Europe's Malcolm X
Dyab Abou Jahjah is thirtytwo years old. He was born in Lebanon, which he left at the age of nineteen for asylum in Belgium, even though he now happily admits that in reality he was an economic migrant. After holding a trade union position looking after the interests of migrant workers, he founded the AEL in February 2000. Rosemary Bechler met him in the old community centre in Borgerhout, the Moroccan district of Antwerp
Q: You have been described as doing "for Islamic European identity what Pim Fortuyn has done for Dutch nationalism." Is this accurate?
A: Pim Fortuyn did not build a movement. He was not aiming at major structural changes in society. He was a populist politician, trying to translate the grievances of the Dutch population into policies. This was evident after his death, when the organisational framework of his party fell apart. What we are attempting is totally different. What we believe is this: European society, especially on the Continent, is fundamentally monocultural. Everything reflects this. What people propose as the preconditions for inclusion or 'integration' seem to us primarily cultural in nature, rather than socioeconomic or political. If you do not want to give up what makes you different forgo your own identity then you are socioeconomically and politically excluded, and the attempt is made to justify this exclusion. Of course you need to have a socioeconomic platform of demands. But that is not enough for us. We must also mount a defence of our own identity. One example? Belgium needs unskilled labour. It rejects Moroccan unskilled labour, preferring to import unskilled Polish labour. Why?
Q: What is this European monoculture which all the different European countries have in common?
A: Europe is diverse, but the common aspect, recognised worldwide, is the western European JudaeoChristian heritage. This has both a racial connotation related to being white; and a civilisational claim, JudaeoChristian in character. Step outside that framework, and diversity is no longer permissible. The mechanisms of socioeconomic exclusion are deployed to push towards homogeneity along those traditional lines.
So exclusion is an instrument for applying pressure: 'if you don't assimilate, I exclude you. You want a job? Housing? You wish to be recognised politically? Then assimilate and we will accept you. If you don't, you have only yourself to blame, because you are simply not integrated.' That is the logic.
Q: Do you understand the position of the people who bombed the train in Madrid?
A: Do I understand the motivation of Arabs and Muslims who want to strike against Spain? I understand it completely. Had it been Eta, it would have been a different matter. That I would have regarded as absurd, because Eta's struggle is imaginary. The Basque country has a nationalist party in power, and Spain is moving towards devolution and the granting of Basque rights without a fight.
But by supplying an occupying force for Iraq, Spain is inflicting suffering on Arabs and Muslims. What I do not understand is that this has to be translated into attacking Spanish poor people and people who demonstrated against the war in Iraq: that I do not accept. We must condemn the act, but we must be saying, as most of the Spanish people who reacted to these events are saying: "It is the fault of Aznar."
People of course are afraid. They really are genuinely afraid of the terrorism which arises as a reaction against what imperialism does. But on the other hand, we are afraid too. We are afraid of the repression that will be precipitated by that terrorism, which is also just an escalation of the forms of oppression already in place in this society. And we are afraid of the racism that uses these fears instrumentally in order to gain greater legitimacy in society. So you see, everybody is afraid.
Q: You have, haven't you, often been described as 'Belgium's Malcolm X'?
A: I only discovered Malcolm X when people started comparing me to him! No, it was our personal experience that shaped how things developed. Of course, I was politically active in Lebanon before I left: I studied politics. The same was true of the others in the founder group. We could analyse the dynamics of the situation.
There was, however, no guarantee that this initiative would work. But it did, and the way it worked amply vindicated our original thesis. When I worked as a statefunded youth community leader, if we wanted to attract fifty or sixty young people from this neighbourhood of Borgerhout, we needed to offer a music concert or free food before we could try and drum whatever the message was into them.
Now, we make them pay to come and listen to AEL political speeches. And they do it! The reason for this is that we treat them as normal human beings and adults. When you are regarded as a problem from the off 'you will only come and listen if you get something out of it' you behave that way. You realise immediately that those people have very low expectations of you, and you say to yourself: "OK, I will come, and I will eat, and I won't listen to you and then I'll go!" Whatever space we have, we fill: two or three hundred minimum. Of course we are quite young ourselves, with the advantage of never having been distanced from the community. We played in football teams. We knew a lot of guys who would never have been reached by older, more traditional leaders. At the same time, we got our analysis right. We went to the cafés that nobody went to, regarded as drug cafés where criminals hang out. This is where we sat. These were neither druginfested nor criminal: but it was where the most excluded group of youths went because they were rejected from all other venues. People had a real fear of these youngsters. They were having meetings, coming up with all sorts of theories about how to deal with 'them'. But they never talked to 'them'.
We began with what we called 'preaching moments'. Ten or fifteen youngsters would turn up saying: "What are you going to do for us?" because that was the mentality inculcated in them by all those predecessor organisations. But the groups kept growing, because we would say: "No, we aren't going to do anything for you. If you want to do something for your community, then join us. If not, then you can leave." We started growing and we had street credibility
Q: Why? Because you did things for them?
