Islamic school in Genk becomes issue in election debate

Months ago, the Muslim Community of Belgium bought a site in the City of Genk to build an Islamic school. Suddenly, the school is a bone of contention in an unusually heated electoral debate.

Marjan Justaert
Marjan Justaert De Standaard, Belgium
Source: De Standaard
Islamic school in Genk becomes issue in election debate - NewsMavens
Wim Dries, Zuhal Demir, Wikimedia Commons, YouTube

Why this story matters:

The upcoming local elections in Belgium have caused an unprecedented electoral fever. While local elections normally deal with local matters such as affordable houses and bicycle lanes, this time many charged issues -- with a nationwide impact -- are being discussed.

And all this is happening thanks to the Flemish nationalists of the N-VA, who want to discuss "security" and "identity" -- first and foremost in Genk, where Secretary of State Zuhal Demir (N-VA) is challenging Mayor Wim Dries of the Christian Democrats. She and her fellow nationalists are firmly opposed to the Islamic school.

For the record: Catholic and Jewish schools already exist in Belgium. Maybe the question should be: does religious education have a place in a modern and secular country? 

Islamic school coming to Genk is now an issue of special State concern

  • On Monday, the news came out that the first Islamic school was likely to open in the Limburg city of Genk. The Muslim Community of Belgium, an organization that is linked to the Turkish religious and political movement Milli Görüs, bought the site as the only bidder. A sales agreement had been signed and a deposit had been paid.
  • Demir says the Islamic school of the Milli Görüs obliges even toddlers to wear a headscarf. She doesn't want 'segregation', she adds.
  • Genk's mayor Wim Dries, a Christian Democrat, was not happy with that prospect but concluded that he's obliged to respect the constitutional right to freedom of choice when it comes to education.
  • "We have spent years making efforts to combat segregation", Dries said. "If this school opens and is given official recognition I will insist that it meets the needed quality benchmarks."
  • On Tuesday, Secretary of State Zuhal Demir, a Flemish nationalist, suddenly launched an outcry against the school. She warned of indoctrination from conservative powers in Turkey. Demir herself has Turkish/Kurdish roots, but applied earlier this summer to give up her Turkish nationality.
  • Later that day, even Belgian Interior Minister Jan Jambon, also a Flemish nationalist, opposed the school. "This is a step in the wrong direction", according to him. "We need to look at how we can prevent this." He ordered an investigation by the State Security Service.
  • However, an irritated Wim Dries replied that he had requested an investigation before and Minister Jambon did nothing at that time.
  • In the meantime, the Islamic organization has reacted. It says that the project is still in its early stages and that at this stage nothing is set in stone. "An Islamic school is a school that follows the Ministry's curriculum, where lessons are taught in Dutch and where all teachers have a Belgian teaching diploma and comply with all criteria necessary to be able to teach", they stated.
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