In the immediate aftermath of Tuesday’s deadly terror attacks the streets of Brussels fell eerily quiet. While businesses and transportation services closed, media and police attention focused on Molenbeek. Brussels’ most infamous neighborhood was headline news just days before when Salah Abdeslam, believed to be the mastermind of the November Paris attacks, was arrested there. After a four-month-long manhunt, Abdeslam was found hiding in a basement of Rue Quatres Vents, one of the area's main streets.
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“Time in Molenbeek has been divided into before the Paris attacks and after,” states the deputy mayor of the municipality, Ahmed El Khannouss, himself of Moroccan descent. Françoise Schelpmans, mayor of Molenbeek, echoes his words: “This media frenzy and shunning of Molenbeek on behalf of the rest of society is partly justified.”
Molenbeek is geographically separated by a canal from the city center of Brussels, but the division is more visible in terms of the ethnic composition and wealth of its population. “Molenbeek is one of the poorer neighborhoods of Brussels, afflicted by unemployment but also as an area overwhelmingly composed of a majority Muslim population,” says Schlepmans.
Demir Murat Seyrek of the European Foundation for Democracy, a Brussels-based think-tank focusing on radicalization in Europe, says the neighborhood was an easy target for radical Islamic movements. The Islamists "took advantage of the weak social structure of the Moroccan community here, making the push factors towards radicalization beyond social factors such as unemployment easier,” he explains. “In Molenbeek, people don’t feel 100 percent Belgian, which made it easier for these groups to propose an alternative identity. There is a clear cultural explanation for this radicalization.”
Divided ethnically from Belgian society, these largely Salafist groups created an alternative rhetoric of Muslim unity as their rallying call. “The question of Palestine was the decisive element in convincing my son Anis, aged 18, to leave Belgium to fight with ISIS in the battlefields of Syria,” says Geraldine, a mother of a terrorist from Molenbeek. “With the heavy police presence in the area, young people often compare the constant identity checks they conduct to living under occupation in Palestine,” confirms the deputy mayor. Karim Amezian, a manager of an independent association aiming to deradicalize youth in the area, says that there is nothing like Israeli checkpoints when it comes to upsetting young people in disadvantaged areas of Brussels and Belgium as a whole.
“My son, like many others, remained unemployed, afflicted by an implicit rejection from society by being unable to enter the labor market,” explains Geraldine. The same story is repeated by other mothers of jihadi fighters from Belgium, who know these men and their journey to radicalization best. Annalisa Gadaleta, a local official working in education for the municipality, adds how “the youth here in Molenbeek are frustrated in both identity and socio-economic terms."
The identity limbo facing the second generation of North African immigrants here has proven to have tragic consequences. Whereas the older generation self-identifies as migrants, their children are left marginalized by Belgian society in multiple terms. “ISIS and other radical organizations provide an identity safe-harbor," says Fabio Merone, an expert on jihadism. He elaborates, "Molenbeek is a poor neighborhood with 30,000 people below 25 years old, of which 50 percent are unemployed." Ann Gilles-Goris, another Molenbeek local government official, explains how the once Italian quarter has changed over the years: “When all the Italians came there was plenty of jobs and the Italians worked largely in the booming mining industry. However, in the 1970s and 1980s the Italians left for more gentrified areas, leaving way for people coming from Arab countries, but this coincided with the closing of the mines.”
Raids have taken place beyond the confines of Molenbeek, in the Forest and Schaerbeek municipalities, yet they have remained by and large linked to the North African community. The lack of integration of Molenbeek’s residents — both economically and culturally — and the specificity of this area is only highlighted when compared to the large Sunni Muslim Turkish population of Brussels that has been largely unaffected by radicalization. While the Turkish community has a "strong and constant affiliation to Turkey seen as the overarching motherland," explains Seyrek, in comparison Molenbeek is the orphan child lacking a unifying Belgian identity. The second generation of children of North African descent that felt part of their identity was missing and is economically ostracized by society has been adopted by Salafist groups. Both elements are likely to be aggravated in the aftermath of the attacks.