Brussels Attack: The Molenbeek myth

Europe’s jihad crisis is not a problem of its Muslim communities but the outcome of cultural dislocations.

Written by Praveen Swami | Updated: March 24, 2016 9:16 am
brussels attack, brussels terror attack, belgium attack, belgium terror attack, belgium news, world news, belgium live, latest news People leave the scene of explosions at Zaventem airport near Brussels, Belgium, March 22, 2016. (REUTERS)

Five years before he volunteered to walk the path that would lead him to Brussels airport, where he would extinguish his life for the glory of his creator, Brahim el-Bakraoui had been trapped behind a car on a highway in Belgium, firing a Kalashnikov at police officers who had blocked his escape. His god, back then, was cash: Just 24 years old when he was arrested in 2010, el-Bakraoui had held up a van carrying money for ATMs, leading to a shootout that claimed the life of a police officer. El-Bakraoui received a nine-year sentence, serving a little over five. He would emerge from prison along with his brother, Khalid el-Bakraoui, who had been sentenced to five years for a series of carjackings and opening fire with an assault rifle to evade arrest.

For the most part, this week’s carnage in Brussels has been read as part of a crisis of Islam in Europe: Jihadism, it is claimed, is being incubated in the decaying urban ghettos home to many of the continent’s Muslims. The idea is widespread: It serves both Europe’s right, seeking to eject immigrants from the polity, and the left, focused on Muslim disenfranchisement as a cause of rage.

The narrative is, at first glance, seductive. The Brussels municipality of Sint-Jans-Molenbeek, a one-time textile industry hub where just under 40 per cent of the population is Muslim, was home to many of the Brussels attackers, and to those who targeted Paris last year. Belgians make up, in population-adjusted terms, the highest number of foreign fighters in the Islamic State, even though just 6 per cent of its population is Muslim. Molenbeek is a leading contributor to this cohort.

The el-Bakraouis’ story, though, tells us that a more nuanced answer is needed. The two men radicalised in prison, discovering in jihadism a sense of agency and purpose that their lives as delinquent sons of working-class immigrants had lacked. Their childhood friend, Salah Abdeslam, the architect of last year’s IS attacks on Paris, would help them take the final steps towards becoming suicide bombers.

Figures released by Belgium’s government in January make clear that the notion of the ghetto as a medium in which jihadists breed doesn’t rest on robust empirical grounds. Molenbeek contributed 47 of the 451 identified Belgian jihadists in Syria and Iraq — a number identical to Brussels municipality, and followed in close order by relatively affluent, mixed Schaerbeek, with 31. Indeed, the data shows Brussels municipality produces more jihadists, in population-adjusted terms, than Molenbeek. Antwerp municipality, by no reckoning a Muslim ghetto, produ-ced 93 jihadists — almost twice as many as its notorious counterpart.

The second reason to question the narrative is that many European jihadists appear to have been exceptionally well-integrated. Salah Abdeslam and his brother, Brahim Abdeslam, who shot up the Bataclan theatre in Paris, were known for spending their time not at the mosque but at the notorious Les Beguines bar. Local residents told media that when everyone in the market would gather at the mosque to pray, the brothers could be seen on the terrace ledge of a building, smoking marijuana. Salah, in particular, had a long string of girlfriends.

Salah and his slain associate Abdelhamid Abaaoud also discovered jihadism in prison. In 2010, the two men were convicted of breaking into a parking garage to steal car stereos to sell for drugs. The next year, Salah was jailed again, for a drunken assault near the metro station. The two men were then arrested for armed robbery. Europe’s prison jihadists appear to see religious violence as a kind of redemption. Amedy Coulibaly, friend of Charlie Hebdo killers Said and Chérif Kouachi, illustrated this transformation in a video posted online after he killed four hostages: First, he wore the street-gangster’s leather jacket, then a military uniform and, finally, the white gown of the martyr.

Farhad Khosrokhavar, author of an authoritative study on France’s jihadists, casts this transformation as a kind of spiritual experience — “through jihadism,” he writes, “they transform the contempt of the others into fear”. For the European jihadist, this involves abandoning their real communities for an imaginary one, the global Nation of Islam.

