A former resident reflects on his struggles with Brussels’ most notorious neighborhood.
By TEUN VOETEN 11/21/15, 6:30 AM CET
Last Saturday in Paris, at the Boulevard Voltaire near the Bataclan club, I found myself staring at a pool of blood. I wondered what was happening with the world, and refocused my camera on the aftermath of the terror. When it became clear the attacks were planned in Molenbeek, I was not surprised. The real surprise? That Belgium expressed shock at the connection.
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I called Molenbeek my home for nine years. In 2005, it was the city’s last affordable neighborhood — in large part because of its bad reputation. My apartment, just across the canal from the city center, is close to the home where two suspects in the Paris attacks were based, and around the corner from where the shooter from the foiled Thalys attack in August had been staying.
I was part of a new wave of young urban professionals, mostly white and college-educated — what the Belgians called bobo, (“bourgeois bohémiens”) — who settled in the area out of pragmatism. We had good intentions. Our contractor’s name was Hassan. He was Moroccan, and we thought that was very cool. We imagined that our kids would one day play happily with his on the street. We hoped for less garbage on the streets, less petty crime. We were confident our block would slowly improve, and that our lofts would increase in value. (We even dared to hope for a hip art gallery or a trendy bar.) We felt like pioneers of the Far West, like we were living in the trenches of the fight for a multicultural society.
Slowly, we woke up to reality. Hassan turned out to be a crook and disappeared with €95,000, the entire budget the tenants had pooled together for our building’s renovation. The neighborhood was hardly multicultural. Rather, with roughly 80 percent of the population of Moroccan origin, it was tragically conformist and homogenous. There may be a vibrant alternative culture in Casablanca and Marrakech, but certainly not in Molenbeek.
Over nine years, I witnessed the neighborhood become increasingly intolerant. Alcohol became unavailable in most shops and supermarkets; I heard stories of fanatics at the Comte des Flandres metro station who pressured women to wear the veil; Islamic bookshops proliferated, and it became impossible to buy a decent newspaper. With an unemployment rate of 30 percent, the streets were eerily empty until late in the morning. Nowhere was there a bar or café where white, black and brown people would mingle. Instead, I witnessed petty crime, aggression, and frustrated youths who spat at our girlfriends and called them “filthy whores.” If you made a remark, you were inevitably scolded and called a racist. There used to be Jewish shops on Chaussée de Gand, but these were terrorized by gangs of young kids and most closed their doors around 2008. Openly gay people were routinely intimidated, and also packed up their bags.
I finally left Molenbeek in 2014. It was not out of fear. The tipping point, I remember, was an encounter with a Salafist, who tried to convert me on my street. It boiled down to this: I could no longer stand to live in this despondent, destitute, fatalistic neighborhood.
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How did Molenbeek become Europe’s jihadi base? Essentially, it has to do with Belgium’s messy governance and the culture of denial that pervades the debate about Islam in the country. Molenbeek is a vibrant community, with narrow streets and a busy street life. There is a teahouse on every corner, a quiet mosque on every block, where people can congregate undisturbed. There are cheap apartments galore, no questions asked. Just like the guerrilla can hide in the jungle, jihadis feel safe in the disorganized Kashba of Molenbeek. The highway and the city’s busiest international railroad station are a stone’s throw away. It’s the perfect logistical base.
It is nearly impossible to explain to an outsider, but Belgium is a country of six governments, Brussels a city with 19 mayors. These many administrative posts are not filled with competent people. Security services are fragmented and tend to compete with one another. The lack of a strong, central authority may be one of the many quirks of this sometimes charmingly dysfunctional country, but just as it resulted in many botched trials — notably of the Brabant Killers, or “Nijvel Gang” who committed a series of violent raids between 1982 and 1985, and the Dutroux scandal in 1995, to name just two — it also creates the perfect breeding ground for potential terrorists.
But the most important factor is Belgium’s culture of denial. The country’s political debate has been dominated by a complacent progressive elite that firmly believes society can be designed and planned. Observers who point to unpleasant truths such as the high incidence of crime among Moroccan youth and violent tendencies in radical Islam are accused of being propagandists of the extreme-right, and are subsequently ignored and ostracized.
The debate is paralyzed by a paternalistic discourse in which radical Muslim youths are seen, above all, as victims of social and economic exclusion. They in turn internalize this frame of reference, of course, because it arouses sympathy and frees them from taking responsibility for their actions. The former Socialist mayor Philippe Moureax, who governed Molenbeek from 1992 to 2012 as his private fiefdom, perfected this culture of denial and is to a large extent responsible for the current state of affairs in the neighborhood.