Belgian capital Brussels’s Muslim-dominated district of Molenbeek may have gained global notoriety as an ISIS recruitment hotbed but residents here feel the “family neighbourhood” has been unfairly stigmatised due to the evil acts “of a few” persons.
Molenbeek, a borough of about 100,000 people with large communities of Moroccan and Turkish-origin that are thoroughly middle-class, grabbed media attention worldwide post the Paris and Brussels attacks as having become an almost ideal recruiting ground for the dreaded Islamic State terror group.
Salah Abdeslam, the only surviving direct participant in the Paris attacks, hid in Molenbeek before his arrest on March 18. Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the suspected chief planner of the Paris attacks, lived in Molenbeek.
In all, at least 14 people tied to both attacks were either Belgian or lived in Brussels. One of them is Mohamed Abrini, a Belgian of Moroccan origin who grew up in Molenbeek and was arrested in Brussels earlier this month.
Molenbeek residents are still reeling as the stigma of terrorism has devastated the neighbourhood. However most of them insist people should not generalise and the area is essentially like any other family commune.
“I am a resident here and we have no problems staying in this locality even after the attacks. We are a community of majority of immigrants so it is natural for people to look at us with a suspicious eye. But one or two persons have given us a bad name,” Nora Laarissi, a resident, said.
Asked whether there was an unfair stigmatisation of the area in the wake of what happened last month, she responded in the affirmative.
However, she said the community was not being harassed by authorities and stated that officials were “not asking unfair questions”.
“Because of a few people the entire community is getting a bad name. However there is no discrimination that we face at our workplace for being Muslims,” a Pakistani-origin woman, who was not a Molenbeek resident but was visiting the area and did not wish to be named, said.
Fear was writ large on the faces of community members with many refusing to talk to reporters while others refusing to answer questions on the issue of terrorism. However, some did openly say the area was a safe place and was being unfairly stigmatised for the acts of a few.
“Only a few people have been found to be linked to terrorism, that does not mean that the entire Molenbeek is wrong. It’s a very good community. Never before there has been any danger in the area. It is a very family neighbourhood,” Yalman, a Molenbeek resident who was taking her children to a dentist on a metro, said.
“Those found involved in wrongful activities were also living like normal people with their families so the entire neighbourhood was peaceful. My children live here and I am happy with the surrounding in which they are being brought up,” she asserted.
Ziani Alia, another resident, said, “I was born here. Where is the proof that there are terrorists in Molenbeek apart from a few instances. It might not be a safe place for others but it is a very safe place for us. It is a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural community.”
“There are some communities or neighbourhoods which are very chic or high-end and those communities don’t encourage immigrants to stay and therefore they have to come to Molenbeek. So there is ghettoisation in a place like Molenbeek. But that does not mean Molenbeek is the den of terrorism,” Alia said, adding that all cultures stay together here.
Asked if Molenbeek was deprived of development and economic opportunities, she said, “look at the streets, don’t you see the streets are economically vibrant and there is development. There is also no problem of unemployment.”
“People are peace-loving here. It is not a question of Islam going wrong but some people going wrong and we should not generalise. If there is one person in Belgium who is a paedophile, that does not mean that all Belgians are paedophiles. Similarly, if one person is a terrorist that does not mean everyone is a terrorist. It is just that because of what has happened some people think that something might go wrong here,” she said.
But all is not gloomy in this neighbourhood.
A museum opened in Molenbeek this month, which, residents hoped, will help shed the negative image of the area. The Millennium Iconoclast Museum of Art or MIMA is based in a former brewery on the banks of Brussels’ industrial-era canal.
Originally due to open on March 23, a day after the Brussels attacks, the museum welcomed 4,000 visitors on its opening weekend in mid-April, local media reports said.
Many in the Muslim community here are keen to detach themselves from those who have made Molenbeek notorious. Over 1,000 Molenbeek residents took to the streets this month to show solidarity with the 32 victims of the March 22 terror attacks in Brussels, reports said.
A bomb was detonated on board a train pulling out of Maelbeek station, close to the European institutions, in the morning rush hour on March 22. The attack followed suicide bombs at Brussels airport which also killed 16.
The attacks were claimed by the Islamic State militant group, which has also said it was behind the gun and bomb attacks in Paris on November 13 that killed 130 people.
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