For over a year now an online petition to stop the construction of a mosque with a 600-person capacity attached to the new Qatari embassy in Brussels has been circulating through countless email chains and blogposts. The comments accompanying the signatures voice a wide range of concerns: fears of being invaded, straightforward Islamophobia, and a general unease about foreign funded religious movements flowing to Belgium. Some, however, targeted Qatar directly, and especially the country’s efforts at land grabbing in the European capital.
About two years ago, the Qataris bought a Normandy-style villa at 79 Avenue Franklyn Roosevelt, which they demolished and replaced with a “massive dome structure” that locals feared would be turned into a mosque. The majestic building will host the new Qatari embassy, it has been announced; yet most cannot set aside the initial impression that the building projects all too visibly Qatar’s ambitions and “quest for power” over Muslim communities in Europe.
Brussels is contended as a privileged political arena among wealthy Gulf countries. A few hundred meters away from the EU’s headquarters, the Grand Mosque of Brussels and its cultural center became “the largest and most influential mosque in the capital of the European Union.” The mosque opened its doors in 1978, thanks to conspicuous funding from Saudi King Faisal and his successor Khaled. This case leaves no room for ambiguous interpretations: the Great Mosque has always been considered indicative of King Faisal’s “decisive influence on both the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic world more broadly.”
The ultimate objective of funding mosques around the world - maintains Kerem Oktem, a professor at the University of Graz interviewed by The Economist - is “claiming new territory.” It is, in fact, primarily a matter of status and power, especially amongst the traditional patrons of Wahhabism. Saudi Arabia has devoted over $70 billion to the cause of exporting Salafism/Wahhabism all over the world since the late 1970s. Now Qatar, is striving to find its own way to gain symbolic and material prominence not only in the capital of Europe but also worldwide.
The Gulf monarchy has been particularly efficient in France, benefiting from the fragilities of an economically weakened country. Unsurprisingly, Qatar mostly invests in mosques managed by the Union des Organisations Islamiques de France (UOIF), an umbrella organization including and representing about 250 Muslim organizations on French soil, most of them renowned for their solid ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. This was the case for both the Assalam mosque in Nantes – Qatar paid most of the €4.4 for its construction – and in Mulhouse – for which Qatar Charity disbursed €2 million. The country donated about $1 million to build a mega mosque in Cork, a town that hosts the second biggest Muslim community in the Ireland. It appeared as the main and most promising investor in the ambitious project of the mega mosque and its attached Islamic institute in Munich, Germany, and in June 2015 Qatar Charity proudly announced its contribution – 75% of the final amount, estimated at $2.2 million – to the establishment of the first Islamic center in Luxembourg.
Since King Faisal started to commission “great mosques in many countries from Belgium to Pakistan to help spread the faith as practiced in the Kingdom,” the effects have slowly become visible. “More temperate or muted versions of Islam were smothered by Wahhabi petrodollars,” writes A.D. Kendall on Moneyjihad. From the cultural center attached to the Great Mosque in Brussels, for instance, clerics have been encouraged for the past three decades to “shift to fundamentalist Salafist teachings.” Saudi funds have swept away Pakistan’s longstanding tradition of moderate Sufi Islam and turned the country into a modern stronghold of the most conservative imported Wahhabism.
More generally, Ardavan Amir-Aslani and Mohamed Chérif Ferjani claim that the almost constant flow of funding has proved effective in consolidating allegiances and in shaping geopolitical changes both within and between countries. Through mosques and schools, Wahhabi patrons secured effective channels of indoctrination and propaganda – even recruitment if need be - as well as a privileged cover for potential illicit financial transactions. What is different about Qatar, argues Noaoufel Brahimi el-Mili, a professor at Science Po Paris reflecting on France, is that Qatar is deliberately acting through UOIF to respond to and influence a primordial need of the French Muslim communities, namely that of the reaffirmation of their religious identity in a secular environment.
According to the 2014 Report for Religious Freedom published by UNHCR, the city administration in Brussels continues to withhold approval for the construction of new mosques and Islamic centers. The report confirms that the construction of a mosque began in Liege and another project is in progress in Malmedy, but lack of support by the regional government and public opposition led organizers for a mosque in Namur to abandon the construction project and suspend a project in Charleroi pending approval.
This would not be the first case in which public opposition halted the project for the mosque on Avenue Franklyn Roosevelt. What is new is the determined official stance of the Belgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who refused to approve the funding that the Qatari government made available for the project and stressed that “it would be paradoxical and against nature to accept funding coming from a country that does not allow religious freedom.”
The decision of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is not isolated. In February 2015, the Austrian Parliament adopted legislation that prohibited Muslim organizations from accepting foreign sources of funding, a measure that France has been considering as well. Shortly after the November 13 terrorist attack in Paris, Iceland’s President took a stance against a donation of a $1 million from Saudi Arabia. Germany’s Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel warned Saudi Arabia against further financing mosques which become centers for radicalization of the Muslim population, and in general against funding religious radicals worldwide.
Besides starting to tackle the problem at its roots by contesting or banning foreign funding, European authorities are evaluating strategies to contain and counter radical Islam being spread in mosques. The Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel threatened to close “certain radical mosques” in the Molenbeek neighborhood of Brussels for security reasons after the Paris attack. Several French mosques were closed down, and French senior imam Hassan El Alaoui told Al Jazeera that "according to official figures and our discussions with the interior ministry, between 100 and 160 more mosques will be closed because they are run illegally without proper licenses, they preach hatred, or use takfiri speech."
Marseille’s Muslim leaders taught us a lesson: they refused Qatar, Algeria, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia’s offers to fund the construction of a great mosque in town because they are unwilling to relinquish control to Salafists and radical sponsors.There is no simple way to address the problem of foreign funding directed to strengthen specific religious or political actors in line with the funders’ political agenda, but it is certainly time for authorities to weigh in. Military contracts and political alliances with the sponsors of Wahhabism, Qatar and Saudi Arabia in primis, should not prevent domestic measures to contain the spread of radicalism from being implemented.