BRUSSELS, Belgium—As the escalator rises out of the Molenbeek subway station, the first sounds you hear are children laughing and calling out to one another. With entrances to the metro at either end of a row of townhouses, you are left with the unlikely impression of a village square. Here young children ride bicycles and teach each other to balance on hover boards. Older men play cricket, some in button-down shirts, some wearing South Asian salwar kameez. A younger boy practices bowling (that’s “pitching” in cricket) as he watches them. In the next square I come to, full of cobblestones this time, a local NGO has set up a “repair café,” where old ladies gather in front of the sewing machines provided by the young volunteers, to chat and fix tears in old clothing.
Less than a 20-minute walk from central Brussels, this is what has come to be known in the francophone media as “Molenbeekistan,” or in the New York Times as, “The Islamic State of Molenbeek.” It is where Salah Abdeslam, the only surviving perpetrator of the Paris attacks in November, is said to have hidden out, evading capture for four months while all of Europe searched for him. Two of the other Paris attackers—as well as Mohamed Abrini, believed to be “the man in the hat” in footage from the Brussels airport bombing in March, and Abdelhamid Abaaoud, believed to have been the mastermind of the Paris attacks—also grew up in Molenbeek. When people talk about the problem of settling large numbers of Syrian refugees in Europe, Molenbeek—along with certain suburbs of Paris—is often the nightmare horror story they point to. This despite the fact that its residents are largely Moroccan in origin, not Syrian, and its population is not composed in significant part of refugees but of people who came to Belgium as early as the 1960s, when the Belgian government imported foreign labor, mainly from North Africa, to work on large scale public works projects such as the metro and highways.
But walking around in this neighborhood, there is little that identifies it as the heart of European jihadism. It’s not even seedy. It certainly doesn’t live up to its portrayal as a little corner of Taliban in the heart of Europe. You see all sorts of people here, mostly families. Much as I don’t like how the Islamic or non-Islamic character of a neighborhood is so often assessed according to how much of women’s bodies you can see there, we can play that game if you like: there are women in hijabs, yes, but walking and talking alongside them, there are also women in no hijab and skinny jeans. There are young men on bikes with long blonde hair too. There are south Asian grocery stores and stores that sell Moroccan robes, as well as brightly colored fabrics from West Africa.
And many residents of this tight-knit community are distraught by what they see as the “false image” of their neighborhood in the world’s media.
“I used to watch television a lot but I don’t anymore. I’m sick of what they’re saying about this neighborhood,” says Sara, 25, who works in a shop that sells women’s clothing for formal occasions (everything here sparkles). “Everyone is disgusted. They’ve given us a wretched image in the media. They have dirtied us.”
Many people say that what they see in the media just doesn’t represent their community.
“If we listened to the media, we’d be afraid to set foot here,” says 27-year-old Chami Abdel, who runs a local restaurant. “But as you see, everything’s fine.”
“‘The police are doing their job [when they conduct raids]; it’s good the state is working but often they don’t find anything,” yet the media report on it as though they do, says Sabah, who is originally from Morocco and works in a shop called “Hijab Nisa” (women’s hijab, in transliterated Arabic). “Sometimes, five minutes afterward I walked in that same place and I’m like, ‘there’s nothing.’” She has worked here for ten years and is saddened by all of the negative press the neighborhood has received.
“It’s the only neighborhood where there’s activity every day and at night. There’s a souq. Here it doesn’t matter if you’re Algerian or Belgian, we’re all the same. There are really good community relations. In other areas, each group is separate.” Everyone I speak too agrees that the community is close. Of its 95,000 inhabitants, about 40-45,000 are of Moroccan descent, according to Johan Berckmans the Brussels-West police division commissioner in Molenbeek. He adds that there are 104 different communities in Molenbeek, including Turkish, Algerian and West African, among others.
He says he is disturbed by the fact that Salah Abdeslam was able to hide out for so long. “[It] means that beyond those that we’ve picked up, there are logistical cells ready to welcome people, feed them, shelter them, and hide them from security services,” he says. But he also says that the neighborhood made a good hiding place because of the “indifference of a big city,” rather than anything in particular about the neighborhood itself. “As soon as you go and live outside in a little village where everyone knows everyone else really well, you can immediately be detected,” he says.
Many say the way the neighborhood has been portrayed has contributed to how the community is perceived, which in turn has had an effect on business.