Indeed, the seduction of violence for a higher cause has allowed jihadist networks to draw in converts seeking refuge from varied cultural discontents. Muriel Degauque, a Belgian convert to Islam, committed a suicide car-bomb attack against a US military convoy south of Baghdad, becoming the first Western-origin woman suicide bomber. Estimates suggest about a third of French jihadists fighting with the IS and al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front are converts.

The story of Jejoen Bontinck, a one-time contestant on a Belgian music talentshow, illustrates the dynamic. The son of former nightclub bouncer Dimitri Bontinck and his Nigerian-born Catholic wife Rose Bontinck, Jejoen converted to Islam while dating a Muslim girl. He was drawn to Islamist circles by the promise of adventure, and ended up fighting in Syria — only to return home terrified. Sharia4Belgium, led by incarcerated Islamist leader Fouad Belkacem, was among the key groups catering to the needs of this free-floating group of alienated young people. Belkacem, having served time for petty crime and drugs, unleashed street harassment on gay Muslims and women. In 2012, when authorities shut down Sharia4Belgium for hate speech, many of its members concluded the only course open to them was travelling to the IS. It is important to note that organisations like Sharia4Belgium had deeply adversarial relationships with the traditional religious leadership. The statistically small numbers of Muslims involved in jihad makes clear the cause does not enjoy wide backing.

To cast the problem of jihadism as one emerging from the wider Muslim community has three damaging consequences: First, it compels many ordinary Muslims, fearful of consequences for the community, to defend jihadists, breeding conspiratorialism and paranoia. It also allows Islamists to cast themselves as defenders of a vulnerable, besieged community. And it compromises anti-Islamist secularists, since critiques of a politics are read as attacks on a people.

Europe’s jihad crisis is not a problem of its Muslim communities. It is, instead, the outcome of wider cultural dislocations that are being preyed on by jihadist networks — networks that draw their inspiration from Islam, but from a version of it on the fringes of Muslim communities.

Public policy responses must make these distinctions or risk deepening the social fractures on which the European jihadist movement thrives.

