• Islam in Belgium


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    The main waves of immigrants from Muslim countries began in the early 1960s when migration agreements were signed with Morocco and Turkey and then at the end of the 1960s with Algeria and Tunisia. In contrast with the Netherlands, Belgium had no relations with the Muslim world during the colonial period. In 1974 Belgium imposed strict conditions on the entry of foreign labor but remained one of the most liberal countries in Europe for family reunion policy.

    Reliable demographic data on Belgian Muslims are difficult to find. The government no longer conducts a national census, and even when it existed, no questions were asked about religious affiliation.1)

    The number of Muslims in Belgium is estimated to be between 320,000 to 450,0002-about 4% percent of the total population of the country. As in the other countries of the EU the Muslim population in Belgium is very young. Almost 35 percent of the Turks and Moroccans, the largest Muslim groups in the country, are below 18 years old, compared with 18 percent of the native Belgians. As a result of the age and spatial distribution, very high proportions of the youth in certain areas are Muslim. One quarter of Brusselians under 20 years are of ‘Muslim origin’, and in 2002 in the region of Brussels the most popular names given to babies were Mohammed and Sarah.3

    Statistical data from 2003 showed a heavy concentration of Moroccans (125,000) and Turks (70,000) with smaller numbers from Algeria (8,500), Tunisia (4,000), Bosnia-Herzegovina, Pakistan, Lebanon, Iran, Syria and Egypt. According to Marechal, 113,842 people from the ‘Muslim countries’ had acquired Belgium citizenship between 1985 and 1997.

    Between 2003 and 2007, estimates show that these populations have almost doubled.

    In 2007, sociologist Jan Hertogen published statistics indicating that Moroccans (264,974) had replaced Italians (262,120) as the largest immigrant group in Belgium as of January 1, 2004. Turks are in third place with 159,336 people.4 Hertogen’s methodology has been criticized by the Belgian Center for Equal Opportunities and Opposition to Racism, headed by Jozef De Witte, for being too simplistic, leading to distorted results.

    According to a study brought by the Center for Equal Opportunities and Opposition to Racism, on January 1st, 2005 there were 279,180 Italians and 242,802 Moroccans. The Center agrees with Hertogen’s claim that Moroccans will eventually be the largest immigrant group.5

    The Muslim population is most concentrated in Brussels (20% of the total population)6 with most other Muslims living in the industrial areas of the French-speaking south. The Brussels conurbation is home for more than 50 percent of the Moroccans. They can be also found in Antwerp, Liege, Hainaut, in the region of Charleroi and in Limburg. Half of the Turks have settled in Flanders, especially Antwerp, Ghent and Limburg. They live also in certain districts of Brussels (ex. Schaerbeek, Saint-Josse) and in the Walloon area of Belgium in the region of Hainaut and Liege (Bousetta 2003:8).

    Labor Market

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    Although there are no statistics for Muslim employment levels, according to the OECD, the foreign-born have unemployment rates more than twice that of indigenous Belgians.

    Systemic discrimination arose as the primary concern of Belgian Muslims during a 2005 dialogue hosted by US Ambassador to Belgium Tom Korologos and Ambassador Claude Mission, the Director General of the Royal Institute for International Relations. Scholars and activists alike reported cases where Muslims with law degrees remained unemployed for years and job and apartment applications were rejected based on Muslim names.7

    Employment discrimination affects primarily the North African communities (including both immigrant and first-generation). Muslims of Turkish and other national origins appear to be far less frequently the targets of such prejudice, indicating that discrimination may be more ethnic than religious.8


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    ALARM (Action pour le logement accessible aux réfugiés à Molenbeek) ran a survey on housing showing substantial bias against asylum seekers in searching for housing. 40% of North Africans reported being victims of housing discrimination.9


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    The OECD collects data on education from various statistical agencies within the country, the majority of which comes from census data from the year 2000. The OECD classifies educational achievement using the International Standard Classification of Education (ISCED): ISCED 0/1/2: Less than upper secondary; ISCED 3/4: Upper secondary and post-secondary non-tertiary; ISCED 5A: “Academic” tertiary; ISCED 5B: “Vocational” tertiary; ISCED 6: Advanced research programs. 0-2 are considered low, 3-4 as medium, and 5 and above are considered high. This data is not reported by religion, but does have country of origin as reported by the respondent. It is thus possible to construct an approximate picture of the educational achievement of the population in the country with ancestry from predominately Muslim countries. One significant problem is that some countries, such as India and Nigeria, have large Muslim populations but the immigrant population cannot be readily classified as predominately Muslim or non-Muslim. As such, the educational data is split by predominately Muslim origin, predominately non-Muslim origin, and a separate category for those whom classification would not seem justified. Proportions are for all reported data, individuals with no reported ancestry or education are excluded.

