Despite the personal sensitivity of her story, Yusra did not hesitate to answer when asked if she would like to see it published. She immediately said, “Yes, certainly. We want the world to know that what the Islamic State (IS) is doing thousands of kilometres away from us has become a story that aggravates our daily lives.”
This effect has exceeded all limits. Yusra was walking with her sister, Amal, in a big amusement park in Belgium. The cheers and clamour did not prevent the hurtful comments from reaching the two young women’s ears. The comments were hurtful with premeditation: “Look, a terrorist,” one said to his companions.
The trauma left by repeatedly hearing those words made the holiday miserable for the two girls. Yusra started crying, while her sister consoled her even though she was the one targeted. “Do not be sad,” said Amal. “This is not a personal comment, because these people do not know me. If they knew me, they would not have said that.”
Yusra, 22, is in her senior year at university, studying Arabic and Arab culture. The two young women were born in Europe to a Muslim family of Moroccan descent, but each lives her faith her own way. Yusra does not even wear a veil, while Amal does not leave home without the khimar, which covers everything except the face.
What this family is living through is unprecedented. “What was before IS is not like what is after it,” said Yusra, noting that “after the uproar caused by this group, my sister has been getting comments accusing her of terrorism. In the past, people used to only stare at her.”
Yusra gave some details of her and her sister’s story in front of her colleagues in the university’s translation class. Most of them are children of Muslim immigrant families. When their teacher asked them if they were following Middle East events, IS became the undisputed protagonist of the story. One student said, “We now have to always explain why these faraway lunatics are committing these crimes.”
Concerned institutions assert that the phenomenon is haunting Muslim communities in Europe. This was also detected by the European Network Against Racism. In an interview with As-Safir, chairman Michael Brifu said that European Muslims “are now feeling a lot of social pressure to explain what is happening. This pressure follows them to work and school, and to every social environment they are in.”
These consequences are related to what is being called “Islamophobia.” Muslim associations in Europe have monitored an increased frequency of attacks on Muslims, especially women. The attacks range from insults to the forceful removal of the veil in some cases. Hundreds of cases have been recorded in Britain, especially after IS broadcast videos showing the execution of Western hostages.
The issue, however, is no longer solely confined to reactions to these types of horrific scenes. Now there is fear of a direct threat. In the subway of the Belgian capital, a young Muslim man was loudly reciting verses from the Quran. That, along with his white, “Afghan” clothing, scared those sitting behind him. One passenger wanted to get off the subway before reaching her station. She asked, in a trembling voice, “What if he was saying those things before he carries out a suicide attack?” The young man, however, left quietly. That was his nature, which one cannot say does not draw attention and cause panic in light of the prevailing charged atmosphere.
The increased fear has become more noticeable after the continued talk about jihadist threats to Westerners. Given Belgium’s population (11 million), a larger proportion of jihadists (more than 300) have come from there. The clamour reached its peak after last week’s start of the biggest trial for Western jihadists in the city of Antwerp. Forty-six people face the prospect of imprisonment for up to 15 years for their involvement in the fighting in Syria or for recruitment.
After what Mehdi Nemmouche did, the fears are no longer just an illusion. This jihadist, who had returned from Syria, went to the centre of Brussels, parked his car, walked into the Jewish Museum and gunned down four people with his rifle.
After the international coalition’s war on IS, the danger has increased, not only due to the potential for attacks by returning jihadists, but also from IS sympathizers. Security measures were thus tightening, especially at the headquarters of the European Commission, which was the target of attacks that were recently thwarted by security services.
Because of this atmosphere, Belgian society has started reacting in an unprecedented way. A few days ago, news spread that a Belgian school had cancelled an exploratory trip to Brussels — an annual event that students awaited. This elementary school, in Hasselt, north Belgium, has been sending 12th-grade students to Brussels to acquaint them with European institutions and the capital’s landmarks.
Belgian media published a message from the school principal, Philip Kuipers, titled “No Trip to Our Capital this Year.” He justified the trip cancellation by saying, “Why should we take the kids there? Every day, we read about the terrorist threats to those places. In addition, Belgium sent F-16 planes to Iraq. If we cannot fully ensure the security of our children in Brussels, the matter is easy: we will not go.”
In a further indication that the matter has gone beyond Islamophobia, the Not in Our Name campaign has been launched. Thousands of Muslims from around the world, including those in European cities, have recorded video clips condemning IS crimes, stressing that the religion of Islam has nothing to do with them.
Some complain about the fact that Muslim communities in the West are having to provide explanations — as if they were suspects — whenever something like that happens. However, some say that these campaigns are necessary. Izz al-Din al-Zir, an imam in the city of Florence and president of the Federation of Islamic Associations in Italy, said in an interview with As-Safir, “When we see that non-Muslims are living under chaos and horror, then we have a duty, as partners in citizenship, to show them our position. It is not easy for a person to be scared. Therefore, we explain to them that these crimes are against our religion’s principles and are being committed by a few criminals who should be dealt with by the justice system, as it is the case for other crimes.”
The Italian imam participated in a conference organized by the Italian Ethnic Understanding foundation to assert the importance of the fight against extremism. Experts as well as Muslim and Jewish religious officials participated in the conference.
For his part, the director of the European Network Against Racism told those present at the discussion table that “all this is elite talk that has no real impact.” He is convinced that the way European governments are behaving “will not solve the problems of extremism, jihadists or others.”
When the jihadist problem surfaced, European governments resorted, as part of their quick solution, to clerics and influential figures in Muslim communities to spread anti-extremist propaganda. Michael Brifu sees that the solution lies in “involving Muslim communities in decision-making through permanent mechanisms regulated by the state, which has the authority and the responsibility.”
In his opinion, all these problems are the result of the continued “exclusion of Muslim communities in Europe.” Brifu asserted that IS has exploited that, and that it “addresses young Muslims in European ghettos by telling them: Your place is not there, but with [IS].”
On the ground, one can monitor the deterioration of “ghettos” in a city like Brussels. Some Muslim-dominated neighborhoods like Molenbeek have been stereotyped as aggressive and extremist. Young men loitering on the neighborhood’s sidewalks continue to “ban” the press, for example. TV cameras, including Arab correspondents, rarely enter the neighborhood without being harassed. Belgian reporters have given up on covering these neighborhoods. When these young men were asked about their motives, they said, “Because the [media] come only to find something that distorts the image of Islam.” This happens even though most neighborhood residents have no problem with the media. Some residents are unable to prevent the expulsion of TV reporters even after inviting them and promising to be their guide.
Facing that, “phobias” are spreading like wildfire in every direction. It is not just about religion; it can also be triggered by seeing someone reading a book in Arabic or when meeting someone who has an Arabic name.
In this context, the official in charge of the European Network to Combat Extremism stresses that “hateful discourse must be confronted because it is an incubator for hate crimes and leads to [crimes] being committed.”
Since general solutions are missing, Amal is desperately searching for personal solutions to reduce the tax she is paying. Her sister said that she noticed a link between the number of insults and the colour of the khimar. “When Amal wears a black khimar, she gets more hurtful comments than when she wears a blue or green one.”
Because she fears that her sister will get hurt, Yusra said that she would not let her sister go out alone, because when she is accompanied by a non-veiled young woman, Amal “will look natural, and an attack becomes less likely.” The Muslim girl is distressed at this situation. “Amal refuses to describe a woman who wears the khimar as a terrorist, just as she refuses to describe a woman who wears a short skirt as a prostitute.”