Belgium and the Netherlands have some of the largest Muslim communities in the European Union, in percentage terms.
Belgium is home to an estimated 650,000 Muslims, or around 6% of the overall population, based on an average of several statistical estimates. The Netherlands is home to an estimated 925,000 Muslims, which also works out to around 6% of the overall population. Within the EU, only France (7.5%) has more Muslims in relative terms.
Belgian and Dutch cities have significant Muslim populations, comprised mostly of Turkish and Moroccan immigrants, as well as a growing number of converts to Islam.
The number of Muslims in Brussels—where roughly half of the number of Muslims in Belgium currently live—has reached 300,000, which means that the self-styled "Capital of Europe" is now one of the most Islamic cities in Europe.
In 2013, Muslims made up approximately 26% of the population of metropolitan Brussels, followed by Rotterdam (25%), Amsterdam (24%), Antwerp (17%), The Hague (14%) and Utrecht (13%), according to a panoply of research.
Not coincidentally, Belgium and the Netherlands have been at the forefront of the debate over Muslim immigration and integration in Europe. What follows is a chronological summary of some of the main stories about the rise of Islam in Belgium and the Netherlands during 2013.
In January, the Belgian branch of the Dutch department store chain HEMA lost a wrongful termination lawsuit filed by a Muslim shop assistant whose contract was not renewed because she refused to stop wearing a hijab, the traditional Islamic headscarf.
The woman, a Belgian convert to Islam, had been employed as temporary sales staff for two months, during which time she wore the hijab at work. But when customers complained, the store manager asked her to remove the headscarf.
After she refused to comply, HEMA declined to extend her contract in sales, but did offer her an alternative job in its warehouse, where she would not have direct contact with clients. She said the alternative job offer was unsatisfactory and then consulted a lawyer.
Lawyers defending the Belgian shop said that to maintain the "neutral and discreet image of HEMA, the shop did not want employees wearing any kind of religious symbols."
But a labor court in the nearby Belgian city of Tongeren ruled that HEMA did not have a clearly stated policy on headscarves and thus had no valid justification to dismiss the woman. The court ordered HEMA to pay the 21-year-old woman €9,000 ($12,000), the equivalent of six month's salary, as compensation.
According to the Centre for Equal Opportunities and Opposition to Racism, an NGO that helped bring the woman's case to trial, the main purpose of the legal action was to clarify how far a company can go in seeking to present a "neutral image" to its customers. The NGO believes neutrality cannot be invoked as a genuine and determining occupational requirement, and says it is not self-evident that neutrality can amount to a legitimate goal if and when it is chiefly invoked to please a private company's clients.
Also in January, the gangland shootings of two young Moroccan men in downtown Amsterdam drew renewed attention to the growing problem of violent crime among Muslim immigrants. The two men were gunned down with AK-47 assault rifles in a shooting the mayor of Amsterdam, Eberhard van der Laan, described as reminiscent of "the Wild West."
According to the Amsterdam-based newspaper Het Parool, young Moroccans continue their "unstoppable march to become the largest group of violent criminals" in the country, despite decades of government programs aimed at steering young Muslims away from a life of crime. Moroccan gangsters specialize mainly in robberies of banks and jewelry stores, as well as in drug trafficking, according to Het Parool.
Meanwhile, the Dutch newspaper Trouw reported that the Protestant Church of the Netherlands is planning to close up to 800 of its 2,000 churches around the country due to the dwindling number of practicing Christians. Critics of the move say many of these buildings are likely to be converted into mosques.
In February, Members of the Belgian Parliament introduced a bill that would limit the power of Muslim extremists who win elected office at the local or national levels and isolate themselves from the political mainstream.
The move came after members of the newly established Islam Party vowed to implement Islamic Sharia law in Belgium.
