The „Belgian” Islam and the „French” Islam: urban phenomena / Brussels, a…

Sursa Foto: Arhiva Personală

The „Belgian” Islam and the „French” Islam: urban phenomena / Brussels, a city managed by 19 distinct entities with quasi-medieval autonomy

Now, after the presumed terrorist who fatally shot two Swedish supporters on Monday evening was in turn killed by the police, who intercepted him this morning in a cafe in the Schaerbeek district of Brussels, more details about him are emerging.

45 years old and of Tunisian nationality, Abdesalem L. applied for asylum in 2019, a request that was denied, and he was therefore residing illegally in Belgium.

He lived in the Schaerbeek district, an extremely mixed area, just like Saint-Josse or Molenbeek and Anderlecht, the latter known for their football teams. They are central districts of Brussels traditionally called communes.


A Brief Portrait of Brussels

It’s important to remember that, at the same time, most of the perpetrators of the 2015 Paris attacks (130 dead) came from Brussels, particularly from the heavily Muslim-concentrated neighborhood of Molenbeek. These were followed, in 2016, by the Brussels bombings at the international airport and metro stations (38 dead).

Outside Belgium, many have written about Molenbeek, a hotbed of Islamism, as if it were a city, or a „locality,” when in reality, it’s just a district of Brussels. According to official statistics, Brussels stands out as one of the most diverse cities in the world, right after Dubai. In Brussels, 62% of residents were born abroad (in Dubai, it’s over 80%). Between a quarter and a third of the population are Muslim, the highest proportion of any Western capital.

Molenbeek must be understood within the specific context of Belgium, and especially within the bizarre tapestry of medieval administrative remnants that is Brussels.

Brussels is the third-wealthiest region in Europe after London and Paris. There are enormous disparities from one neighborhood to another. The administrative entities (districts, sectors)—those „communes”—number 19 and possess a quasi-medieval type of autonomy, each with its own police force, urban planning, local taxes, and folkloric peculiarities… A conglomerate of 19 entities with distinct identities.

The chaotic manner in which the city has been constructed in recent decades (making Brussels a negative example of urban planning on par with Bucharest) has further emphasized local and cultural identities from one commune to another.

Spanning 160 km2, half of which is greenery, Brussels is literally crossed by two highways, a result of the absence of urban planning policies up until the 1990s. Two parallel „highways” pass through the European quarter (Rue de la Loi and Belliard), with one also cutting through a small portion of Cinquantenaire Park near the EU institutions. The inner ring, with a pentagonal route surrounding the old city, is essentially a highway as well.

Brussels generates 20% of the Belgian GDP, houses the EU, NATO, and many other international organizations, but with over 20% of its population unemployed, unemployment is above the EU average. In some of these impoverished neighborhoods with a strong Muslim immigrant identity (Anderlecht, Saint-Josse, Molenbeek, Schaerbeek), unemployment exceeds 50%.

Half of the young people live in families where multiple languages are spoken.

The city, with over a million inhabitants, is wealthy, but the population is poor. The average income is 1,000 euros per month, on the edge of poverty, below the national minimum wage which is nearly 1,500 euros. The poorest commune in both Brussels and all of Belgium is the central district of Saint-Josse, right next to the EU institutions. Whereas in other communes the population density is three times less than in Bucharest, in St-Josse, a commune of 1 km^2, the density is 23,000 inhabitants per km^2, comparable to Calcutta and Bombay. Of the 22,000 residents of Saint-Josse, 90% are immigrants. It’s a majority-Muslim commune, made up of Turks and Moroccans. The mayor is a Turkish socialist: Emir Kir.

St-Josse, Schaerbeek, and the central neighborhoods in general are the poorest region in all of Belgium. Following the model of many major American cities, the center is impoverished, while the suburbs are wealthy and affluent. Brussels is thus the opposite of typical European capitals like Amsterdam or Paris, where the center is prosperous and the suburbs are impoverished.

Urban Phenomena

The phenomenon of Islam in France should be viewed within the specific context of French republicanism and secularism. Officially, ethnic and religious statistics are banned in France, so we don’t know the number of Muslims. All French citizens are just that – citizens of the republic, regardless of origin and religion.

In neighboring Belgium, however, an ethnically federalized kingdom between Flemings and Walloons, the situation is the exact opposite of France. Yet despite this, Islamic radicalism has become as widespread and dangerous, as the attacks have shown.

In Brussels, the districts of Molenbeek and Anderlecht are next after Saint-Josse in terms of poverty. The majority of the youth there have a very vague idea that their city hosts the EU and NATO and rarely venture into those institutional areas. They are genuine ghettos, formed naturally, not by coercion.

Muslims in Molenbeek are Maghrebis (like the attacker from the other night: a Tunisian), while those in Schaerbeek and Saint-Josse are primarily Turks. However, there’s a significant difference between Maghrebi, North African (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia) immigration and Turkish immigration.

Muslim cultures are entirely different; their traditions, languages, and everyday lives aren’t similar. The two communities don’t mix. Places of worship are kept separate. Mixed marriages, Turkish-Moroccan, or Turkish-Algerian or Tunisian, are extremely rare and frowned upon by the respective communities.

Turkey is a candidate for the European Union negotiating its accession, even though talks have been stalled for years because of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s authoritarian shift.

In contrast to the Turks, Maghrebis represent an entirely different type of migrant community. Given that their countries of origin, Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, have a long Francophone tradition, where mastering French was essential for social success, young people born in France or Belgium generally grow up speaking French at home. While Turks only speak Turkish among themselves and have a clear identity based on their region of origin, Maghrebis speak a simplified form of French to their parents, with a distinguishable accent.

Most live in apartment blocks, poor areas without nightlife. Often targeted by police because of their accent and struggling to find jobs, many feel excluded from the society they were born into.

These are some factors explaining why Western-born Maghrebi youths are more prone to Islamic radicalization than Turkish youths, whose identity is clear and who, although they don’t seek to integrate more than Maghrebis, feel less excluded precisely because they don’t strive as much to fit in.

At home, these Maghrebi youths often have an authoritarian father, from the first or second generation, who speaks to them in accented French, not Arabic. Maghrebi youths thus find themselves in a poor and split identity situation. The superficial Islam they are taught at home or the mosque isn’t backed by the deeds of their mentors.

Since 2015, the jihadist assassins, the terrorists in Paris and Brussels, born in France and Belgium, have come and continue to come from such an environment. The solution, to prevent this from happening again, will require patience and work over an entire generation.

Note: Journalist and writer Dan Alexe is the correspondent for G4Media.ro in Brussels.
Translated from Romanian by Ovidiu H.

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