From his city hall under Belgium’s most imposing cathedral, Mayor Bart Somers is wracking his brains trying to figure out how to keep young Muslims from going to fight “holy war” in Syria against the Assad regime.
Through much of western Europe, scores of Islamic youths have heeded the call to take up arms for a cause that is only a few hours away by plane. The phenomenon has alarmed authorities amid signs that the insurgency is becoming increasingly radicalized, with strong infiltration by al-Qaida. European authorities see a double danger, one that’s summed up by Somers who describes the youths as “cannon fodder” in Syria — and potential “full-blown terrorists” if they make it back home alive.
But it all raises a conundrum: In a free society, how can you prevent these young people from packing up and leaving?
“The major challenge of each democrat is to see what we can do in the fight against fundamentalism without sacrificing our own democratic laws,” said Somers. “Otherwise we play into the hands of the terrorists.”
That dilemma was again put to the test two weeks ago when Belgian authorities organized a major anti-terror sweep seeking to weed out agitators inciting young Muslims to fight against the Assad regime. In a high-profile raid of four dozen homes, police put six people behind bars, raising criticism among some that they had overstepped their bounds by infringing on freedom of speech.
In the Brussels municipality of Schaarbeek, the mayor even banned a soup kitchen for the needy, among them young Muslims, fearful that the charity workers were inciting youths to fight in Syria. The action came after two Muslim schoolboys disappeared, apparently to Syria — departures that Mayor Bernard Clerfayt linked to soup kitchen recruitment.