BRUSSELS – As in every jihadist terror attack, the explosions on Tuesday at the airport and metro station in Brussels focus attention on the local Muslim community. In Belgium, this manifests itself in frequent mentions of the fact that in relation to the size of the community, less than a million, about 7 percent of the general population, the number of Muslims who have left Belgium to fight with Islamic State in Syria, about 500, is the highest in Europe. Concentrations of Muslims in Brussels served as a base not only for the attackers this week, but also for the perpetrators of the Paris attacks last November.
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Nevertheless, as opposed to France and the other European countries, extreme right-wing parties have not been successful in recent years in Belgium, and their activities are focused mainly in the Flemish community where the political party Vlaams Belang has made modest inroads. Among the Francophones, the French-speaking Walloons, the extreme right has almost no hold. That is not to say that the Muslims in Brussels or other French areas are indifferent.
Ismail, 25, a computer technician, came to the Place de la Bourse together with thousands of others to light candles and leave flowers in memory of the victims of Tuesday’s attacks. “I was born and grew up in Brussels and I feel like someone has broken into my own home. I see mainly on the Internet that there are people who want to blame me and get rid of all the Muslims and the immigrants. I know that this does not represent the majority of Belgian society.”
His girlfriend Hiba insists that “it’s maybe only 100 people who are making a lot of noise and don’t represent the Muslims here. I don’t think this has to do with Muslims necessarily – in every Western country there is tension between longtime residents and immigrants. We see it in America with the Mexicans,” she says.
“They desecrate the name of Islam,” says Imam Assad Maguib, leader of a mosque in Anderlecht, who also came to the square. “We don’t call them Muslims and our people are afraid, just like any other Belgian citizen, of being hurt in a terror attack.”
One of the reasons there is not more tension between Muslims and other Belgians is that in many places in the country where Muslims live, they are a closed community. “I’m not afraid of Islamophobia,” says Atta el-Kadiyeh, a car salesman from Anderlecht. “Where I live there are mainly Muslims and no one threatens us.”
Brand of 'jihad central'
And when they talk about a “Muslim area” in Brussels, they mean first of all Molenbeek, with its population of 100,000, about 40 percent of whom are of Moroccan origin with many more from elsewhere in the Middle East. Some of the Paris and Brussels attackers were born and grew up in Molenbeek, others hid and bought weapons there. Last Friday, Salah Abdeslam, one of the planners of the attacks in France, was arrested in Molenbeek, half a kilometer from the house where he grew up near the municipality.
The media describe Molenbeek as a “suburb of Brussels,” but in fact it is 10 minutes from the city center. The moment one crosses the canal that crosses the city, the change in the quality of the buildings and the look of the population can be seen immediately, from European to Middle Eastern. Restaurants advertise themselves as hallal and clothing stores sell cloaks and hijabs. The police station near the municipality building is surrounded by barricades and armed police and soldiers. Near the entrance to the metro across the way, someone has lit candles and tried to build a makeshift memorial. There is a memorial book at the entrance to the municipality where one can leave a personal message.
Ahmed El Khannouss, deputy mayor of Molenbeek (Brussels is divided into 19 municipalities), has a theory of why the world media has dubbed Molenbeek “jihad central.” He says there is no justification for it, but “following the attacks in Paris four months ago they are afraid the economy there will be hit and people won’t come for their Christmas vacations there. So to distract world attention from Paris, they invented that Molenbeek is the center of terror. And it worked. A month later, there was a greater decline in hotel reservations in Brussels than in Paris.”
El Khannouss expresses the repugnance of many Muslims in Molenbeek at the world media, which, over the past few months, have filled the neighborhood. “Look,” he says, pointing to the soldiers, “the only weapons here are the army’s.” A woman wrapped in a hijab who passes some news photographers in the street lets slip cynically, “Yes, yes, we are all sad.”
Outside the municipality a group of teens is getting together to head for soccer practice of the local team. They all say they were born in Brussels and come from families that immigrated from Morocco. Simultaneously curious and suspicious, they are unwilling to give their names. “We don’t identify ourselves in the way the media shows Molenbeek and the people who live here,” they say. They insist that their identity is Belgian. Which Belgium, Flemish-speaking or French-speaking? “We speak French but we are not regular Francophones. We are true Belgians. We are Brussels. Get used to it,” they say.
Not all the Muslims in Brussels live in poverty-stricken Molenbeek. Quite a few live in middle-class areas like Schaerbeek, the neighborhood where the apartment is located in which the terror cell prepared the explosives and from which they set out for Tuesday’s attack. The Muslim inhabitants there of course claim that they have no connection to terror and that the attacks do the greatest harm to Muslims seeking to live in peace in Belgian society.