    Educational Achievement using the International Standard Classification of Education (ISCED)
      High Medium Low
    Muslim 12 % 23% 65%
    Non-Muslim 23% 30% 47%
    Indeterminate 43% 31% 26%

    State and Church

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    Although there is religious freedom in Belgium, the state formally recognizes seven religions; Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, Judaism, Anglicanism, Islam, and Orthodox Christianity. Secular humanist groups serve as a seventh recognized “religion” and their organizing body, the Central Council of Non-Religious Philosophical Communities of Belgium, receives funds and benefits similar to those of the six other recognized religions.

    Recognized religions provide teachers at government expense for religious instruction in schools. The state pays the salaries, retirement, for clergy and subsidizes the construction and renovation of church buildings. Positions of clerics are allocated by royal decree, but there are no training requirements. Although there are exceptions, in general the state has tried to ensure that new imams come from the Belgian population. In Flanders, foreign clergy are required to take part in the Inburgeringstrajet, a state integration curriculum.

    Subsidies are received at the federal, regional and municipal levels. The ecclesiastical administrations of recognized religions have legal rights and obligations, and the municipality in which they are located must pay any debts that they incur. According to an independent academic review, government at all levels spent $523 million (23 billion Belgian francs) on subsidies for recognized religions in 2000 (3.5 percent of this funds went to Muslims). For many years Muslims did not receive their share of these funds because there was no representative institution to negotiate with the state. In part due to this problem, Belgium facilitated the creation of an Islamic organization intended to represent the needs and interests of the Muslim population in Belgium. In 2001, the Muslim Executive Council applied for the first time for subsidies and in 2002, the government recognized 75 mosques and began paying salaries to imams assigned to these mosques (Religious Freedom Report 2002). However, conflicts between the Muslim Executive and the state have led to problems distributing the money for mosques and imams (US State Dept., 2004). Although Islam became a state-recognized religion in 1974, Muslim institutions have gone largely unfunded by the state because of such conflicts.

    Since 2004, there have been a series of shifts in Muslim relations with the state. There was an overhaul of leadership in the Muslim Executive Council, largely at the urging of government officials who were suspicious of radical tendencies of the Council’s former leaders. The government pledged that once a new Council and Executive were formed, funding to clergy and teachers would begin (Dept. of State, 2006).

    In January 2005, the administration of the Flemish region mandated that mosques would be required to meet certain conditions for public funding. Outside of rituals conducted in the Arabic language, Dutch should be used, there must be tolerance for women and homosexuals and no preaching of extremist ideas. This applies only to Islam.

    In the fall of the same year, two important infrastructural reforms occurred: first, decrees were issued by the Flemish regional parliament (September) and the Walloon regional government (October) elucidated the process for recognition of mosques and local religious communities. The Flemish decree clarified this process for all recognized religions (U.S. Dept. of State, 2004). The second change came in the form of an overhaul of the Muslim Executive (Controversy surrounding this election is described in the Muslim Organization section below).

    In November 2006, the Belgian government announced plans to open an Imam school by the close of the 2006-2007 academic year.10 The Muslim Executive Council was a driving force behind the conception of the mosque; the Council has requested that a mufti preside at the school to interpret and implement Shar’ia (Islamic law). The mufti would also be capable of issuing fatwas (religious rulings), but will not be granted this right because this would conflict with Belgium’s judicial system. A similar school already exists in France. The Imam school would be subsidized by the state.

    The school’s formulation came at a time when disagreements between the Muslim Executive Council and the government posed a significant obstacle to the allocation of state funding to Muslim schools and religious organizations. Experts on religious organizations and the state have pointed to “a lack of transparency and fairness” in regard to state subsidies of religious groups.11 Due to discontent related to the allocation of state resources, the government, as of November 2006, was contemplating a reorganization of subsidies for religious groups.