praveen.swami@expressindia.com

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  1. S
    Sirius
    Mar 24, 2016 at 1:35 pm
    Victimhood again ! The community elders are obliged to ponder over your suggestions !
    Reply
    1. S
      Sirius
      Mar 24, 2016 at 1:57 pm
      The writer of article seems to be a 'lal-am' product of JNU's SSS, who first write their 'conclusion' and then 'manufacture' their 'research' to prove it. The problem is that their 'research' is 'nullified' as soon as it is applied to a different data set , which on this case is non- Islamists !
      Reply
      1. S
        Sirius
        Mar 25, 2016 at 2:03 pm
        When you believe that the book is immutable and contains the entire truth of universe, "push towards modernity" is a fallacy. Mullah does not lose control to criminals; Mullah *is* the criminal ...
        Reply
        1. I
          IndianWellWisher
          Mar 23, 2016 at 11:02 pm
          Analysis paralysis Why is it that only Muslims behave worse than rabid dogs, imagining brotherhood of Muslims across world while hating everyone else???
          Reply
          1. G
            Guru
            Mar 24, 2016 at 4:54 pm
            Why migrate to Europe if you are culturally handicapped with European culture. It's not Europe's job to make life easy for someone born in North Africa or an Arab country.
            Reply
            1. M
              MyTake
              Mar 24, 2016 at 7:36 pm
              In short this what we can call stink tanks!
              Reply
              1. M
                MyTake
                Mar 25, 2016 at 10:44 am
                Poor "Old Husband"!!
                Reply
                1. M
                  MyTake
                  Mar 25, 2016 at 1:18 am
                  You don't have prove you are a living example. Plenty of such examples are already around!
                  Reply
                  1. M
                    MyTake
                    Mar 24, 2016 at 4:04 am
                    Hmmmmmmmmm! After all crime and Islam goes together that's why they say they don't believe in "man made" law!
                    Reply
                    1. M
                      MyTake
                      Mar 24, 2016 at 4:15 am
                      One famous Muslim country said one thing it can do is donate fund to build Mosques for fleeing refugees in Europe! What is so difficult to understand what is at play here?!
                      Reply
                      1. M
                        MyTake
                        Mar 24, 2016 at 4:32 am
                        Refugee crisis is the making of Muslims themselves! The demographic bombs they wanted to create to conquor others has bummerangued on them and is haunting them in their nightmare! They have been left with no peace of their own and now they want to share their non-peace with others!
                        Reply
                        1. N
                          Nitin
                          Mar 24, 2016 at 2:20 pm
                          This is such babble. No clear arguments or reasons, just rambling from one topic to the other.
                          Reply
                          1. P
                            Pat
                            Mar 25, 2016 at 4:10 pm
                            Ignorant hired capitalist yechury fighting for poor joke of life. Illiterate journalists anti nationals congress party or some goondas from CPI desperate to get land ets of poor to bully them, so they enjoy perks.
                            Reply
                            1. K
                              K SHESHU
                              Mar 24, 2016 at 5:54 am
                              The problem of jihadists should be seen with the policies of the West which have created refugee problem by constantly waging war in Syria and other West Asian Islamic countries in quest of per of resources.
                              Reply
                              1. K
                                Kumar
                                Mar 24, 2016 at 4:02 am
                                Mr. Parveen Swami, u are a moron disguised as a writer.... Keep on protecting those who cant be protected There sole aim is to reach a threshold potion and wreck the country who at first place gave them shelter and livelihood. This threshold is 20% in most countries. For them there Muslim Ummah is what they live for and not for the country they live in, I support Donald Trump coz he knows what these guys can do to the world
                                Reply
                                1. A
                                  Atul
                                  Mar 24, 2016 at 4:53 pm
                                  Let us not justify these acts of violence. The society does play a role. But, let us stop patronizing Muslims. Muslims are responsible for these acts of violence. Let us call spade a spade.
                                  Reply
                                  1. V
                                    Vikrant
                                    Mar 24, 2016 at 8:19 am
                                    Commies are boot lickers and spokesman of jihadis. They are brother in arms as both of these are highly intolerant and violent. Before taking on jihadis these illegitimate children of jihadis need to be silenced who try to put a spin nd downplay jihadi violence and the threat they pose to entire world.
                                    Reply
                                    1. A
                                      AIJAZ-UL HAQ
                                      Mar 25, 2016 at 4:02 am
                                      And that's utter nonsense, what you are uttering... Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) never endorsed violence for anything except self defense... The above reference you quoted is part of the literature to demonize Muslims and their religion... Let me reiterate it, Islam condems voilence of every sort, including that of the fake Isis... May good sense and peace prevail everywhere .
                                      Reply
                                      1. A
                                        Anand
                                        Mar 24, 2016 at 5:33 am
                                        Praveen excellent. But needs more fleshing out I think. "Wider cultural dislocations" is vague, perhaps also a truism that applies to all sorts of contexts. Needless to say, the issue is so exceedingly complex. Anand Sahay
                                        Reply
                                        1. A
                                          Anand Aradwad
                                          Mar 25, 2016 at 6:35 pm
                                          Problem of Jihadism comes from islamic texts. Muslim, the followers of these texts are obviously influenced by violence promoted in these texts. Any lay man can draw this conclusion except these armchair columnist. When these jihadis are claiming and confessing the role of islam in their terrorist acts these brain dead columnist are giving spin. Pathetic! Where is journalism of courage in this, it seems journalism of confusion, deception and communism. Shame shame!
                                          Reply
                                          1. A
                                            Anil
                                            Mar 25, 2016 at 8:53 am
                                            Here is one more apologist, one more in denial, peddling the usual left-liberal half-baked arguments of to defend the indefensible. The tens of thousands (including Muslims) killed in terrorist attacks are either not enough to shake this gentleman out of his naivete or he seems to have made up his mind not to budge from his iron-clad beliefs, no matter what happens.
                                            Reply
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