Sara says there used to be buses that would come from Germany, France, and other parts of Belgium, bringing people to shop in Molenbeek on the weekends. But since the attacks and the subsequent media attention, most have stopped coming. Though many people on these buses were of North African descent, she says the customers were mixed—there were many people who were “Belge de souche,” she says, using a controversial term that translates to “of Belgian origin.” The term originally carried a right wing connotation, but has now to some extent entered mainstream parlance.
Chami Abdel, the restaurant manager, said that there have been a number of occasions since the attacks when he has had to close and send his staff home. There just weren’t any customers.
“The media didn’t help. They didn’t understand the neighborhood; they didn’t even try. They saw what they wanted to see,” says Loredana Marchi, director of a community organization called Foyer, “it’s strangling the neighborhood, and destroying its potential.”
She blames the authorities too for failing to consult the community in their response. “They didn’t say… let’s see what we can do together. A lot of citizens of Molenbeek were ready to cooperate with the authorities,” she says.
Finally, six months after the Paris attacks and two months after the attacks in Brussels, business has just started to come back. On Thursday, which was a holiday because of Ascension Day, there was so much economic activity in the area, I could hardly get into the shops to speak with shopkeepers.
“I was so happy yesterday, it had been so long since it was crowded like that,” said Sara.
Nevertheless, daily life has changed. Many clients tell her there’s been a spike in discrimination since the attacks. Last week, a white Belgian woman accosted a woman in a hijab pushing a stroller near Sara’s shop. “Your brothers are the ones who did this!” the woman snarled, “and your Islam!” The woman put her stroller aside, afraid the other woman might harm her baby. A local man had to separate the two.
Sara herself has felt it too. As she was walking out of the subway recently a man got close to her ear and whispered, “dirty terrorist.”
“Excuse me?” she said.
“You heard me,” he replied. He was an older man. “I told him, ‘if you were a man you’d say that straight to my face.’ You can’t be afraid of these people,” says Sara. But many others are terrified to talk back or speak out against such treatment.
Though the attacks may have exacerbated it, discrimination when it comes to applying for a job has long been a problem for people here. Now it may be getting worse.
“Already, if you’re Moroccan or Muslim you have a hard time. There is discrimination for employment; I’ve lived it. Even if you’re qualified and speak several languages, you’re often passed over.” Wali, 33 is a butcher in Molenbeek. “They asked me where I was from. Are you Muslim? I said yes. If you slice pork, can you taste it? I said no.” He didn’t get the job.
“People are prejudiced. Maybe if you apply for a job and they see your address is Molenbeek, they won’t hire you.”
Sara has a similar story. She trained as a nurse. On one occasion, she sent her CV with her real name to a hospital and received no reply. Then she sent the same resume with a non-Arab-sounding name and received a call almost immediately. When she went for the interview, she brought both identical resumes with her.
Unfortunately, Chami says, “discrimination is something you can understand when you see the acts of certain people. It’s such a shame we’ve ended up here.”
The fact that having a Molenbeek address could harm an applicant’s chances even further would seem to exacerbate a problem which is among the root causes of some young people’s turn toward extremism: lack of employment and opportunities for the future.
Residents say there are several related factors. The population of the area has grown from 70,000 to 100,000 in 20 years, putting pressure on schools and other services in the area. A low level of education means that often, students are unable to find jobs once they finish school. Those who integrate better often move away.
Though there are government initiatives to reduce racism in the hiring process, Marchi says the onus should also be on companies to improve hiring practices.
As for the problem of radicalism, “we underestimated the phenomenon,” Marchi says, in particular the role and reach of the Internet and social media. Now, she says, the effort should be on supporting families and helping them identify warning signs: if they notice a sudden change in behavior or dress, new friends, if a young person goes straight to his or her room when he or she gets home, if they start preaching to other families members to pray more or dress a certain way.
“The important thing is that these families don’t feel that they’re alone, to educate families to detect signs and once they are detected to get them help.” She says families are looking for that help, but as yet, the resources are not in place. She believes it’s the government’s role.
In the meantime, most people here just want to focus on the future. “Above all, [families in Molenbeek] don’t want what happened to compromise their future or that of their children.
Looking around, it’s still hard to imagine that this is the place renowned throughout Europe as the hotbed of terrorism.
In the butcher’s shop, a man dances and spins his little girl around. “Are we going to sing?” he asks her. “No, only dancing,” she chortles and hugs him around the knees.