    As of November 2006, the government was also considering legislation to control the foreign financing of mosques in Belgium to reduce “outside ideological influence” of Belgium’s Muslim institutions.12

    Over the summer of 2007, the Muslim community’s institutional relationship with the state experience was significantly improved. On June 24, 2007, Belgian officials announced their plans to officially recognize 43 mosques in French-speaking Wallonia, and promised that other regions were to follow (including Dutch-speaking Flanders in the North, and the bilingual Brussels region). Mosque recognition by the state was one of the most significant barriers standing between mosques and state subsidies. Of the 43 Wallonian mosques, 26 are Turkish. This recognition is an important step toward the provision to Muslim religious leaders of monthly wages and housing costs by the government. Officials anticipated that eight additional mosques in Flanders were to be recognized by the end of the year. Interior Minister of the Wallon region, Philippe Courard, expressed disappointment that such recognition and the funding that will follow had taken 33 years for the state to grant.13

    In March 2007, the French-speaking regional government began funding a program organized by the Catholic University of Louvain-la-Neuve on Imam and Islamic Formation.14 This program is a response to the interests of the Executive Board and by the public authorities. The Executive Board has long been advocating for a new academic institute of global scope since 2006. The public authorities want to make attendance at the institute mandatory, and aim for curricular stress on the subject of pluralism and democracy.

    Muslims in Politics

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    Since 2003, Belgium has seen four election cycles, two federal cycles in 2003 (May 18) and 2007 (June10), and two municipal and provincial elections in 2004 (June 13) and 2006 (October 8). Information on the prominence and success of Muslim candidates is available for the two federal elections.

    After the elections of 2003, six Muslims served in the national parliament; Fauzaya Talhaoui, Dalila Douifi, Nahima Lanjri, Fatma Pehlivan, Meryem Kacar and Talbia Belhouari. As of 2003 Said El Khadraoui serves in the European Parliament.

    Two Islamist parties ran in the Brussels constituency in the May 2003 elections, NOOR and the PCP (Parti Citoyenneté et Prospérité) (Stephen Roth Institute). The PCP obtained over 8,000 votes which gave the party a good chance of winning a seat in the next regional elections. The party suffered, however, after its founder, Jean-François Bastin, (alias Abdullah Abu Abdulaziz), resigned as Party leader. Bastin claimed that his resignation was unrelated to the accusation of the involvement of his son (Muhammed el Amin Bastin) in the terrorist attacks in Turkey in November 2003. 15 A third Party, Resist, was a coalition of the leftist Maoist PTB/PVDA and the Arab European League; they won 10,059 votes in the May 2003 election (Stephen Roth Institute) and were relatively unsuccessful.

    The 2007 federal elections revealed the growing political representation of Turkish Muslims in Belgium. Out of the 160,000 Turks living in Belgium, 120,000 have Belgian citizenship. Nearly 90,000 of them voted in the Belgian 2007.16

    There were 36 Turkish candidates on the 2007 ballot; nine ran for Parliamentary seats while the rest were candidates for the federal council. A majority of these candidates were women, and younger candidates dominated the list.

    The 2007 election was also boycotted by some Muslims, although this time there was no connection to the Muslim Council. Prior to the June 10 national election, an anonymous twelve-page document entitled, “Participer aux elections” began circulating online and among the Arab Muslim community in Brussels. The document, supposedly from Salafi authors, called for a boycott on the 2007 elections since “only Allah has the authority to make absolute laws” and claimed “every Muslim who takes part in the elections is unfaithful.” The document was supposedly based off a British fatwa from an earlier UK election.17


    After the October 2006 elections in Brussels, one-fifth (21.8%) of the elected municipal councilors were of non-European origin and of this group the majority were Muslim. They were mostly Socialist candidates, reflecting the overwhelmingly Socialist orientation of non-European immigrants. The Socialist Party has significant non-European representation in several boroughs of Brussels, including Sint-Joost-ten-Node where 19 of the borough’s 27 councillors are non-European and 11 of the Socialist Party’s representatives are non-European.

