‘Cowards and cynics’: Belgium’s leading Muslim feminist speaks on antisemitism, anti-Zionism

Antisemitism has become a taboo subject in Belgium, and not only among the country’s Muslim population, Muslim feminist Fadila Maaroufi says.

By Ben Cohen, The Algemeiner

When Fadila Maaroufi was 17, her parents took her from her home in Belgium to Morocco, where they told her she would enjoy a well-deserved “rest.” But once she arrived, she quickly found herself locked up in the home of a distant cousin with whom her father had set up an arranged marriage.

Her cousin’s lack of a stable income meant that their wedding was called off. However, during the three months when Maaroufi was a virtual prisoner in the man’s home, she found sustenance in a novel first published in 1954 that spoke to her predicament.

One afternoon in the provincial city of Nador in the north-east of Morocco, while accompanying a female relative on a shopping trip to the local market, Maaroufi spied a bookstore and sneaked inside. There, she found a novel — “The Simple Past” by the Moroccan author Driss Chraïbi, which tells the story of a son’s revolt against his devout, domineering and violent father, who is nicknamed “Lord,” against the background of post-colonial Morocco.

Maaroufi bought the paperback, took it home and hid it in her bedroom.”I used to read one page a day, to keep my spirits up,” she said in a recent telephone interview. “I can say that this book saved me. It described what I was experiencing. What I was refusing and resisting was a way of being free for me.” It was, in fact, the beginning of a personal odyssey that was to lead to a rupture with her family over their clashing values, and her emergence as the leading Muslim feminist in Belgium challenging the influence of Islamists over her community.

‘Growing up was very hard’

When the betrothal in Morocco collapsed, Maaroufi headed back to Belgium with her parents. A few months later, she announced that she was embracing her lesbian sexuality, causing her parents to fret that their daughter was possessed by a Satanic force. Older and therefore more assertive, she left the family home and set up on her own.

Now in her 40s, Maaroufi has established a reputation in Belgium as a steadfast secularist through her work as an academic anthropologist, a social worker and activist, tracing and warning against the presence of Islamist extremism in the country’s deprived inner city neighborhoods. In 2022, her work was recognized with the award of the Anne-Marie Lizin – Théroigne de Méricourt Prize, named in honor of one of the French Revolution’s most outspoken women, and given to female scholars and activists who have distinguished themselves in the battle for gender equality and against gender-based violence.

Maaroufi’s work has honed in on the most delicate issues among Belgium’s Muslim communities — the imposition of the hijab, or veil, on women, hostility to liberal democratic values and the prevalence of crude, dehumanizing antisemitism. Many Muslim women, she insisted, were afraid to speak out, anxious not to be seen as disloyal.

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“This is a consequence of the strategy of victimization of the Islamists, who constantly hammer home that they are victims of racism, that they are excluded because they are good Muslims,” Maaroufi wrote in an opinion piece for the Belgian daily La Libre.

Maaroufi was born in 1976 in the Brussels suburb of Anderlecht to a father who was a stonemason and a mother who was a housewife. “Growing up was very hard,” she said. Her grandparents, who immigrated to Belgium from Morocco, were not Arabs, but from the North African country’s Berber minority. “At home, we spoke a lot of French and a little Berber, especially with my grandparents,” she remembered. “My parents were born in Belgium, where they met. They didn’t have an arranged marriage; that first generation was less conservative than the generations that followed subsequently.”

Maaroufi recalled that her childhood was largely undisturbed by the imperatives of radical Islam, living with parents who developed a taste for Israeli pop music after the Jewish state’s entry won the Eurovision song contest in 1978. As she got older, however, the atmosphere started to change, eventually transforming her parents’ attitudes and putting them at loggerheads with their young daughter.

“In our family, my father didn’t take me or my four brothers to the mosque, but many of my friends would go every week,” she said. At a time when the Saudi-backed, puritanical Wahhabi and Salafi ideologies were actively penetrating Europe’s Muslim communities, barbs against Jews closely followed. Her parents were among those who fell in line with the new mood, she said.

“It was from my friends who went to the mosque that I first heard the insult ‘dirty Jew’,” Maaroufi said. “I didn’t really know what it meant, so I asked my grandmother. She had lived among Jews back in Morocco and she told me this was a very bad insult. But some of my uncles and cousins were clearly antisemitic, and they would make anti-Jewish remarks.”

During the 1980s and 90s, Maaroufi explained, funding from several Arab countries led to a dramatic expansion of Islamic institutions in Belgium, where Muslim communities constitute approximately five percent of the total population. “Mosques were opened one after the other,” she said. Those who attended the newly opened mosques began influencing the broader swathe of the community, resulting in a profusion of radical ideology over the next decade.

Maaroufi’s mother and brothers soon fell under the sway of Salafi radicalism. Many older immigrants were unable to read, a fact which played into the hands of the Islamists, she explained.

