warns.
Although he stresses violence is not his chosen route, the AEL's website, packed with anti-Israeli rhetoric, paints a very different impression. The legend 'We shall overcome by any means necessary' is juxtaposed above a picture of masked Palestinian gunmen.