Two months ago, like any other self-respecting Belgian, I was watching the friendly football match Belgium-Italy from my temporary flat in Mumbai. Even if you are not especially fond of football you can’t miss a game between your country’s team and one of the best football teams of all times. For the record, our national team has been recently ranked first even though we have never won any football trophy and neither have we been selected to play the UEFA European Football Championship since 2000 (we automatically qualified because we were the host country with The Netherlands). This is totally surreal.
Actually, Belgium is a surrealist country and we Belgian people, are quite proud of it. We are internationally recognized for our surrealism, from the painter Magritte to maybe more recently, the singer Stromae. To add to my surrealist claim, our Belgian Red Devils actually won 3-1 against the SquadraAzzura, and our substitute goalkeeper was elected Man of the Match. Surrealism again.
But what shocked me the most happened while I was half-listening to the post-match interviews. They were talking about bomb blasts outside the Stade de France in Paris. I quickly changed channels and saw French journalists speaking about 3 people being killed in Paris. Because of the time-difference, it was 4am in India and I went to sleep. When I woke up, the number of deaths had considerably risen. The facts are now well-known: 130 people were killed that night and more than 350 were injured. Daesh, the Islamic ‘State’, had struck in France.
The investigations that followed these terrible attacks, showed my home-country Belgium as the breeding ground for extremists. The Brussels municipality of Molenbeek-Saint-Jean, was where some of the attackers had lived for a short period of time and the November 13 Paris attacks had been organized. But is Molenbeek really the new Islamic fiefdom in Europe as described in the news media? Belgium, as a hub of terrorism–really? The statistics that have come up after the attacks are indeed quite frightening: on a per capita basis, Belgium seems to be the biggest exporter of jihadists to Syria. SURREAL.
The attacks and the statistics throw up many questions: I ask myself how could it be possible? Is it due to the decision of the Belgian Government to entrust ‘control’ of mosques and religious institutions in the country to Saudi Arabia which helped gain affordable energy supplies from the Middle East country? Does this imply that Islam had been taken over by Wahhabism and Salafism? Or is it a failure of the Belgian Government’s integration system of the migrants that have been coming over from across the world for over two-decades?
A cursory look at some of the problems that Belgium as a country faces starts with the fact that we are unable to feel like a united nation (except during our national football matches). Indeed, Belgium is geographically-linguistically-politically-culturally-economically divided among our three regions (Flanders, Wallonia, Brussels) and three Communities (Dutch-speaking, French-speaking, German-speaking). Surrealism again! It would take me hours to explain to you how the Belgium structure works, but I think this 5-minute video could give you a good overview of the Belgian mess (even if there are some mistakes in it).
Nevertheless, to come back to the first point, it is true that this is not the first time there has been a link between Molenbeek and terrorism (speaking at the least): the assassination of the Afghan anti-Taliban commander Massoud two days before 9/11, the Madrid train bombings in 2004, the Jewish Museum of Belgium shooting in Brussels last year, the dismantling of a terrorist cell in Verviers (Belgium) a few days after Charlie Hebdo shootings, and more recently the aborted attack on a Thalys train between Brussels and Paris.
But where could this link come from? Some claim it is because of a certain laxity in policies of the political party which was governing Molenbeek during the last decades and had facilitated an immigration wave (12% in 5 years and 30% in 15 years) in the interests of creating a vote-bank but without any view towards integration. Surrealism, but in the wrong way. Indeed, this ‘community model’could just explain the development of a radical Islam in this neighbourhood.
Actually in this case we can’t talk about ‘integration’ but about ‘separation’ (regarding Berry’s Model of Acculturation): we have welcomed immigrants but ‘accommodated’ them in underprivileged districts where social exclusion has been already well-established. Because before being ‘famous’ worldwide, Molenbeek and especially its large concentration of North African origin population have already suffered from prejudices.
However, we have to be careful to not be caught in a vicious circle by blaming all of them for the surge of extremism in Europe.
I say this because Belgian people are proud of the good things that my country has to offer. I am proud of my country with its notion of good-living and of my cosmopolitan capital city where you can hear languages from around the world at every street corner. Hence,‘diversity’ does not mean ‘nest of terrorists’! Belgium as a terrorism hub? Daesh’s barbarians don’t need frontiers to take root as I believe they have no idea about what a ‘state’ is. They first establish their zone regarding the language they can speak to infiltrate us more easily. Moreover people seem to forget that Brussels is also the European Union’s capital—an ideal target for Daesh.
But, it is high time for our country to manage the integration process in a better way, particularly in Wallonia where French and citizenship courses for newcomers are still not obligatory, making it more difficult for them to find a job and in turn get integrated into the economy. A new bill was eventually introduced in 2015.
These measures, however, should not inspire Islamophobia. I’d like to think we are a welcoming and open-minded population. Which we are, in general. You should come visit Brussels and the surrounding areas to see the real picture for yourself, come visit us and you will be warmly welcomed by both north and south parts of the country.
Moreover, the threat level is now ‘only’ at 2, so less policemen and soldiers on the streets to ‘ruin’ your tourist pictures. Indeed in November, Belgium was on security threat level 4—public transportation had been interrupted in the capital, big events cancelled, universities and high schools closed. Some hospitals in the Kingdom too had been put on alert. It was a first for Belgium.
Police raids were carried out and a wave of attacks in Brussels had been aborted! Though, this anti-terror operation is another example of a surreal Beligium as Belgians were asked by the police force to not disclose any information on ongoing operations via social networks with the hashtag #BrusselsLockdown. So Belgians decided to reply with humour and cover the tracks of the investigation by posting and sharing (lol) cat pictures on Twitter. Surrealism again and again. Even in times of crisis. And maybe the police response is even more surrealist as they tweeted a message of thanks “to all these cats” saying to “serve themselves” with a picture of a full cat bowl.
I would like to conclude this post by saying that in the motto of France—Liberté, égalité, fraternité – “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” – our ‘liberty’ is probably the most affected through these attacks in November, but it is through our ‘fraternity’ that we will stand up and rise again. We must stand shoulder to shoulder with our fellow people from France, Liban, Mali, Nigeria, Egypt, Russia, Iraq, Syria and all the other countries struck by Daesh and avoid equating Islam with terrorism. Because that is what they are waiting for. To divide us, to take control in an easier way. Don’t forget: L’union fait la force. The motto of Belgium. “Unity makes strength”. Indeed. Now more than ever. And this is not surrealism.