Indonesian Syarif Abdullah Alqadrie has lived in the Belgian capital for 30 years and is the main caretaker of the Great Mosque of Brussels, Belgium’s largest mosque and the city’s oldest.
It lies in the heart of Brussels within a few blocks of the Schuman Roundabout – named after Robert Schuman, one of the founding fathers of the European Union, which is headquartered here.
Brussels has grown into a culturally and ethnically diverse city in the 65 years since the Frenchman helped foster postwar European unity and a lasting peace between France and Germany.
Along with the city’s growth, the Muslim population has swelled and become part of its fabric, as reflected in the Great Mosque. It occupies a corner of one of Brussels’ most famous parks.
The mosque also houses the Islamic Cultural Center of Belgium (ICCB), where the Indonesian, who hails from Pontianak, West Kalimantan, works as one of its administrators.
“The mosque can accommodate 4,000 to 5,000 congregation members. Its attendance is fullest on major Muslim holidays, especially during Ramadhan,” Syarif told reporters, including a BenarNews correspondent, during an interview at his office.
“Sometimes we have to accommodate some of them in the park,” he said, referring to the surrounding Parc du Cinquantenaire.
Looks like a mosque
According to the ICCB’s website, the mosque was established after 1967 when King Baudouin of Belgium gave his Saudi counterpart, King Faisal, a building in the park to house a mosque and an Islamic center.
The Great Mosque of Brussels was inaugurated in 1978.
It lives up to its name, Syarif said, because it stands out from other mosques that now dot Brussels and other Belgian towns.
“Those mosques look more like houses. This is the only one that has the appearance of a mosque.”
Syarif (pictured below) is one of 20 employees at the ICCB, and is in charge of the mosque and center’s administration, which is funded by the Muslim World League.
Before moving to Brussels, he studied and worked for more than 10 years in Saudi Arabia.
Islam spreads local roots
According to Syarif, the Belgian government officially recognizes Islam as a religion and subsidizes imams and 1,200 instructors who are certified to teach about the religion at public schools nationwide.
Imams certified by the government must be accredited by the ICCB, he said.
Islam is one of Belgium’s fastest-growing religions.
According to the Washington-based Pew Research Center, by the year 2030 Belgium will have the second largest Muslim population in Western Europe next to France, and will represent 10.2 percent of Belgium’s population.
In 2010, the Muslim population in Belgium stood around 638,000, or 6 percent of the overall population, Pew estimates show.
In the Brussels area alone, Muslims now represent around a quarter of its population, according to various sources.
Not allowed here
The mosque is a peaceful place and is known for espousing moderate Islam. But last month’s Islamic State-claimed attacks in Paris that killed 130 people disturbed the calm that resonates within the mosque’s walls, Syarif acknowledged.
Residents of Brussels were especially perturbed when word came out that it was the hometown of two Muslim brothers of Moroccan heritage, who were implicated in the coordinated terrorist strike in the French capital.
“The Muslim community here regrets what happened … because it tarnishes the image of Islam,” Syarif said, adding that he couldn’t recall whether the brothers had ever set foot inside the Great Mosque.
The brothers, Salah Abdeslam and Ibrahim Abdeslam, who blew himself up in a suicide attack in Paris, hailed from Molenbeek-Saint-Jean, a commune in Brussels with a large concentration of Muslims.
On Nov. 26, 13 days after the Paris attacks, news reports broke about a possible anthrax threat that was mailed to the Great Mosque.
Belgium authorities found 10 envelopes that contained white powder, but they determined it was flour.
Molenbeek has a high unemployment rate. According to the Brussels Institute for Statistics and Analysis, in 2013 the jobless rate in Molenbeek was 28.6 percent among men and 33.1 percent among women.
Syarif acknowledged that radical imams of Syrian origin, who preach at mosques in Molenbeek, had influenced some of the unemployed and uneducated youths.
“We don’t allow such imams to give sermons here,” he said.
“Through sermons and Friday sermons, we called on the young Muslims here not to be influenced by the radical movement,” Syarif added.
Calls for unity
Since the Nov. 13 attacks, other leaders of Belgium’s Muslim community have spread a similarly positive message.
Before Friday prayers a week afterward, the imam at another large mosque in Brussels, read out a statement from the Molenbeek-based Islamic Mutual Aid League. It called for social unity amid fears and tension caused by the attacks.
“We need to work together to open spaces for dialogue and self-reflection in order to prevent this kind of tragedy from happening again,” Mustafa Kastit, the imam at the Al Khalil Mosque in Molenbeek, said as he read the statement.
Separately, Mohammed Tojgani, president of the League of Imams in Belgium, reaffirmed its commitment to upholding mutual respect and social cohesion across the country.
“We appeal to our citizens, regardless of their faith or philosophy, to exercise the utmost vigilance and to condemn these acts without stigmatizing or complicating it to a particular community,” Tojgani said in a statement.