By James Mackle
The French polemicist Eric Zemmour lived up to his title after the terrorist attacks on his country’s capital. He proclaimed that ‘’instead of bombing Raqqa (Daech’s stronghold in Syria), we should be bombing Molenbeek”, a suburb of Brussels in Belgium. Quite how serious he is remains to be seen. This is a man who took a line in a rap song about him as a ‘’death threat’’ that he reported to the French police, after all.
But behind Zemmour’s gasp for attention in the heaving masses of media hysteria, there remains a fundamental question as to how these attack were planned in the capital of Europe rather than the capital of the Caliphate. How Brusselaren, 3rd generation immigrants, had decided to execute such a plan in cold blood. This hurts us Brusselaren more than any words of a French polemicist. Our prime minister, Charles Michel, whose political stronghold is just a half-hour south of Brussels, has had to justify how we let Molenbeek “get out of hand”.
There are several theories about the demographical layout of Brussels and the causes of the ‘’hotbed of extremism.’’ Let us first start by stating that the ISLAM party of Brussels, which is as close as politically possible to demanding Islamist sharia law, got just two percent in Molenbeek alone. The same statistics are reproduced for Vlaams Belang, the Flemish separatist party with a violent history of neo-fascism. That doesn’t stop both aggressive Flemish hooligans calling for the expulsion of French speakers from the city, and apparently terrorist jihadist cells with direct links to ISIS in the Orient, from roaming the streets where European institutions lie. But it does give some perspective to the overall political standing of our city.
Political opportunists have called the layout of Brussels akin to ghettoization of certain communities. Personal experience would say otherwise: Brussels has an insane amount of variety per square meter. Suburbs such as Molenbeek would have Turks, Maghrebis and Albanians mixing with the Brusselaren, Italian workhand and the Congolese. They were very different, but lived side by side. It was only until 9/11 that they seemed to be all lumped into the same nominal variable, according to a social worker there. Antwerp, Flanders’ diamond city, is a much more ghettoized demographic, and while it has no lack of communitarian problems, it doesn’t seem to have the lack of integration one can perceive when walking around Brussels.
The concept known as “white flight” did emerge, although it is less black and white (with no pun intended) than originally thought. Many of the locals, already skilled with languages would receive the top jobs. Higher salaries, and the fervent Belgian commitment to company cars, meant an opportunity to move out of the stressful city life to pastures, while crucially still working in Brussels. Many Flemish and particularly Walloons – who lost their coal and steel industry – also came to work in the capital, taking over the lower paid jobs. The latter contributed to the ‘’Frenchification’’ of Brussels, making it a natural relocation for Maghrebi immigrants not wanting the stigma that the Franco-Algerian struggle entailed in the French Hexagon.
The result is that you have a strong inner city population of immigrants who came to fulfil the low-pay work, while the top jobs, excluding the EU ones, are taken by people who have long since left their home city. The regionalisation of Belgium, pushed by Flemish nationalists and fuelled by Walloon stubbornness, led to Brussels becoming a region in itself. This meant that its guest workers pay communal and regional taxes to Mother Flanders and Father Wallonia, leaving little coin for development in an already crumbling suburb like Molenbeek. A Bruxselwa indentiteit (as the phonetic, hybrid language of the city boys denominate it) formed though, one that was held together by a siege mentality. Ni Flamand, Ni Wallon. Wij tegen Allemaal. Us versus the World. One that is all too easy to translate into the international political scene for young Muslims, passionate about perceived injustices of their religious community, in the area.
Poverty is sometimes cited as a causal effect of criminality. But rather than raw wealth as measurement of poverty in Brussels, one must look at opportunity as the structural reason. Opportunities are defined by what factors of productivity are available to a population. If there is a factor of production, essential for the worker in Brussels, it is the car. I once had a friend who posted a picture on social media with her driver’s licence, saying it was ‘’a permit to freedom.’’ She was not exaggerating. Many “suburbs” of Brussels are ludicrously cut off from anything remotely productive or interesting. Public transport is notoriously difficult (the fast train project was a subject of farce then frustration, as its due date was postponed seemingly year after year, for 15 years). To quote Rust Cohle of the True Detective series, we “might as well be living on the fucking moon,” no matter how close you feel to a city.
For a third generation boy with no prospects, a 35-strong class and a government that deliberately isolates his district from the rest of Brussels, there’s not much to strive for. There’s no travel to new beginnings after failure, let alone travel to exotic, luxurious summer holidays. There’s only that suburb for an indefinite amount of years. You fail, you are done. The immobility is less to do with transport, and more to do with aspiration. Boredom with lack of long term future prospects will only end in a seeking of immediate recognition and gratification, through even the most desperate and sickening means.
There’s a whole combination of other factors that also must have contributed to the Jihadist path. The play “Djihad!” by Ismael Saidi, who grew up in North Brussels, was praised for the way he took 3 completely different personalities, profiles and their problems and showed the banality of descent in radical Islam in a Western society. For Molenbeek is a profoundly Western society, despite what Zemmour, and other clichéd judges of what Western values constitute, would have us believe. It does not have the problems Syria has, it already has its own, different ones that relate to the individuals in question rather than entire communities like in Syria. For all the diagnosis on the ills of Brussels above, if we are to solve an entire community’s problem in the West, we must take as a unit of analysis the individual, just as the foundations of society would want us to. How does an unemployed individual perceive an army of eurocrats in their city that sing the praises of modern liberalism from their expensive, mostly empty offices? How does a love-struck individual handle a society that promises at the very least romantic fulfilment, if not excess, through its narrative-obsessed media? How does a bored, static individual find purpose in mundane city life when he is disinterested in the standard structures society expects of us, even in a liberal context?
Zemmour’s underlying message therefore might be correct: instead of ‘’solving’’ Syria or the entire Middle East (through throwing fireworks into a pub fight, as Scottish Comedian Frankie Boyle put it), and thinking this is somehow a solution to domestic problems, we should rethink our own, with our unit of analysis – the individual – rather than lazy ethno-cultural groups. We are too used to a paradisiac vision of our liberal society, and at the same time blaming the problems of individuals cheaply on their entourage. There are deep social problems in Molenbeek, but we must not use that as an excuse for not affording the attention that a tiny minority of individual require, or indeed any individual requires.