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Ever since the November 13 Paris attacks, international news centered on … Brussels, the Belgian capital.
Apparently, the assailants prepared their heinous crimes in a Brussels suburb no one had ever heard of. (I have, but then I live only a few kilometers away.)
Belgian law does not provide for a state of emergency like France; in fact, the constitution specifically forbids it.
But Belgium does have a law that defines four ‘threat statuses’ to be declared by the government.
In the days after the attacks, the governments did declare threat status 4, the highest one, because of a perceived imminent threat of a terrorist attack ‘somewhere in Brussels, sometime in the near future’.
Extensive house searches led to the arrest of two suspects on similar charges, so far unrelated to the Paris atacks.
But that’s not much to show for after the week of high alert. The Belgian intelligence and security services did in fact not produce much of substance.
Media panic – or panic of the media?
International news abounded with expressions of scorn and derision, some even used the term ‘failed state’.
Suddenly, the country that has been hosting European institutions for so many decades without a problem has become inadequate to provide a decent level of security.
Criticism centered on the Brussels borough of Molenbeek, apparently a hotbed of fundamentalist terrorism, where the Paris attacks were prepared (and more might be coming).
Sounds pretty ominous. Only, there is a small problem with all this. It is mainly hearsay, hyperbole, factoids blown out of proportion without context or insight and sometimes even plain wrong.
It is not the first time international media go into panic drive – the panic of missing out on the latest sensational development; the panic of being perceived by the competition as having missed the point (whatever the point is).
Let’s consider some observations to put things in perspective.
Sint-Jans-Molenbeek (‘Saint John’s Mill Creek’) is one of 19 municipalities that together form the capital district of Brussels. The borough of Lower Molenbeek, roughly half of the municipality, is where it all is supposed to have happened.
Lower Molenbeek is the poorest part of Brussels, if not all Belgium. It has the highest population density and the highest percentage of migrant inhabitants originating from Maghreb countries, mainly Moroccans and Turkish people, and to a much lesser extent some Tunisians and Algerians.
Most of them are Belgian citizens, second and third generation. Housing is below standards, extended families are crowded in apartments unsuitable for living. The joblessness rate is the highest in Belgium. It also has high numbers of widows with young children.
Men in Molenbeek, if they have a job, make do with temporary work, unstable, unsafe, underpaid, irregular, night shifts and dangerous work. Those that do not die of job hazards, get sick, lose their jobs and survive on a meager allowance.
In the bars and restaurants around the place Schuman, where all European institutions are located, one can mingle and report on the EU for years and never know that Lower Molenbeek even exists, only some five kilometers away.
Most foreign correspondents in fact never stray outside the centre of the capital and have no clue about things beyond Brussels.
They not only know nothing about Lower Molenbeek, but also about the poorer quarters of Schaarbeek and Anderlecht, two other Brussels municipalities.
Years of neglect by the municipal and capital city governments and the federal institutions responsible for social welfare have basically deteriorated the place for the past four decades (when Arab migration here started). Many locals don’t have the right to vote or do not bother to vote as they don’t see the point, so most politicians do not bother.
Upper Molenbeek, the white Christian part of the municipality, holds the most seats in the municipal council (although for historical reasons Molenbeek City Hall is in Lower Molenbeek).
The Paris assailants had a small apartment on the square facing City Hall.
The local police precinct of Brussels-West covers five Brussels municpalities. It is notorious for its racist behavior towards young migrants; the police force there hardly has any locals from Lower Molenbeek.
Most policemen live in the better parts of Brussels and come to Molenbeek only to ‘work’. Youngsters with darker complexion are their main target. Constantly, day after day.
Now, this is not to say Lower Molenbeek does not have its problems. Poverty and destitution, beggars, street gangs of young men, it’s all there. There is a thriving market of stolen cars in Molenbeek, (with hardly any local connection).
Most young men have no degree. They failed school, starting at the age of six, when they entered primary without speaking proper French or Dutch.
