Just a stone’s throw from the gleaming glass and granite offices of the European Union in Brussels is the city’s Great Mosque.
It can host 2,000 people in its prayer room, and its Friday service is live-streamed around the country. However, some lawmakers say the mosque is an Islamist hub, and indirectly to blame for the Brussels and Paris terrorist attacks.
They are urging the government to take it over and root out what they say is a poisonous religious fanaticism. As Belgium tries to balance religious freedom with national security, there are fears the row could escalate frictions between Muslims and the rest of the country.
Tamer Abou El Saod, executive director of the Islamic and Cultural Centre of Belgium (CICB), which runs the mosque, says Muslims make an easy target for politicians.
“They have no proof of anything linking here with extremism,” he says. Mr Abou El Saod denies claims that the mosque is a hotbed of Salafism, a puritanical strain of Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi school of Islam, with links to al-Qaeda and Isis.
He notes that CICB offers Arabic courses, training for imams and Koran classes for 700 children. This place has nothing to do with Salafism,” he says.
But Belgian Muslims have been responsible for a string of atrocities, notably the 2016 Brussels attacks that killed 32 people, and the 2015 attacks in Paris that killed 130.
In addition, hundreds of radicalised Belgian Muslims have gone to fight in Iraq and Syria. Deportation A parliamentary commission looking into the Brussels attacks recommended last October that the government break the 99-year, rent-free lease on the mosque, given to then-Saudi King Faisal in 1969 by Belgian King Baudouin.
Interior minister Jan Jambon has said that he intends to follow the recommendations, although he has yet to take any action. The government is also trying to deport the mosque’s top imam, Abdelhadi Sewif.
The hardline immigration minister Theo Francken says there were “very clear signals that he was a Salafist, a danger to our society and our national security”. The deportation is being challenged in the Belgian courts.
Saudi funding The CICB is run by the World Muslim League (WML), mostly funded by the Saudi government. Critics say this arrangement allows Riyadh to push an intolerant strain of Islam.
But Mr Abou El Saod insists WML is a moderate group. “The funding from the WML is really like an investment,” he says. “It’s like the way that some football clubs have outside investors.”
George Dallemagne, who was the vice-chairman of the parliamentary commission, insists the mosque’s links with extremism are clear.
“We found that it was run by Saudi Arabia, driven by Salafism and Wahhabism, and linked to terrorism,” he says. “I have no doubt that this is an extreme version of Islam.” Muslims offer prayers at the Grand Mosque in Brussels.
The story of the mosque goes back to a time when Belgium sought access to Gulf oil.
The Saudi King Faisal, visiting Brussels in 1967, was offered a deal: if he guaranteed cheap oil, he could have a mosque in the capital and hire Saudi-trained imams.
The offer came at the same time that Moroccan and Turkish workers were flooding into the country to work in the mines and steel plants.
People not religion...
But the mosque’s teachings came from a different tradition to the Islam of the immigrants.
Today, there are around 600,000 Muslims in Belgium, mainly of Moroccan and Turkish origin, but they come from a more open strain of Islam than the Saudi version. Marc de Vos from the Itinera Institute, a Brussels-based think tank, says: “In the past, there has been tolerance of extremism. That has to change. All mosques should be subject to control and transparency.
If the Muslim faith is to be part of this country, it should not be imported.” For Mr Abou El Saod, these criticisms miss the point: “Islam should not suffer from a wrong, violent or ignorant application. The evil is with people, not religion.” source