There is an unusual bustle of activity just off Molenbeek’s main square, where one after the other women in all sorts of different styled headscarves are filling into a brightly lit cultural center, followed by crowds of little children sniffling and clinging to pushchairs and their mothers’ handbags .
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This is the main event tonight in Brussels’ infamous inner city neighbourhood. The place that became the centre of a media frenzy when it was discovered that the area was home to the Paris attacker Salah Abdeslam and served as a hotbed of terrorist activities in the run up to November 2015.
The streets are now void of any journalists and life has seemingly returned to normal. The only buzz of activity comes from the local cafes where their strictly male clientele can be observed sipping their Moroccan mint tea, as if nothing had ever happened in what is now known universally as Brussels’ most troubled area.
While the men drink tea and chat between themselves, returning to business as usual is far from the agenda of Molenbeek’s Muslim mothers, who have come together precisely to talk about radical Islamic extremism and to take action into their own hands.
Ben Ali Saliha, an active member of the support group ‘Les Parents Concernés’ (The Affected Parents) leads the evening’s discussion, part of a series of events held to give advice to concerned local mothers, many of whom have been personally affected by the issue of radicalization. Her own son left for jihad in 2013, the 29th to leave for Syria from Vilvoorde (a suburb of Brussels similar to Molenbeek) in just one year .
“Everyone knows someone who has gone, a son, a brother or a friend”, principally vulnerable young dropouts like her son, who are preyed on by recruiters such as ‘Sharia for Belgium’, lurking around schools and mosques, she explains. “If I was blond and blue-eyed, I would have been accepted into the military, or become a sales assistant or a fire-fighter, the older I get the more I realize that even though they tell us we are Belgian the more I realize we aren’t and never really will be”, is what Sabri Ali Saliha used to tell his mother Ben in the lead up to his departure to Syria.
Radical movements are preying on young men “tapping into the structural racism that exists implicitly in Belgian society, and we mothers are unable to deal with the situation,” explains Asmaa, another ‘orphaned parent’, as the group of mothers of jihadists self-define themselves.
Faced with a lack of any support, be it state, social services, or from their community these grieving and ostracised women from across class backgrounds, from gritty Molenbeek to more middle class Schaerbeek (where Abdelslam hid in the days after the Paris attack), have joined forces to deal with the issue.
The women meet regularly as a support group for grieving mothers but also to plan an action strategy. They have begun speaking in schools, and in May 2015 successfully campaigned for the Flemish Parliament to adopt a resolution intended to counter violent radical extremism which included a number of their suggestions.
This is a small victory within a much larger crisis - what the mothers have experienced as a total failure by the state. They describe the local authorities in Molenbeek as bewildered, unable to understand even the issue’s point of departure: why Muslim youth would feel ostracized from society.
In 2013 when her son Sabri left for Syria, Saliha Ben Ali explains, “The authorities let young men like him go voluntarily. It was a burden off their shoulders to see their problems jet off to Syria on a one way ticket via Turkey, the calculation was for them not to come back”. But all that changed in 2015, “when they started to return”.
The mothers nod in agreement as Ben Saliha explains: “In 2013 there was a convenient lack of structures to help prevent departures” from Belgium, the country with the largest per capita supply of foreign fighters in Western Europe. “Now the authorities are starting to react, but only as the issue effects them directly.”
The structural issue remains, explains Ben Saliha. “As the chief of police in Molenbeek told me more recently in the light of the recent attacks in Paris, “We just don’t know what to do, we just don’t understand’”. While the authorities let these young men leave at the beginning of the conflict in 2013 as part of a strategy to ‘export’ their problem abroad, now that strategy has collapsed and the authorities are at a loss of how to deal with those now battle-toughened Islamists returning to Europe today.
Another mother (who wished to remain anonymous) explains: “There is a lack of trust, with many now not reporting their children’s departure to the police at all’.
There is a sense of betrayal from the side of the families who feel that the institutions and judicial system in Belgium “have failed our sons: many of us warned them of their imminent departure before they left and they let them go.”
She sighs, and continues, “We fear the acts of retribution from the movements they have joined if we publicly denounce them”.
Ben Ali Salihi, by contrast, has nothing to lose by talking publicly about her experience: her son Sabri was killed with a bullet to the back of his head the first time he saw action.
The woman with the pink veil who wants to keep her identity private still receives weekly phone calls from her son in Damascus, which she is too scared to report to the authorities.
The mothers aren’t angry and frustrated only by the inaction of the Belgian state, but by that of their fellow Muslims as well. “The community was absent, some families have lost two or three children, but where is the reaction from the imams?” asks the Ben Ali Saliha. “I was listened to, but not supported” is how Belgian society reacted to Ben Ali Saliha.
The mothers have given up on the formal structures of power in the state and the community” which they feel have both equally failed them. Part of that feeling of disempowerment from the establishment power structures is also a gender issue.
“Where are the fathers of Molenbeek?’ shrieks Ahmed El Khannous, deputy of mayor of Molenbeek and one of the only men in the room. His provocation has a purpose: to highlight the lack of support these mothers are getting from even within their family units.
”This is why we are here, the authorities are at a loss and our husbands refuse to acknowledge the issue existsthe local authorities continue to hope our children are buying one way tickets to their graves and the men of our community refuse to acknowledge there is an issue,” Ben Ali Saliha sadly concludes.
While Molenbeek has been bleeding young men to Islamist movements for years, last year’s Paris attacks illustrated to the general public that this is not just a local community or Muslim issue, but a larger issue affecting Europe as a whole. Ironically, the 2015 attacks finally gave these women, battling alone, a brief exposure to the mainstream, and for a short period gave a public voice to mothers like Ben Ali Saliha.
This interest faded quickly- the mothers are still unaccompanied by fathers to the meetings, and the local authorities are still failing to acknowledge the structural weaknesses in Belgian society, such as racism or unemployment.
Most worrying is that many of these mothers have given up on community or state institutions. This will have serious consequences: many mothers aren’t even reporting the departure of their sons to fight the Syrian jihad.
Both the local community and society as a whole will, sooner or later, be forced to confront this issue, this time with the problem at a much more extreme stage. For the mothers of Molenbeek, still, no one’s listening.
Esti Judah is a freelance journalist, researcher and translator. Born in London, she is a graduate of the London School of Economics, Sciences Po Paris and King’s College London and has lived in the Balkans and Paris before moving to Brussels. She writes on Europe, the Middle East and Turkey. Follow her on Twitter:@EstherJudah.
Davide Lerner is an Italian journalist who has written about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for publications like “l’Espresso”, Italy’s first weekly, and TPI. He currently lives in Brussels. Follow him on Twitter: @DavideLerner