Abdul and his cousin, Raheem, sit in a bar in the Gare du Nord in Brussels, sipping tea and watching on wall-mounted televisions the ongoing, never-ending, ever-expanding coverage of last week’s shootings in Paris, in which gunmen and suicide bombers killed one hundred and twenty nine innocent people as they dined or watched a rock band or strolled down the street. This morning the police surrounded a building in St. Denis, north of Paris, and a televised gun battle has been raging for hours.
Abdul and Raheem are from Aleppo, in Syria, a city accustomed to gun battles, which has been largely destroyed during the civil war there. They won’t talk much about Syria, but they will say that they made it to Turkey early in the war, and worked there for years as laborers to earn enough money to pay smugglers to get them from Turkey to Greece, then onward, joining a stream of migrants heading to Northern Europe. They were lucky when they arrived in Brussels, and spent only two nights outside in a tent before being registered and admitted to a shelter run by the Red Cross.
Somewhere outside the train station a jackhammer starts up, and they both startle at the sound of it. After Paris, while much of the world stares at screens with some vague, hypothetical fear of gunmen storming wherever they’re “sheltering in place,” Abdul and Raheem are possessed of the much more palpable fear of the xenophobic backlash everyone seems to know is coming.
“Europe doesn’t want us,” says Abdul. “Not now. They say one of (the gunmen) had a Syrian passport, came through Greece. It is a betrayal. I cannot believe it. Someone who made that journey with us, who suffered what we did, and now he has betrayed all of us.” He nods his head toward the television. “America doesn’t want us, and these assholes want to kill us. We are fucked. Truly.”
Raheem says something in Arabic, and Abdul nods and translates.
“The guy who organized this, he is not from Syria,” he says. He points out the front of the train station. “He is from right over there.”
The “over there” he is pointing toward is Molenbeek, a neighborhood only a thousand meters away, across the canal that runs down the western side of Brussel’s city center. Because several of the Paris attackers lived in or spent time there, Molenbeek has suddenly been in the news a lot. The Washington Post called it a “Jihadi Hotspot.” Politico called it “Europe’s Terror Capital.” The New York Times called it “The Islamic State’s rear base.” In a bald-faced moment of open incitement, French journalist Eric Zemmour said, “Instead of sending our planes to Syria, we should bomb Molenbeek.”
But even a short walk around Molenbeek reveals these words, like so many words being used in the news these days, to be hyperbole. While there are rough patches of chipped plaster and unpainted windowsills, much of the neighborhood is quite pleasant, with tree-lined streets and impressive architecture and an abundance of public parks. Molenbeek, it turns out, is simply not that bad. The rate of violent crime in Molenbeek, while high by European standards, is still far below the averages of most major American cities. Pedestrians walking the sidewalks are composed of a wide range of ethnicities, with Africans and Asians and Caucasians in equal measure to the Moroccans and Algerians and Egyptians. There are halal butchers and Stella Artois bars. There are hookah joints and discotheques. There are girls wearing hijabs and girls wearing short skirts, and a few wearing both. What Molenbeek is, it readily becomes apparent, is a neighborhood of immigrants. It is a neighborhood possessed of varying degrees of acceptance and rejection of the local culture, various levels of assimilation. In this way, it is like any immigrant neighborhood in the world, any city’s Chinatown or Little Italy. It’s no wonder they hid out here, plotted here. They probably just felt comfortable.
If, as many of the media outlets seem to be saying, Molenbeek produces terrorists, it produces them only in the same way that South Boston produced Whitey Bulgar, or Little Five Points produced Al Capone. The difference is that rather than criminal enterprises bent on enrichment, this is a gang of jihadis that has subsumed religion in its nihilistic drive to impose sharia law on the world. It’s a religious mafia. But the dynamics are the same: the drive to escape poverty and humiliation; the local intimidation; and, occasionally, the admiration.
“I’m going to clean up Molenbeek,” said Belgium’s interior minister Jan Jambon the day after the Paris massacre, as if “cleaning up” Molenbeek would solve everything. As if Molenbeek was the problem. Molenbeek has become a kind of shorthand for what you do when you can’t do anything else.
This evening, in Molenbeek’s main town square, the Place Communal, about two thousand residents are trying to do something else. They have gathered for a peace vigil in response to the Paris attacks. The neighborhood’s name has been chalked onto the cobblestones, the “O” drawn as a peace sign, and the square is illuminated by hundreds of candles. At one point in the evening, Mohamed Abdeslam, the brother of two of the Paris attackers, steps onto his balcony, which overlooks the square, and places a row of lit candles in support of the rally.
One of the people gathered in the square below is Kareem, the son of immigrants from Morocco, who, like most residents, is not pleased with the neighborhood’s reputation.
“It’s like now we’re dirty, or something,” he says, switching fluidly back and forth between French and English. “Like we must be cleaned. And I say, if you want to clean us with good schools and jobs, go ahead. We need it. But if you want to clean us like garbage from your drains? Don’t be so insulting. Nor so blind.”
As for the militants who carried out the attacks in Paris?
“They are idiots,” says Kareem. “They come from nothing and they have nothing and they just want to be famous. You have the same thing in the United States, non? Idiots who get hold of guns and kill a lot of people.”
There’s something perversely comforting in thinking about it this way, something familiar, imagining Dylan Klebold supplied with money from pilfered oil and looted antiquities, imagining Seung-Hui Cho as the suicidal emissary of a rogue state. But this is what terrorism does: it forces you to search for comforting parallels, dares you not to throw your hands in the air and say, “We’re all fucked.”
“They think they can get famous by killing people in the name of Islam,” says Kareem. “They think they can force us to fight each other.” He looks around at the square, at the people gathered there, at the candles and the displays of solidarity and commiseration and grief.
“Look at all of this,” he says, shaking his head. “I am not sure. But I do not think that they are right.”