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Molenbeek fights 'terrorist' label

Doris Pundy / groFebruary 14, 2016

Donald Trump has referred to Brussels as a "living hellhole" because in his opinion Muslims there have failed assimilate. Resistance to such negative representation has been growing in the Molenbeek district of Brussels.

Image: DW/D. Pundy

"When I heard about the Paris attacks in the news, I immediately feared that we had something to do with them," said Sarah Turine, a politician who works with a youth agency in the Molenbeek district of Brussels. "But the fact that guys who grew up here were among the perpetrators was really shocking." She said dark days followed the November 13 attacks, with daily house searches and several arrests putting her neighborhood in the international media spotlight.

The commotion reached its peak during the manhunt for the fugitive bomber Salah Abdeslam, who had supposedly holed up at 47 Delaunoy street. The police besieged the building for hours; sharpshooters waited on the roofs of neighboring houses. A large area was closed off, journalists from around the world quickly reached the site, and false reports began circulating. Molenbeek had already been stigmatized as a hotbed of potential radicals, and now everyone who lived there was under blanket suspicion.

Things have more or less returned to normal on Rue Delaunoy. No. 47 has remained uninhabited, its windows boarded over with plywood. In the distance shines the tower of the Palace of Justice, the most important courthouse in Belgium. Teenagers from Molenbeek were interrogated in halls of justice around Brussels following the attacks 300 kilometers (180 miles) away in Paris.

"Even if it is calmer, the fear continues to have an effect," Turine said. "The good thing is that now many people in the district want to wipe the slate clean and eradicate the causes of our problems." There are many new projects to keep young people in particular away from preachers whose sermons are deemed too fiery. "Now," Turine said, "more and more people are coming to Molenbeek from elsewhere because they want to gain their own impression of Molenbeek."

'No ghettos'

"There are no ghettos in Brussels," Erik Nobels told the tour group he was guiding, "not even here in Molenbeek." He wanted his charges to see the neighborhood beyond the stereotypes. He believes that one cannot generalize and that the killers who had grown up in the neighborhood were isolated cases.

"If I had been religious, I would have become a priest," he said. "Now, I preach to my visitor groups." On that afternoon, 25 people had come to listen to him. Most of them wore hiking boots and weatherproof jackets and sported expensive cameras around their necks. Almost all of them were Belgian; English tours are available for international visitors.

The tour took the group through the narrow streets and behind the factory buildings along the canal that separates Molenbeek from the center of Brussels. There are simple residential buildings to the right and to the left; none of them are expensive-looking, nor are they shabby. You could be anywhere in Brussels.

Occasionally, a car drove by. Almost every driver slowed down and quizzically glanced at the group before continuing on. One man came over to listen to what Nobels was saying. He nodded amicably and went on.

"Are you on a safari or what?" someone else yelled at the group. Later, a young person with a skateboard under his arm grumbled as he passed the group.

The group walked to Rue de Ribaucourt, a street lined with laundromats, cellphone shops and green grocers. "It has all been blown out of proportion," said Waafa, who works in a bakery. "In the weeks after the attacks, the streets were full of journalists, but afterward everything was normal again." She said the men who had committed the attacks in Paris in November "were a couple of boys who had foolish ideas, but most people here do not cause any problems." She added: "I grew up here; my neighbors are like a big family to me."

Nobels took the tour to the center for arts and culture. It is situated in a brick building with large windows and has rooms with high ceilings, like the old industrial buildings near the canal. "Look at that," Nobels said, pointing out a photograph of a topless woman. "If Molenbeek were an Islamist neighborhood, this wouldn't be here."

On almost every street corner, Nobels attempted to allay fears of radicalized young people. "They were only isolated cases," he told his tourists. "There is no need for fear."

The tour led by Nobels prompted one Molenbeek resident to ask sourly if the group was on safariImage: DW/D. Pundy

Gateway to Syria?

The politician Turine said radicalization could not be minimized. "Almost everyone here in the neighborhood knows someone who has gone to fight in Syria," Turine said. "We must prevent the boys from coming back as monsters and murdering people here in Europe."

Turine knows that her efforts will not reach every young man in the neighborhood. "Next summer, the hour of truth will chime," Turine said. "In the summer, the number of people traveling to Syria jumps dramatically. Only then will we know whether our work has been successful."

The last stop on the tour was the district office of Molenbeek. This is where Mohamed Abdeslam works; his two brothers were among the perpetrators in the Paris attacks. Nobels told the family's story. "The family once owned a shop near here," he said. "But it burned down and because they were not insured, they were broke."

The sons tried their luck in a bar, Nobels said, but it quickly became a spot for drug trafficking and was closed down by the authorities. Once again, the family was facing bankruptcy. A few days later, one of the brothers blew himself up during the attacks in Paris. The other one threw away his bomb belt and has been on the run ever since. Nobels made it sound like they committed acts of desperation and not terrorism.