During the last weekend of October, a conference in Antwerp got a lot of resonance in the Arab world. The same conference was virtually ignored in Belgium, even within the local Muslim community. "The place of Islam in the new Europe" was the title of the conference which was widely reported on Al Jazeera (see video below this article) and the Moroccan newspaper Le Matin. In Belgium, only Gazet van Antwerpen published a short article on the local pages in three of its six regional editions. Make no mistake: this was a conference to promote multiculturalism en mutual understanding between the Islamic world and Europe. The conference was organized by the Institute for Moroccan and Mediterranean Studies of the University of Antwerp, abbreviated as "IMaMs".
The conference was announced as a big event, but its course was chaotic. Jacques Attali was announced as the keynote speaker, but he didn't come. The program and the panelists were very different from what was announced in the invitation, and a complete schedule was distributed on paper only halfway through the conference. What should have been a conference on an academic level, turned out to be an event with very few high-level scholars and with very few references to scientific studies, statistics or serious references.
REFERENCE TO NAZI SCIENTIST
Already at the opening session, the first blunder was heard, even though most of the audience never noticed it. Speaker Muhammad Bensalah highlighted the contribution of Islam to European civilization, and suggested that few Western scholars fully recognized the Islamic contribution without covering it up. He named three: the American John Esposito, the German Sigrid Hunke and the Belgian George Sarton. Now, Sigrid Hunke was an employee of the scientific department of the SS under the Nazi regime, where she was researching racial psychology. In that position she came in contact with the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem who openly advocated the extermination of the Jews. In her book "Allahs Sonne über dem Abendland" ("Allah's sun over the Occident") she asserted that the roots of European civilization were not Christian, but are a mix of Islamic, pagan-Celtic and Germanic elements. She illustrates this argument with now discredited theories like the sea map of Piri Reis allegedly used by Columbus, and the fact that in German and Dutch one does not say "twenty three" but "three twenty" (Dreiundzwanzig, drieëntwintig), because in Arabic, one reads from right to left.
RANTING AGAINST ISRAEL, INDIVIDUALISM AND THE HEADSCARF BAN
During the panel discussions, more than once some members of the audience started lengthy invectives against Israel. The moderators did not intervene to stop or shorten these rantings. Antwerp alderman Robert Voorhamme intervened firmly, stating that it was improper to import the conflict in the Middle East into our countries and into this conference.
It may surprise some that a conference that had the ambition to enhance the mutual understanding between Islam and Europe had invited people like Yacob Mahi, who literally states that "liberalism is the murderer of human freedom". Or imam Yussef Ibrams of Geneva, a member of the European Council of the Fatwa, who claimed in 2004 that "stoning, although not necessary in Switzerland, may absolutely not be brought in disrepute".
It became clear that, behind the scenes, some were pushing the conference towards a condemnation of the headscarf ban, when moderator Abdelhay Ben Abdellah started asking all the town councilors for their position on the ban. This Ben Abdellah is president of the "Expertise Center for Islamic Cultures in Flanders", which receives 200,000 euros of public funds each year, but whose functioning is unclear at present, lacking any reports or results.
THE DECLARATION OF ANTWERP, ONLY IN ARABIC
Hence, the colloquium was an easy prey to apologists of fundamentalism, particularly in the final statement, called the "Declaration of Antwerp". This concluding text was hijacked by fundamentalists, arguing that the headscarf ban and a ban on the building of minarets should be out of the question. The "Declaration of Antwerp" was read aloud in Arabic, with simultaneous but approximate translation in French and Dutch. Immediately after the final words, some participants - all representatives of secular groups - dared to protest openly, stating that the declaration in its current form was never agreed upon, certainly not by them, and that it had been infiltrated by fundamentalists. Somewhat bedazzled, the organizers acknowledged that the text was only a proposal and that comments could always be sent by e-mail after the conference.
The full text of the Declaration of Antwerp can be found on the Internet only in Arabic, while Google Translate gives a raw translation in English. The rejections of the headscarf ban and minaret ban can be found in article 9, packed in the obligatory woolly language and references to resolutions of the Council of Europe. Article 3 rejects "islamophobia", a concept which is used more and more frequently to muzzle and demonize criticism of failed integration and religious fundamentalism. Article 13 is similarly insidious, pleading that Islamic institutions should get an effective role as "involved parties" and not merely as advisors in the drafting of import decisions and legislation regarding the role of Islam in Europe and the diagnosis of anomalies.