    From 2000 to 2006, the percentage of Brussels voters who were either foreigners of naturalized Belgians has risen from 32% to 50%. In Antwerp, one-third of the Socialist councilors and one-third of the so-called Christian-Democrat councilors are Muslim; in Gent, that figure is one-quarter; in Vilvoorde (Flemish suburb of Brussels), the figure in one-half. 18

    Muslim Organizations

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    Although Islam has been recognized since 1974, the Muslim community has had no formal representation with the state until 1998, due to a lack of agreement between various ethnic and sectarian groups in the society on a common leadership. Discord between the Moroccan and Turkish communities is especially prominent. The state’s desire to avoid having any ‘fundamentalists’ in the assembly made the situation even more complicated. The Islamic Center of Brussels, financed by Saudi Arabia, used to play the role of interlocutor to the state.

    The Muslim Council and the Executive Committee of the Muslim Council were the representative and mediating bodies of the Muslim community until early 2008, when it was dissolved after years of unresolved controversy. Elections of the Council were first held in 1998 and council members appointed an executive board which was soon contested by the government. Government intervention threatened the legitimacy of the Executive Board in 1999 and in 2003.19 This committee was to be selected in a mostly democratic fashion to represent the ethnic and religious breakdown of Muslims in Belgium. However, the state screened candidates for ideological extremism, thereby seriously eroding the legitimacy of the council (Cesari, 2004). Candidates were also required to speak fluently the language of the region they were representing.

    Controversy surrounded the October 2, 2005 Muslim Council elections, in which seventeen members were elected to its Executive Council and a Turkish-born Muslim became chairman. New parliamentary legislation required that candidates for the Muslim Executive undergo security screening; an Antwerpian imam was excluded from consideration for membership in the Executive Council on account of this security check. Tensions also arose during the transfer of power from the old executive to the new. The outgoing executives refused to surrender their headquarters to the new leadership. State officials searched the premises and brought charges of embezzlement against two former executive chairpersons. Thought the Muslim executive has been working more closely with the government, internal tensions within the Muslim Executive Council have hindered its ability to approach the government with coherent demands.

    On July 25, 2003, the King of Belgium recognized the executive body of Belgian’s Muslim Council, putting an end to four years of controversy over the 1998 executive body. Over 45,000 Belgian Muslims out of 70,000 enfranchised voters participated in the 2003 election. Sixty-eight members were elected to the Council that in turn elected 17 members to the Executive.

    Government intervention and distinctive responses by the Muslim Council and the Turkish community have made the Muslim Council a polarizing issue. According to Mohammad Boulif, then Chairman of the executive committee, the Justice Minister excluded half of the council’s 2003 elected members under the “pretext of close links with ‘Islamists’.” This intervention has lead the leadership of the Executive Board to call for boycotts, while Turks are becoming increasingly involved in the electoral process.

    Although there were protests from the existing executive body and almost all of the Muslim organizations, the Minister of Justice Laurette Onkelinx decided to organize new elections for the general assembly on March 13, 2005. This would require the appointment of a new Executive Board, which would be subject to vetting by the State Security. In response to the Justice Minister’s decision and to recently passed legislation that gave legal validity to security checks on candidates, members of the Executive Board called for a boycott. The March 20, 2005 election for Muslim Council seats saw a relatively low turnout of only 45,000 registered voters.

    Several mosques in Brussels and the Arab European League, which represents a large ethnic North African Arab constituency, actively promoted the boycott. Turkish Muslim experienced a landslide victory, winning 40 of the 68 Council seats. Moroccans won only 20 seats, despite the fact that the majority of Muslims in Belgium are of Moroccan heritage. Six seats went to candidates from other countries, and two Belgian converts won the remaining two seats (US Dept. of State 2005).

    Young Turks were the most successful candidates and five of the new Council members were women. Hacer Duzgun was especially successful, winning 3,640 votes compared to 307 votes won by the leading Moroccan candidate from Brussels (home to the largest Muslim community in Belgium). She is now Vice President of the Executive Council with Kissi Benjelloun, a French-Moroccan.

    The Executive Council’s successive presidents have been Dr. Didier-Yacine Beyens, Nordin Maloujahmoun, Mohamed Boulif (Moroccan) and Coskun Beyazgül.

    The EMB – l’Executif des Musulmans de Belgique – was responsible for administrative managing of the Muslim worship in Belgium and was intended to play the role of a mediator between the state and Muslim communities. The establishment of a Muslim Executive was modeled after the French government’s approach. Its responsibilities ranged from providing religious education at schools and educational training for imams to appointment of Muslims chaplaincies in hospitals and prisons. The EMB has been receiving state subsidies since 2001. In 2002 the State supported the organization with 420,000 Euros, while the Catholic Church was given 350 million Euros.

