Saudi Arabia decided to cut ties with the largest mosque in Belgium in order to distance itself from any support of extremist Islam.
The Saudi kingdom agreed to give up control of the Grand Mosque at the behest of the Belgian government, which expressed concern that the mosque’s teachings were radicalizing Belgium’s Muslim immigrant population, according to Daily Mail. The agreement is part of a larger effort on Saudi Arabia’s part to change the perception that the country is a global source of a terroristic brand of Islam known broadly as Salafism, according to Reuters.
Saudi Arabia had controlled the mosque since 1969, appointing its Imams, in exchange for cheaper oil for Belgium. The Belgian government’s concern over the mosque has grown since learning that the Islamic terrorist attacks that killed 130 people in Paris in 2015 and 32 people in Brussels in 2016 were planned by radical Muslims in Brussels. Belgian security agency OCAD/OCAM also said in a classified report from 2016 that the Wahhabi school of Islam that the mosque’s imams preached was radicalizing Muslim youths, according to Reuters. Wahhabism is the specific branch of Salafism that Osama bin Laden followed.
“The mosque has influence to spread this hateful ‘software,'” an unnamed Belgian security official told Reuters. “Nobody paid attention for decades.”
The mosque’s imams claim that nothing they preach leads to violence, but the Belgian government remains unconvinced. Belgian immigration minister Theo Francken attempted unsuccessfully in October 2017 to deport Abdelhadi Sewif, the Grand Mosque’s Egyptian imam who has served their for 13 years.
“Everybody knows there is a problem with the Grand Mosque in Brussels. I decided to withdraw the residency permit of the imam of this mosque,” Francken said at the time, according to The Japan Times. “We have had very clear signals he is a man who is very radicalized, Salafist, very conservative and dangerous for our society and national security.”
A judge overturned the decision, but the Belgian government’s concerns over the mosque remained.
Saudi Arabia’s recent acceptance of Belgium’s request to relinquish control of the mosque in order to encourage mosque leadership that preaches branches of Islam more friendly to Europe is part of a wider Saudi initiative to cut ties with all foreign mosques and leaders that are seen to espouse radical Islam. The initiative falls in line with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s promise to return Saudi Arabia to moderate Islam and to transform the country’s economy. Belgian officials saw Salman’s push for moderate Islam as a “window of opportunity” to make demands of Saudi Arabia relative to religious issues without disrupting commerce.
Saudi Arabia took control of the Mosque in 1969, in an agreement with the Belgian government that they would lease the mosque rent free for 99 years. Saudi Arabia built the mosque out of an abandoned Oriental pavilion left over from the Great Exhibition of 1880. The mosque originally served the needs of workers from Morocco who arrived in Belgium to work in the coal industry. The Islamic State has found many recruits among the descendants of that initial migrant wave, as evidenced by Belgium having more citizens per capita join ISIS in Syria than any other country in the European Union.
Belgian officials believe that the cause, in part, is the radical teaching of the imams of the Grand Mosque.
The Belgian and Saudi governments are still finalizing the details of the mosque’s handover, but the final plan will be announced later in February, according to Reuters. Belgian officials suggest control of the mosque should pass from the Mecca-based and Saudi funded Muslim World League to the Moroccan linked Muslim Executive of Belgium.
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