How Europe’s Capital Became A Jihadi Recruiting Center

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The radicalization of Muslims in Belgium provides ominous lessons for the rest of Europe

At the turn of the 21st century, a parade of books and articles declared that the American century had ended, and that the new century would be a European century. Matthew Kaminski of Politico wrote recently that in 2000, many believed that “a continent free, whole, prosperous looked within reach” and that “the new century promised pooled sovereignty, peaceful cooperation, soft power, and social justice.” As Kaminski notes, futurologist Jeremy Rifkin wrote that Europe’s “vision of the future is quietly eclipsing the American dream” and that “Europe will run the 21st century.” Washington Post correspondent T.R. Reid predicted that the Euro would replace the dollar as the world’s reserve currency. The Euro, he wrote, “is more than money. It is also a political statement-a daily message in every pocket that cooperation has replaced conflict across the continent.”

Brussels represented the kind of post-national, multicultural city that European bureaucrats hoped the continent would become. In a 2001 report entitled “Brussels: The Capital of Europe”, Italian philosopher and novelist Umberto Eco wrote, “In the presence of a multi-lingual, multi-religious, multi-ethnic Europe, Brussels [is] the center where diversities are not eliminated, but rather exalted and harmonized.” In May 2001, British historian Timothy Garton Ash described Brussels as “a place where highly sophisticated, multilingual men and women from the most diverse backgrounds . . . reconcile national interests and national ways of thinking with the pursuit of larger, common interests.”

But the last ten years have produced mounting evidence that this European experiment in multiculturalism is in jeopardy. The governing parties in England, Germany, Denmark, and the Netherlands have explicitly rejected multiculturalism in favor of assimilationist models of immigrant incorporation. In May 2005, French and Dutch citizens voted down a proposed European constitution in nation-wide plebiscites. Since 2008, the sovereign debt crises in the Mediterranean countries have left future of the Euro in question. And in 2017, the British will hold a referendum on whether to withdraw from the European Union.

The EU’s capital, Belgium, seems to have become a microcosm of this troubled European project. Like Belgium, the European Union is an artificial multi-national construct, created around conference tables. Belgium is officially bilingual, yet there is almost no Dutch spoken in Wallonia and little French spoken in Flanders. “The division could not be starker if barbed wire separated the two provinces”, Theodore Dalrymple wrote. In 2010, an anti-immigration, euro-skeptic Flemish nationalist party became Belgium’s largest political party, raising the specter of Belgium’s breaking apart. Today, the largest political parties in Flanders are nationalist and free-market oriented, while the largest political party in Wallonia is socialist. The tensions between the Flemish north and the French south echo the divisions within the European Union between the Germans and the Greeks. In 2014, the European Commission warned that Belgium’s debt ratio will reach 108 percent of GDP by 2016, and Belgium came out worse than Italy on the Commission’s stress test scenarios.

Gangsta Rap and Jihadi Preachers

But more worrisome than these economic and political cleavages are the anti-societies of gangsta rap, criminal activity, and extremist versions of Islam that are developing in Belgium’s Muslim enclaves. Tourist sites warn visitors to avoid Muslim neighborhoods in the northern parts of the city, especially at night. “Twenty years ago, I was convinced that the young New Belgians would be quickly assimilated”, writes Vander Taelen, a Flemish MP for the Green Party. “But now there is a generation in Brussels that has grown up like rebels without a cause.” Vander Taelen lives near a Muslim neighborhood, and his daughter refuses to set foot in the neighborhood. “She has simply been abused too often”, Valder Taelen writes.

In Undercover in Little Morocco, Moroccan-Belgian journalist Hind Fraihi reported on the prevalence of jihadi attitudes among young people in Molenbeek, one of Brussels’s largest Muslim enclaves. She found that the young men in Molenbeek talk about martyrdom in a way she hadn’t experienced even when she was in Israel. “They truly dream of their private hero tale”, Fraihi said, “A few live with their head already in paradise. And yes, they truly believe in those virgins that wait for you.” Fraihi reported that the Muslim youth in Molenbeek routinely refer to Belgians as “unbelievers” and boast about how they rob Belgians in order to support global jihad. In June 2011, the American advertising agency BBDO abandoned its offices in Molenbeek after citing over 150 assaults on its staff by local youth.

