Molenbeek: A Troubled Neighborhood in a Failing State

by Andrew Stuttaford

In the course of a post last weekend, I linked to a bleak piece in Politico about Molenbeek, a Brussels neighborhood that has come into sharp focus after it emerged that some of the Paris attackers came from there.

Here’s an extract from that piece

Over nine years, as I witnessed the neighborhood become increasingly intolerant. Alcohol became unavailable in most shops and supermarkets; I heard stories of fanatics at the Comte des Flandres metro station who pressured women to wear the veil; Islamic bookshops proliferated, and it became impossible to buy a decent newspaper. With an unemployment rate of 30 percent, the streets were eerily empty until late in the morning. Nowhere was there a bar or café where white, black and brown people would mingle. Instead, I witnessed petty crime, aggression, and frustrated youths who spat at our girlfriends and called them “filthy whores.” If you made a remark, you were inevitably scolded and called a racist. There used to be Jewish shops on Chaussée de Gand, but these were terrorized by gangs of young kids and most closed their doors around 2008. Openly gay people were routinely intimidated, and also packed up their bags.

I have since come across a Corner post I wrote in 2006.  In it I discussed an article in the Wall Street Journal which included the observation that Brussels’ Socialists were beginning to pay attention to the city’s Muslim community. Noting that half of the Socialist Party’s 26-member slate in the city’s 75-seat parliament was then Muslim, I wrote as follows:

There’s nothing wrong with that in principle (in fact as a measure of integration it can be seen as encouraging), but to read this sentence is to wonder who, exactly, is integrating whom: “ In the commune of Molenbeek, longstanding Socialist mayor Philippe Moureaux has made Halal meals standard in all schools; police officers are also barred from eating or drinking on the streets during Ramadan.”

Fast forward nine years, and Teun Voeten, the cultural anthropologist and war photographer who is the author of the Politico piece, wrote this:

[Molenbeek] was hardly multicultural. Rather, with roughly 80 percent of the population of Moroccan origin, it was tragically conformist and homogenous. There may be a vibrant alternative culture in Casablanca and Marrakech, but certainly not in Molenbeek.

And now from the Daily Telegraph this:

Françoise Schepmans, mayor of Molenbeek, a Brussels district dubbed a “terrorists’ den” due its links with jihadists, has admitted receiving a list with the names and addresses of more than 80 people suspected as Islamic militants living in her area. This included Abdelhamid Abaaoud, a Molenbeek resident who had left for Syria to fight for the Islamic State in early 2014 and was killed last week outside Paris, along with Brahim Abdeslam , who blew himself up on the boulevard Voltaire and his brother Salah Abdeslam – currently on the run.

Ms Schepmans told the New York Times: “What was I supposed to do about them? It is not my job to track possible terrorists.” That, she added, was “the responsibility of the federal police”.

Belgium has come under criticism in France over its perceived intelligence failings before and after the attacks, with Le Monde newspaper calling it a “clearing house for jihadism” that risks becoming a fractious “nation without a state”.

In fact, hopelessly divided between the Flemings (Flanders should have gone its own way a long time ago) and the (French-speaking) Walloons, Belgium is not that much of a nation either. That it is both host and, in some senses,  prototype for the post-national EU is both appropriate and a warning. 

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