Wednesday 22 November 2017

Crossing Brussels' Berlin Wall into 'Jihadi Central'

A week discovering the reality behind the suburb which summons visions of fanaticism, and witnessing an artist's Rising high dudgeon

Aftermath: Police in riot gear protect one of the memorials to the victims of the recent Brussels attacks, as right-wing demonstrators protest near the Place de la Bourse in Brussels last week. Photo: AP
Aftermath: Police in riot gear protect one of the memorials to the victims of the recent Brussels attacks, as right-wing demonstrators protest near the Place de la Bourse in Brussels last week. Photo: AP

Fergal Keane

I went to Brussels, Dublin and Serbia. I saw the trauma of a city under attack, watched Martin McGuinness applaud the gardai, and was invited to fire an AK-47 after a long dinner. I am writing from Cork where I have at last come to earth. My working life has delivered many unusual periods but the last week surpassed them all.

First to Brussels. I expected something very different. The canal, we were told, was like the Berlin Wall. On one side of it sat the political capital of Europe, on the other 'Jihadi Central', the seething and dangerous suburb of Molenbeek where suicide bombers had hidden and plotted their attacks on Paris and Brussels, and unemployment runs at 40pc. It is a fact that some bad men had come out of Molenbeek to spread havoc. As a consequence, the mere mention of the place, along with its neighbour Schaerbeek, summons up visions of alienation and fanaticism. Except that my experience suggested a more complex and hopeful reality.

I spoke to more than a dozen people from all walks of life, all of them Muslims. Some with jobs, some without. Old and young, male and female. There was not one whiff of 'whataboutery'. The IS attacks were evil, plain and simple. As Asma, a 24-year-old media worker and devout Muslim, put it to me: "I am sorry for everybody who was hurt, who is waiting for news of their loved ones. The real cancer is IS." I wandered up the street and met two youths sitting on a bench. They were students. Mohammed was in his second year of engineering studies. Why did he think young men were joining IS. He thought they were mostly boys without education, "rebel personalities" who got involved in petty crime and then drifted into the ranks of the fanatics. He had plans for the future and he felt "as Belgian as anybody else". Of course, quite what it means to be Belgian, in a country so politically and linguistically divided, is another story for another day. Before leaving, I stopped to do a piece to camera, the part where you try, frequently unsuccessfully, to summarise the meaning of a story. I was a few words in when a man approached and put his hand over the lens. "No filming here. No filming. You must go," he said. He wasn't a fanatic and he didn't hate westerners. He was a market stallholder who thought his neighbourhood was being stereotyped. There was no point in arguing and escalating the situation. He wanted to be left alone. I couldn't blame him.

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