Why Belgium? The Ugly Truth Behind the Brussels Bombings

In the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Brussels on 22 March, the most watched television news stations in Europe, the BBC and Euronews, broadcast extensive live coverage of the scenes of horror at the National Airport in Zaventem and outside the metro station near the European Institutions in central Brussels that was bombed an hour later. Then we were shown senior politicians, in particular the Belgian Prime Minister and French President, delivering pious words on European solidarity in times of crisis and their shared revulsion at the cowardly deadly acts just perpetrated by jihadists for which responsibility was claimed by the Islamic State. Next came coverage of the popular reaction to the terror acts, the lighting of candles, leaving flowers and sharing messages of condolences at the Place de la Bourse in downtown Brussels, all so reminiscent of the popular reaction that followed terror attacks at a concert hall and on the streets of Paris on 13 November 2015, and still earlier following the attack on the editorial offices of Charlie Hebdo in January 2015. These maudlin exercises brought out the ‘human interest’ nature of events which the media could feed on hungrily.

Phase Two of media coverage stayed within the category of ‘human interest’ but moved on to the flow of information about the identities of the jihadists. We learned about their personalities, their past whereabouts, their interconnections. The overriding approach was at the psychological level: trying to explain to a confused and shocked public how someone unexceptional in their midst, cleaning staff at the airport or a tram driver, as it turned out, could fall under the influence of radical Islam and carry out kamizake attacks on fellow civilians.

 At this point, what some observers found to be a profound insight passed from the pages of The New York Times to talking heads in Europe:  the fact that here in Brussels, as with other infamous recent acts of terrorism on two continents, the actors were mostly brothers, bound we are told, by unbreakable familial bonds that made it so hard for police agents to enter their conspiracies and thwart their plans.

The psychological approach to terror suspects clearly sells newspapers and magazines.  Of course, it can be done by journalists of greater or lesser professionalism.  One highly professional essay of this kind appeared in The New Yorker magazine back in June 2015. It is relevant to mention here because it was devoted precisely to the story of Belgian jihadists: “Journey to Jihad” by Ben Taub.

I do not deny that this delving into personal motivation of the perpetrators of evil is a valid dimension to the news, even if it smacks of voyeurism. However, it is only one dimension to the complex problem we face in these attacks, and it carries an important flaw. Reading these personal details of criminals, society does not hold up a mirror to itself. Without introspection and seeking faults in ourselves, in acts committed or omitted, we cannot devise ways to thwart the phenomenon of terror, which definitely can be controlled or rooted out by effective police measures if other dimensions are considered.

These other dimensions are sociological, especially socio-economic and socio-political. In this essay, I will examine them. My primary focus will be on how they play out in the Kingdom of Belgium.

I stress Belgium, because this is where the latest attacks occurred. They occurred in the specific context of Belgian society and its political structures.  Moreover, the whole question of domestic security remains at the level of the sovereign states everywhere on the Continent.  For these reasons, the tendency of many global commentators on the events this week to speak of it as a European Union event resulting from EU practices is both incorrect and unhelpful.  The fact that Brussels is the capital of Europe is only slightly relevant. The jihadists attacked here because this is where they lived, this is where their views were shaped, and because they understood perfectly that the kingdom of Belgium was an easy touch.

On day three following the terror attacks,   the Belgian common front of lighting candles, delivering pious speeches and preaching national solidarity in the face of the terrorist threat finally cracked.

This was touched off by harsh criticisms of the Belgian authorities from outside the country. Although Israelis and others weighed in, the most destructive salvo was launched by Turkish President Erdogan, who said that one of the suicide bombers had been deported from Turkey to Belgium (actually to The Netherlands) a year ago for terrorist activities about which the Belgian authorities were warned but took no action. Erdogan called the Belgians incompetent to their faces.

This blackening of their names forced Belgian politicians to defend themselves publicly to the press and put the blame on….their domestic political opponents, all of which cuts in a very interesting pattern in a kingdom which has a Left and a Right of center that lead coalitions only in combination with the gradations of opinion on either side thanks to proportional representation. And the whole set of parties is multiplied by two because the political parties do not cross the North-South language divide between Dutch speakers and French speakers respectively. We will go into these mutual recriminations in a moment, to see what failures in Belgian policies and personalities the actors chose to highlight and what they either did not see or preferred not to talk about.

But first, I would like to mention one additional outside stimulus to debate in Belgium that drew attention of the leading French daily newspaper, Le Soir : an analytical article published in Foreign Affairs magazine on 24 March by researchers at the Brookings Institute in Washington who  allege a particular susceptibility to radical jihadism in French speaking countries with French political culture that also happen to have high degree of urbanization and high level of youth unemployment, the Molenbeek district of Brussels, the home grounds of the attackers of 22 March and also of the Paris attacks, being their case in point. See William McCants and Christopher Meserole, “The French Connection: Explaining Sunni Militancy Around the World.”

This article infuriated Belgian journalists, who quoted the rebuttal offered by the French ambassador to Washington, Gerard Araud. His most notable argument was a reminder that “Belgium is 45% French speaking. Its political culture is appreciably different from that of France.”