A: Because we did things on a par with them. If they had a fight with skinheads, we went and fought alongside. We were not the ones saying, you shouldn't. No. We don't go and aggress anybody. But if a skinhead comes to beat you up with a baseball bat, you return the favour. That was our attitude: a different attitude from the traditional one. Eventually, it gained us all the respect we needed from people who are very cynical. They are extremely intelligent politically. They don't have the intellectual jargon to think in, but they are highly astute. They trusted us: and we deserved it.
Q: Are you an advocate of Arab nationalism?
A: I am, and I am proud of that. 'Arab' is a nationality or a nation that has been formed after the Islamicisation period, and in that sense, being an Arab nationalist does not exclude diversity.
In the AEL, we define our identity on three levels: the primary ethnic group, say 'southern Lebanese'; second, nationhood; and lastly, the international Muslim community an ideological category. We believe our identity is defined only by these three levels, and that they are not mutually exclusive. So it is a complex business: but identity is complex!
Q: How far does your democracy programme extend? Would you advocate that Saudi Arabia stop attempting to assimilate white women into its dominant way of life?
A: The AEL is maybe the only organisation in Europe that has demonstrated against the Arab regimes. On 13 December, two years ago, we had a demonstration which stopped in front of every Arab embassy in Brussels, protesting against the dictatorships, the oppression of Arab people and the selling out of our people to the West and to America.
It's a funny thing about the Arab world: its dictatorships are linked to the West. You named Saudi Arabia, but you could have cited Egypt, where in my opinion there is even greater repression of political opinion, and an abhorrent record in suppressing freedoms, despite its apparently civilised veneer. The same goes for Morocco, for Tunisia, Kuwait.
There is in general a need for democracy, not only confined to elections, but accepting diversity as well. You singled out Saudi Arabia. Fine. We have always criticised that regime. We want regime change. But we don't want regime change imposed on us through occupation. We want our own people to change it. We are quite willing to fight alongside dictators who are fighting against occupation
There is a principle at stake here: that you cannot be liberated you liberate yourself.
Q: What measures do you take within your movement to prevent hostility to the Jewish community here, and to ensure that your supporters take seriously the distinction between antiSemitism and antiZionism?
A: Well, on the ideological level, they do distinguish, of course. But not always on the emotional level. This is just a reality. The answer to it cannot be that we defend Zionism. Every movement carries the risk of some emotional reaction not intended by its leaders. But we should talk more about Zionism and antiZionism, precisely because there is such a strong perception in our community that Jews are Zionists. If we didn't talk about it, we would be strengthening the idea that all these Jews are identical to the Jews who are shooting Palestinians.
As for hostility from within the movement, it is not an issue because it doesn't happen. This is Provinciestraat, right? This street is half occupied by Arab, half by Jewish inhabitants. Our new offices have two kosher shops facing them with Hebrew on the doors. People describe this situation as if we were waiting behind our barricades, with them lurking behind theirs. Not at all. Go and look at everyone milling about these shops and offices.
In one year throughout the whole country, twentythree events were reported as having something to do with antiSemitism. Not all of these involve Arab or Muslim youth. And what kind of situations are they? There has never been a killing. No one has ever been beaten up and hospitalised. The ones we knew about here in Antwerp were kids fighting. Now go and ask how many Muslims have been shot by racists in Brussels, in Antwerp, in Charleroi. Then you would have a list of killings!
We get a bit angry when everyone concentrates on antiSemitism. We Arabs don't have that complex about the Holocaust, that trauma in our culture like many Europeans do. We were not responsible. Of course we condemn it. But where does that leave us? Does it mean we can't criticise a political movement, or a colonial or racist state?
Q: Let's turn now to your LibertyEqualityFraternity petition against the French ban on the hijab in state schools.
A: Read the text of the petition: there is nothing new here. The European Convention of Human Rights grants rights of religious worship and observance in public and private. We are just asking them to apply the law to everybody: they are not doing so. It's hardly challenging.
It may be novel in practice, however, because Europe has issued a plethora of nicesounding, humanistic declarations, which tend to be confined to the ethnically European. Human rights certainly should not be upheld on that restricted basis.
Q: Many French Muslims, including many women, have welcomed the ban imposed by a secularist state, presumably as a foundation for pursuing greater freedom within their own community.
A: Can you fight for freedom of religious practice with a ban? Does it ease that social pressure? First of all, you will be violating the rights of people who freely choose to wear the hijab, because they exist too and are probably in the majority. Second, you will be giving those people every reason to be more on the defensive. So as a tactic, it is counterproductive. Furthermore, it is against human rights.
