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Brussels was on lockdown at the weekend.

People were told to stay at home. Public transport, cinemas and shopping centres were closed.

Today, The Telegraph says:

Belgian Interior Minister Jan Jambon told RTL radio however Belgium’s capital was not giving up completely. “Apart from the closed metro and schools, life goes on in Brussels, the public sector is open for business today, many companies are open,” Jambon said on Monday morning.

The city’s buses were running normally and many shops in the suburbs were open.

A police operation took place

in the Molenbeek area of the city, a district that has become a hotbed for radicalisation and where Salah Abdeslam grew up.

One of the properties raided in Molenbeek last night was reportedly the home of Salah Abdeslam’s maternal uncle.

Abdelsam is still on the run.

The wanted poster for Abdeslam Salah, wanted in connection with the terror attacks in Paris

He was thought to have been in Molenbeek last week after the Paris attacks.

Since the attacks, many of the Belgian police searches have taken place in this district, northwest of Brussels. Whilst parts of it are pleasantly middle class, other neighbourhoods are home to a number of Islamic radicals.

A photo journalist remembers Molenbeek

Teun Voeten is a cultural anthropologist and war photographer. He has gone where many would not dare to venture and has published books on the underground homeless of New York, the war in Sierra Leone and the drug violence in Mexico.

He recently wrote an article for the European edition of Politico in which he recalls the nine years he lived in Molenbeek, the last affordable district in Brussels.

A summary with excerpts follow. Emphases mine.

He says Molenbeek was affordable because of its bad reputation. However, I wonder whether dubious people flocked there because rents and property prices were low.

In any event, in 2005, Voeten was hopeful and idealistic:

My apartment, just across the canal from the city center, is close to the home where two suspects in the Paris attacks were based, and around the corner from where the shooter from the foiled Thalys attack in August had been staying.

I was part of a new wave of young urban professionals, mostly white and college-educated — what the Belgians called bobo, (“bourgeois bohémiens”) — who settled in the area out of pragmatism. We had good intentions. Our contractor’s name was Hassan. He was Moroccan, and we thought that was very cool. We imagined that our kids would one day play happily with his on the street. We hoped for less garbage on the streets, less petty crime. We were confident our block would slowly improve, and that our lofts would increase in value. (We even dared to hope for a hip art gallery or a trendy bar.) We felt like pioneers of the Far West, like we were living in the trenches of the fight for a multicultural society.

I, too, was once like that. Perhaps some people reading this are as well.

Things do not change. Nor did they for Voeten or his friends:

Slowly, we woke up to reality. Hassan turned out to be a crook and disappeared with €95,000, the entire budget the tenants had pooled together for our building’s renovation. The neighborhood was hardly multicultural. Rather, with roughly 80 percent of the population of Moroccan origin, it was tragically conformist and homogenous. There may be a vibrant alternative culture in Casablanca and Marrakech, but certainly not in Molenbeek.

Voeten is not the only person to point out that North African Muslim neighbourhoods are highly conformist and homogeneous. I will write another post with a summary of an Algerian university lecturer’s experience of Saint-Denis, which he says outdoes Oran (an Algerian city) in terms of sombre Islam.

Voeten left Molenbeek in 2014 because:

Over nine years, as I witnessed the neighborhood become increasingly intolerant. Alcohol became unavailable in most shops and supermarkets; I heard stories of fanatics at the Comte des Flandres metro station who pressured women to wear the veil; Islamic bookshops proliferated, and it became impossible to buy a decent newspaper. With an unemployment rate of 30 percent, the streets were eerily empty until late in the morning. Nowhere was there a bar or café where white, black and brown people would mingle. Instead, I witnessed petty crime, aggression, and frustrated youths who spat at our girlfriends and called them “filthy whores.” If you made a remark, you were inevitably scolded and called a racist. There used to be Jewish shops on Chaussée de Gand, but these were terrorized by gangs of young kids and most closed their doors around 2008. Openly gay people were routinely intimidated, and also packed up their bags.

The final straw was:

an encounter with a Salafist, who tried to convert me on my street. It boiled down to this: I could no longer stand to live in this despondent, destitute, fatalistic neighborhood.

Many of the bobos’ comments following the article are highly critical of Voeten. Voeten wrote in his article that others who have voiced concern or written about Molenbeek in a less than positive way have been vilified:

In 2006, Hind Fraihi, a young Flemish woman of Moroccan descent published “Undercover in Little Morocco: Behind the Closed Doors of Radical Islam.” Her community called her a traitor; progressive media called her a “spy” and a “girl with personal problems.”

In 2008, Arthur van Amerongen was tarred and feathered for “Brussels Eurabia,” and called a “Batavian Fascist” by a francophone newspaper. When he and I went back to Molenbeek in March and I subsequently described it as an “ethnic and religious enclave and a parochial, closed community” in an interview with Brussel Deze Week, that too provoked the wrath of progressive Belgium and an ensuing media storm.

Sadly, Voeten is now in the same boat.

Truth is a difficult thing to tell.

Terror links

On November 15, The Guardian had a good article on Molenbeek’s links to terror. A summary follows.

After the Paris attacks, the terrorists’ grey Polo parked near the Bataclan not only had Belgian plates but also a parking ticket in it. The ticket was issued in Molenbeek. That told police that IS were behind the attacks.

Even The Guardian article states that Molenbeek is home to ‘hardline clandestine Salafist cells’. They also have international terror connections, and not just with neighbouring France.

Since the Paris attacks, dozens of searches and arrests have taken place in Molenbeek.

Other terrorists who came from Molenbeek include Ayoub El-Khazzani who opened fire on the Thalys train in August, Mehdi Nemmouche who killed three people at Brussels’s Jewish Museum in 2014 and, back in 2003, one of the men involved in the horrific Madrid attacks.

Another Guardian article reveals that Molenbeek’s deputy mayor Ahmed El Khannouss denied extremism, calling such accusations ‘stigmatisation’.

Molenbeek has 22 mosques, but even El Khannouss admitted that radicalisation is taking place not so much there but in any number of private prayer rooms in the community.

Still, he maintained that linking local people to radicalism is ‘dangerous’.

Perhaps perspectives like the deputy mayor’s, the bobos’ and the media’s are part of the reason security forces have not hit Molenbeek harder up to now. Such moves would have been considered stigmatising and unfair. The terrorists know this, and they can operate with impunity.

Belgium’s Prime Minister Charles Michel acknowledges the weakness of the security forces with regard to Molenbeek and pledged that they would ‘have to get repressive’.

The media say that Belgium, because of its Dutch-speaking Flemish and French-speaking Walloon population, has a problem when it comes to governing and policing. The Flemish and Walloons have always had difficulties in finding common socio-political ground.

Other commentators point a finger at Brussels’s city administration, broken up into several boroughs, each with its own mayor. Yet, other large cities — London and Paris, to name but two — also have the same set up, which works well.

I think there is a real fear of reprisals if anyone tries to ‘do something’ about Molenbeek. And the terrorists know that.

Tomorrow: people on the streets of Molenbeek speak

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