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Europe

Terror sparks integration debate in France, Belgium

The terror attacks in Brussels have sparked a bout of soul searching about integration in both Belgium and France. Elizabeth Bryant reports from Molenbeek and Sevran.

On a bustling shopping street, women in headscarves pick through traditional North African robes. A Muslim store nearby does brisk business selling prayer books and Korans, while a few blocks away a group of young men in South Asian kurtas play cricket outside a massive church.

Welcome to Molenbeek. A Brussels melting pot of more than half-a-dozen different nationalities. A struggling neighbourhood, where youth unemployment hits 50 percent. And, in recent years, the reputed 'Jihadi capital' of Europe.

If the region is to get a handle on extremism, Molenbeek - located a half-hour walk from the city's fabled Grand Place - may be ground zero. It's here where some jihadi fighters have returned from Syria, and where some extremists believed linked to the Brussels and Paris terrorist attacks grew up.

But Molenbeek is more than the sum of a few radical residents. It is the reflection of today's rapidly changing, multicultural Europe that demands, experts and activists say, new ways of rethinking integration.

A feeling of belonging

For some, that means recognizing different notions of belonging - to a neighborhood or city, for example, as well as to a nation. Others believe it also means abandoning traditional assimilation models and adopting a more US-style approach toward religion and multiculturalism that reflects the melting pot reality of Europe today.

"It doesn't matter whether you have a veil on your head, what's important is what you have inside your head," says sociologist Corinne Torrekens, a specialist in Muslim communities at the Free University of Brussels. "We have to stop with this debate of neutrality and secularity in Belgium and recognise and accept our multicultural society in all its manifestations. Not just when we want to drink mint tea or eat Turkish pita."

The same debate is playing out in neighboring France, reflecting larger similarities between the two countries. Both are leading European exporters of jihadist fighters. Both are grappling with the fallout of Islamist terrorist attacks that appear increasingly intertwined.

And both are struggling to reconcile their own secular societies with the large and visibly religious Muslim immigrant communities in their midst.

people sitting on the ground copyright: Elizabeth Bryant

Belgium and France are battling with terrorism and identity and integration

Society at fault

"It's not a question of Muslims being integrated, it's that society isn't integrating Muslims," says Alexandre Piettre, a sociologist at the Societies, Religions and Secularism Group, a Paris-based think-tank.

To what extent such integration problems are linked to terrorism is a matter of debate. Experts note that only a tiny percentage of Belgian and French Muslims have tipped to radical Islam. Still others are converts who grew up in Christian or secular families with home-grown roots stretching back generations.

And while both countries face similar problems, they have different colonial legacies and systems of resettling their large immigrant worker populations that began arriving in the 1950s and ‘60s.

In Belgium, many immigrants and their offspring live in scarred city neighborhoods like Molenbeek, separated culturally but linked physically to the surrounding urban landscape.

By contrast, many ethnic immigrants in France are parked in the country's banlieues - gritty, low-income suburbs ringing cities like Paris, where the physical divide can deepen employment and transportation problems.

"If you want tourists to come to the Grand Place you have to pacify the working class neighborhoods 500 meters away," says Eric Corijn, professor of urban studies at the Free University of Brussels. "So there are investments, there are programs, there is infrastructure that is of better quality than you can find in the Parisian banlieues, for instance."

Moving forward, together

Yet in both countries, Muslims joined peace rallies following the terrorist attacks. "Yes, I do feel a bit stigmatized, like a lot of people," said 41-year-old Larbi Arbaoui. "But it's small-minded people who think this way. I think we need to move forward together."

In Molenbeek, many residents say they are at loss to explain radicalism and angry at the stain on their neighbourhood.

young girl on street copyright: Elizabeth Bryant

Nafisa can't understand why young people become jihadists

"There are lots of kids here who quit school at 14 or 15, but they're normal like us," said 16-year-old Nafisa Meziane, wearing jeans and a blue sweatshirt that reads 'Fifth Avenue.'

But Molenbeek-based street educator Thomas Devos says the attacks have hit home. "Maybe before the kids were like, 'yeah, well, it's not here,'" says Devos, who works for a youth empowerment group called Jes. "But now it's here. A family got hit. People they know got hit. People they care about got hit."

In neighboring France, battling the same fractured response to terrorism and identity, some politicians claim that dozens of French Molenbeeks exist.

Dozens of Molenbeeks

The working-class Paris suburb of Sevran, a half-hour subway ride from the city, has earned the reputation as one of them. Like Molenbeek, the town has a large Muslim and ethnic immigrant community and is battling a high youth unemployment rate.

In March, a group of Sevran residents accused the mayor of turning a blind eye to rising extremism. A locally dubbed "Islamic State mosque" was only recently shut down.

person walking down street copyright: Elizabeth Bryant

Sevran is a multicultural community that could be a role model for an open society in France

Sevran Mayor Stephane Gatignon acknowledges that roughly a dozen youngsters or more have headed to Syria. But he says the numbers are far higher elsewhere in France. Besides, fighting terrorism is bigger than just one town.

"We're talking about a widespread and porous network," he says. "We're at war, and everyone has to play a role, including citizens."

Part of the answer, he believes, comes in rethinking France's relationship with multicultural communities like Sevran that recognizes their potential rather than just their problems.

Watch video 04:36

Belgium: Young Muslims joining the jihad

"It's here where things are being created," he says. "Things are happening in terms of culture, sports and businesses. That's what an open society is all about. What France is proposing is a closed society."

Without that change, and creating a greater sense of belonging among French Muslims, Gatignon believes, it will be difficult to fight radical Islam.

Sevran entrepreneur and activist Yacine Hilmi agrees. The 32-year-old son of Moroccan immigrants says he feels completely French, but he knows many others who do not.

"We need to rethink our history, and to create heroes who resemble the kids from these neighborhoods," he says. "Someone who feels profoundly French will not want to attack his country or citizens."

He describes being struck by conversations with immigrants during a visit to the United States. "Even newly arrived immigrants will say 'I'm American,'" Hilmi says. "There's a sense of patriotism and belonging that's very different from here."

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