You have a law in Europe which stipulates three cases in which you can limit, not ban, the practice of religion: if you breach the rights of third parties; for public order purposes; or for public health. None of these apply to the hijab. The ban is simply illegal in Europe.
Q: Let's look at another source of disquiet with which you are involved asylumseeking. In Britain, David Blunkett has been promoting the thesis that it is the abuse of asylumseeking which prevents him from persuading the British people that they should take a positive attitude to economic migrants, whom we also need in our economy. This describes your own history rather well. You pretended to be an asylumseeker to come to Belgium. Aren't you letting genuine asylumseekers down?
A: In my case, perhaps I didn't have a sufficiently urgent justification for resorting to that exit route. But most people in a Third World country just want to leave, and actually, so did I.
You cannot just want to see somewhere different from the Third World. Somebody from Europe who decides to go to my country will get a visa and be there tomorrow! I have Belgian friends who have become rather interested in Arab culture. They live now in Lebanon: they just live there! Well, hell! That's unfair. Our borders are open. Let these borders be open too: let all borders just be open.
If that happens, they tell you, it will create economic destabilisation. The world is already destabilised economically! Maybe that will reinforce the urge to solve global economic destabilisation. People will have to share more, since they are sharing more of the problems.
So, I have news for this gentleman in Britain: they will keep finding ways of coming in. Clamp down on asylumseekers now, or whatever: immigration has always existed and always will.
In Belgium, when they try and make me ashamed for coming here, I have no complexes at all about this. I am proud of it. I came here because this is my planet and I am a human being, and will decide to live where I decide to live.
Q: Would you claim to be, as you have been described, a 'militant multiculturalist'?
A: Absolutely! You have the level of laws and regulations which are binding for everybody. These are culturally determined, and so have to be constantly renegotiated, but they are regulated by a system that is normative and can be written down. It isn't eternal, but if I find a law defective and culturally biased, I have to abide by it even while I am trying to change it. That is the level of citizenship and it acts as a regulatory regime.
In all other spheres, I believe in the freedom of people to express themselves, within schools, political parties, youth movements, media, not only at home. If we can reach a harmony between these two levels, we recognise that there is no mutual contradiction between having wideranging diversity in society and also a democratic culture. People can be deeply opposed to each other, as long as they trust the institutions and know that they can also have access to the media to express their point of view.
I am actually in favour of more freedom of speech than you have here in Europe. I don't mind someone who is a racist telling me what he thinks of me. Let him tell me that he hates me and that he thinks he is superior. That's OK, as long as I trust institutions and know that I have access to the media to tell him what I think; and that I can vote in elections for somebody who believes what I believe.
The one thing I can't accept is exclusion. You can think somebody is a bad lot, but you have to treat that person equally. That is what dialogue is. I believe in freedom of expression for everybody not only verbally but also in institutions Scout movements, schools and the arts. I believe in this not only for existing but also for new identities. Part of any identity is given, and part is always constructed and renegotiated. But they are still real, and still different from each other.
Q: What about the conservative family values in the community you represent? You call for a real dialogue in which people can change each other, but some nonMuslims may begin to be worried about your values 'taking over'. What would you say to them?
A: Simply having different perspectives increases the insights on all sides. Either you convince each other, or you create new thinking. On some issues, I may be rather revolutionary, but when it comes to what you call 'conservative values', I do believe in conserving what is good, and discarding bad things.
For example, I believe in the family as a good structure for raising kids. These are values that are being dismantled in this society. Some people, who think in terms of linear lines of evolution, believe that such values are 'precapitalist'. You can deconstruct everything in that way. Others say that you shouldn't judge people. Well, you shouldn't judge people as 'good' or 'bad'. But you can judge structures as good or bad and you should.
Q: So for example, you are against gay marriage?
A: We are not for it. We think marriage is linked to family building, and family building is about having and raising children. You cannot recognise gay marriage without recognising gay adoption, because we believe a child has the right to have the model of both a mother and a father. But what we say is: eliminate discrimination. I am against equating heterosexuality with homosexuality. It is not the same. We consider heterosexuality as a norm, and I think the majority in Europe shares that opinion but doesn't dare express it.
But you have homosexuality as well, and individuals who are homosexual are discriminated against. You have to fight that. You have to make sure that these people are not discriminated against in employment, in housing, in politics, or anywhere. I would be in favour of affirmative action on these fronts. If couples are losing out on a judicial or economic basis because they do not have married status then fine, you should regulate that, so that gay couples who want to live together are treated the same as married couples. This is a valid complaint. But people advocating gay rights should not fall into the trap of demanding a homogenised culture in which all distinction between homosexuality and heterosexuality disappears. They are not the same.
Q: Are you for or against intermarriage between people of different communities?
A: I'm not against it at all, which doesn't mean to say that I am for it either. I don't care. People marry when they fall in love with somebody. It is their individual choice. But I wouldn't go about promoting it, because that can be as racist as being against it. You marry the person you would like to marry.
