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Inside Outsider

How Suburban Alienation Breeds Extremism and What We Can Do About it

I grew up in a migrant area of Melbourne where I watched radical Islam morph from a fringe ideology to a popular trend. This transition seems to follow similar lines in bad suburbs everywhere.
July 12, 2016, 12:00am
Illustrations by Ashley Goodall

Molenbeek is a densely populated suburb in Brussels, Belgium, primarily made up of Muslim migrants from Tunisia and Morocco. It's been reported that Molenbeek has produced more foreign fighters for ISIS than anywhere else outside of the Middle East.

At least four of the extremists involved in the Paris attacks last November grew up in Molenbeek. The neighbourhood was also linked to the 2015 French train attack, the 2014 attack on a Jewish museum in Belgium, and the 2004 Madrid train bombings. According to media accounts, Molenbeek has become a hive of terrorist networks that span across Europe and beyond.

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Unsurprisingly, the suburb has become a favourite talking point for anti-immigrationists and anti-Islamists in Australia. But the usual fear-mongering and finger pointing ignores the more interesting question: what is it about a suburb that incubates anger?

In Islamic theory, visiting a mosque is the manifestation of a direct experience with the faith. Ibn Sina suggests that when you experience a beautiful building, you are subconsciously learning to become a better person, because what we call beauty is the material manifestation of what we think of as goodness. Or as Alain de Botton puts it "beauty is goodness written into matter."

In the 1950s, a housing project named Pruitt-Igoe was built in the US city of Missouri. It's often cited as one of the greatest modern failures of architecture and urban design. Over two decades, before all 33 buildings were brought down by a controlled demolition in the 70s, Pruitt-Igoe became infamous for drugs and violent crime.

What is it about a suburb that incubates anger?

In fact, the very same jargon used to describe Molenbeek in 2016 were dumped on Pruitt-Igoe back then. It was a "hotbed," and a "breeding ground." It had become a dark reflection of a marginalised community.

What went so wrong with Pruitt-Igoe is still debated. Of course there were external factors: white flight to the suburbs, unemployment, local distaste for housing projects—problems not dissimilar to those being faced in Molenbeek today.

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But the idea that our environment can shape our behaviour is also pretty central. In his 1966 paper Social Theory in Architectural Design, Maurice Broady called it "architectural determinism."

Interestingly, I believe I've seen architectural determinism at work.

I grew up in migrant area of southeast Melbourne, and watched radical Islam morph from a fringe ideology to a popular trend in my community around 2011. This seemed to coincide with a growing influx of refugees that moved into suburbs like Dandenong, Narre Warren, and Hallam.

In my own observation of the people in my neighbourhood that became fanatical, most had social disadvantage in common. They didn't go to uni or TAFE, most were unemployed, and they rarely visited the city to see a band or go to a party. They were ghettoised from the broader community, but to me it felt almost self-inflicted.

I watched as one friend in particular segued from working at a Footlocker and bouncing at nightclubs off Chapel Street, to sporting a khamis and preaching dawah. We saw less and less of him as he withdrew from normal life, hearing second-hand he'd joined ISIS. Suddenly, six months later we received obscure messages claiming he was killed. He went from an animated guy we'd run into on the dance floors of R&B clubs to a statistic in a war none of us understood.

His story followed a narrative not dissimilar to the tragic cases across Europe; of teenagers isolating themselves under the misguided belief that marginalisation is somehow synonymous with asceticism. Instead of enriching their lives with community solutions via mediums such as the arts, these Middle Eastern migrants are outcast into the pastel monotony of suburban nothingness.

Instead of retreating into themselves, as they'd done previously, my neighbours tried something different.

Yet, I've also seen how migrant communities in these very suburbs can pull together for the better. In June, 2014, 17-year-old Abdullah Elmir from Bankstown told his parents he was going on a fishing trip, only to resurface a month later in online videos beneath ISIS flags in Syria—gripping an AK-47 and draped in military fatigues.

Instead of retreating into themselves, as they'd done previously, my neighbours tried something different. They moved their kids to different schools, enrolled them into footy teams and encouraged them to go out with friends outside their communities. Outside of what they felt were their comfort zones.

In my opinion, this is what helped fizzle out the sudden rise of fundamentalism in my suburb. It wasn't the violent reactionary police raids, or the thinly veiled scorn from the Abbott government. It was the decision by parents to physically break that pattern of isolation and insularity, to broaden the spaces their kids could occupy in the world, rather than limit them.

The majority of these refugees come from bustling Middle Eastern cities where everything and everyone seem somehow connected. Then they arrive in the West, where everyone determines their own path and ignores everyone else. This is a cultural difference that's not easy to bridge, but a remedy might be found in the way we build our cities.

There are architectural solutions that break the barriers of cultural diversity with the goal of promoting an integrated community. These might take the form of gymnasiums, youth centres, or nightclubs, or anything that helps people to feel they have a home.

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