A few years ago I hung out with a young Palestinian in the Brussels district of Molenbeek. My friend told me that the area made him feel at home. It wasn’t hard to see why: the coffee shops served a potent brew, the bakeries were full of calorific delights and the stores were ideal for the eclectic bargain-hunter.
For the past few days, Molenbeek has been depicted as far less charming. A key suspect in Friday’s horrific attacks on Paris grew up there. With a weary inevitability, that has given some commentators a license to demonize the entire neighborhood.
Molenbeek is considered a “nest of terrorists,” in the words of a high-profile Belgian journalist. The country’s interior minister is promising a major “cleaning” exercise in the area. Charles Michel, the prime minister, wants to combat the “preachers of hate.”
There are racist undercurrents to the discourse, especially in the haste to blame Philippe Moureaux, Molenbeek’s former mayor. The first time I heard Moureaux speak he expressed pride in the warm relations he had developed with the local Muslim community.
When Moureaux noted that Molenbeek has been likened to Casablanca, he appeared to regard that as a compliment. Yet his political rivals have used the comparison in a pejorative sense.
Moureaux was mayor for almost two decades, yet left the post in 2012. According to his successor, Françoise Schepmans, his policies were a “glaring failure.” Schepmans stated during the weekend that she never believed in Moureaux’s “socio-multicultural laboratory.”
Amid all this knee-jerking, a few salient facts have been overlooked. The despicable acts of violence witnessed in Paris and Beirut in recent days are not the side effects of a multicultural experiment. They are the direct consequences of Western imperialism.
Belgium has supported many of the US-led initiatives that led to the rise of Islamic State.
Wisely, Belgium did not join the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq in 2003. Yet it has generally been obsequious towards the United States. In the past two years, it has sent a batch of F-16 warplanes, ostensibly to bomb Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria.
Belgium hosts both American nuclear weapons and the headquarters of NATO, an American-controlled military alliance. This fall, a handful of Belgian firms formed a “partnership” with the US weapons giant Lockheed Martin; its aim is to replace Belgium’s F-16 fleet with spanking new warplanes.
As Molenbeek gets vilified, it is conveniently forgotten that its people and, to some extent, elected representatives have displayed a commitment to fighting oppression.
In June, the local council voted to exclude companies which contribute to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza from public service contracts. Molenbeek’s squares and community centers have also witnessed protests and conferences in support of Palestinian rights.
I’m certainly not saying that there are no extremists in this neighborhood. Extremists who live there or anywhere else should, of course, be investigated and, if there is solid evidence against them, arrested. Repression or major “cleaning” operations are no substitute for meticulous and properly resourced policing.
I don’t have much confidence in the Belgian police. For the past decade, I lived in Jette, an area that adjoins Molenbeek. Most times I spotted the officer assigned to take care of our street, he was drinking beer — while uniformed and armed — in the nearest bar.
The local force was laughably ill-equipped. During the summer, I went to report a threatening message that I received on Facebook. To my astonishment, I was told by an officer on duty that the local police station didn’t have an Internet connection.
The only sensible alternative to such an amateurish approach is to become professional. I wouldn’t put money on the Brussels police reaching that goal any time soon.
Incompetence becomes extremely dangerous when it is mixed with a culture of racism. Such racism is undoubtedly widespread in the Brussels police. It can be witnessed in everyday scenes in which police hassle people of dark skin on the streets, demanding that they produce their identity cards, something that white Europeans living here are seldom requested to do. On occasions, it has manifested itself in outright brutality.
The immediate response to the Paris atrocities suggests that the authorities in France and Belgium have committed themselves to a series of actions that will make the underlying problems worse. There will be more bombing abroad and increased hostility towards Muslims at home.
The West is doing exactly what Islamic State wants.