Jews feel especially besieged. In May 2015, The Institute for the Study of Global Anti-Semitism and Policy (ISGAP) reported that in Brussels, a majority of Muslims students surveyed agreed with these statements: “Jews incite to war and blame others” and “Jews want to dominate everything.” Less than ten percent of non-Muslim students agree with these statements. Such prejudices have led to horrific attacks against Jews. In May 2013, a Jewish Belgian woman, Cindy Meul, was severely beaten by two neighbors after Meul and her wife installed the mezuzah on their front door. In May 2014, a gunman opened fire at the Jewish Museum of Belgium in Brussels, killing four people. The assailant had spent a year in Syria with jihadist fighters. In April 2015, a Belgian insurance company refused to renew The European Jewish Kindergarten’s insurance policy. The insurer said that the recent growth of anti-Semitic attacks on Jewish organizations made the risk of insuring the school too high. European Jewish Congress chief Moshe Kantor has said, “It is clear from the statistics and the feeling on the ground that the situation for Jews of Europe hasn’t been as bad since the end of the Holocaust.”

Demographic trends exacerbate the feeling of impending crisis. As in other European countries, the Muslim population of Belgium is young; thirty-five percent of the Moroccans and Turks in the country are below 18 years old, compared to eighteen percent of the native Belgians. Since 2008, the most popular baby boy’s name in Brussels has been Mohammed. By 2030, half of the residents of Brussels will be Muslim. A popular t-shirt among Muslim youth says “2030-then we take over.”

Jihadi Recruiting Center

One of the most vexing problems facing Belgian authorities is the large number of Belgian youth who have been drawn to jihad in Syria. An International Center for the Study of Radicalization (ICSR) report estimates that at least 440 Belgian youth are fighting in Syria. Belgian youth are twice as likely to become foreign fighters in Syria as French youth, more than four times as likely as English youth, and more than twenty times as likely as American youth. Unfortunately, the relentless brutality of the civil war in Syria is creating growing numbers of traumatized young men who are accustomed to violence and are ready to carry their apocalyptic worldview back home. Those willing to commit acts of terror will be connected to a worldwide network of fellow jihadis. The Norwegian Defense Research Establishment’s Thomas Hegghammer found that, between 1990 and 2010, one in nine Western foreign fighters who returned to Europe became domestic terrorists.

Palestinian researcher Montasser AlDe’emeh, who grew up in a refugee camp in Jordan and currently lives in Molenbeek, is writing his dissertation on Belgian foreign fighters in Syria. In June 2013, he spent fifteen days in Aleppo with a group of Belgian jihadists. AlDe’emeh reported that the Belgians he met there were in good spirits. ISIS made these young men feel like full-fledged members of a caliphate, fictional though it is. “The Islamic State is giving them what the Belgian government can’t give them-identity, structure”, he wrote. These young people are saying, “It is boring…in Belgium. Here we have nice rivers and Kalashnikovs. Here in Syria we are somebody.”

Belgium is a divided country without a common culture, and this complicates the immigrant quest for identity. In Belgium, Flemish, French, and Germans live side-by-side, carefully segregated from one another in their different linguistic and cultural communities. Furthermore, Muslims don’t feel that they are represented politically. Belgian politicians have resisted Muslim attempts to make Arabic Belgium’s fourth official language. Muslims used to vote for the Flemish Social Democrats, a party that is liberal on immigration, but also liberal on social issues (feminism, gay rights, euthanasia). But in 2010, the Social Democrats supported a nationwide burka ban, and, in 2014, the party promoted a controversial child euthanasia bill that nearly all Muslim religious leaders opposed.

