“A winner is a loser who doesn’t give up.” This is a piece of advice for all the disenchanted and marginalised Muslim youth in Belgium from the erudite Mohamed Ridouani, deputy mayor of Leuvan, one of the largest cities in the country.
In a country struggling to come to grips with the emergence of jihadi Islam from among Muslim Belgians who have been born and brought up in the country, and from whose ranks the terrorists who perpetrated the recent carnage came, Ridouani’s is a voice of sanity and hope.
Born to illiterate parents who emigrated to Belgium from Morocco in the early seventies, Ridouani’s rise in politics as a representative of the Flemish Socialist Party has been unparalleled.
At the age of 37, with just nine years in politics, he has set his eyes on mayorship in 2018. “The problem began with migrants who came to Belgium with the intention of going back. Belgium did not prepare for these people to stay but they did and so began a marginalisation which would eventually manifest in the kind of gratuitous violence we saw recently.”
For decades, there was no policy of integration, little attention to education or to the ghettoisation of these migrants, says Ridouani, making many of the young easy targets for preachers of hatred and divisiveness.
“Let us not forget that many of the jihadis had criminal backgrounds, they were already misfits in society.” Living in hopeless ghettos, with no future to look forward to, unaccepted by the society of their birth, young Muslims are seeking recognition and a sense of purpose through violence and jihadism.
Ridouani says the answer lies in education and greater integration. It also lies in stopping future attacks through stepping up human intelligence. “We have to infiltrate these radicalising societies to learn more about plans for terror. At the same time, we must restore a sense of self-esteem to young Muslims. We must diversify housing projects, we must bridge the distance between Muslims and others. I talk about this all the time when I visit schools of which I am in charge,” he says.
The current fear and terror could be a catharsis, he feels, a painful period from which there will be a real awakening.
The Islamic State tries to spilt people and we must not play into its hands, Ridouani asserts. “I would say that 99% of Muslims are not with IS but the majority always tends to be passive.” Moroccan Islam, for example, is very moderate. It is the Saudi variety that has led to the growth of a rigid and violent Islam, he feels.
“I had mentors, people to help me stay on the right path, parents who worked overtime to help me get an education. I want to do as much as I can for young people in Belgium, not all of whom may be Muslims.”
He is in India to promote Leuven Mindgate, an economic collaboration platform in healthcare, technology and creative sectors.