On the one hand, we must congratulate McCants and Meserole for approaching the question of the terrorist attacks of 22 March from a sociological viewpoint and seeking explanations that can potentially guide political changes.  On the other hand, the complaint of the French ambassador goes to the weakness of their analytic toolkit, which the authors themselves tell us amounts to number crunching to arrive at causality. 

Number crunching in this way is not a substitute for area knowledge, though, regrettably, throughout  American studies of International Relations, that is precisely what has taken the upper hand over the last decade or more.  Study of history, language, culture have gone to the wall to make way for the universally applicable quantitative analysis that NGOs, banks and international institutions generally expect from their recruits.

In this instance, it seems the authors are blind to the language divide in Belgium. They also appear to ignore  the national backgrounds and historical baggage of the various Sunni minority populations in Belgium and France or how this compares with the background of Sunni populations in neighboring Germany, for example. 

In point of fact, the Sunni Muslim residents in France have been predominantly Algerian, whose feelings towards their French neighbors carry collective memory of colonization and of a long and bitter war of liberation that led to independence. Algerians are viewed in Belgium as aggressive, potentially violent and spongers on the French welfare state. Sunni Muslims living in Belgium have been Moroccans in the majority. The Kingdom of Morocco was never colonized and Moroccan immigrants here have no historical complexes about the country of their residence. They are seen as enterprising.  However, their settlement is almost exclusively in the French-speaking regions of Wallonia and Brussels, where they share a common language, not in the Flemish north. Indeed, their arrival in Belgium has been resented by the Flemish for distorting the linguistic balance in the country in favor of French speakers.  To be sure, Flanders has its own substantial Sunni Muslim minority, but they are largely Turks, whose relations with the Flemish majority are rather like those of the Turks in Germany.  Turks had a special relationship with Germany going back to before the fall of the Ottoman empire, and by extension, do well in a territory (Flanders) that is within the family of Germanic languages.

The mutual recriminations among Belgian politicians over the alleged laxness and incompetence at the federal ministerial level that allowed the murderous bombings of the 22nd to take place began with the acknowledgement by the two most exposed officials, Minister of Justice Koen Geens and Deputy Prime Minister holding the portfolio of Internal Affairs and Security Jan Jambon that cues may have been missed. They offered to resign but this was refused by Prime Minister Charles Michel, who invoked the need for his team to stick together in the midst of the crisis.  However, the rest of the political establishment was not so forgiving. Both ministers are politically on the Right and came to office as defenders of law and order. Thus, they were fair game for the Socialist opposition.  Moreover, both are Flemish, and one, Jambon, is a leading figure in the Flemish separatist or independence party, the New Flemish Alliance (N-VA). 

A somewhat odious personality in the view of the Francophone parliamentarians due not only to his aspiration for tearing the country apart but also for his scandalous expressions of sympathy for war-time collaboration with Nazi Germany, Jambon happens to be a political hack with no evident experience or skills to hold down the demanding position of Minister of the Interior and State Security. In this respect, he was even less prepared for his responsibilities than the Police Chief of Cologne, a German political hack, at the time of the scandalous rampage of Muslims including refugees outside the Cologne main station on New Year’s eve. But then again, in fairness to Jambon, he is not the only Belgian minister holding a portfolio for which he has no claim other than party loyalty. Here we have the key issue that none of the politicians has so far named but which distinguishes the Belgian political culture:  power sharing.

Power sharing is not just the result of proportional representation whittling away single-party majorities and forcing coalitions. Power sharing is the glue that holds the Kingdom of Belgium together given the mutual antipathy of the French-speaking and Dutch-speaking halves of the country.  It results in behind closed door allocations of office and in endless rotation of the same handful of people within successive cabinets led by prime ministers of different parties. Finally, it is a kind of institutionalized corruption concealed by democratic sounding principles that belie a distrust of the general population’s maturity. This is Belgium’s dirty little secret.

With his protégé Jambon squirming under the spotlight, Belgium’s real power broker, chairman of the N-VA and mayor of Antwerp Bart De Wever went on the offensive against the Socialists for wrong-headed tolerance of criminality and for naïve encouragement of social diversity and multiculturalism. Of Philippe Moureaux, the long-time burgomaster of the Molenbeek district known for coddling the one-third of the population who are Muslim, two of whom he brought into his  council,  De Wever asked accusingly “how can he dare show himself in public now?” He also fulminated against Brussels for allowing native born sons to become radicalized killers, something which could never happen in Antwerp, in his view.

Power sharing means you cannot ‘throw the bums out.’ It also means that the changing will of the majority is always frustrated, that the political institutions cannot easily recalibrate to new circumstances, to new challenges, such as the current threat from radicalized Islam. Though mixicité sociale has fallen out of fashion with the general public in the past couple of years, political correctness of the political establishment has not yet adjusted to the new facts. Similarly the system of justice has not moved in any significant way from extreme defense of individual rights to a greater weighting towards public security at the expense of deviant behavior of the few.  Put in simple English, the Belgium system of justice is a revolving door through which several of the participants in this week’s terror attacks easily passed.

