Belgium leased the grand mosque to Riyadh in 1969, giving Saudi-backed imams access to a growing Muslim immigrant community in return for cheaper oil for its industry. Almost 50 years later, Belgium now wants to cut Riyadh’s links with the mosque located close to the European Union’s headquarters in Brussels, over concerns its ultra-conservative brand of Islam breeds radicalism.
The mosque’s leaders deny it espouses violence, but European governments have grown more wary since Terrorists attacks that were planned in Brussels killed 130 people in Paris in 2015 and 32 in the Belgian capital in 2016.
Belgium’s willingness to put its demand to oil-producing Saudi Arabia, a major investor and arms client, breaks with what EU diplomats describe as the reluctance of governments across Europe to risk disrupting commercial and security ties.
Riyadh’s quick acceptance indicates a new readiness by the kingdom to promote a more friendly form of Islam, one of the most ambitious promises made by the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman under plans to transform Saudi Arabia and reduce its reliance on oil. The agreements earlier this year coincides with a new Saudi initiative to end support for mosques and religious schools abroad blamed for spreading radical ideas.
Observers believe that current Saudi moves towards religious moderation, and away from the extreme interpretation of Islam through the narrow Wahabi perspective that is espoused by modern Jihadi groups, risks provoking a backlash at home and could also leave a void that fundamentalists will try to fill.
Belgian diplomat Dirk Achten, who headed a government delegation to Riyadh in November, said the move was a “window of opportunity”. He told Belgium’s parliament that the mission was hastily put together after the assembly urged the government to break Saudi Arabia’s 99 year, rent free lease for the mosque.
Belgian Interior Minister Jan Jambon said that details of the mosque’s handover are still being negotiated.
Concerns about the mosque grew as militant groups such as the Islamic state started recruiting among the grandchildren of those migrants, many of whom say they still feel they do not belong in Belgian society, opinion polls show. Belgium sent more foreign fighters to Syria per capita than any other European country. Belgian officials are now suggesting that the Muslims Executive of Belgium, a group seen as close to Moroccan officialdom, should run the Grand Mosque.
Osama Bin laden, the alleged terrorist mastermind was a follower of Wahhabism, the original strain of Salafism which has often been criticized as the ideology of radical terrorists worldwide.
Wahhabism, the ultra-conservative branch of Islam dominant in Saudi Arabia, was d founded by the 18th century cleric Mohammed ibn Abd Al-Wahhab.
A classified report by Belgian security agency states that the Wahabi branch of Islam promoted at the mosque led Muslim youth to more radical ideas, sources with access to the report said.