Addressing the Belgian Parliament on February 28, Alain Destexhe, an MP with the Reformist Movement [Mouvement Réformateur], the largest French-speaking classical liberal party in Belgium, and Philippe Pivin, a liberal MP who is also the deputy mayor of Koekelberg, a suburb of Brussels, said it is imperative to curb the power of elected Muslims whose beliefs are inconsistent with the European Convention on Human Rights.
The Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights ruled in February 2003 that Islamic Sharia law is "incompatible with the fundamental principles of democracy." The court said that a legal system based on Sharia law "would diverge from the European Convention on Human Rights, particularly with regard to the rules on the status of women, and its intervention in all spheres of private and public life in accordance with religious precepts."
Destexhe said the measure is necessary because Muslim politicians in Belgium are creating isolated communities and parallel societies. "The people of the Islam Party refuse to shake hands with women," he said. "They do not want to mix with others in public transport and other communal places. They advocate getting married and wearing a veil at 12 years old, based on Islamic law."
Also in February, the growing problem of rampant anti-Semitism among Muslim high school students in Arnhem, a city in eastern Holland that has a large Muslim population, was brought to the fore after Turkish students interviewed by NTR public television said they approved of the murder of millions of Jews during World War II and called the Jewish Holocaust "a blessing."
The February 24 broadcast of the NTR program "Unauthorized Authority" [Onbevoegd Gezag] shows a 15-year-old Turkish boy saying: "I hate Jews. It is clear. This thought cannot be taken away from me. I am very pleased with what Hitler did to the Jews." (Six minute video here, in Dutch.) The Turkish boys said in the program that many Dutch friends agree with them.
After the creator of the program, Mehmet Sahin, publicly reprimanded the boys, he was forced to go into hiding due to death threats from members of the Muslim community, who accused Sahin of being a "Jewish agent" and a "collaborator."
Dutch public prosecutors said the boy had violated Article 137c of the Dutch Penal Code, which restricts hate speech. But they decided not to prosecute the boy after he said he was sorry for his remarks.
The Centre for Information and Documentation on Israel (CIDI), an anti-Semitism watchdog group, called on Dutch Education Minister Jet Bussemaker to investigate the rise of anti-Semitic prejudices among high school students in Holland.
Meanwhile, a new research report, entitled "Youth Groups and Violence," found that more than 1,200 youth gangs are active in the Netherlands, and about 300 of these gangs are extremely violent. The report, which was produced under the auspices of the Dutch Ministry of Security and Justice, said the gangs of mostly Moroccan youths operate on the national and international levels and specialize in muggings, armed robberies, house invasions, violent drug crimes and extortion.
In March, the Dutch public broadcasting system NOS television reported that the Netherlands has become one of the major European suppliers of Islamic jihadists. According to NOS, about 100 Dutch Muslims are active as jihadists in Syria; most have joined the notorious Jabhat al-Nusra rebel group.
As in other European countries, Dutch counter-terrorism experts are worried that Dutch jihadists will bring their war-fighting skills back to the Netherlands.
On March 13, the Dutch government raised its alert level for terrorist attacks from "limited" to "substantial." In a statement, the National Coordinator for Security and Counterterrorism (NCTV), a government agency within the Security and Justice Ministry, said: "The chance of an attack in the Netherlands or against Dutch interests abroad has risen. Close to a hundred individuals have recently left the Netherlands for various countries in Africa and the Middle East, especially Syria." The agency said individuals fighting for radical Islam abroad could return and "inspire others in the Netherlands to follow in their footsteps."
On March 16, the Dutch daily newspaper Trouw reported that the Justice Ministry lacks effective measures at its disposal to prevent Dutch jihadists from embarking on their foreign adventures. The paper noted that Dutch courts have so far been unable to prosecute Dutch jihadists for travelling to foreign battlefields.
Trouw describes the trial in a Rotterdam court of three Dutch Kurds, arrested in November 2012 just before travelling to Syria to join jihadist fighters there. Prosecutors accused the three of "taking preparatory actions for the purpose of committing terrorist offenses." But the case stalled because it was unclear which terrorist actions the three were planning to commit in Syria.