Possibilities of preventive detention of suspects in terrorism are not used. And whole communities are no-go zones for the police.  While Belgium, like most other Continental states, has draconian laws on the books regarding registration of residence going back to the Code Napoleon, they are not enforced.  In communes like Molenbeek, whole buildings are said to be occupied by unregistered foreigners living in hostel-like conditions without proper papers.  All of this will have to change if the city and the country is to be made safe from a repetition of what we have seen or worse.

Police actions are useless against terrorism in the face of community support for the radicals.  And this is precisely what we saw on television during the police siege in Molenbeek on 18 March that ended in the capture of Europe’s most wanted man, Salah Abdeslam.  The cameraman providing the feed for the Euronews live coverage turned his camera on a row of matronly Muslim women in traditional jilbab dress waving their fists angrily at the cameras.  I have been told by some insiders at a Brussels television production unit that these ‘accidental’ images of community feelings enraged Euronews directors because it could be prejudicial to public thinking about Muslims. Political correctness dies very slowly.

The alienation of the Molenbeek Muslim population has to be examined in depth. But one can safely assume that it has roots in two factors, one of which was named by the Brookings Institute experts: high youth unemployment.  The other is blowback for Belgium’s participation in every NATO and Western military expedition in the Middle East and North Africa (Libya) since the start of the new millennium.

Youth unemployment in Molenbeek is over 25%.  The more shocking fact is that this is not the result of some post-2008 crisis but a situation going back at least two decades.  The still more shocking fact is that the same is true of Brussels as a whole, not just the pockets of the Muslim residence.  Regardless of the ruling coalition of the day, Belgium and the Region of Brussels-Capital have completely failed to attract jobs for working class citizens.  At the same time, the authorities have been very successful creating high-paying professional jobs in pharmaceuticals, in Information Technology and Communication, in the European Institutions and NATO for people like themselves.

The participation of Belgium in the Western military interventions has generated ill-will among its Muslim minority and so prepared fertile ground for propagation of radical Islam.  The foreign policy has represented a mindless commitment to a philosophy of ‘go along and get along.’  In this way, one of the first acts of the newly installed Minister of Foreign Affairs Didier Reynders was to commit one Belgian fighter jet to the campaign that brought down and murdered Gaddafi in Libya.  One jet!  The military value of this contribution was negligible. The damage done to domestic peace in Belgium was vast.  There can be no way to find dialogue with the Muslim community if its views on these interventions are ignored. And, in the end, Belgium’s army is being drained of resources to maintain order on the streets of Brussels.

At a minimum, the first conclusions from the events of the past week are that Belgium must once again consider constitutional changes and revise its political structure and culture to meet not only the new challenges of home-grown terrorists but long festering problems. These festering problems come from the paradoxical democracy deficit that results from very progressive, expert-designed power sharing solutions that presently frustrate the will of the majority at every turn by excessively protecting the interests of minorities.

If power sharing is the only way to prevent a permanent Flemish takeover of the federal institutions, then Belgium must either break up into two states along linguistic lines or it must become a confederal state each part of which protects the rights of minorities to speak their native language at all government instances, as is due under European conventions but is not honored in Belgium today, where each territory has only one official state language. At the same time, it must abandon the automatic right of linguistic minorities to seats in governing institutions.. The first part of this proposition, break-up or confederalism, has been a basic plank of the Flemish nationalists. It is high time that the French speakers understand it to be in their interests as well.

Secondly, proportional representation must be eliminated, because it denies government the possibility of quick response to new challenges, to new priorities and to new ways of thinking. The Belgians should adopt the Anglo-Saxon first-past-the-post method if they want to leave behind the wishy-washy coalitions of these past decades that only breed corruption, undeserved complacency in the ruling elite and apathy in the general population. Generalized apathy is not conducive to solving tough problems of security that Belgium faces today.

Where will this end if the country does not begin to pay attention to its own constitutional and political deficiencies?  The outlook is not bright.

The latest news reveals that the ambitions of the terrorists went way beyond the apparently limited damage they achieved by their terror attacks at the National Airport in Zaventem and the Metro near the European Institutions which netted 32 deaths and 300 seriously wounded bystanders now in hospital.  Their major objective was, and likely remains, Belgium’s nuclear installations, as we learned from the murder Thursday evening (reported only on Saturday) of a guard at one of Belgium’s nuclear plants, whose electronic pass was stolen. That comes on top of the news that one of the senior nuclear researchers here was under jihadist surveillance cameras for some time.

The governments of The Netherlands and Germany have for some time been protesting over the risks inherent in Belgium’s aged nuclear installations.  This past week and the threat of jihadist attacks on Belgian stations has given them a lot more to worry about.

Watch Gilbert Doctorw discuss the Brussels attacks on RT’s CrossTalk:

G. Doctorow is the European Coordinator, American Committee for East West Accord, Ltd. His latest book Does Russia Have a Future? (August 2015) is available in paperback and e-book from Amazon.com and affiliated websites. For donations to support the European activities of ACEWA, write to eastwestaccord@gmail.com

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