In Brussels, Turkish and Moroccan mosques haven’t proven helpful in establishing connections with at-risk youth. Rather, at-risk youth are often Islamized through Salafist Internet preachers who offer apocalyptic explanations for the dislocations of modern society.Rather, at-risk youth are often Islamized through Salafist Internet preachers who offer apocalyptic explanations for the dislocations of modern society. ISIS has run an especially effective social media campaign in this regard, offering young people the opportunity to take part in an apocalyptic struggle prophesized 1,400 years ago. One of ISIS’ favorite hadiths refers to Syria as the land where an epic battle between Muslim armies will take place, leading to the end of times. ISIS draws foreign fighters into its ranks with carefully orchestrated mixtures of images of terror (crucifixions and beheadings) and domestic images of fighters playing with fluffy kittens and jihadi wives proudly displaying food they have cooked.

Belgium’s anti-terrorism program blends police vigilance with aggressive prosecution of jihadi recruiters. On January 15, 2015, Belgian police conducted raids against Islamist groups in nine homes in Molenbeek, disrupting imminent terrorist attacks on police stations and on Jewish institutions. That same night, Islamists equipped with military weaponry opened fire on police in the town of Verviers, located on the German border. In the firefight, the police killed two suspects. In an ensuing investigation, police discovered heavy weaponry, explosives, phony police uniforms, and walkie-talkies. On June 8, 2015, Belgian police arrested another 16 suspects in another wave of anti-terror raids.

On February 11, 2015 in Belgium’s largest-ever terror trial, a court in Antwerp found a total of forty-five members of the Salafist group Sharia4Belgium guilty of terror-related charges. Only seven of the accused were in court for the ruling. Most others are in Syria, and some may already be dead. It is clear, however, that these punitive measures will not be adequate to deter the growth of jihadi movements. When Saria4Belgium leader Fouad Belkacem was sentenced to twelve years in prison, he said, “Everyone in prison is against the system. Infidels and Muslims alike. There is work to be done. It will be awesome.” Three quarters on the inmates in Belgian prisons are of immigrant background, and many of these prisoners are at risk for radicalization.

The Belgian government is supporting a variety of preventative programs for at-risk youth that draw on techniques that help young people leave gangs. These programs bring friends, mentors, moderate imams, and security personnel together to identify at-risk youth and integrate them into their communities. Montasser AlDe’emeh is helping shape some of these programs. He believes that exposure to a more sophisticated study of Islam can help young Belgians rethink their fanatical views. When he meets young people with ISIS’s interpretation of sharia, he engages them in theological discussions to help them develop a more moderate religious perspective. He encourages young people to build relationships and get jobs in order to build a life in Belgian society. “In my efforts to help these youth channel their frustrations, I hope that I can at least prevent them from hurting themselves and others”, AlDe’emeh said.

Islam and the Future of Europe

The struggle to develop a common civic culture that is capable of immigrant incorporation is a problem that plagues most European countries. The attacks on the World Trade Center, the Madrid and London public transport bombings, the Toulouse attacks on Jewish school children, and the Charlie Hebdo massacre dramatize how Europe has become a breeding ground for fundamentalist movements within Islam. French sociologist Oliver Roy has argued that in Europe, Islamist radicalization goes hand in hand with Westernization. The typical European Muslim terrorist becomes radicalized (“born again”) only after indulging in a fully Westernized lifestyle, which includes alcohol and girlfriends. Roy argues that traditionalist Muslims, who practice folk religion with strong cultural and linguistic ties to Muslim cultures, are not prone to extremism. Francis Fukuyama likewise writes, “we profoundly misunderstand contemporary Islamist ideology when we see it as an assertion of traditional Muslim values or culture.” Contemporary jihadi radicalism is rather a “deterritorialized” religion that has been severed from its traditional context.

