“Churches Can, Mosques Can’t”: Race, Immigration, and Islam in Belgium

Hafsa Oubou

View of the Lys river in the centre of Ghent, Belgium by Joaquim Alves Gaspar (CC BY-SA 3.0 Deed).

In July 2023, the government of the Netherlands abruptly collapsed amid a heated disagreement over migration. At the core of this debate was an attempt to limit the right of child refugees from war zones to enter the country. As of August 2023, Syrian asylum seekers and their family members represent the major nationality of refugees in the country. The Netherlands is not the only European country challenged by opposing views about migration. In fall 2018, a widespread outcry erupted in Belgium following a report published by the NGO Refugee Rights Europe (RRE) which found that 94% of undocumented migrants in Brussels slept in the streets and did not have enough food to eat. It also described the situation of hundreds of refugees living near the Gare du Nord railway station and Maximilien Park in central Brussels as “untenable.” The escalation of police violence and state hostility against refugees in Belgium has been in the news since May 2018, when Mawda Shawri, a two-year-old Iraqi Kurdish girl, was killed by a Belgian police officer who opened fire on a van transporting her parents and other migrants towards the Belgian coast in hopes they would make it to the UK. The killing of Mawda created a wave of widespread anger in the Belgian society and led to the creation of #Justice4Mawda campaign, an organic movement in Belgium protesting the criminalization of undocumented migration.

Following the report’s publication a few months after Mawda’s death in 2018, tens of thousands of volunteers in Belgium opened their homes to host displaced migrants in Brussels at night. Rising consciousness about the status of refugees led many volunteers to offer their homes as a safe place for refugees to sleep.

This act of collective solidarity was a political resistance against police brutality that has become the norm since 2010s as a response to what is often termed a “refugee crisis”. By the mid-2010s, Belgian police have increasingly carried out a series of racial profiling, violent raids, and brutal crackdowns on both undocumented migrants and asylum seekers in public parks and trains.

It was during this time that I started my ethnographic research about teaching Islam in francophone public schools in Brussels. The controversy about hosting migrants made its way into pedagogy training sessions for teachers of Islam, a program subsidized by the government, in November 2018, when I participated as part of my fieldwork. I found myself with a cohort of teachers of Islam, mostly Belgians of Moroccan background. The largest Muslim communities in Belgium are from Moroccan and Turkish background, whose parents and grant-parents were hired by Belgium through bilateral agreements in the 1960s to work as migrant workers in the mining and steel industries. In one seminar, teacher-trainees of Islam were instructed to design a lesson plan that would help students develop critical thinking skills and problem-solving abilities as Muslim Belgian citizens. The lesson plan consisted of inviting students to imagine a scenario in which they, as members of a mosque committee, should write a letter to the imam after the latter refused to shelter two refugees in winter during Ramadan. The goal of the lesson was to learn how to engage Muslim students on the question of migration as part of a project on civics. Ali, a teacher-trainee, interrupted the seminar, noting that, “churches can host them [refugees], but mosques are different. They [the authorities] will find any excuse to shut them down. The context of Islam here doesn’t allow it.” With that, Ali unwittingly challenged the assumption of neutrality, a constitutional principle that regulates the Belgian education system and presumes that “neutral education” is the default rationale. Ali’s intervention is an invitation to rethink how secularized Europe mystifies and racializes Muslims. As Theodore Viale reminds us, “the category of religion is always already a racialized category, even when race is not explicitly under discussion.” The comment “Churches can, mosques can’t” speaks to how an ongoing struggle over race, religion and migration complicates and renders problematic the Enlightenment ideal of separation of church and politics.

“Committee Mawda, Justice and truth for Mawda” (translation from French). A popular wall sticker in Brussels’ streets. Photo taken by the author in Brussels, December 2018.

Teaching about migration in an Islam class to help students develop critical thinking skills in order to engage with the pressing issues of their society poses a challenging question: Can we ever talk about migration today without talking about Islam in Europe? If we assume the answer is “No,” then what is the relation between migration and religion in a continent that prides itself on the ideals of secular liberal democracy? And what does religion have to do with the killing of a 2-year-old Iraqi girl?

Islam as a form of racialized otherness is at the core of debates over migration in Belgium. Both the political and media discourse in Belgium often focus jointly on a “refugee crisis” from the Middle East. There has been a racialization of all migrants coming from the Middle East to Europe as ‘Muslim’ subjects. In 2018, Belgium saw heated debates about migration among political parties as the country was preparing for 2019 regional and federal elections that resulted in a major win of the Flemish extreme far-right parties, especially New Flemish Alliance (N-VA), with nearly 50% of the vote in Flanders. 

“Churches can, mosques can’t” indexes a particularly intense political and social moment in Belgium. The 2018 campaigns revealed that migration is at the heart of the question of Europe in relation to Islam. After the killing of Mawda and the publication of the RRE report, the country found itself facing a political crisis over signing the 2018 Global Compact for Migration, a United Nations’ intergovernmental agreement inviting countries to adopt an international approach to migration. The nationalist N-VA refused the UN migration deal for its potential to increase immigration to Europe, leading to the collapse of the Belgian federal government for 652 days, recognized as the longest period without an elected government and the longest political crisis in the history of Belgium. 

The steady rise in anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant far right politics in Belgium is a generalized trend throughout Europe. In 2017, Theo Francken, an anti-migration N-VA member who, ironically, had been the State Secretary for Asylum and Migration from 2014 to 2018, described the arrest of refugees as a “clean up” and accused Doctors Without Borders of human trafficking, since they provide medical aid to refugees who reached the Eurupean coasts. In 2014, Francken was attacked due to a 2011 Facebook post questioning the “added value” that immigrants from Morocco, Congo, and Algeria bring to the Belgian economy. In an interview, he reiterated that his party’s main goal is “keeping control of our own borders.”

