Two women watch their kids play in a grey plaza on a cloudy afternoon in Brussels’ now infamous neighborhood of Molenbeek. The children, bundled in colorful puffer jackets, chase each other around on their bikes yelling and giggling. The two mothers, with their hijabs fastened snugly around their faces, lean into each other to chat while keeping a close eye on their young children.
But their biggest concern are the teenage boys popping wheelies on mountain bikes and sharing headphones at the edge of the plaza. It is them who have dealt with the brunt of policing and islamophobia ever since suspects linked to the Paris and Belgium attacks were traced back to Molenbeek, they explain.
“The police come here in search of confrontation,” says one of the women. “When they come to carry out police controls they do it like savages.” Both women spoke on the condition that their identities be withheld as they fear retaliation against their children.
Last year, police raids in Molenbeek left Salah Abdeslam the only surviving participant of the Paris attacks. And ever since then residents have noted that police presence has increased and along with it frequent bouts of islamophobia.
Belgium’s Collective Against Islamophobia tracked 185 acts of islamophobia in 2014 compared to only 95 in 2011. The surge is alarming, says Hajib El Hajjaji, who founded the Collective Against Islamophobia after he was discouraged from saying he spoke Arabic when applying to jobs. The implication that a language would be considered anything other than an asset made Hajib feel that his identity is a problem for society.
Hajib says this wave of islamophobia harks back to 9/11 and has only become worse with the recent attacks in Europe. “Each time we face these kinds of terrorist attacks we have to begin all the action from the first step,” he says. “It is difficult for us to find the power and the energy.”
But the attacks, he says, aren’t the only catalyst. “I think my country, Belgium, is a tolerant country,” says Hajib, “but in this situation of social and economic crisis the future will be very hard for us.”
Although Molenbeek is one of Belgium’s 19 districts it differs from the city for several reasons. For starters, the unemployment rate in Molenbeek is among the highest in the city at 23 percent versus the city average of 19 percent. And as one of the youngest districts in Belgium, that unemployment rate is affecting young men under the age of 30 the most.
But even the employed in Molenbeek are at a disadvantage. Though the yearly income in Belgium has increased to an average of 17.684 euros, Molenbeek remains one of the poorest neighborhoods in Brussels with a yearly income of 10,350 euros according to Belgium’s SPF Economie. And the economic future looks bleak too, as the number of residents with a secondary education is only about 30 percent.
Around 40 percent of Molenbeek residents are of Moroccan descent, many of them second and third generation. And so, despite being Belgian, many communities are also isolated on account of their descent.
But this is not entirely new. Molenbeek dealt with widespread riots during the 90s, similar to the ones in the banlieues of Paris, due to “lacking prospects in a neighborhood characterized by poor job prospects, bad housing and deficient education,” according to a recent study by Egmont Royal Institute for International Relations.
The study quotes Belgian investigative reporter Chris de Stoop who says that the local police commissioner at the time recognized the increasing animosity between police officers “many of them displaying a negative attitude towards young migrants” and the local youth.
Belgium’s melting pot has been bubbling for decades and has been boiling over in Molenbeek for some time.
Political Landscape and Hate Speech
If we look at national Belgian trends, we see that xenophobia is indeed on the rise, impulsed by right-wing political parties with populist messages anchored in nationalism. For instance, after the Brussels attacks, followers of Belgium’s right-wing political party Vlaams Belang jumped by 3000 percent in a week according to data released by Facebook. The party also gained political presence in parliament.
Vlaams Belang, originally Vlaams Bloc, promotes a tough stance on immigration and deportations of non-nationals. In 2004 the party was found to be in violation of the law against racism leading them to change their name and the most controversial parts of the their statute.
Most notably, they reversed the call for sweeping deportations of all immigrants and now limit their repatriation stance to “those who reject, deny or combat our culture and certain European values such as separation of Church and state, liberty of expression and equality between men and women.”
“While this coded message of anti-Muslim sentiment is bound to reach its intended target,” explains Jan Erk, a political science professor at Central European University in Budapest, Hungary, “the explicit racist extremism is now toned down.”
The effort to rebrand was a legal necessity, but some argue that it may have inadvertently helped the party expand its voter base by becoming more mainstream. Giving Belgians space to express immigration concerns but also to push the boundaries that normalize racism.
Xenophobia is gaining so much traction that the European Commission Against Racism and Intolerance noted it as a key trend in their annual 2015 report. Thorbjørn Jagland, Council of Europe Secretary General, warned against this new tendency: “In some places we see the mainstream chasing after populists, and they are playing a dangerous game. We must be unapologetic in our efforts to fight hate speech, promote tolerance and inclusion to help our societies stand together through these difficult times.”
The link between xenophobia and a failing economic landscape, barren of opportunity, is an idea explored in a recent report by the London-based think tank, Center for Economic Policy Research. The key finding is that “after a crisis, voters seem to be particularly attracted to the political rhetoric of the extreme right, which often attributes blame to minorities or foreigners.” Social dynamics, which according to the study, don’t surface if the economy is shaken but ultimately unaffected.
The situation is exacerbated by the preceding economic booms that attracted migrants willing to work for cheap as an aging Europe diminished in the workforce. In Belgium, the largest non-EU migrant communities are Moroccan and Turkish according to the Migration Policy Institute.
And while right-wing parties, like Vlaams Belang, argue that migrants are attracted by welfare benefits and take job opportunities from unemployed locals, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has found that migrants boost the working-age population while contributing more in taxes than they receive in benefits.
But the latest arguments against migrants, and in particular those from the Middle East, have shifted from economics to extremism.
As refugees and migrants continue to flee the Middle East and travel to Germany, Sweden or the U.K. a variety of fears have surfaced among Europeans. Some fear the entrance of ISIS fighters, others the strain migrants will place on their economy, while others worry their cultural identity is at stake.
A recent study conducted by Belgian newspaper Le Soir after the Brussels attacks found that half of Belgians support closing the borders to refugees. And a recent Pew Research Center study found that a majority of European countries surveyed fear that incoming refugees increase the likelihood of terrorism in their countries.
As a result, pressure to close borders and fear of Islam have been growing for some time. Filip de Winter, a leading member of the Vlaams Belang party, called Belgium’s liberal immigration policies naive and “Europe’s tolerance its Achilles’ Heel and immigration Islam’s Trojan horse”.
As tensions escalate a range of anti-Islam protests as well as counter protests have popped up throughout the Belgian capital, but it is online, behind screens and anonymity, that extreme messages of all varieties reach their peak.
Messages that can fuel islamophobia among fearful Europeans and that can draw young Muslims rejected by society to ISIS recruitment platforms.
Hajib believes that these two elements are more connected than it may seem. He believes islamophobia does the recruiting work of ISIS for them, making it easier for young Muslims who feel rejected by society on the basis of their identity to fall for the hero status that ISIS promises.
“It is important to tell the young Muslim people that they can be heroes here in Europe.”