In neighboring Belgium, the daily newspaper De Standaard reported on March 11 that at least 70 members of the outlawed Sharia4Belgium, a Muslim group that wants to turn Belgium into an Islamic state, are actively fighting in Syria. The paper noted that that most of the Belgian jihadists are "young people, between the ages of 17 and 25, who grew up here. They are young people without qualifications and often with criminal records. They come from Antwerp, Brussels, Mechelen and Vilvoorde."
De Standaard reported that the Belgian security services are "particularly concerned about what will happen when the military-trained 'drop-outs,' after the war from Syria, return to our country." The paper added that it has been difficult to prosecute jihadists in Belgian courts, as the uprising against Assad is "generally regarded as legitimate."
The newspaper pointed to a recent court case in the Belgian city of Mechelen, where 13 Muslim extremists were acquitted of being members of a terrorist organization. The court said that although there was evidence that the jihadists travelled to Chechnya in Russia, there was no evidence that they fought there as members of a terrorist group.
On March 26, the center-right newspaper La Libre reported that Wallonia, the French-speaking southern region of Belgium, officially renamed the four major Christian holidays on the Belgian school calendar with secular names in the interests of "administrative simplification."
From now on, school calendars within Belgium's French speaking community will permanently use the following terminology: the Christian holiday previously known as All Saints Day will now be referred to as Autumn Leave; Christmas Vacation is now Winter Vacation; Lenten Vacation is now Rest and Relaxation Leave; and Easter is now Spring Vacation.
Critics of the move to "de-Christianize" the Christian holidays said it reflects an ongoing effort by Belgian politicians to remove Christianity from public life to accommodate a burgeoning Muslim population.
Also in March, several Dutch Moroccan organizations sent a letter to the Labor Party (Partij van de Arbeid, PvdA) in which they threatened to urge Dutch Moroccans to stop supporting the party if it agrees to a proposal by its Minister of Social Affairs, Lodewijk Asscher, to cut social welfare payments to Moroccans who do not live in the Netherlands. Asscher accused the organizations of using an "improper electoral threat."
Meanwhile, the mayor of the Belgian city of Liège, Willy Demeyer (PS), banned a protest march against the construction of a Turkish mega-mosque in the city.
Muslims want to build the largest mosque in Wallonia (the French-speaking region of Belgium) on an 11,000 m² (118,000 ft²) plot. The project consists of a main building with a capacity for 1,000 worshippers, a library, a cafeteria and several shops.
Plans to build two 30 meter (98 foot) minarets were scrapped after opposition from local residents. The new plan involves one 18 meter (60 foot) minaret which will be automatically illuminated during calls to prayer.
In April, more than 200 Belgian police carried out dozens of raids and arrested six Islamists—including Fouad Belkacem (alias Abu Imran), the pugnacious ringleader of a Belgian Salafist group called Sharia4Belgium—suspected of recruiting foreign fighters for the war in Syria.
Fouad Belkacem (alias Abu Imran), the leader of Belgian Salafist group Sharia4Belgium. (Image source: MEMRI TV)
The raids were conducted in the northern port city of Antwerp and in Vilvoorde, which is situated about 20 kilometers north of Brussels, home to most of the young Belgians who are known to have departed for Syria.
According to the public prosecutor's office, the objective of the police operation was two-fold: to deter other volunteer jihadists from departing for Syria, and to determine whether a group known as Sharia4Belgium "is a terrorist group," belonging to which is an offense that carries a 10-year jail term.
The public prosecutor's office said one of those arrested was Belkacem, a well-known Antwerp-based Islamist who is the main spokesman for Sharia4Belgium, and who has long called for turning Belgium into an Islamic state.