    On February 23, 2008, the Justice Ministry confirmed that the Muslim Executive would be dissolved. Financial problems and complaints that the Muslim Executive did not adequately represent the diversity of the Muslim population in Belgium were cited as explanations for the decision.

    With the formation of the EMB, The Islamic Cultural Center of Belgium, which had been de facto representative of Muslims in Belgium, lost its formerly central role. Its board of trustees is chaired by the ambassador of Saudi Arabia and it is attached to the Grand Mosque of Brussels.20 The land for the Center was handed over to King Faisal in 1967 as a gift in exchange for donations he has made. The center was build with the financial support of the Muslim World League.

    The Arab European League aims to defend the civil rights of Arabs in Europe and has attracted a following of thousands of jobless, frustrated young immigrants since its creation in Antwerp in 2000.The leader Dyab Abou Jahjah, a charismatic debater with MA in international politics and fluency in 4 languages, is often portrayed by the media as Belgium’s Malcolm X. Along with a leftist party, the organization established the party ‘Resist’ to run in the elections in 2003, but was relatively unsuccessful. However, Abou Jahjah has already announced the creation of a new political party, Muslim Democratic Party. The AEL now has growing branches in France and the Netherlands. In June 2002, the Centre d’Egalité des Chances et Lutte contre le Racisme (CECLR) filed a complaint against Abou Jahjah for holding a pro-Palestine demonstration after which anti-semitic vandalism occurred (Stephen Roth Institute).

    Similar to the AEL is the MJM (Mouvement des Jeunes Musulmans) which also established a political party. The Parti de la Citoyennete et de la Prosperite did surprisingly well in the local elections in Brussels in May 2003, winning more than 8,000 votes and making it a potential contender for seats.

    Other Muslim organizations include: the ASBL Himaya; Federation of European Muslim Youth and Student Organizations (FEMYSO); Communaute des Etudiants Musulmans de Gand (MSCG); Executif des Musulmans de Belgiqueligue Arab Europeenne; Parti Citoyennete Prosperite (PCP); Jardin des Jeune; Vigilance Musulmane; and the Centre Al-Boukhari.

    Islamic Education

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    Public school students under 17 have the option of participating in either non-denominational ethics classes or classes for religious instruction (of the state’s recognized religions). For older students, these classes are voluntary. The Muslim community has the right to provide teachers at government expense for religious instruction. Since at least 1975, some students have been able to receive instruction in Islam.

    Since 1998, public school teachers are appointed by the state after recommendation of the Muslim

    Executive Council.21 The curriculum as well is developed by the MEC and then subject to approval by the state. Religious communities have the right to establish private schools that can receive state funding. Due to conflicts with the state since its inception in 1998, the MEC has been unable to channel state funding toward Islamic schooling; state subsidies for Islamic education and the training of imams fall far behind educational subsidies for Belgium’s other recognized religions.22

    In the fall of 2007, the first Islamic School in Belgium opened its doors. Situated in Molenbeek, the Avicenna Islamic school is a private institution that receives no subsidies; it is yet to be recognized by the state, meaning the school’s diplomas have no official value and graduating students must first pass a test by the public examination board to receive an officially-recognized certificate. The school is theoretically open to Muslim and non-Muslim boys and girls and the enrollment fee is 1,800 euros.

    According to De Standaard, the Islamic Platform League is the “driving force” behind the school. In its press release concerning the school’s opening, the League stated that in no way did it intend for the Avicenna School to be a “ghetto school.” Its mission is as follows: “to prepare the students for taking an active place in society, and it intends to insure equal opportunities for emancipation for all students.”23

    Some outsiders see the school as a refuge for female students who wish to wear a headscarf. Johan Leman, of the Brussels Foyer integration Centre described the school’s affiliated mosque as “Islamist…it employs a conservative interpretation of the Koran, and adopts rigid stances as far as matters of faith are concerned.” Leman suggests that the mosque’s leaders, though very conservative, are concerned with practicing Islam within the limits of democracy, adding that they are certainly not militant.24

