December 4, 2012 at 5:00 am
Critics accuse the Socialist mayor, Freddy Thielemans, of declaring war on Christmas by installing the "multicultural" structure of lights to placate the city's burgeoning Muslim population.
Historically, a 20 meter [65 foot] fir tree taken from the forests of the Ardennes has adorned the city's main square, the Grand-Place. This year, however, it has been replaced with a 25 meter  foot new-age-like structure of lighted boxes (see video here). Moreover, the traditional Christmas Market in downtown Brussels is no longer being referred to as a "Christmas Market." Instead, it has been renamed as "Winter Pleasures 2012."
The mayor's office, where more than half of the city's eleven councilors are either Muslim or Socialist or both, said the structure was part of a theme this year of "light." City Councilor Philippe Close, a Socialist, said the aim was to show off the "avant-garde character" of Brussels by blending the modern and the traditional to produce something new and different. He added: "The Christmas tree is not a religious symbol and actually lots of Muslims have a Christmas tree at home."
But critics say the non-tree, which was inaugurated on November 30 and will be on display through January 6, was installed to avoid offending Muslims. They also point to a recent Fatwa [a legal pronouncement in Islam], which states that Muslims are prohibited from having anything to do with Christmas trees.
The Fatwa states: "It is not permissible to imitate the kuffar [a highly derogatory Arabic term used to refer to non-Muslims] in any of their acts of worship, rituals or symbols, because the Prophet [Mohammed] said: 'Whoever imitates a people is one of them.'"
The Fatwa continues: "So it is not permissible to put up this tree in a Muslim house even if you do not celebrate Christmas, because putting up this tree comes under the heading of imitating others that is haram [banned], or venerating and showing respect to a religious symbol of the kuffar. What the parents must do is protect their children and keep them away from what is haram, and protect them from the Fire as Allah, may He be exalted."
The Fatwa concludes: "You should explain to your daughter that it is haram to imitate the disbelievers and that it is obligatory to differ from those who are doomed to Hell and to dislike what they venerate of clothing, symbols or rituals, so as to develop respect for her own religion and adhere to it."
Bianca Debaets, a Brussels councilor from the Christian Democratic and Flemish party, told the Flemish newspaper Brussel Nieuws that she believed an argument over Muslim religious sensitivities had prompted the Brussels City Council to put up the light sculpture.
Debaets said, "I suspect that the reference to the Christian religion was the decisive factor in replacing the tree. For a lot of people who are not Christians, the tree there is offensive to them. What will be next? Will all Easter eggs be banned in Brussels because they refer to Easter?"
Erik Maxwell, a resident of Brussels, told the BBC News: "We think the tree has been put up for cultural reasons. A tree is for Christmas and Christians but now there are a lot of Muslims here in Brussels. So to avoid discussions they have just replaced a tree with a couple of cubes!"
Others say the structure -- which cost the taxpayers of Brussels a total of €44,000 ($57,000), compared to €5,000 for the traditional tree -- resembles the green cross outside European drug stores, and some have nicknamed it "The Pharmacy."
A Facebook page called "Save the Brussels Tree" has nearly 5,000 "likes" demanding that the mayor of Brussels "give us back our tree." Another Facebook page called "For our Traditional Tree" has invited nearly 20,000 people to attend a December 8th "revolt" against the sculpture at the Grand-Place.
The conflict over the traditional Christmas tree comes as two Muslim politicians, who won municipal elections in Brussels on October 14, have vowed to implement Islamic Sharia law in Belgium.
The two candidates, Lhoucine Aït Jeddig and Redouane Ahrouch, both from the fledgling Islam Party, won seats in two heavily Islamized municipalities of Brussels, Molenbeek-Saint-Jean and Anderlecht, respectively.
During a post-election press conference in Brussels on October 25, the two councilors, who were officially sworn in on December 3, said they regard their election as key to the assertion of the Muslim community in Belgium.
"We are elected Islamists but above all we are Muslims," Ahrouch said. "Islam is compatible with the laws of the Belgian people. As elected Muslims, we embrace the Koran and the tradition of the Prophet Mohammed. We believe Islam is a universal religion. Our presence on the town council will give us the opportunity to express ourselves.
Speaking to a reporter from Radio Télévision Belge Francophone (RTBF), the public broadcasting service of the French-speaking part of Belgium, Ahrouch said: "I think we have to sensitize people, make them understand the advantages to having Islamic people and Islamic laws. And then it will be completely natural to have Islamic laws and we will become an Islamic state."
The reporter interjected: "An Islamic State in Belgium?" Ahrouch replied: "In Belgium, of course! I am for the Sharia. Islamic law, I am for it. It is a long-term struggle that will take decades or a century, but the movement has been launched."
The rise of the Islam Party comes amid a rapidly growing Muslim population in the Belgian capital. Muslims now make up one-quarter of the population of Brussels, according to a book recently published by the Catholic University of Leuven, the top Dutch-language university in Belgium.
In real terms, the number of Muslims in Brussels -- where half of the number of Muslims in Belgium currently live --- has reached 300,000, which means that the self-styled "Capital of Europe" is now the most Islamic city in Europe.
In practical terms, Islam mobilizes more people in Brussels than do the Roman Catholic Church, political parties or even trade unions, according to "The Iris and the Crescent," a book that is the product of more than a year of field research. The book's author, the sociologist Felice Dassetto, predicts that Muslims will make up the majority of the population of Brussels by 2030.
Meanwhile, critics of the "electronic winter tree" have called on Muslims in Belgium to sign a petition to show that they do not have anything against the traditional Christmas tree. The petition reads: "The removal of the Christmas tree on the Grand-Place in Brussels aroused strong controversy about the role of Muslims in this decision. I hereby would like to see Muslims sign this petition to show that they are not against this tree. I would like to gather as many signatures as possible to show that Muslims comply with Belgian traditions and do not want to remove this joy at home." Fewer than 80 of Belgium's 600,000 Muslims have signed the petition.
Soeren Kern is a Senior Fellow at the New York-based Gatestone Institute. He is also Senior Fellow for European Politics at the Madrid-based Grupo de Estudios Estratégicos / Strategic Studies Group. Follow him on Facebook.
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