Blog post

Molenbeek: An inconvenient truth?

Stefan HertmansWed, 6 July 2016Inclusion

I live near the town of Brussels – a place that has been called a hellhole by Donald Trump some time ago. A town that suffers from touristic fallback, with half of the hotels having unrented rooms and even more having to shut down because people are afraid to come to Belgium after the cruel terrorist attacks on Zaventem Airport and in the heart of the city. Even more: I live not far from Molenbeek, still more of a hellhole if you have to believe the international press, and a no go area for every reasonable human being. Still more: I have friends living there. My brother, an excellent jazz musician, sometimes makes recordings in a studio in the heart of Molenbeek. Young documentary makers, actors, dancers and artists prefer to go to live in or around Molenbeek.

This of course seems to contrast in an almost absurd manner with the image the world has of this area.

Does this mean Molenbeek is a lovely suburb with flowering gardens and shining cars in front of suburban villas? No, it does not. Molenbeek is a problem area because it has been neglected for too long. But normal life is possible there too and several demographic groups try to live together there.

We all know that something weird is going on in postmodern politics. Unlike modernist politics, which were led by strong political personalities representing a majority that had voted for them, postmodern politics is held in a grip by radical minorities that dominate the media by spectacular deeds and gruesome statements. That means that postmodern politics isn’t central any more – there is no real centre from which thinking, debating and decision making can be produced. Postmodern politics is everywhere; it is not structured according to hierarchy and is a sort of splitter bomb pervading the farthest away corner of our world and our thinking.

This means that politics has become glocal – it is global, has to do with geopolitical problems, but is expressed in local areas, neatly chosen by people who want to destabilise our way of living. You know I am talking about ISIS, among others. And you know that this will bring me back to, exactly, Molenbeek.

As you might have read in the media, Belgium has been called a failed state because of the terrorist network that has been able to develop, grow and activate in Molenbeek and other Brussels downtown areas. This is a bit of a biting frustration for people like me, who find themselves to be Belgian and live near the European Parliament, which is considered to represent us all. Nobody has said after 9/11 that the US was a failed state and that the cause of this had to be sought in the federal construction of America. But this was exactly the argument when Brussels was attacked: it was because of the stupid quarrelling of Flemings and Walloons that the real problems were neglected. It was because of the complexity of the country that Molenbeek had become a hellhole.

These critics forget that half of the terrorists in Molenbeek also had apartments in Saint-Denis, a suburb of Paris. They forget that the problem with Maghreb immigrants is an international problem, which has been initiated by the Iraq War of 1991, for which half of the world at that moment warned: it would ignite a whole continent, and my god it did. The US had practically no clue of the way leaders like Saddam Hussein and later Khadafy kept the thousand year old quarrel between Shi’ites and Sunnites under control. It is relevant to realise that this clash with the Arab speaking world took place less than two years after the fall of the Iron Curtain: geopolitically speaking, the post-Soviet area, which many of the Arab countries belonged to, had to be reconquered by the west – that was the real crusade, and the true tragedy was that exactly this word, could wake thousand year old demons from their terrible slumber. And so it did. And it ignited all of our cities and countries, because the global immigration made it, since then, impossible to speak of ‘them’ and ‘us’, because many people with origins in those areas came to live in our societies.

This means that geographical pinning down and exclusion-politics (with words such as ‘rogue states’) had become completely absurd and would cut deep into our own neighbourhoods. And so they did. That means that the new threat did not come from somewhere outside, but from inside our societies. It was included and could not be excluded.

Now this is why, in an international city like Brussels, with more than 50 communities living in their own limited surroundings, with hardly one language dominating as lingua franca, often not able to understand or speak French or English, terrorists could stay beneath the radar. And of course I am ready to admit the guilt in the negligence of the Belgian police and politics. We were guilty of optimistic naivety – me, included. We truly believed that the well-known Brussels relativism, this live and let the others live in this is democracy, all will end well – that this was a possible way to evade tensions and give new generations the time to integrate without a colonial or paternalistic attitude from our side. This politics of non-commitment as a form of multiculturalist democracy, proved to be a huge miscalculation. Such as the absurd naivety of Belgian King Baldwin, sixty years ago, when he gave the Brussels Grand Mosque in a 99 year-long lease to Saudi Arabia, thinking in the euphoric and orientalist romanticism of the great Brussels Expo of 1958, when we could still believe that the near east was primarily a dream tourist place, visited by the well-to-do smiling progressive elites buying nice touristic stuff in the souks or giving a nice tip to the gentle grocer.

Just to say: when thinking about the local problems of Brussels and Molenbeek, I cannot think of global problems which led to this deadlock in which democracy seems to need to abolish itself in order to protect itself: police everywhere, control everywhere, soldiers in front of public buildings, shut downs, tracking cars on the highway, the right to steal my private email and telephone conversations. In this respect, terrorists have already succeeded immensely: they have stolen a good deal of the freedom from us all, the freedom my generation of baby boomers grew up with. This means that at this stage, Europe seems to be kept hostage by a strange paradox: while ever more European Muslims cry out for emancipation and participation in the democratic process, we ourselves are deconstructing exactly the societal freedom they hope to find in our western societies. While they try to move forward to integration in freedom and democracy, we are moving backward to controlled, paranoid societies with police and cameras everywhere, anxious and reproaching ourselves, our former freedom as a form of naivety. Obviously this regressive movement, this obsession with the radical minorities is not the solution. It is not by dreaming of sterile white fenced nations that we are going to solve a global demographic movement which came along with global politics and which cannot possibly be turned backwards.

