Felice Dassetto explains what is behind the end of a 40-year deal between Belgium and Riyadh

Last update: 2022-04-22 09:54:32

The history of Brussels’ Great Mosque begins in 1969, when a deal was signed between the Belgian Ministry of Public Works and the Islamic and Cultural Center of Belgium, linked to the World Muslim League, an institution created by Saudi Arabia.


The agreement included the “concession” for 99 years of the Eastern Pavilion, a structure built for the 1897 Expo in the Cinquantenaire park. The prestigious building was converted into a mosque and Islamic center, at a time in which Belgium on one hand was expanding its commercial relations with the Gulf, and on the other was becoming aware of the need to integrate the new community of Muslim immigrants in its cities.


Thus, began the era of Saudi influence on Belgian Islam, under strict scrutiny in recent years, especially after the 2016 attacks in Brussels. Now, the federal government decided to accept the recommendations of a Parliamentary Committee established after the terrorist attacks, which indicated the Grande Mosquée as a place of radicalization and advised to cancel the agreement with Riyadh.


Saudi Arabia has now one year to leave the Cinquantenaire park. However, according to Felice Dassetto, professor emeritus at the Catholic University of Leuven, this does not necessarily mean that the kingdom and its brand of Wahhabi Islam will leave Belgium, despite the rise, with Mohammed bin Salman, of a new guard which promises reforms also in the religious field.



How and why did the agreement on the Brussels mosque between Saudi Arabia and Belgium come to an end?

“Following the March 2016 terrorist attacks, a Parliamentary Committee was established here in Belgium, which concluded its work in September. In its report, it stigmatizes the Islamic center of Brussels, the Great Mosque, as the indirect promoter of jihadism; the Committee also noted that nine registered jihadists attended a course at the mosque. And it recommends the end of the long-term lease of the construction converted into a mosque, a building just 500 meters from the European institutions’ headquarters. I have always said, the agreement had to end.

In November, a senior delegation of Belgian experts – members of counter-terrorism and officials from the Foreign Ministry – met in Riyadh with representatives of the Muslim World League, the institution behind the Brussels mosque. In the ’60s and ’70s, under the Saudi ruler Faisal, the League favored the expansion of a Salafist and Wahhabi Islam, propagating it also in the countries where Muslims emigrated to.”


Is this at the origin of the end of the agreement?

“The Belgian delegation also met with officials from the Saudi Ministry of Religious Affairs, in order to officially discuss what the Parliamentary Committee stigmatized regarding the Great Mosque in Brussels, the issues emerged during the inquiry, and the shortcomings of the center.”


What kind of issues?

“According to the Parliamentary Committee, the Islamic center is at the origin of intolerance towards other faiths but also towards Muslim belonging to other schools of thought. The delegation that traveled to Riyadh was composed of highly qualified figures, Arabic speakers able to deal directly with the officials of the Muslim World League and the Ministry of Religious Affairs. The official version is that this was enough to trigger a reaction from Saudi Arabia.”


What happened next?

"Between January 15 and 16, Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reinders and Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir met. The Saudis would agree, as reported later by the Belgian diplomat, to engage Belgian Muslim local communities in the life of the mosque. These episodes -- between November and January -- coincided with the rise in Riyadh of the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the king’s son, who has pushed for greater social openings, nurturing the hope for change in Saudi Arabia. Putting all these elements together, the end of the agreement on the Brussels building was interpreted as a victory for Belgium: ‘The Saudis are leaving.’ There are still doubts about the credibility of this turn in Saudi Arabia. Riyadh is leaving the Brussels mosque, but not Belgium. The kingdom will not abandon its areae of influence, which is that of propagation of a certain type of Islam.”


What will the Islamic center become? Who will replace Saudi Arabia in the administration?

“The Executive of the Muslims of Belgium is the direct interlocutor of the Ministry of Justice, which manages the financing of cults. However, the organism is weak and not very representative.”


You said you have been in favor of ending the 1969 agreement for years. Why?

“Twenty years ago, nobody had yet understood the religious geopolitic role of Wahhabi Salafism. When Belgium leased the building to Saudi Arabia, what went into the decision-making process was not only the prospect of trade agreements, but also the government’s awareness of the need to integrate the first Muslim presence, totally new, arrived in Belgium at the end of the 1950s. The teachings of the Islamic center in question, however, went precisely against this Belgian will of integration.”



“If you teach that wives must stay home and must not work, where is the possibility of integration? If you teach that women have to wear the veil, those women will probably have more difficulty finding work. If the theories of creationism are taught at the expenses of those on evolutionism, it will be difficult for children to integrate in school. If one teaches that Islam is the only absolute truth and that other religions are mystification, one creates utter polemic with others. And so it was in the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s. Something changed after 9/11. There has been some kind of moderation process, the same that – as the French scholar Stéphane Lacroix explained – Saudi Arabia tried to foster within its borders in the 2000s”.


Today the Crown Prince Bin Salman talks about reforming Islam in Saudi Arabia. Can the turning point on the Brussels mosque be linked to a new strategy towards European Islam?

“We need to understand if there will actually be a new path. Apart from women who will be able to drive in June and can already go to football matches, and the opening up of new entertainment options, it is necessary to evaluate what the substance of the reforms will be. And also how long Mohammed bin Salman will last, given that in the equation there is room also for dynastic and court politics. What will come out of the theological faculties, from the leadership of the religious establishment? For now, nothing has been seen yet on that front.”


In Belgium, has the fate of the Great Mosque triggered a strong public debate?

“Belgians are saturated with issues concerning Islam. After the terrorist attacks, which were a major trauma, Belgians and even ordinary Muslims no longer want to hear about these issues. The discussion will start when it will be necessary to choose a substitute to Saudi Arabia, because no agreement will be reached among the Muslims of Belgium.”


The Muslim community in Belgium is therefore divided. How?

“There are at least two major divisions: that among national groups, mainly between Turks and Moroccans; and that within the vast Moroccan community, between the elderly linked to the current religious establishment and new leaderships: Salafis, political Islam and young people, or those who think it is urgent to build something new in terms of social, cultural and religious vision. The old guard has the power over mosques and associations, and has control over Belgian state funding (which supports recognized mosques, their imams and teachers of Islamic religion in public schools). Young people or people with new perspectives would like to act but do not have the means and their ideas are confused. They would like more space, but they cannot get it. Among young people, there are also intellectuals who have walked a path of moderation, such as Redouane Attiya, professor of Arabic at the University of Liege: he studied in Saudi Arabia and today is among the bravest leaders in criticizing Salafi Islam’s inability to reform.”  


Turkey, Morocco, Saudi Arabia: do you foresee a fight among foreign governments over the control of the mosque in Brussels?

“It is possible, but Morocco is the only country that wants to get involved. It is actually the Muslims of Belgium who are holding the fate of the Islamic center, and it will be within the Belgian community that tensions will arise."


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Oasis International Foundation