Viewing the Rise of Terrorism from Brussels’ Grassroots
Since November 13, Paris and Brussels have been living in bad times. From that day on, things will never be the same again. Francophone culture, french fries, the Euro, and borders will be no longer be the only commonalities between our two countries. The main suspects of the recent terror attacks in Paris came from the neighborhood of Molenbeek - in the heart of Brussels - after spending time in Raqqa.
The attacks of the Bataclan and Stade de France demonstrate signs of the weakness of our institutional mechanisms. If the far right has won the first round of the France's regional elections, Belgium too has shown some weaknesses in terms of police management and efforts to renew its “failed state” reputation. And both democracies have shown their limits in terms of freedom and security.
While expert commentary abounds, I write now to give a short overview of what's happening today in Europe's Capital through my “grassroots” lens—calling on my status as a resident in Brussels who has had long experience in local NPO's and inner-city schools.
I begin with the #BrusselsLockdown, during which I found myself feeling as I used to when I was walked the South Beirut streets. The State of Emergency was declared because we reached the level 4, which is the maximum. We saw the Army in each corner of our usually peaceful streets. Besides that, the consequences were strikingly grim:
- Education, the most powerful weapon against ignorance, was unfortunately affected by closing schools for 3 days.
- Public transportation was frozen for a week.
- Local businesses, restaurants and shops have suffered, the economy losing millions of euros each day.
- The press was censored and has no right to comment the situation live and direct (we remember the cat's episode in the social media).
- Citizens experienced 20 abusive police raids, though no suspects were arrested.
Additionally, Islamophobia has risen: police profiling has only touched young Belgians with Moroccan backgrounds. Three crazy cars tried to drive over two women wearing hijab and a man attending his morning prayer at the mosque. The mosques of Molenbeek were threatened by the “Christian State” through letters inviting them to leave the territory, and an envelope with anthrax was found at the Islamic Center.
Today, more than ever, voices have to be heard. The mainstream media have to give more space to local communities who have their voices confiscated by opportunists or violent radicalists. Empowerment is more than needed in our disadvantaged neighborhoods, but still, Belgium has to make big changes in its politics and policies. For example, when the Minister of Interior, Jan Jambon, from the Flemish Separatist party N-VA, wants to “clean” Molenbeek, he invites us to forget two things: the first is that Antwerp, his city ruled by the N-VA, is the basis of the extremist group Sharia4Belgium. The second is that to suggest that Brussels, and more specifically Molenbeek, is the center of the criminality and delinquency is to minimise the role of Antwerp. Moreoever, the budgets of the Departments of Culture and Cohesion were drastically cut in recent years, while because of onlf 400 fighters in Syria, the budget for Security/Counter-Terrorism budgets has been raised. National policy, in short, both reflects and can partly account for the rise in extremism.
More than ever, Belgium has to claim its own identity by putting an end to the pittnig of groups against each other at the n ational level, which only serves to nourish extremist subcultures, and to create more hate within a society that doesn't accept some parts of its citizens' identities, especially their ethnic and religious backgrounds.
This is my perspective and my work—and this is the current state of Brussels as it faces the citizens of France across its borders.
Youssef Faraj (MMF '12) is a Sociologist and Cultural Diversity Trainer at Sos Jeunes in Belgium.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.