Jakarta/Brussels – Syarif Abdullah Alqadrie was driving to work when a bomb went off at Zaventem airport last month. By the time the Indonesian arrived at the Great Mosque of Brussels, where he is an administrator, a second bomb exploded at the Maelbeek metro station.
Both the metro station and the Schuman Roundabout, home to the European Union headquarters, are just within one kilometer from Belgium’s largest mosque, which also houses the Islamic and Cultural Center of Belgium (ICCB) on the corner of Parc du Cinquantenaire, the city’s most famous park.
“There were many policemen around the Islamic center. Our office was then closed at 1 pm and we had to walk home because all metro stations and the streets were closed,” Syarif told The Parrot through text messages a couple of days after the attacks.
Despite the lockdown and increased security, Syarif said the mosque remained open, although members of the congregation feared the suicide bomb attacks carried out by Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants would strengthen anti-Muslim sentiment in the kingdom, which has one of the largest Muslim communities in Europe.
The March 22 bomb attacks, the deadliest ever to hit Belgium, killed 35 and injured more than 300 people from various nationalities including Indonesian.
Syarif hails from Pontianak in West Kalimantan and he has been living in Brussels for 30 years. He’s married to a Belgian woman and they have three adult children, one son and two daughters.
“Thank God our family was all right. But we were all very sad,” he said.
Syarif worked and studied for more than 10 years in Saudi Arabia before moving to Brussels. He works as an administrator for the mosque and the Islamic center, which has 20 employees and is funded by the Muslim World League.
The mosque was established after King Baudoiun from Belgium gave his Saudi counterpart King Faisal in 1967 a building in the park to house a mosque and an Islamic center. The Belgian king witnessed the mosque’s inauguration by Saudi Arabia’s King Khalid in 1978. Syarif said the mosque can accommodate 4,000 to 5,000 congregation members and its attendance would peak during major Muslim holidays, especially during Ramadan, that they sometimes have to be accommodated in the park.
The mosque is one of Belgium’s 150 mosques and the oldest in Brussels. Syarif said every year the ICCB receive many visitors who want to convert to Islam. It welcomed nearly 1,650 converts, or mualaf, between 2013 and 2015.
“They became mualaf because they learned about Islam, but there were some of them who converted because of friendship and marriage,” Syarif said when The Parrot and a fellow Indonesian journalist interviewed him in his office in Brussels.
According to Syarif, the Belgian government spends 3 million euros every year to pay salaries of imams who are certified by the government to deliver sermons and accredited by the ICCB. Islam is an officially recognised religion in Belgium and the government has more than 1,000 instructors on its payroll who teach Islamic courses in public schools.
“There are now 250 official imams and some of them are of Belgian origins. The government doesn’t want to have [uncertified] foreign imams,” he said, acknowledging that there were imams from Syria who came and deliver sermons in the city’s Muslim enclaves and they are believed to have spread radicalization to marginalized, young Muslim men.
About 25 percent of Brussels’ roughly one million people are Muslim and Pew Research Center data estimated that the Muslim population of mainly North African origins made up 6% of the population in Belgium. According to strategic security firm The Soufan Group’s 2015 report on foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq, the country has one the highest numbers of foreign fighters for extremists groups per capita. The report showed that there were 470 Belgians who became foreign fighters as of October 2015 and 118 of them are thought to have returned.
An information officer at NATO headquarters told Asian journalists who visited the headquarters that it would continue to fight terrorism with the understanding that “terrorists would never prevail in an open society.”
He said that threats posed by ISIS or terrorists could only be addressed properly through a comprehensive approach, which includes security, state actors, and international organizations, taking into accounts the economic and cultural aspects.
“This is the sort of challenge that we will have to face for several years,” he said.