More than 2,000 people gathered on Wednesday in Brussels’ Molenbeek neighbourhood.
Benoit, a Belgian living in another part of Brussels, said he had come to show solidarity with Molenbeek’s Muslim community. “I don’t like the way the world and my government stigmatises this place. We must support people instead of sinking them.”
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Molenbeek made headlines after it emerged that two of the men allegedly behind the Paris attack lived there.
“We aren’t terrorists,” four Muslim girls with headscarves started to chant nearby. “Islam is peace! Islam est la paix!” they continued, forming their fingers into the shape of a heart.
Men, women and children laid out candles in a pattern spelling the community’s name – Molenbeek.
But they could barely move for all the journalists who tried to photograph them. “This is an appeal to the press,” a high-pitched voice yelled through a microphone. “Please step away! We are here to bring light but you’re in the way. We can’t see the message!”
The plea came from Malika Saissi, a Molenbeek resident for the past 25 years. “We light candles for the victims of terrorism, in Paris, in Palestine,” she had explained to Al Jazeera a day earlier. “But light is also needed against obscurantism, including the media’s. They paint a black picture of us, which only fuels extremism.”
After details emerged about the Paris attackers having been based in Molenbeek, Charles Michel, Belgium’s prime minister, said the area “was involved in almost every terrorist attack of recent years”.
Jan Jambon, the Belgian interior minister, promptly pledged to “clean it up”.
Both France and Belgium launched a manhunt on Monday involving snipers, stun grenades, forced break-ins and arrests that received wide media coverage. But Salah Abdeslam, the only surviving suspect of the Paris attack, made it back to Belgium despite being stopped and released by French police on the way, and remains on the run.
Meanwhile, newspapers from Paris to Perth described Molenbeek as an “Islamist pit stop“, a “terrorist airbase“, a “jihadi haven”, Belgium’s safe haven for foreign fighters, a misery ghetto with four times more mosques than churches, and a “no-go zone“.
On the French radio network, RTL, journalist Eric Zemmour joked that France should bomb Molenbeek rather than Raqqa.
Hundreds of journalists have flocked here since the attacks, broadcasting from outside the house where two of the suspected attackers used to live, as their family members locked themselves inside.
A political ‘blame game’
“Things can’t go on like this,” says Malika Saissi.
“They say there were four attacks [with links to Molenbeek]. That’s three too many. The mayor had the suspects’ names on a list and didn’t do anything. Once more the government just waited for a catastrophe to happen.
“Some of our youth is lost and fragile. They want to die. To join ISIL is to decide to die. The authorities must stop them. They are responsible for helping people find a place as Belgian citizens.”
Dave Sinardet is a professor of political science at The Free University of Brussels. He describes the political response to the Paris attacks as a shameful blame game. “France criticised Belgium, which pointed out Molenbeek and its former mayor, a Socialist rival who resigned three years ago. He ruled the commune for 20 years and turned a blind eye to radicalisation.”
But everyone should feel responsible for failing to stop the attacks, Sinardet says.
Jambon has said that stopping such attacks is made difficult by the fact that suspects use Playstation to communicate. He also regretted that Belgium can’t withdraw nationality for fourth generation migrants.
‘Under the radar’
Bilal Benyaich is the author of two books on radicalism, extremism and terrorism. He says suggestions that Brussels is a “capital of jihad” are “exaggerated”, but that it is the “European capital of political Islam”. It is a mistake to conflate the two, he adds.
In the 1970s, Belgium invited Saudi-backed Salafi imams to preach in the city.
Their doctrine was strange to Brussels’ Muslim population, which is mostly of North African Maghreb in origins. But it has since taken root.
“Most Salafists are radical, but not all of them are violent,” Benyaich says. “But they promote ideas that can inspire people to commit violence, for religious and political reasons. They have had a major influence on several generations of young people born in Belgium to a Muslim background.”
Proportionately, Belgium has more citizens fighting for armed groups abroad than any other Western country. According to the UN, around 500 Belgians have at some point fought for ISIL. One hundred and thirty of them are back in the country.
“ISIL is stronger than al-Qaeda ever was,” says Benyaich. They have ten thousand trained men who can go back to their home countries, who have networks and influence and could become violent.”
And Belgian authorities underestimate the extent of the problem that poses, he says.
It has emerged that Salah Abdeslam and his brother Brahim as well as Bilal Hadfi, a Belgian citizen who blew himself up at Stade de France, were listed by OCAM, the Belgian agency responsible for analysing threats.
Police interviewed the brothers after Brahim unsuccessfully tried to travel to Syria. They knew one of them was frequently travelling to Paris in the weeks before Friday’s attacks.
OCAM’s list was also known by Molenbeek’s current mayor. “It’s completely unacceptable that a commando [unit] of nine people, with suicide belts and Kalashnikovs, with attacks in several spots in a world city – a huge logistical operation … goes under the radar,” says Benyaich.
He says the security and intelligence services in Belgium, but also those across the EU and elsewhere, must detect, inform and communicate better. They need bigger budgets and a better understanding of urban and religious subcultures, he says.
Benyaich says he regrets that the Belgian security service has few Arabic speakers and that most of those it does have are white Belgians who learned the language at university.
“They can read ISIL communiques, but don’t get the socioeconomic, ethno-cultural and urban subcultural background of what’s happening in communities.”
It’s also critical to stop the illegal arms trade, he says.
In Brussels’ competitive economic market, formal jobs can be hard to find, leaving many to make a living from the black market.
“It’s not the first time that arms were bought in Brussels to be used in a massacre in another European country,” says Benyaich. “Belgium has since a couple of years ago quite strict weapon laws but they are not enforced.”