    One parent interviewed by the internet news service Mediascrape about his decision to send his child to the Avicenna Islamic School cited his primary concern as being the poor quality of public schools in the neighborhood. 25


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    In general, Belgium’s approach toward immigration has been fairly liberal as reflected in findings by an October 2007 poll released by the EU rating Belgium third among twenty-five EU countries in helping immigrants settle in. The poll considered factors such as employment rights, anti-racism laws, and opportunities for permanent residence and family reunification.26

    Belgium also stands out for a February 2004 decision by Parliament to grant foreigners living in Belgium the right to vote in local elections, legislation that was expected to enfranchise an estimated 120,000 foreigners.27

    The most recent significant body of immigration legislation, which further liberalized the right to Belgian citizenship, came in force in 2000. Under this law, all those born in Belgium, having at least one Belgian parent, or residing in the country for at least seven years, may become citizens. This can be done by registering in the community. Those in the country for over three years must fulfill language and cultural requirements to qualify for citizenship.

    The past decade has seen a sharp decrease in the number of asylum applications and an increase in the rate of approval for asylum. From 2000 to 2007, the number of applicants has dropped from 42,691 to 11,115. Between 2006 and 2007, the number of applications dropped by almost 500, yet the number of asylum applicants approved increased over this period. The increase in acceptances in 2007 can be attributed in part to resolution of backlog from the previous year. Most asylum seekers come from Chechnya (20%), Rwanda, Iraq, Kosovo, and Congo. There has been a significant decrease in the number of asylum applicants from Congo since 2007, due largely to a campaign by the Congolese government to discourage emigration.28

    Approximately 21,000 Congolese live legally in Belgium.29

    Since 2007, immigration policy and policy discourse has become more reserved and concerned with economic issues. In October 2007, Christian Democrats and Liberals, groups normally in opposition, agreed on a tough approach to immigration, asylum, and economic migration. Under their agreement, migrants from outside the EU will be able to fill jobs only if there are not enough EU candidates. They also proposed the tightening of income, language, and time requirements as immigration criteria.

    The business community in Belgium has become a vocal advocate of opening the Belgian labor market to illegal immigrants. Citing figures of job vacancies that double those of available workers, small businesses in particular have advocated granting legal employment rights to illegal immigrants who have integrated into Belgian society.30

    A study by the Center for Equal Opportunities and Opposition to Racism prepared by the Universities of Antwerp and Leuven (2006) found that stricter immigration laws had left immigrant women from Turkey and Morocco distinctly disadvantaged and vulnerable to abuse by their partners. Compared to other immigrant groups from the former Eastern bloc and South-East Asia, Turkish and Moroccan women were the most likely to be marriage immigrants. The study found that female marriage immigrants who arrived in Belgium in 2000 were the most socio-economically disadvantaged: only one-third were employed three years later compared to higher rates of Asians and Eastern Europeans and a rate of 90% for immigrants from the Mediterranean region. The stricter immigration law makes especially women extra vulnerable to abuse by their partner. 31 The Migration Policy Institute has a comprehensive overview of Belgian immigration policy available on their website.32

    Security and Anti-Terrorism

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    Belgium’s new law on anti-terrorism took effect in December 2003 to immediate concern from lawyers and civil rights groups. The primary concern was the vague definition of terrorism, which was also commented on by the UN Human Rights Committee (Human Rights Without Frontiers, 2004).33

    It was not until October 2005 that the prosecutors first used the 2003 law to try the case of the “Asparagus 18,” the code name for the network of militants discovered over the course of a series of arrests in Belgium following the March 11, 2004 Madrid bombings.

    Below is a timeline of significant events:

    September 30, 2003: 18 men convicted for involvement in a terror cell. Nizar Trabelsi (Tunisian) was given ten years for plotting a suicide attack against the NATO air base at Kleine Brogel; Tarek Maaroufi (Tunisian) was given six years for helping provide fake Belgian passports to the men who assassinated former Northern Alliance commander Ahmed Shah Massoud. 34

    March 6, 2004: Nizar Trabelsi, Amor Sliti, Tarek Maaroufi and six other radical Islamists sentenced in September 2003 appeal their sentence. They had been convicted by the court in Brussels for preparing the attack on the American base in Kleine-Brogel (in the region of Limbourg, Belgium) and of being involved in the murder of an Afghan opposition leader in 2001.35