I began this talk by saying that to me, Brussels is the city where I live. It is even the city I love. I adore the huge cultural richness, the fact that it is a brooding place for many new talents, a city where diversity is the reality of the day and where many people live together in a melting pot that only predicts the future for the entire population of Europe. And I do want to acknowledge that the too complex political structure of Belgium is one of the causes of the naivety and slackening of attention in Brussels for urgent demographic problems. But the simple fact is that we have to go on with our lives and that shutdowns, controlled areas and soldiers in the street are only a victory for ISIS.

So exclusion politics won’t work. We will have to think about inclusion – one of the first simple things could be, that journalists everywhere in Europe stop putting Muslim communities in a spiritual ghetto. One Muslim inhabitant in Brussels being asked why he didn’t come down to the streets to protest against ISIS, answered: because we are working. We are working in hospitals, in administration, in public transport, we are busy just like other Belgians. So you will find us among the other Belgian protesters. That is an excellent answer.

It reminds me of a typical Brussels joke that runs as follows.

On a summer evening, after a few drinks too much, some drunken Flemings and Walloons start quarrelling in a bar. The quarrel rises, they go out in the street yelling and pulling and someone slaps another in the face. A police combi drives by, stops and asks them to stop the quarrel immediately. The officer shouts: Flemish to the right, Walloons to the left (you can see he had political vision). One man in a kaftan remains alone in the middle of the street. And you? yells the officer? What do you do there? I don’t know which side to go to Sir, he answers, I am Belgian, look, I got my passport today!

Just to say: as long as we will think of ‘them’ and ‘us’, the quarrel won’t stop. Inclusion means that we try to find out why young boys of the third generation of immigrants radicalise. We know some answers – Saudis imported wahabism, since King Baldwin gave this fine international gift of the Grand Mosque to them. We know too many of them remain unemployed. We know they have often run away from school to start small criminal deeds, selling drugs and cars, stealing and cheating their way in a world which seems not to open for them.

And although I fully understand people who say: come on, let’s stop saying they are victims; immigrating Italians, Polacks, and Turks didn’t react this way, did they? I still have to consider this social exclusion as one of the main reasons for European terrorism of today.

If we want to understand a bit of the mentality of radicalised youngsters, we should, all of us, watch for a few days the Arab television networks and internet sites. What we call collateral damage in a just war, is to them a crime against innocent people. What we call a just war to dethrone or defend Sadat, however, is to them translated in images they watch all day on flatscreens in the cafés: bombings, burning down houses, people screaming in terror, dead children, - all the terror they brought back to the heart of our societies with the label: return to sender.

This is the real tragedy. It is international, it is global, it is local. It can happen tomorrow in your neighbourhood, and I promise you I won’t call your country a failed state, though I hope it will not happen again. But it will. We know it will.

Therefore we need a lot of new political understandings, beginning with self-analysis of how we would feel if we were treated the way we treat a lot of ‘them’. What we need is a way to consider our Muslim populations as people ‘from us’, who belong to our way of living. By not talking about nations, but about populations.

European Islam is becoming stronger and more visible every day. It copes with many problems in some of the closed communities living in their own wronged and discontented bubble of revenge and frustration. It has a long way to go. But the fact that French Muslims defended a church on Christmas Eve against attacks is as well tragic as hopeful. It is hopeful that some Muslims protest in our streets against ISIS. ISIS has not been able to foresee that their utter cruelties speed up the emancipation of European Islam. But they do.  

And the only way we can help this emancipation grow is by stopping to talk of people in general terms. Much has been said about the wrongs of individualism that infected western societies after the student revolutions of May 68. But maybe, with a huge amount of individual contacts that we now only talk about and don’t practice, we can help a lot of people out there to start to feel belonging to a society that from every corner screams in technicolour dreams about freedom of consumption, wealth and elegance. This demands empathy from us, the willingness to listen to somebody you meet on the pavement and start talking with them. It means reading one of the newly-published books by Muslim intellectuals and writers. It just supposes that we come out and reach as many people as we can.

I think it was the Danish philosopher Kierkegaard who once wrote that your morals reach as far as you can walk on foot in a day. That is a perfect ideal for all of us to start with. So let’s get out in the streets and talk to people.

It means I will return to Brussels and walk the streets of Molenbeek. It does not mean that I will be able to talk with every individual, radicalised or not. It does not mean I will be welcomed by some hardliners. There is a long way to go, and the path is winding and difficult. But it is the only way out of the deadlock we find ourselves in. We will have to learn to think globally and act locally, from person to person. I know: radicalisation is swift and integration is slow. Radicalism is a global network. Therefore it has no sense to shut down ourselves in white anxious states with iron fences: terrorists do not think in nineteenth century definitions of nation states. They think more international than most European politicians. That is why we lag behind. The future will reach us anyhow and it is a global movement. Let’s go out in the streets, massively, and talk to them who we have to give the feeling that they belong. That is a true war against ISIS. It is based on western values we tend to suffocate ourselves out of.

Stefan Hertmans is a Belgian author. He gave one of the connect.reflect.act Talks during the Forum. Examples of his work include the poems The Crossing and On the Run.

(Articles posted on this blog represent the views and opinions of the authors)

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