“In the mosques they would tell the young people, ‘you know the real Islam, you have to explain to your parents who have not learned the real Islam because they are illiterate,’ which was true for many,” she said. “My father knew how to read and had read the Qu’ran and formed his own opinions, but he was fighting between a desire to be open and the pressure to remain in a conservative mindset.”

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It was while she was at school that Maaroufi started to encounter the steady drumbeat of Islamist antisemitism, along with its anti-Zionist echo, that built to a crescendo with the Al Qaeda terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, DC, at the turn of the millennium. At school, she remembered a history teacher who implored her classmates to “look at what the Jews are doing to your Palestinian brothers” during a lesson on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“I didn’t feel a connection, and I didn’t understand why we should consider them as ‘brothers,’” Maaroufi said. She described the ordeal faced by her one Jewish classmate — a boy named David from a Moroccan Jewish family — who ended up leaving the school because of the intensity of the antisemitic harassment he faced. In later years, she continued, she often thought of David’s plight when hearing the words “dirty Jew” from the young Muslims she spent more than a decade liaising with as a social worker.

“The police would say, ‘it’s not antisemitic, it’s just an expression,’” she remembered. “It’s the banalization of antisemitism.”

‘So you’re a dirty Jew?’

Determined to obtain a close-up view of how Islamist ideology was impacting Muslim neighborhoods in Brussels, Maaroufi retrained as a social worker and inserted herself into a group of women in the Belgian capital who were affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, a Sunni Islamist organization that claims the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas among its acolytes.

“There were many educated young women who started to change their behavior slowly,” she recalled. “They embraced a discourse targeting Jews, western culture and the LGBTQ community.” During the 1990s, the Islamist hold was bolstered by the arrival from Algeria of supporters of the banned Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) seeking political asylum. “They were training and influencing young people in Brussels,” Maaroufi said. “There were also people who went to Afghanistan and Pakistan with Al-Qaeda.”

One incident from 2004 sticks in her mind. The occasion was a lunchtime during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, when the faithful fast between dawn and dusk. Maaroufi, at the time working at a community center in Brussels, was eating a sandwich at her desk when three boys aged between eight and ten walked in.

“They immediately asked me why I wasn’t observing Ramadan when I am a Moroccan,” Maaroufi said. “I told them that I was Belgian, not Moroccan, to which they replied, ‘but your name is Fadila Maaroufi!’ I answered, ‘and your names are Mohamed, Rédouane and Karim, and you are Belgian like me.’”

One of the boys asked her, “So you’re a dirty Jew, then?” Maaroufi asked if any of them had ever met a Jew — they hadn’t.

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Pushed out of social work because of her stances, Maaroufi embarked on the next stage of her career, studying for a PhD in anthropology and launching an observatory to monitor religious extremism.

In tandem with her development as a professional activist, Maaroufi decided to take a public stand against antisemitism — a dangerous move for a Muslim woman living openly with no security. Predictably, her social media feed began to fill up with insults and threats of injury or death, while her mother, with whom she’d had scant contact, got back in touch to exhort her daughter against the path she had taken, texting her links to online videos that warned of the hell awaiting her.

‘People are scared to hire me’

In May 2021, as Israel confronted Hamas in an 11-day conflict that sparked antisemitic demonstrations across Europe and around the world, Maaroufi attended a solidarity rally with Israel outside the Jewish state’s embassy in Brussels. “When I arrived, many people recognized me, and I was handed an Israeli flag,” she recalled. As far as the Islamists are concerned, she added, “when a Muslim touches an Israeli flag and doesn’t spit on it, that person may as well go straight to hell.”

Maaroufi’s appearance in public brandishing the enemy’s national symbol generated a firestorm of anger on social media. Her Facebook feed alone hosted more than 2,700 incendiary responses.

Two years on, Maaroufi feels no impulse to pull back on her activities. As well as her observatory, she runs a civic institution called Café Laïque — the French word for “secular” — where feminist activists and others can gather to debate and strategize over coffee. “Ever since I started publicly defending Jews and Israel, it’s been hard for me to get a job,” Maaroufi disclosed. “People are scared to hire me.”

Moreover, “antisemitism has become a taboo subject in Belgium, and Café Laïque is the only space where it is possible to talk about Muslim antisemitism,” she emphasized.

Maaroufi is now working on a book about her experiences, directed in large part at a political left that has, in her view, abdicated its historic commitment to secularism, “sweeping away what challenges their vision of the world, these models of all colors,” and which is willing to label as “racist” any criticism of extremist trends among Belgian Muslims, even when they come from individuals like her.

“To silence us, nothing is easier than to try to intimidate us by calling us ‘fascist,’” she observed. “Or to make us feel guilty by accusing us of ‘playing the game of the extreme right.’ It is always in the name of a noble cause that lies are justified, terror is perpetuated and life is sacrificed.”