For the first time ever, King Albert II did not refer to Muslims in his national address as “immigrants” 

By Hadi Yahmid, IOL Correspondent

BRUSSELS, July 26 (IslamOnline.net) – Belgian King Albert II issued Friday, July 25, a royal decree, recognizing the executive body of Belgium’s Muslim Council, ending four years of controversy and problems that marred the election of the council’s first executive body in 1998.

“Some 45,000 Belgian Muslims — out of 70,000 enfranchised Muslims — went to the polls to elect 68 members to the country’s first Muslim council which in turn elected 17 members to its executive body,” Mohammad Boulif told IslamOnline.net.

“But the Belgian ministry of justice excluded half of the council’s elected members after reservations on some of them and extreme precautions to exclude others under the pretext of close links with ‘Islamists,'” he added.

In doing so, Boulif continued, the council’s 17-member executive body no longer represents the country’s different Muslim communities and is now rejected by the majority of Muslims in Belgium.

“The Belgian government – as part of its unreasonable precautionary measures – appointed inexperienced members to the executive body, forcing us to go back to the council to replace it and appoint another body representative of the Muslim community in Belgium.

“But the ministry of justice paid no heed to our decision and kept contacts with the first body,” Boulif said.

“The council, however, succeeded in striking a deal with the Belgian government on April 25, to recognize the new body, but the recognition has been held in abeyance and deemed unconstitutional till it was approved by the king.”

Boulif said the new body, which he chairs, will be in office until May 31, 2004, when one-third of the council’s members will be elected for a five-year term before the council holds new general elections in 2009.

Combating Discrimination 

On the new body’s agenda, Boulif said that it would primarily focus on combating discrimination against Muslims in schools and workplaces.

“Half of the Moroccan community who accounts for 225,000 people, for instance, does not enjoy the full rights of the Belgian citizenship which they hold,” he said.

Boulif further said that Muslims in Belgium have problems in practicing their religion.

“A school headmaster in Brussels decided not to allow Muslim girls wearing hijab to join September classes, denying around 180 girls of their right of education,” he stressed.

“Resorting to the Belgian litigation would do justice to those girls, because we live in a secular country that respects religious rituals and traditions.”

Asked whether or not the Belgian government might pass a law banning hijab in schools as the French government is trying to do, Boulif said it is somehow difficult, given that France’s secularism is more extreme than Belgium’s despite close similarities between the cultures of the two countries.

“Belgian schools and institutes operate according to their own bylaws which provides for a margin of freedom and I do not expect a heated debate on the issue of hijab like the one reported in France,” he asserted.

Boulif said the executive body will also ask the government for funding mosques and giving Imams monthly salaries and accommodations as it does with churches and synagogues.

In his annual speech to mark the country’s national day, observed July 21, King Albert II underlined the importance of tolerance and equality.

The monarch, for the first time, did not use the word “immigrants” in his speech and spoke about the multi-culture Belgium.

Belgium has a Muslim population of 450,000, including 120,000 Turks, 30,000 Albanians and others from Palestine, Algeria, Tunisia and Bosnia.

There are 300 mosques in Belgium, the oldest of them is the Islamic center in Brussels, which dates back to 1968.

Islam was recognized in Belgium in 1974 but only in 1998 the Muslim community was represented by a general council.