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How to Build a Mosque in Brussels

Brussels leaders have long sought to make its Muslim communities invisible, but haven't openly acknowledged that was their goal.
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The Great Mosque of Brussels. (Photo:William Murphy/Flickr)

The Great Mosque of Brussels. (Photo:William Murphy/Flickr)

The terrorist attacks in Brussels have brought international attention to the city's poor, majority-Muslim neighborhoods, including one that was home to the only surviving suspect in the terror attacks on Paris. After the bombings in Paris, Salah Abdeslam fled to the neighborhood of Molenbeek, where a network of friends and family helped him evade arrest for four months, the New York Times reports.

Neighborhoods like Molenbeek have a long and interesting history of fraught relations with non-Muslim town leaders. A study published in 2013, in the Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, offers a unique window into that history. For the study, political scientist Corinne Torrekens interviewed 50 mosque spokespeople and town-planning authorities about the fates of applications to build mosques in Brussels, extending back more than 30 years.

Officials have been reluctant to allow visible symbols of the Muslim faith in the city, Torrekens finds, and haven't openly tackled the high emotions around such symbols from both sides. "The responses of the authorities tend to avoid any fundamental discussion on the place of Islam in public space," she writes. "Instead, they did their utmost to treat the issue as a mere bureaucratic one."

From the beginning, town leaders tried to reduce Muslim communities' visibility.

In 1984, a lawyer representing Muslims in Molenbeek asked for planning permission for a mosque. The town-planning department ignored the application, "then asked the councilor in charge of the application how to proceed and indicated that it would be very difficult to find reasons to reject the planned mosque on 'town-planning' grounds," Torrekens reports. "Here we see that technicalities are only a bureaucratic smokescreen for opposition that is entirely political but does not have the courage to declare itself as such." The mosque didn't receive planning permission until 2004.

One example from 1988 underscores how important the physical appearance of neighborhoods was to authorities in Brussels. That year, Muslims in the municipality of Saint-Josse applied to turn a house into a mosque. Saint-Josse's town council first turned them down, then sent the applicants a letter saying the council wouldn't object, so long as worshippers didn't alter the outside of the building in any way.

Meanwhile, Muslim associations have continued to push back, sometimes seemingly seeking visibility for its own sake. In the late 1990s, the Turkish Religious Foundation applied to add a dome and an 18-meter-high minaret to the Fatih Camii mosque in the neighborhood of Schaerbeek. Minarets usually house the loudspeakers that broadcast a mosque's daily calls to prayer. Such calls are forbidden in Brussels.

The sole purpose for Fatih Camii's minaret would be to make Schaerbeek's Muslim population apparent to the neighborhoods around it, Torrekens argues. (The Muslims Torrekens interviewed often said they felt Belgian society denied them social standing and voice.) In the end, officials and the Turkish Religious Foundation came to a peculiar compromise: The foundation couldn't build a minaret, but it was allowed to build an illuminated sign in the shape of a minaret.

In the coming months and years, officials in Brussels will likely re-consider and re-debate their policies for Molenbeek and other Muslim neighborhoods. Whether they'll allow mosques and Muslims to be more or less visible remains to be seen, as does whether they'll acknowledge and deal with their own internal conflicts about how Muslim communities have changed Brussels' landscape over the past several decades.