Angry Europe Turns Spotlight on Brussels Suburb of Molenbeek

Critics see Brussels suburb as ISIS’ ‘rear base,’ but defenders view it as victim of stereotyping.

A placard reading Molenbeek with a "peace and love sign" is seen in a shopping street in the suburb of Molenbeek, after security was tightened in Belgium following the fatal attacks in Paris on Friday, in Brussels, Belgium, November 17, 2015.
Reuters

This week the world media put Belgium in the defendant's stand in a sequence of unequivocal headlines. The French newspaper Liberation asserted, “Belgium - a crossroads of extremist Islam, a terrorist nest.” The New York Times maintained that the Brussels suburb of Molenbeek is the rear base of Islamic State. Topping them all was the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, which in a short, punchy headline described its European sister country as “Belgistan.” French writer and journalist Eric Zemmour resorted to open incitement when he said on RTL radio, “Instead of sending our planes to Syria, we should bomb Molenbeek.”

In Belgium, the reactions and the mutual accusations surrounding the terror attack in Paris, which was planned from Brussels, were divided into two camps: Those who are accused of burying their heads in the sand talk about a localized and/or an all-European problem, and those who admit mistakes and point to the left as regularly caving in to the Muslims in order to get their votes. Molenbeek, where the attack was planned and from where it set out, has become the shorthand term for Islamist terror in Europe, and a symbol of Belgium. A suburb whose population is one quarter Muslim, similar to that of metropolitan Brussels, but which has some neighborhoods where some 80 percent of the people are descendants of North Africa. Unemployment in Molenbeek is almost 30 percent, compared to 8.5 percent for the rest of Brussels.

Residents of the Brussels suburb of Molenbeek take part in a memorial gathering to honor the victims of the recent deadly Paris attacks, in Brussels, Belgium, November 18, 2015.
Reuters

Senator: 'A lawless country'

Liberal senator Alain Destexhe, the former secretary general of Doctors Without Borders, wrote this week in the leading Belgian newspaper La Libre that Molenbeek has become a lawless country. “I was in shock there. Women covered with a burqa in contradiction of Belgian law walk around undisturbed next to policemen. Officials of the electricity and water companies don’t come to check the meters without bodyguards,” he wrote. Destexhe blamed the country's socialists, those who “who in their youth worshipped Stalin and ignored the gulags, and in their old age have fallen captive to the charms of the Muslim clerics.”

He also slammed the man who for 20 years, until 2012, was the legendary mayor of Molenbeek, socialist Philippe Moreaux. “At a time when an investigative program on television showed how local politicians, the children of immigrants, say one thing to the camera and the opposite to the members of their community, lie and engage in two-faced behavior, Moreaux attacked the editors, claiming that they were adopting Goebbels’ methods,” Destexhe wrote.

Police in the Brussels neighborhood Molenbeek seeking suspects after the Paris attacks, November 14, 2015.
AFP

But the atmosphere of disregard and denial apparently remained even after a change in Molenbeek's leadership. One of the most convincing testimonies came from a history teacher in a Molenbeek school, the homeroom teacher of Bilal Hadafi, 19, one of the terrorists who blew themselves up next to the stadium in Paris last Friday. The teacher recalled an opinionated, tempestuous student who, after the massacre at Charlie Hebdo in January, justified the deed openly, in class, maintaing that “that’s the only way.” The teacher said she felt that all the boundaries had been crossed, and sent a letter describing the conversation to the school principal. Nothing was done. The principal refused this week to respond to questions about the incident.

Bewildering Belgium

Belgium is a federal monarchy divided roughly between two nations: the wealthy, Dutch-speaking, Flemish north and the poor, French-speaking, Walloon south. The constitution, which has been amended often, divides the country into three communities (French, Flemish and German), four linguistic districts (French, Flemish, German and mixed (Brussels), and three administrative districts (Wallonia, Flandria and Brussels Capital). Each Has an elected parliament, a government and broad autonomic powers. Above them there is a federal parliament, a senate, a government, and king who is not called “king of Belgium” but rather “king of the Belgians.”

Government crises and a paralyzed political system have been the routine in the country in recent years. Entering this political vacuum came a large Muslim minority, which serves as the deciding factor on various political questions and conducts its business far from the eyes of the establishment. The absence of a clear government authority in Belgium — Brussels has six different police forces — helps spur isolationist tendencies in general and jihadist ones in particular. Twenty-two percent of the population are either immigrants or the children of immigrants. Half of them are from the Middle East and Africa.

Belgian police detain a suspected assailant of the attacks in Paris during a raid in the Molenbeek quarter of Brussels, November 15, 2015.
Reuters

Brussels MP: 'Roots of problem in '50s immigration'

“I don’t think it’s fair to blame Belgium. The problem isn’t Belgian, it’s pan-European and it was born with the waves of immigration of the 1950s, the ones who solved the problem of a shortage of workers in the mines and the factories,” says Simone Susskind, a member of the Brussels Capital parliament. She has been working for years among people of North African descent to foster rapprochement between Jews and Muslims, dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians and equality for women.

In the 1950s, she says, “Belgium signed agreements with Morocco and Turkey, which were followed by the arrival of workers, single men. The original intention was for them to return to their countries after a certain period of time, but that never happened. On the contrary, in the context of family reunification, women, children and other family members joined them.”

Susskind, a past director of the Secular Jewish Community Center (CCLJ), believes that the Belgian authorities' handling of the first generation of immigration was inept. “These people came from distant areas of poverty, many of them couldn’t read and write, and they lived in closed communities without any connection with the surroundings. Today some people are saying that we have to make sure to absorb the immigrants, to teach them a language, citizenship and customs, but all that was left to chance in past years," she says. "Some of the problems were bequeathed to members of the second and third generations and intensified due to the economic crisis of recent years, when the young people found themselves without work, without hope and without a way out. At the same time, it’s important to note that there are Muslims who did assimilate, succeeded in a large number of free professions and became journalists, writers, actors and politicians.”

Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the presumed architect of the attacks in Paris, holding an ISIS flag
AP

Susskind also rejects the argument that Molenbeek is a living illustration of the immigrant absorption failure. “If the way to measure the problem is the number of young people who went to Syria and joined the Islamic State, then Molenbeek has sizable representation. But many others came from Flandria and other places,” she says. Referring to the current debate in Belgium and the claim that the local socialist government has been afraid to deal with growing Islamic extremism for electoral reasons, she says, "It’s a complicated issue. If Mayor Moreaux is the example, then he is someone who did important work in the field of education with young people who are the children of immigrants. In Molenbeek there are dozens of organizations teaching literacy and culture, and supporting initiatives for integration into society. Many were able to extricate themselves and succeed in life, but others turned to religious extremism.

"We can reasonably assume that mistakes were made," Susskind continues. "Since the passing of legislation enabling immigrants without citizenship to vote in the elections for the local councils, there is no question that there are mayors who handled these communities with kid gloves.”

A Muslim man holds placard reading 'Terrorism is not Islam. Islam is like this flower. Terrorism has no religion' during a gathering at 'Le Carillon' restaurant, one of the site of the attacks in Paris, November 15, 2015.
AFP