Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Molenbeek, Europe’s capital of jihad?

By Jeroen Dewulf

Belgium has a sad record. With some 450 jihadists, it is Europe’s largest contributor per capita of ISIS fighters in Syria. The country has also been mentioned in connection to a series of recent ISIS attacks: In May 2014, a returned jihadist from Syria opened fire at the Jewish Museum in Brussels. In January 2015, two suspected jihadists were shot by the police in the city of Verviers. In August 2015, two members of the U.S. military stopped a jihadist attacker who had boarded a train in Brussels.

Sint-Jans-Molenbeek or Molenbeek-Saint-Jean is one of 19 municipalities in the Brussels region of Belgium.

It now turns out that the recent ISIS massacre in Paris had been planned in Brussels. Strangely enough, all men involved in these attacks have a connection to a place called Molenbeek. What had long been a forgotten neighborhood in the suburbs of Brussels is now suddenly in the spotlight of the international media as Europe’s “capital of jihad.” What went wrong in Molenbeek?

Once a sleepy town that had developed around a mill (molen) near a stream (beek), Molenbeek became absorbed by Brussels in the beginning of the nineteenth century. Brussels was then a heavily industrialized city that grew exponentially. In a matter of decades, Molenbeek’s farmlands and forests made way for houses for the city’s fast-growing working-class population.

Brussels’ new municipality suffered deeply, however, from the industrialized crisis that hit the Belgian capital in the aftermath of the Great Depression. Those who had money left for the city’s green periphery and those who remained did not have the means to prevent a general decline. By 1970, Molenbeek had become a synonym for dilapidation, crime and social deprivation.

New immigrants

It was then that the first immigrants moved in. They had come to Belgium as “guest workers” in the 1950s and 60s. While the original idea was that they would return to their respective countries once the Belgian economy no longer needed them as a cheap workforce, the vast majority of these men decided to stay. After the Belgian government had consented to family reunion, tens of thousands of families from Southern Europe, Morocco and Turkey settled in the suburbs of the country’s largest cities. In those years, Molenbeek changed dramatically and it didn’t take long for immigrants and their Belgian-born children to become the majority of the population.

Molenbeek peace poster
A poster promoting peace and solidarity with Molenbeek and rejecting violence and extremism.

These children faced major difficulties growing up in one of the country’s poorest municipalities. Unfamiliar with the Belgian school system and social customs, their parents were often unable to provide guidance. The results were dramatic. Teenagers massively dropped out of school and ended up in petty crime, making Molenbeek Belgium’s municipality with the highest youth unemployment (currently around 50 percent) and crime rate. Molenbeek became the epitome of what the Dutch scholar Paul Scheffer in 2000 labelled Europe’s “multicultural drama,” the transformation of a beautiful dream about colorful diversity into a dark nightmare.

In 2001, Molenbeek became linked to terrorism for the first time when two of its Moroccan-born residents, Karim Touzani and Kacem Bakkali, assassinated the Afghan commander Ahmad Shad Massoud. It was the beginning of a long list of jihadist acts with a link to the Brussels’ suburb: Hassan El Haski, one of the organizers of the Madrid train bombings in 2004, Mehdi Nemmouche, who killed four people in an attack on the Jewish Museum of Brussels in 2014, Sofiane Amghar and Khalid Ben Larbi, who died in an anti-terrorism operation in Verviers in January 2015, Ayoub El Khazzani, who tried to commit a mass murder on a train to Paris in August 2015, Salah Abdeslam, Bilal Hadfi and Brahim Abdeslam, perpetrators of the recent Paris shootings, and Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the alleged mastermind of the Paris attack, all lived in Molenbeek. While this long list does not justify the stigmatization of Molenbeek as the “capital of jihad,” it does reveal a continuous connection to jihadism for over a decade.

Why Molenbeek?

book cover
Johan Leman coedited this book on European multiculturalism.

Opinions diverge over the causes of the growth of jihadism in Molenbeek. Left-wing scholars primarily point at the suburb’s social problems. Johan Leman, who has worked in the Molenbeek social aid center Foyer since 1981, had been warning politicians for decades that the lack of state support to tackle Molenbeek’s social problems would have disastrous consequences.

“If you don’t have a future and if you are socially dead,” he said in a recent interview, “you may opt for a heroic death. And this is what happens with a number of youngsters here.” Other scholars pointed out, however, that the radicalization in Molenbeek precisely occurred during the twenty consecutive years (1992-2012) that the municipality was ruled by the Socialist Party and argue that easy access to social benefits does not stimulate immigrants to integrate, but rather facilitates the opposite. It was, in any case, embarrassing news for the Molenbeek administration that some of its former residents who had joined ISIS in Syria were until recently still receiving monthly benefits.

book cover
Journalist Arthur van Amerongen’s 2008 book

One of the first to warn that Molenbeek had a serious problem with extremism was Hind Fraihi, whose work as an undercover journalist was published in 2006 as Undercover in Little Morocco (2006). Fraihi, herself a Muslim, commented in an interview that it pained her to see “how extremists get more and more influence. I feel how they try to force their vision also on moderate Muslims. In some neighborhoods you’ll be spit and cursed at if you are an unveiled Muslim woman.” She also warned in 2006 that it wouldn’t surprise her “if tomorrow a new suicide terrorist from Belgium will commit an attack.”

Fraihi faced strong criticism because of her book. It was called a “hunt for sensation” and some accused her of “seeing a problem that wasn’t there,” which would only play into the hands of Belgium’s anti-immigration party Vlaams Belang.

Two years later, a new warning about Molenbeek could be heard when Dutch journalist Arthur van Amerongen published a book with the provocative title Brussels: Eurabia. Van Amerongen also warned against the rise of Islamic extremism in Molenbeek and accused authorities not to intervene out of fear of losing the “conservative Muslim vote.”

At the time, mainstream media rejected the book as islamophobia and swept it under the politically correct carpet. In a reaction to the Paris shooting, Van Amerongen said: “Ten years ago, I was demonized in Belgium because of my book. Now, they see me as a prophet.”

Bilal Benyaich, political scientist at the University of Brussels, shares Leman’s opinion about the lack of opportunities for the Molenbeek youth but also points an accusing finger in the direction of Saudi Arabia and its support for fundamentalist Salafism. “The growth of Salafism in Belgium is directly related to proselytism sponsored by Saudi Arabia,” Benyaich claims.

To prevent Salafism from further growing in Molenbeek and elsewhere in Europe will be difficult, since it has four strong allies: freedom of religion, freedom of speech, the internet and a seemingly endless flow of money from the Arabian Peninsula. One should also acknowledge that with its purist interpretation of Islam that places a holy book above the constitution, Salafism does not do anything different than orthodox currents within Judaism or Christianity.

Nor can one make Salafism directly responsible for terrorism. Rather, these are acts committed by small groups of radicals that split away from apolitical and conservative Salafism. It can be feared, however, that with the further growth of Salafism in Europe, the number of those who end up choosing the path of jihadism will increase.

Perhaps the most poignant report on the dreadful situation in Molenbeek comes from a former teacher of Bilal Hadfi, the 20-year old who blew himself up in front of the Paris soccer stadium. “Bilal used to be a fine young man, one of my best students,” she says, “but he changed after he got in touch with the wrong people. I know he is guilty for what has happened in Paris, but I can’t just see him as a perpetrator. Bilal was also a victim of pure indoctrination.”