"An Outspoken Arab in Europe"

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Posted by Sadie from D007170.N1.Vanderbilt.Edu ( on Saturday, March 01, 2003 at 12:25PM :

NY Times
An Outspoken Arab in Europe: Demon or Hero?

ANTWERP, Belgium He is pacing the room like a trapped panther, lithe and restless, as calls are coming in from the street. Thirty miles away, a large protest march is under way, but its organizer is stranded.

This is the man known as Belgium's Malcolm X, the country's most famous immigrant who is frightening many Belgians, including the government, with his radical plans and fast-growing following.

He is Dyab Abou Jahjah, 31, born in Lebanon, the founder of the Arab European League, a new immigrant protest movement.

On this day in February, he is working his cellphone in his sparsely furnished home in Antwerp because by order of a judge he is banned for three months from public events. But the news from the street cheers him. Marchers carry his photograph, some wear masks that show his face.

"I hate this, being stuck here," he said. "The police probably wished I was there so they could arrest me."

Well, perhaps not. In November he was held for five days on charges of incitement to riot but released for lack of evidence. Belgium's prime minister, Guy Verhofstadt, called him a "threat to society."

It quickly turned him into a demon, and a hero. The result has been a flood of television appearances, newspaper articles, magazine covers and new recruits for his Arab European League.

"Recruiting is not hard," he said. "We're a civil rights movement, not a club of fundamentalist fanatics who want to blow things up. We're different because we are neither apologists nor extremists. We have such an appeal because we are filling a gap."

Mr. Abou Jahjah says he is part of a new generation of Muslim activists who are speaking out, frustrated with what they call discrimination, the lack of hope of finding a job, the problems of renting outside immigrant ghettos and, since Sept. 11, the distrust and even Islamophobia they feel.

Older immigrants who arrived from Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and Turkey some 30 years ago, these activists say, have been too meek, too passive, co-opted by government funds or divided by ethnic or nationalist infighting.

The Arab European League, founded by Mr. Abou Jahjah two years ago, aims to empower Muslim immigrants. He demands affirmative action in schools, in the workplace, in housing. His premise: Arabs in Europe will only be taken seriously if they are proud and strong.

"In Europe, the immigrant organizations are Uncle Toms," he said. "We want to polarize people, to sharpen the discussion, to unmask the myth that the system is democratic for us."

The league's program calls on Muslim immigrants to resist pressures to integrate. "Assimilation is cultural rape," he said. "It means renouncing your identity, becoming like the others."

He finds inspiration in Malcolm X and his movement in the United States for racial pride. "Of course the context is different," he said, "but Malcolm X was also against assimilation. He fought for civil rights and he was also inspired by Islam."

Mr. Abou Jahjah's followers are hard to quantify. Hundreds of young men and women have shown up at street rallies. A few dozen have participated in the so-called video patrols to film the Antwerp police, who the league says abuse Arab youths verbally and physically. They have distributed fliers saying: "Bad cops, the Arab European League is watching you." There is no headquarters; regulars meet at an Antwerp Internet cafe.

Critics say the prime minister and the minister of interior have overreacted. Mr. Abou Jahjah's influence is overrated, they argue, yielding more publicity than sting.

But Mr. Abou Jahjah says his Arab pride movement is already echoing elsewhere. His group has recently set up chapters in three Dutch cities, and he says he has been invited to France and Britain to start chapters.

Articulate, fast-talking, self-assured, he is indeed different from many Muslims here, who have largely come from the interior of Morocco, Turkey and Algeria.

Growing up in Lebanon, the son of university teachers, Mr. Abou Jahjah said he joined the Hezbollah resistance against Israel. "I had some military training, I'm still very proud of that," he said. In 1991, at age 19, he left. "I wanted to go abroad like a lot of Lebanese young people." He said he was accepted at the University of Michigan, but because of the Persian Gulf war, he did not get an American visa. He tried France, then Belgium, where he applied for political asylum.

"Most asylum seekers invent a story and I said I had had a conflict with the Hezbollah leaders," Mr. Abou Jahjah said. "It was just a low political trick to get my papers. Now they want to use this against me."

His marriage to a Belgian woman was brief, but it gave him Belgian citizenship. His wife said later that she was tricked into the marriage and tried unsuccessfully to sue him. It is hard to know the truth.

Now he has a degree in political science and speaks five languages. He has done odd jobs for a trade union and an immigrant organization. His chief lieutenant, Ahmed Azzuz, is studying law. There are others who are well-versed in law and politics. The group's manifesto says, "You do not receive equal rights, you take them."

Mr. Abou Jahjah's demands Islamic schools, bilingual education for Arab children, hiring quotas for immigrants are resented in this small nation of 10 million that struggles with its own identity.

Belgium's long linguistic conflicts have been tentatively settled in the Constitution, which recognizes Dutch, French and German as official languages, though they still coexist uneasily. So there was an outcry when Mr. Abou Jahjah demanded that Arabic be added to the mix.

"People freaked out over that," he said. "Why not," he added, with a quasi-innocence. "There are 70,000 German speakers and more than 300,000 Arab speakers." That mix, he has been told, grew historically. "I say history is not over."

Indeed, Mr. Abou Jahjah makes a point of causing consternation, above all in Antwerp, the country's second largest city, where he lives. Depending on who is talking, this city of half a million people is either an exemplary ethnic mix, a cauldron or a wake-up call for Europe.

Antwerp is the base of the far-right Flemish Bloc, a party that won one-third of the seats on the City Council with the slogan, "Our people first." It is also home to Belgium's largest group of Jews, many of them linked to the diamond trade.

Add to this a large immigrant population, up to one-third of them unemployed, said Mr. Abou Jahjah.

After unruly anti-Israel protests last April and more riots in November, when shops and a synagogue in the Jewish quarter were vandalized, the mayor warned that the Arab protesters were importing the Middle Eastern conflict and threatening the peace.

Filip Dewinter, the outspoken leader of the Flemish Bloc, said Mr. Abou Jahjah must be stripped of his Belgian citizenship and deported "because he lied about his refugee status and had a phony marriage." Mr. Dewinter regards Mr. Abou Jahjah as "a foreign agent, directed and paid from abroad."

At home, with his brother Ziad, a businessman, Mr. Abou Jahjah said the police had recently searched their homes and taken their computers, bank statements, "even Ziad's wedding pictures." There is nothing to hide, he said. Money comes from members in Belgium and several private donors in Egypt, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, whose names he has posted on the League's Web site, arabeuropean.org.

In May, he will run in the Belgian parliamentary elections. No, he will not support any of the six Muslims Turks and Moroccans already in Parliament. "They never defended the rights of immigrants," he said. "They don't want to rock the boat. We do. We're not guests here. We are citizens."

-- Sadie
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