Although Belkacem had previously been sentenced to two years in prison in February 2012 for incitement to hatred and violence towards non-Muslims, he was released from prison in February 2013 and allowed to serve the rest of his sentence at home, provided he wore an ankle-strap monitor and promised not to speak with his followers. His re-arrest implies that he violated the terms of his release.
Belgian prosecutor Eric Van Der Sypt told a news conference that "the investigation shows that Sharia4Belgium is part of a broad international jihadist movement," accused of providing ideological and martial arts training, organizing violent activities in Belgium and recruiting Islamist fighters for conflicts abroad. Van Der Sypt said Belgian authorities were aware of 33 people with links to Sharia4Belgium who were either fighting with, or on their way to fight with, al-Qaeda-inspired jihadists in Syria.
According to Stanny De Vlieger, the director of the federal judicial police in Antwerp, "The investigation shows that members of Sharia4Belgium have joined Salafi jihadists inspired by al-Qaeda and they appear to have participated in combat and even in the kidnapping and execution of those they call 'infidels.'"
Also in April, a new survey of Muslim youth in Flanders, the Dutch-speaking northern half of Belgium, found that only 30% of Muslim males between the ages of 15 and 25 feel as though they are accepted by Flemish society. This figure drops to 25% for Muslim females in the same age group.
The survey, published by the daily newspaper Gazet van Antwerpen on April 19, shows that 60% of Muslim youths believe that they will never be integrated into Belgian society. One in three of those surveyed say that he or she has been discriminated against at school, and one in five say they have been discriminated against at work. More than 50% say they have been victims of racism. Although 93% of those surveyed have Belgian citizenship, 42% of them say they consider themselves to be foreigners.
The results were virtually unchanged from a similar survey conducted in 2005, and imply that years of government efforts to make Belgium more multicultural have done nothing to change the minds of Muslim youths.
According to the Flemish Minister for integration, Geert Bourgeois, Muslim youths should work harder and complain less. "That so many young people feel discriminated against and do not feel accepted means that our society still has a lot of work to do. It's actually an 'us-them' story. We as a society can and should still make an extra effort, but conversely, Muslim youth should do more as well. Perhaps an inverted research shows that we just think that young Muslims do not belong because they do not want to belong," Bourgeois said.
In May, the Dutch newspaper Trouw reported that a part of the Schilderswijk district of The Hague has become an Islamic enclave run by fundmentalist Muslims who are forcing Muslims and non-Muslims to comply with Sharia law on the street.
The enclave -- which is known as the Sharia Triangle and also "the point of the sword" -- is home to an estimated 5,000 Muslims who have established a "mini-caliphate" run according to Sharia law. Muslims in the enclave have banned the smoking of cigarettes, the use of alcohol and the sale or consumption of pork on the streets. Muslims have ordered Dutch police out of the neighborhood because the local residents "can solve their problems themselves."
Trouw asked the municipality of The Hague for a response, but could not get a "careful and substantive response" regarding this "complex issue."
Also in May, an opinion poll published by NCRV public television and radio found that nearly three-quarters (73%) of Dutch Muslims believe that Muslims who travel to participate in jihad in Syria are heroes. Most Muslims (75%) surveyed believe that those who want to leave for Syria should be free to do so and do not want them to be arrested and prosecuted. Upon their return, they should be accepted back into Dutch society and their Dutch passports should not be revoked.
In June, the Ibn Ghaldoun Muslim High School in Rotterdam was involved in the biggest exam fraud in Dutch history. At least 27 types of exams were stolen from the school's safe, and then copied and sold, sometimes to students in other towns and cities for between €20 ($27) and €250 ($340).
The investigation began when a French exam was posted online, apparently by a whistleblower trying to demonstrate how easy it was to get hold of advance copies.