To make matters even worse, ever since austerity measures were implemented, the Brussels Capital Department of Education has lowered the already dismal subsidies for extra language classes for new pupils.
Even those that against all odds do get their diploma, will find out that names like Ahmed, Fadil or Mohammed will not get you where Jean-Pierre or Johan go. These are the ‘chavs’ of Belgium.
[Chavs is a British slur for poor working class people, living on social benefits, jobless, without professional qualifications. It is also the title of a book by British journalist Owen Jones Chavs – The Demonization of the Working Class. He describes how British society keeps people marginalized.]
The few Ahmeds that do make it in life leave Molenbeek for the better parts of Brussels or the nearby Flemish towns of Dilbeek or Asse, exacerbating even further the concentration of poverty in Molenbeek.
Despite reports and studies dating back to the 1970s pointing out the problems and the danger of ‘ghettoization’, authorities have never taken substantial active measures to prevent this evolution in Lower Molenbeek.
Only a few years ago, riots broke out in Molenbeek in reaction to constant police harassment. The real reason was that the municipality closed down one of the few centers where young boys could gather to play pool and just sit together. Austerity again, hitting the poorest, the voiceless and the powerless first.
So, yes, several of the Paris assailants, Arab-French citizens – not Belgians, did indeed come to live in Molenbeek. Why? Several reasons. Everybody speaks French there. Many even speak Arabic of Berber. Then, most people there look like them, have similar names, eat similar food, behave like them.
In other words, the Paris attackers came to live in Molenbeek not because it was some sort of place to be for people with extremist ideas, for people who sympathize with ISIS and the likes. On the contrary, these terrorists-to-be came to live there to disappear in a sea of innocent people who just happened to look like them.
It is precisely because people in Molenbeek are good people that it was so easy for the Paris terrorists to remain inconspicuous.
Nowadays it is no longer politically correct to suspect every other Italian-American of ties to the mafia. Even during its heyday the Italian mafia in the US was a phenomenon involving a small minority of Italian migrants. Nowadays such generalized observations are called by their real name: racism.
Real journalism replaced by racism
Yet, that is exactly what is happening in Molenbeek.
Without any attempt at serious investigative journalism, newspapers of standing like the Guardian declare Molenbeek ‘Europe’s jihadi central’.
It matters not that other parts of Brussels harbour larger numbers of suspected radicals (the municipality with the highest number of young Belgians fighting in Syria come from Vilvoorde, a Flemish city north of Brussels).
Without any hint at decades of neglect, Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel can declare without a blink of the eye: “Almost every time there’s a link with Molenbeek. We’ve tried prevention. Now we’ll have to get repressive. It’s been a form of laisser faire and laxity. Now we’re paying the bill.”
Prejudice and anti-Arab racism is what’s fueling this kind of reporting.
Lower Molenbeek does have its problems and some jihadi’s did indeed start from here. But can we have at least some modest perspective?
Europe is not up to recognizing the real causes of this new form or terror (new, that is, for Europeans – the rest of the world has felt this for decades).
As long as Europe and the European media refuse to look at their foreign policy over the last decades in general and more specifically at policy in the Middle East over the last ten years, as long as Europe does not recognize poverty, discrimination, stigmatization of minorities, lack of education, work or just access to a minimally decent living standard, this will not go away.
Recognizing our own biases could be a first start. We see that inbuilt bias in others when we report on race riots in American ghetto’s, but refuse to see it in our own midst.
Let’s begin with giving the people of Lower Molenbeek a fair hearing. A suggestion: come and visit the lively Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Sunday morning markets at the Molenbeek squares (Thursday Market at Saint-Jean Baptiste square is the best).
Have a coffee in one of the local café’s, eat at one of the restaurants. You might run the risk of actually liking the place and maybe change your mind, if only just a little bit.
The author also contributes to the website DeWereldMorgen.be