Just as night fell and the Ramadan fast was set to break last Tuesday, murder shattered Antwerp's fragile calm. A deranged white neighbor shot Mohamed Achrak, 27, as the popular young teacher stood outside his parents' home. As word spread, stunned kids on the streets of Borgerhout, an immigrant-heavy enclave of the Belgian city, summoned others on mobile phones and headed for its main drag. Soon they were smashing car windows and shopfronts, dodging tear-gas canisters and hurling stones at police. By late the next day, 160 were in jail. But it's the arrest that came last Thursday that municipal officials and police say is the important one. To hear them tell it, Dyab Abou Jahjah, an Arab leader, had been waiting for just such an incident. He swooped in to rally the young crowds and, according to police, incited them to riot.
The violence came as a shock to many in Belgium's tight-knit Muslim communities, and older and more established members quickly condemned it. But last week's events raised vital questions: Who speaks for the Muslims of Belgium? Or of France? Or Europe, for that matter? The answers, increasingly, may depend on the age of the person you are talking to. In many parts of Europe, Muslim activism appears to be undergoing a tumultuous generational shift, pitting frustrated second- or third-generation Muslim Europeans against the aging first-generation leaders who have traditionally represented them. Fed up with infighting among various ethnic and nationalist factions in the Muslim community, and spurred to action by world events, these younger Muslim Europeans are finding common cause by turning against their elders and taking matters into their own hands.
Such is the struggle between Abou Jahjah and Nordin Maloujamoum, head of the Muslim Executive in Belgium, a committee set up as a liaison with the government. Maloujamoum claims Abou Jahjah is unknown in the community--or was, until all the publicity--and that Abou Jahjah's group has only 100 members. Abou Jahjah is "an extremist," Maloujamoum told NEWSWEEK. But to hear his detractors tell it, it's Maloujamoum who is the puppet. The Muslim Executive in Belgium that Maloujamoum represents is more or less a creature of the state. The 17-member committee was created through elections in 1999, but only after Belgian authorities openly and controversially screened candidates for undesirable elements.
And there's the rub. To some, these government-sanctioned groups are filled with old-guard figureheads who seem hopelessly out of touch--and are incapable of representing their young Muslim constituents. In Belgium, Moroccan and Turkish factions seem more interested in squabbling for power than addressing grievances. (A similar effort in France has been paralyzed by fights between Algerians, Moroccans and others.) The younger Muslim generation, meanwhile, facing unemployment and despair, is seething as world events roil passions to fever pitch.
All this has created a situation ripe for unrest. And in Antwerp, as well as other European cities, that's just what's coming. Abou Jahjah, a 31-year-old Belgian of Lebanese origin, is making his bid for leadership with bold publicity stunts and radical rhetoric. He has called on the government to recognize Arabic as Belgium's fourth official language (behind French, Flemish and German). He has expressed sympathy for such radical groups as Hamas and Hizbullah and organized rowdy pro-Palestinian demonstrations. Recently his Arab European League began shadowing police with cameras and steno pads as they patrolled Antwerp's immigrant neighborhoods. "Bad Cops, the AEL is watching you," taunted pamphlets. Belgian authorities have reacted by labeling the group a private militia and are trying to ban it. In June, Antwerp's mayor lodged a complaint of racism against Abou Jahjah. In turn, Abou Jahjah has reportedly called for Antwerp, "the bastion of Zionism in Europe," to become "the mecca of pro-Palestinian action."
It would be easy to dismiss Abou Jahjah and his ilk as hotheads. But it would be a mistake to ignore the hunger for new leadership and change that underlay last week's flare-up. Says Khalid Arcob, AEL's secretary general: "The first generation may have been guests, but there is now a second, third and even fourth generation. And they are still being treated like second-class citizens." It's a sentiment playing out in leadership battles across the Continent, according to Tariq Ramadan, a Swiss author whose grandfather founded Egypt's fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood. Increasingly a new generation of leaders is demanding that their grievances be addressed. They are media-savvy and well versed in their adopted European countries' language and politics. Sooner than later, he says, this generation will take control from older Muslim moderates--and, suddenly, the agenda on Muslim politics will change. If so, perhaps it's time European governments start paying attention, before they find themselves cleaning up more glass.