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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.
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.
I finally left Molenbeek in 2014. It was not out of fear. The tipping point, I remember, 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.
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It is nearly impossible to explain to an outsider, but Belgium is a country of six governments, Brussels a city with 19 mayors. These many administrative posts are not filled with competent people. Security services are fragmented and tend to compete with one another. The lack of a strong, central authority may be one of the many quirks of this sometimes charmingly dysfunctional country, but just as it resulted in many botched trials — notably of the Brabant Killers, or “Nijvel Gang” who committed a series of violent raids between 1982 and 1985, and the Dutroux scandal in 1995, to name just two — it also creates the perfect breeding ground for potential terrorists.
But the most important factor is Belgium’s culture of denial. The country’s political debate has been dominated by a complacent progressive elite who firmly believes society can be designed and planned. Observers who point to unpleasant truths such as the high incidence of crime among Moroccan youth and violent tendencies in radical Islam are accused of being propagandists of the extreme-right, and are subsequently ignored and ostracized.
Two journalists had already reported on the presence of radical Islamists in Molenbeek and the danger they posed — and both became victims of character assassination. In 2006, Hind Fraihi, a young Flemish woman of Morrocan 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.
I always thought as myself as a defender of human rights and human dignity, beyond left- or right-wing categories. Now suddenly I was painted as a right-wing firebrand. For some people I became an “untouchable” and I even lost a few friends, who refused to talk to me.
There are immense problems in Molenbeek, problems of a truly global scale that transcend the municipal and national levels. Still, there is hope. After my interview appeared, Molenbeek mayor Françoise Schepmans invited me to her cabinet and we had an open discussion. I was asked to defend my point of view at the local cultural center De Vaartkapoen — a rather hostile audience of 60 people, many whom felt I had offended their community, were polite and interested to engage in debate. Last week, as I showed foreign TV crews around my old neighborhood, I was greeted in the most cordial way at the grocery, the bakery and the snackbar I used to go to.
Most people in Molenbeek are decent people who want the best for their families. But we should not close our eyes to the fact that it is also home to a very deep, and very dangerous, undercurrent of radical Islamism.