An optimistic reading of Europe’s future anticipates that Muslim youth will eventually adapt to the cultures around them and become carriers of liberal principles imparted to them in the modern West. In The Islamic Challenge, Brandeis University political scientist Jyette Klausen expresses the hope that Euro-Muslims, like the Euro-Communists before them, will eventually embrace democratic pluralism. Gilles Kepel writes that, in this hopeful scenario, European Muslims “will participate fully, as Muslims, in the dynamic, creative dimensions of a universal civilization, while rejecting extremism, along with the violence and chaos that follows in its wake.” Asylum seekers who are fleeing from homicidal theocrats may be at the forefront of such a movement. Angela Merkel’s welcoming response to Syrian refugees has made her a hero in Syria, and it is leading refugees in Germany to seek integration into German culture. Associated Press reporter Kirsten Grieshaber reports that large numbers of Muslim refugees in Germany are attending Lutheran churches and seeking Christian baptism.

A more negative reading of Europe’s future focuses on the crime-ridden ghettos where most European Muslims live. European welfare states have trapped Muslim youth in permanent unemployment in countries that contemptuously feed and house them. High minimum wages, payroll taxes, and labor protection laws mean that European economies do not have the dynamism to create large numbers of entry-level service sector jobs. There is also widespread discrimination in hiring practices. A February 2015 survey of Flemish temp agencies found that two-thirds of temp agencies heed clients’ wishes to refrain from hiring cleaning personnel of immigrant descent. Sorbonne scholar Jean-François Amadieu found that in France male job applicants with North African sounding names receive one-third of the invitations for job interviews as white applicants with equivalent qualifications.

But for many Muslim youth, cultural dislocation is even more wrenching than economic alienation. Ian Buruma reports that second-generation Moroccan men are ten times more likely to suffer from schizophrenia than native Europeans from similar economic backgrounds. As Junes Kock, a Danish convert to Islam, said, “we Muslims in no way need your help to drag us down into a sad, Western culture where youth suffer from a capitalist existential void which causes widespread depression, addiction,…and an alarmingly high rate of suicide.” Even atheist French novelist Michel Houellebecq, who called Islam the world’s “stupidest” religion, admits that he sees benefits in the Muslim conversion experience. Theodore Dalrymple, another harsh critic of Islam, writes that Muslim girls who are removed from school at the age twelve often end up vastly superior to their white counterparts in manners, outlook, and intelligence.

In contrast to American Muslims, who tend to be affluent, integrated, and educated, second- and third-generation European Muslims are more alienated from European cultures than their parents and grandparents were. European Muslim youth are increasingly finding dignity in Muslim identities in closed communities that reject the surrounding culture as “the land of unbelief.” Most of these re-Islamized youth embrace quietist and peaceable Islamic traditions such as sufi mysticism, Tablighi sectarianism, and pietistic salafism. Others embrace Tariq Ramadan’s political mixture of globalism, socialism, and Islamism. A small minority passes from voluntary sectarianism into violence, escaping cultural dislocations to participate in a cosmic struggle that explains their rage and imposes upon them an obligation to retaliate. But for all these youth, their primary identity is a Muslim identity, not a European identity. European countries seem incapable of fashioning a national identity that can connect Muslim youth to a common democratic culture, as the American creed does for immigrants to the United States. Garton Ash wonders whether the personal attitudes and behaviors of millions of Muslims and non-Muslims in Europe can change in time to avert a catastrophe. “I fear not,” he writes, “it’s already five minutes to midnight-and we are drinking in the last chance salon.”

A compassionate, organized, and tough-minded response to the Syrian civil war might have advertised the benefits of European civilization to the Muslim world and changed the perception that Europe is hostile to Islam. Europe has squandered this opportunity. In 2011, Europeans and Americans demanded that Bashar Assad step down, but they were unwilling to back up their demands with military power, even as Assad crossed red lines set by the West. In the absence of effective European and American action, Russia and Iran are intervening in Syria in ways that are almost certain to exacerbate the refugee crisis. Europe’s inability, politically, economically, and culturally, to absorb the millions of people who have yet to show up on its shores means that greater numbers of young men will languish in despair in Middle-Eastern and European refugee camps. Such people will become increasingly vulnerable to radicalization by ideologues who offer them hope for an apocalyptic end to the political and religious systems that have failed them.