Olivier Servais thought he did well during a recent interview on local television about his survey on religion in Wallonia, the French-speaking part of Belgium, and Brussels, the capital. Then his phone started ringing. Journalists from around the world had seen the interview and wanted to hear more about his prediction that Muslims, mostly of Moroccan and Turkish descent, would be a majority in Brussels in 20 years. But this is not what Prof Servais, a 36-year-old specialist in the anthropology of religion at the Catholic University of Louvain, south of the capital in Wallonia, had intended.
"I told them that what I had meant on television was that if certain trends continued, in demographic and other ways, then in some districts of Brussels, Islam could be the first religion in 20 years. I did not say that Muslims would be the largest group in terms of numbers. I meant they could be more active Muslims than active Catholics, Protestants and Jews in a district. That is completely different," he said.
"But the media want a story that says, 'Wow! A majority of Muslims! Terrible! Shocking!'" Prof Servais laughed at this naivety. "The media take a little problem and make it a big one. Islam here is gentle. Ninety-nine per cent of Muslims in Belgium are integrated and are good citizens. Yes, Muslims, rich as well as poor, can be targeted by the militants. But my survey was about religion in society, not militant Islam."
The research, paid for by a French newspaper, took three years to collate. "We showed that religion is becoming more individual. We are quitting the institutional model." Some faiths, such as Catholicism, were finding it hard to adapt to this, he said, because they were "hierarchical and based around a priesthood". But "horizontal" religions, based on a person's direct access to God, or Allah, were booming. "Sunni Islam is not hierarchical and it is growing in these conditions. Shia Islam has a clergy and is not."
There are other reasons, he said, to explain why Muslims in Belgium were turning to Islam: pride in heritage had become fashionable and religion offered meaning to the lives of the poor and unemployed, which many Muslims are. "Religion is a link to their point of origin. Muslim people are not the richest in society and religion gives sense to their life. A Muslim who becomes prosperous tends to downgrade religion."
Wandering around Molenbeek, half an hour from the famous Grand Place in the centre of Brussels, the professor's belief that Muslims are happy and integrated, despite higher than average unemployment rates, seems justified. Today, Molenbeek, an industrial area that had become crime-ridden after its factories closed, is bustling with cafes, boutiques, patisseries, supermarkets and bookshops. Most are owned by Moroccans, who dominate Molenbeek. It is on its way to becoming chic, like the Left Bank in Paris.
Over the years, Belgium has had fewer problems than other European countries with substantial Muslim communities, such as France. It is a tolerant country, especially in the Flemish north, where a generous welfare system ensures a reasonable standard of living for those at the bottom. Despite Prof Servais's claim that Belgium is an exercise in peaceful integration, there are undercurrents of discrimination and prejudice. Unemployment, low wages, poor housing - the fate of many Muslims throughout Europe - are driving some young Muslims into religious extremism. There is also friction between Muslims from North Africa, particularly Moroccans, and Turks.
Latifa Ait-Baala, 42, came to Europe from Morocco as a child and has lived in France and Switzerland as well as Belgium. She is a multilingual adviser to politicians in parliament in Brussels. She is a practising Muslim but never wears a veil, a decision she said was partly driven by choice and partly by common sense. "If you wear a veil you would never get a job in Belgium. That is a fact. Discrimination is everywhere."
Muslims in Belgium, she said, were turning to religion because they felt rejected. "The first generation of Muslims came from Morocco, Tunisia, Turkey, to work in the factories and the mines. The second and third generation, who were born here, cannot get jobs. They become religious because it gives them an identity. There is 40 per cent unemployment among young Muslims in Brussels. Among native Belgians it is 20 per cent."
Freedom of speech, enshrined in the country's constitution, fuelled extremism, she said. Governments in North Africa and Turkey did not tolerate dangerous radicalism from imams. But Belgium did. There are an estimated 500,000 Muslims in Belgium, five per cent of the total population of 10.3 million. Most are Sunnis. The largest group, around 264,000, are Moroccans; Turks number about 160,000. Together they make up 88 per cent of the Muslim population. The rest come from other countries in North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Just over half are naturalised Belgian citizens. Around 40 per cent hold passports from their native countries.
They began to arrive in Belgium in the 1960s, to provide cheap labour in industries such as mining and construction. In 1974, Belgium decided it could do without immigrants, but by then, society had changed fundamentally. The Muslims did not return home, as everyone had assumed they would, and, thanks to liberal laws, were often joined by relatives. The French speakers from North Africa congregated in the industrial cities of Wallonia, such as Charleroi, and the Francophone capital, Brussels; the Turks preferred the cities of the Flemish-speaking north, especially Antwerp and Ghent. In 1974, Islam was recognised by the government and it qualified for state support. In 2006, Brussels spent US$7.7 million (Dh28.3m) on Islam, paying for mosques, imams, teachers and community centres. Today there are an estimated 330 mosques and 600 imams, although most decline state aid, either because they do not want to be audited by bureaucrats or because they object on principle to help from a secular government.
A recent report from UMAP, the EU Monitoring and Advocacy Programme that monitors human rights in the EU, noted: "The first generation of Muslims in Belgium isolated itself in mosques and ethnic cafes. The second generation are better educated and with better linguistic skills. They have a different conception of Islam from their fathers. They organise pilgrimages to Mecca. They open Islamic book shops. They organise and broadcast."
But the same report said Muslims underachieved because of discrimination and "socioeconomic failings". Bluntly, native Belgians thought Muslims were suited only to unskilled, badly paid jobs. In a postindustrial economy, where heavy manufacturing and mining no longer existed, Muslims had to make do with service sector jobs, such as serving in shops or hotels, or live on welfare. Some, particularly Turks, whose culture favours entrepreneurship, set up in business. In Brussels today, the small shops that are open long after Belgian-run shops have closed are run by Muslims.
In Wallonia, unemployment among Muslims is six times the national average; in Flanders and Brussels it is double. Muslims say this is because Walloons are more prejudiced than Flems but it is likely that the more prosperous north also offers more opportunities for work, albeit mostly low grade. Many young Muslims leave school with no or few qualifications. The few who do must overcome entrenched discrimination if they want careers.
Poverty is the familiar trap that many immigrants fall into throughout Europe. Turks, who must learn French or Flemish, struggle at school; so do many North Africans despite speaking French. Most Muslims live in shabby conditions in inner cities. Their health is worse than Belgians' because of poor housing, nutrition, tough work and stress. And while Muslims in Belgium are well represented in the national legislature - with two senators and five members in the House of Representatives - there are no Muslim organisations fighting for civil rights and opposing discrimination.