Students who saw the advance copies were given an ultimatum to admit their role in the fraud and retake their exams, or face having their diplomas cancelled if they were caught out by the inquiry. Although 26 pupils came forward, Deputy Minister of Education Sander Dekker said he believed more students were involved and called it "very regrettable" that more had not taken up the offer. Police eventually investigated 58 suspects.
In July, Dutch police arrested a 19-year-old Muslim woman who goes by the name Oum Usama ("Mother of Osama") for recruiting Dutch Muslims for the civil war in Syria. Usama, a Dutch national of Somali origin, was arrested in Zoetermeer, a city in western Holland.
The arrest came after complaints by several parents of Dutch Muslims who have traveled to Syria. The arrest led to protests by Muslims outside of Dutch embassies in several European countries. The website "The True Religion" ["De Ware Religie"] published a letter warning of potential retribution for the arrest, including the abduction of Dutch citizens in Muslim countries.
Public prosecutors have said that while authorities cannot stop would-be fighters from leaving the country, they can combat recruitment, which is against the law and carries a sentence of up to four years in jail or a fine of €78,000 ($106,000). Nevertheless, such cases are difficult to prove and there have been no successful prosecutions of Muslims on recruitment charges to date.
Oum Usama was freed after ten days and eventually surfaced in Syria under the name Oum Usama al Muhajirah.
In August, the Catholic University of Leuven, the oldest university in Belgium and one that has been a major contributor to the development of Roman Catholic theology for more than 500 years, announced that it would offer a degree in Islamic theology beginning in 2014.
The decision by KU Leuven, as the university is commonly known, to focus on Islam follows similar moves by other leading universities in Europe and reflects the growing influence of Islam on the continent.
Belgian opinion-shapers cast an overwhelmingly positive light on KU Leuven's decision to teach Islamic theology, a move that has been closely coordinated with the government in Flanders, the Dutch-speaking northern part of Belgium.
But critics said such efforts to create a "European Islam" are naïve and misguided, and will serve only to contribute to the "mainstreaming" of a religious and political ideology that is intrinsically opposed to all aspects of the European way of life.
Also in August, it emerged that the government of Kuwait was paying the salaries of Muslim leaders in Amsterdam to promote Islam in the Netherlands. According to the newspaper Het Parool, the Kuwaiti Ministry of Islamic Affairs is financing operations of the Blue Mosque situated in the Sloterdijk district of Amsterdam.
According to an analysis published by the Investigative Project on Terrorism, Kuwait is tying Dutch and other European Muslims directly into the Muslim Brotherhood through a complex network of financial, non-profit and religious organizations in an effort to fund the growth of radical Islam in the West.
In September, military police at Amsterdam's Schiphol airport suspended a Muslim woman because of fears she could be a danger to national security. The woman, identified only as Sabra R, is part of a team charged with combating terrorism and crime. According to the newspaper De Telegraaf, the security services worried she could be susceptible to the influence of radical Muslims.
Military police became suspicious when the woman failed to tell the security service that one of her relatives gave a statement in relation to the Hofstad group terrorism trial in 2005. The Hofstad group was the codename the Dutch secret service AIVD gave to an Islamist terrorist organization of mostly young Dutch Muslims of mainly North African ancestry.
Also in September, the Dutch government said it would cut funding for the Ibn Ghaldoun Muslim High School in Rotterdam, driving the school into bankruptcy. The school was involved in the biggest exam fraud in Dutch history. The school has since been reopened under a new name, De Opperd.
Meanwhile, a court in Rotterdam determined that the new school cannot force parents to sign a contract in which they not only promise to commit to the Islamic character of the school, but also promise to refrain from speaking to the press. A judge said it was a violation of their right to the freedom of speech.
In October, the lawyer who lost the "hate crime" case against Geert Wilders in June 2011 said he would ask the Dutch Supreme Court to reopen the case. Wilders—the leader of the Dutch Freedom Party—was acquitted of charges of inciting religious hatred against Muslims for comments he made that were critical of Islam.