Q: Do you believe in the equality of women? Am I equal to you?
A: Of course. But I believe we are different and reject the traditional feminist approach.
People say that women are unable to do some things, or they differentiate between men and women intellectually. It makes me very angry. I am talking about internal discussions in the movement. Sometimes I am accused of being a 'feminist'. Not at all.
There are differences between the genders. I don't believe in gender assimilation or putting pressure on a woman to act like a man, or viceversa. Go and develop whatever identity you choose for yourself, and if women choose, as they often do, to be housewives, or indeed careerists, they should not be given the impression that they are letting down some ideological notion of femininity.
When it comes to a couple let them make their own agreements. A man asks his woman to breastfeed their children when they get married. I don't think he is oppressing her: I don't believe in that. As long as she has a chance to say: "No, if that's what you want, I don't want to marry you." That's normal human interaction.
If you want people to fight social pressures, you have to empower them to be able to tell the difference between abuse and nonabuse. You have to emancipate them by making them aware of their rights. We know that in our community a lot of men tell their women to abide by socalled rulings which arise from their religion. But these rulings are false. We don't immediately call upon the law to forbid such behaviour. We say to the women: "You have to know your own rights, as believers." We have a women's section in the AEL, and we raise their awareness of their rights in Islam, as a believer. Then they can go home with arguments and say: "No, it's not true. According to Islam, I even have the rights to this, this and this " It can be incredibly emancipatory, especially if both are believers, because you can completely convince him that he is under an obligation to change his behaviour!
Q: You must have seen the biopic of Malcolm X. That rather important scene where he is walking upstairs and is accosted by a young white woman who says: "I want to help your movement. What can I do?" And he says: "Go home." What would you have said?
A: I have to tell you, I have become a specialist on Malcolm X. He fascinates me. That encounter was in his Nation of Islam period. Later, he changed his approach. When he developed his Organization for AfroAmerican Unity, he began to say: "You can help us, but you can't join us!" Well, we go a step further. We have people who are nonMuslim and nonArab in the AEL. They are fully signed up activists, with voting rights in Congress and the opportunity to lead AEL working groups. But they cannot lead the organisation. This is the bottom line: the president must be either Arab or Muslim, because we are a movement of emancipation, and we believe that a struggle for emancipation must be led by the people who want to emancipate themselves.
So you can join us and help us, but you cannot lead us!
Q: So what are your key demands now?
A: Well, let's start with our global platform. Our overarching demand is for equal rights with preservation of identity. We couple these things.
We have four concrete demands. First, we demand that a multicultural society accepts its diversity as a fact, a right, a norm. Second, to preserve a minority identity, you need structures. The Arab European League (AEL) calls for a freedom of educational choice to match the freedom of education in society at large. For example, here in Belgium, we have all sorts of schools: Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Rudolf Steiner but not one Muslim school. Say you would like to start one, and the response comes back: 'That's not a good idea because it is detrimental to integration.' We are accused of being 'segregationists'. We say this reflects an unacceptable policy of assimilation.
In fact, the same principle applies to Scout movements! We started a Muslim Scout movement in Belgium, but people went crazy, asking: "Why on earth don't you join the regular Scout movement?" We said: "Which is that?" And they answered: 'The VKS'. VKS stands for the Flemish Catholic Scouts. How, exactly, are we supposed to join that? When we complained, they started with: 'Well, we were here first!' Such a lowlevel discussion! Sometimes it is truly impossible to debate with them.
The third demand that we have is socioeconomic, though it is linked to identity issues too. We have a major unemployment problem in our community a result of structural discrimination against Muslims. We demand measures to fight discrimination: affirmative action of all kinds, including its clearest, most aggressive form quotas for nonEuropean minorities.
We call for the redistribution of work to combat the global nature of the unemployment problem. We demand an affirmative action period in Belgium to close the distance between minorities and the majority already created by the job market. And we propose a 32hour week, which will create new jobs. These jobs should be distributed equally, without any discrimination.
Now, housing. There is a lot of discrimination against people with Arabic names in the housing market. They are systematically rejected and driven into concentrated ethnic minority areas. This is not a problem for us, actually. But combined with socioeconomic deprivation, it can become a problem. We are demanding laws governing house rentals on the basis of first come, first served. This, plus greater government funding for social housing.
The fourth demand has to do with education. In Belgium, 60 per cent of students don't finish their schooling. There is clearly a major structural problem. The system isn't working. It has to be made to work. It has to change. And that means listening to the demands of the Muslim community. Why can't you choose Arabic as an extra language at school? Why Polish and not Arabic? I am calling for regular state schools to give children a chance to study Arabic. This way, their parents don't have to send them off to mosques after school or at the weekend to learn Arabic there. This way, they have time to play!