When I began fieldwork in summer 2016, Belgium was in the throes of processing the tragic suicide bombings in Brussels three months earlier. Members of the European Union were grappling with questions of human rights and the ethics of racial profiling and policing of both refugees and borders. Following the Brussels attacks, anti-Muslim incidents in Belgium reached an unprecedented peak.

The stigmatization of Islam and Muslim youth in Belgium increased, and immediately after the attacks in Brussels and a year earlier in Paris the Belgian army deployed soldiers to patrol the streets of Belgium. This tense climate shaped political debates about migration, rendering Muslims, as Fatima El Tayeb argues, “aliens from elsewhere,” whose migration background is a “problem.”

After Pope Francis called on Catholic churches and religious communities in Europe to host refugee families as an act of solidarity in 2015, many bishops in Belgium began sheltering asylum seekers in churches and encouraged churchgoers to do the same. Daniel Alliët, a well-known priest of the Church of Saint John the Baptist in central Brussels, opened the doors of his church to host mostly Muslim refugees for many years. In a nation of 11.5 million people, with some 200,000 undocumented migrants, Alliët’s church provided shelter to refugees as an act of dissent from Belgium’s asylum policies since 2012, which in his view represent a global injustice for which the West bears primary responsibility. 

Following Pope Francis’ invitation to host refugees in churches, an increased number of Christian organizations announced their support of undocumented migrants seeking refuge in Europe. In 2016, the Churches’ Commission for Migrants in Europe and the World Council of Churches published a revised report that provides a “better understanding of migration and diversity in European societies and churches.” That same year, the annual meeting between the EU and the representative religious leaders in Europe was dedicated to the question of migration, in which the bishop of Malines-Brussels acknowledged the efforts of local churches hosting refugees. A year later, bishops in Belgium called for Christmas donations to be collected to host and support 100 refugees from Syria. In a meeting with the European Parliament in Brussels in 2018, the representatives of the Churches’ Commission for Migrants in Europe and the Conference of European Churches urged political leaders, churches, and European citizens to “recognize that welcoming the stranger is part of our Christian and European heritage.” 

In 2018, as State Secretary for Asylum and Migration, Francken announced on his Facebook page at Easter that Belgium had “saved 903 Christian Syrians” since 2015. After the concerns over how particular EU state members refused to host non-Christian migrants, the question of migration has significantly marked the regional and presidential elections of many countries in Europe, especially as the continent has been witnessing a resurgence of populism and elections of extreme far-right politicians. What Ali referred to as “the context here” resonates with how religious otherness emerges within these immigration debates in Europe as a technology of exclusion.

Ulrich Schmiedel has explained how the instrumentalization of religion is used as a marker to distinguish between “a (rather imaginary) ‘Christian Europe’ and a (rather imaginary) ‘non-Christian non-Europe,’ identified with Islam.” As Elizabeth Shakman Hurd argues in relation to the U.S. context, the political discourse around saving Christians from Muslims in Syria both singles out Islam as an inherently violent religion and “obscur[es] the multiple local, regional and global drivers of the conflict, including violence perpetrated by the United States over many years in Iraq and elsewhere in the region.” Thus, religion is deployed as an essentializing tool and racial marker to create the ‘otherness’ in the European and American contexts, resulting in the dichotomous trope of “good” versus “bad” refugees.

Ali’s comment “Churches can, mosques can’t” also reflects what Winnifred Fallers Sullivan and Lori G. Beaman describe as “cornering” religion as a marker of legitimizing refugees’ rights. Locating religion in debates on migration “becomes the beginning point from which social relations are enacted and from which institutional policy is developed.” José Casanova notes that “immigration and Islam are almost synonymous” in Western Europe, in which the growth of religious diversity and pluralism challenges the liberal integrationist policies of secular Christian institutions. 

A 2010 essay in the popular weekly Belgian magazine Le Vif Express asked whether Brussels would be “a Muslim town in 2030.” The visibility of Islam, Nadia Fadil explains, is changing the city to “become the scene of several dystopian imaginaries,” mirroring growing anxieties over the ethnic and religious pluralization of Belgium and the rest of Europe. The figure of the “Muslim” functions as a racial category in today’s Europe. The murder of a 2-year-old Iraqi girl is a manifestation of this unsettling relation between migration and racism in a secular liberal democracy.♦


This essay is part of my research about teaching Islam in Belgium, supported by the National Science Foundation Grant, the Wenner-Gren Foundation Grant, and the National Academy of Education/Spencer Dissertation Fellowship. I am grateful to Jamila Bargach, Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, Tatiana Rabinovich, and Sandra Shattuck for their insightful feedback and suggestions, which helped this essay reach its full potential. I would like to thank Robert Launay, Nadia Fadil, Jessica Winegar, and Ritty Lukose for their comments on a dissertation chapter and conference paper that featured materials presented in this piece. I would also like to thank my colleagues at Washington and Lee University for their feedback on my talk at the W&L Museums that featured an early version of this essay. I thank the Canopy Forum’s reviewers for their suggestions.

Hafsa Oubou is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Washington and Lee University. Her research and teaching focus on the intersection of race, religion, and migration in Western Europe. Titled Teaching Islam in Belgium: An Anthropology of Neutrality, her book project investigates the politics and the paradox of religious neutrality laws in the racialization of Islam and Muslims in Belgium.

Recommended Citation

Oubou, Hafsa. ““Churches Can, Mosques Can’t”: Race, Immigration, and Islam in Belgium.” Canopy Forum, January 4, 2024. https://canopyforum.org/2024/01/04/churches-can-mosques-cant-race-immigration-and-islam-in-belgium/.