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The 'Heart of Jihadism' in Europe Is More Complicated Than You Think

“No one wants to come here because they think we are dangerous, but we are trying to tell the world that there are good people here,” said one woman, who lives in the Belgian town of Molenbeek, home of two brothers involved in the Paris attacks.

by Rachel Browne
Nov 18 2015, 12:30am

VICE News

The day after Belgian police officers raided and made arrests in the Molenbeek district of Brussels while hunting for those with ties to the Paris attacks, a group of local Muslims went door to door putting up white paper signs calling for peace in their town. 

By dusk, Molenbeek, which has become known as the heart of jihadism in Europe, was covered in them.

"No one wants to come here because they think we are dangerous, but we are trying to tell the world that there are good people here," said Louiza, whose shopping bag was stuffed with hundreds of signs that said Molenbeek, with a peace sign drawn in the letter 'o.' "This is our way of trying to get everyone to come together so that we can be proud of this place once more."

But it's a nearly impossible goal as the town they are trying to salvage is yet again facing the wrath of the world after it was revealed that two brothers involved in the bloody massacres in Paris called Molenbeek home — just the latest episode in the district's history of links to terrorism and deep-rooted radicalization. The small town of around 100,000, most of whom are Muslim, reportedly has the highest rate, per capita, of jihadi foreign fighters taking up arms in Iraq and Syria. Belgium has an estimated 40 foreign fighters out of one million people in the country, four times that of the UK and double the number from France.

Earlier this year, police forces scoured its streets for suspects after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January. A Frenchman accused of killing four people at the Jewish Museum in Brussels in 2014 is believed to have lived there.

"Almost every time, there's a link with Molenbeek," Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel said on Sunday. "We've tried prevention. Now we'll have to get repressive. It's been a form of laissez-faire and laxity. Now we're paying the bill."

It remains to be seen exactly what he means by that, but Molenbeek activists say they are determined to bring about hope and prosperity, somehow.

While there's no doubt the district, the second poorest in Belgium, has serious problems with high rates of crime and unemployment, it might be too simplistic to cast it as a breeding ground for jihadis. Still, many there are left wondering why this troubling history keeps repeating itself.

Marc, a Belgian man who has lived and worked as an engineer in Molenbeek for more than 40 years, stops rolling his grocery bag in front of one of the town's 22 mosques. He has watched the town evolve over generations, and says he can explain the situation.

"The first wave of immigrants here from places like Morocco and Turkey had to prioritize working to feed their families, they didn't have so much free time to nurture their children as they might have wished," he said. "And we have a problem with access to good education here, people forget about what this place needs. And so now we have a problem, we have a young generation that has taken to the internet to learn about life, leaving them open to bad influences."

"If only these families had the chance to pass along their strong values — and I am a Christian with many close Muslim friends — maybe things would be better. What I have learned is that Islam is not about killing, but about peace."

He noted that it's easy to remain anonymous in Molenbeek. The rent is cheap and people can come and go without a trace.

One man working for the municipality, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that he sometimes feels insecure about working in Molenbeek. Crime prevention is a struggle and so is connecting with the community on a meaningful level, he said. "But I was still very shocked by the latest events this time. The links to Paris. No one expected it, really."

"But at the same time, I can say that many other cities around Belgium and across Europe feel the same way we do. That something like this could and does occur elsewhere."

Walking through Molenbeek, just a couple miles from the centre of Brussels — not some distant suburb as it is often described — the loudest sound is the laughter of children playing in a schoolyard. A lone soccer ball rolls down the street. Around the main square, there's a large church, and men sitting outside a cafe drinking chai and mint teas.

Ahmed, who runs a clothing and home goods store down the road, gets riled up when asked why Molenbeek seems to be a common theme among extremists in Europe. "We should not have to sit here and justify to everybody the actions of a few radicals," he said. "Nothing needs to change here. The problems is with the political environment of Belgium, with France, and right here in the city."

For Molenbeek mayor Francoise Schepmans, it's painful to know that her community blames the government. When asked if she agrees with her town's reputation, she shakes her head and says slowly: "It hurts, it hurts."

"The problem with a city like mine, is that we need more police, more money to take strong action. Doing it alone, it's very difficult."

Surrounded by colorful paintings of Frida Kahlo, Mr. T, and Marilyn Monroe, Malika Saissi sits in a cafe up the road from the mayor's office. It's where she hosts weekly gatherings for local artists, families, and activists.

"I love my city and I think many good things happen here," said Saissi, who works with the community group De Vaartkapoen. "You can find a lot of people who go to university, a lot of activists, people who dream of having a better future."

Mohamed Abdeslam's brother Brahim died during a Paris suicide attack and his other brother Salah is a fugitive. Leila Khemissi/AP

She agrees with Schepmans that Molenbeek is often an afterthought for government resources. "They are decades too late, though, to making life better here," she said. "I spoke to my own son yesterday who told me that he's embarrassed to say that he's from here, that he won't get a job. And it's disturbing because it could be true."

Saissi says she is close with the family of the two brothers, Salah and Ibrahim Abdeslam, involved with the terrorist attacks. Their other brother, Mohamed, was arrested and eventually released on Sunday.

"Of course I know them. I'm not ashamed to say it. Because it's a family I identify with," she said. "Their mother is very open-minded, very modern, very kind. She gave lots of love to those children. She was never extreme in her views. She educated them with good values. The worry is not about the family, but the environment around them."

She says it was almost as if the woman's sons were leading a double life, that they were brainwashed, adding that it was surprising to learn that the boys were involved in the Paris attacks, but that the community needs to be helped not condemned. There were never any warning signs that they had been radicalized, she said.

"We try to find solutions about terrorism, but we also have to find solutions for the families who are losing their children in these ways," she said. "We need the government to step in … to help people realize their hopes of having a better future, and we need to give them the opportunities to live in peace."

Watch a dispatch from Brussels in this episode of Daily VICE: 

Follow Rachel Browne on Twitter: @rp_browne