Lawyer Gerard Spong told the television program Pauw & Witteman on October 21 that he had asked the procurator general to take recourse in the interest of law, a special procedure in which the High Court in hindsight decides if a lower court has explained the law clearly and properly.
Although the ruling of the earlier case would not be affected, Spong said he wants a clear ruling on whether Wilders was guilty of discrimination and inciting hatred with an eye to future similar cases. The procurator general refused a similar request in 2012, but Spong is using a recent report by the Council of Europe to back up his latest effort. That report said the Netherlands is not doing enough to counteract racism.
Separately, Arnoud van Doorn, a former member of Wilders' Freedom Party, said he wants to establish the first Islamic political party in Europe. Van Doorn, who recently converted to Islam, said the party will focus on serving Islam and Muslims not only in the Netherlands but Europe as whole.
Van Doorn was involved in producing the 2008 documentary Fitna, which argued that Islam is prone to violence and bent on world domination. In an interview with the Saudi Gazette, van Doorn said: "I have taken a solemn pledge to work day and night in the service of Islam to atone for my previous sins. I hope that Allah will accept my repentance and forgive me."
Meanwhile, the rector of the Islamic University of Rotterdam (IUR), Ahmet Akgündüz, said he values stoning as an appropriate punishment, according to a report in the newspaper NRC Handelsblad.
The rector wrote a pamphlet about the political unrest in Turkey, calling opponents of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan "enemies of Islam." He said the demonstrations were the work of "people with a Western lifestyle" and said stoning is "one of the prescribed punishments within Islam."
Several MPs demanded clarification from Integration Minister Lodewijk Asscher. They are concerned about the statements because the IUR is recognized by the government as a training institute for imams. The parties want to know what action the minister will take against the university. "With this, you will get imams with hostile views and anti-western values," said Labor MP Keklik Yücel.
In November, the Dutch newspaper Volkskrant reported that Muslims in Belgium and Holland have set up the website Selefienederland (Netherlands Salafi) to collect thousands of euros for jihadists in Yemen. The website calls for sympathizers to contribute more money for "the Jihad against cursed Shiites."
The fundraising came to light after a 25-year-old Moroccan from Amsterdam named Ibrahim El Bey (aka Brahim Abu Hudayfal) was killed during continued fighting between Sunnis and Shias in Dammaj, a small town in northwestern Yemen. El Bey had traveled to Yemen to study Salafi doctrine at the Dar al-Hadith Institute, a Dammaj-based Koran school that has attracted hundreds of hardcore Salafists from across Europe. A 12-minute documentary about El Bey produced by NOS Public Television can be viewed here (in Dutch only).
Also in November, the newspaper Volkskrant reported on a new phenomenon called "Pop Jihad" in which a growing number of Muslim youths are idolizing the symbols of al-Qaeda, often distributing them on social media. The National Coordinator for Counterterrorism and Security (NCTV) said the popularization of jihad was a nationwide phenomenon and "extremely worrying."
Meanwhile, Dutch counter-terrorism officials said the seventh Dutch jihad warrior had been slain in Syria. Abu Jandal, a 26-year-old jihadist from Delft, a city in southern Holland, was also known by the pseudonym Abu Fidaa. He was the contact person for an interview with a group of Dutch jihadists that Volkskrant published in June.
In December, Belgian police raided the home of a Muslim hate preacher, Jean-Louis Denis, in Brussels and detained him for allegedly recruiting jihadists to go and fight in Syria. See 13-minute news report here, in French.
The 39-year-old Belgian, who converted to Islam, was involved in an organization that distributed food to poor and homeless people at Brussels North Railway Station. He reportedly approached young Muslims at the station with a view to persuading them to go and fight in Syria.
Soeren Kern is a Senior Fellow at the New York-based Gatestone Institute. He is also Senior Fellow for European Politics at the Madrid-based Grupo de Estudios Estratégicos / Strategic Studies Group. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.