A new wave of Arab activism is taking hold in Antwerp, Belgium. Khaled Diab meets the leader of the Arab European League.
Dyab Abou Jahjah, president of the Antwerp-based Arab European League (AEL), is a new breed of Arab activist: media savvy, radical and controversial. Dubbed the Malcolm X of his community, he urges his fellow Arab “panthers” to wrest their rights from the teeth of the Flemish lion.
Abou Jahjah recently made headlines again with his proposal to set up community surveillance groups to shadow the Antwerp police in order to make sure that Moroccan youth are not unfairly targeted during a planned crime crackdown. He has also stirred controversy with his threat to set up an Arab party in 2006 if his organisation's demands are not met. He has also called for segregated schools and speculated that Arabic should become Belgium's fourth official language.
Abou Jahjah believes the time for radical action has arrived and accuses the mainstream in society and in his own community of pussy-footing around the real issues. “Rights are not given to you, you have to take them,” he explains to me in his Antwerp apartment under the watchful gaze of his neighbour and protector, a good-humoured, if fearsome-looking, ex-African wrestling champion from Egypt.
“Our role is to put pressure on the government. We need to show them that the consequences of not taking action are greater than those of taking action,” adds the Lebanese-born activist.
He says his small organisation of 1,000 members aims to do this by mobilising and empowering the Arab community in Belgium, and then across Europe, to fight for their civil rights. He has been a vocal critic of the government's integration policy and the anti-immigrant Vlaams Blok's calls for assimilation, as well as discrimination in education and the workplace.
Abou Jahjah's message has found most resonance among some marginalised Belgian-born Moroccan youth, mainly in Antwerp. Others take a more qualified view. Although many in the Arab community and mainstream society agree with the problems he identifies, there are widespread concerns about the movement's vision and approach.
“He is certainly right about his views on discrimination against immigrants and so on,” says Badra Djait, a researcher into immigrant issues at Leuven University who is a second-generation immigrant herself. “The only problem I think is that he is so negative about his solutions.”
“Dyab is right when he wants to start a movement of Arab Pride,” contends Lucas Catherine, a leading Belgian intellectual and an authority on Islam, but echoes those who question the movement's refusal to align itself with others in the community and mainstream society working towards similar ends.
At issue is whether militant politics or dialogue and alliance-building are more effective in bringing about real change in a society so accustomed to consensus politics and world famous for its ‘Belgian compromises'.
“The question is should you enter headlong into a hostile conflict or use persuasion,” said one community campaigner who wished not to be named.
Abou Jahjah dismisses other grassroots organisations and Arab politicians as “false foreigners”. “These people are not part of the community, they're part of the Belgian political apparatus,” he charges.
Some have applauded his defiance. “Abou Jahjah is everything but the obedient and flexible immigrant that (political) parties prefer to recruit,” wrote Jan Blommaert in the Flemish broadsheet De Standaard.
Others see in Abou Jahjah's dismissiveness a tacit acknowledgement of right-wing stereotypes. “If I follow his logic, it means that to be a true immigrant you have to be marginalised, uneducated, and unemployed,” points out Djait. “This is, in my view, a point that the Vlaams Blok uses to demonise immigrants.”
The sensation-seeking segments of the media thrive on reporting him saying that he is able to “summon up understanding” for Osama Bin Laden. This is apparently just what the anti-immigrant Vlaams Blok have been waiting for. “Now they have a real face in the immigrant community to demonise,” says Djait.
There are worries that Abou Jahjah's approach threatens multiculturalism by following the far right's lead down the path to sectarianism and may isolate the community from the mainstream. Others fear that the AEL is handicapped by its narrow Pan-Arabist ideology, which may prove internally divisive because it fails to recognise the diversity within the Arab and Muslim community.
“This is not the age of fervent nationalism, this is the age of diversity and broad alliances,” the campaigner said.
A shorter version of this article appeared in the 15 November 2002 issue of The Bulletin.