The Day After

The 'Other Molenbeek: Schaerbeek, from above. March 2016.

Yesterday, my city was hit. My city of “zinnekes”, those people from everywhere on earth who, like me, become “Brusseleirs” in the remarkable cosmopolitan cauldron that makes Brussels the (small) New York of Europe.

My city of hope, where Europeans learned to talk about the trade of cucumbers rather than threatening to invade each other; that city of government that makes Brussels the (big) Washington DC of Europe.

The Takfiris did not hit Manneken Pis. They hit my city’s airport, which I use many times a year. They hit the Maelbeek metro station, bang under the European Union’s Directorate-General for Agriculture, where many friends work. It’s right by an underpass where a cycling friend, happily oblivious of the earlier mayhem at the airport, heard the blast and saw the smoke and the victims stumbling out.

Across the road, my wife has her office. She had arrived ten minutes earlier. She saw the Rue de la Loi turn into a war zone from her eyrie.

The thought that she could have been on that train woke me up in a cold sweat tonight.

My city is a small city, an intimate city. And it also a city of layers. It is the capital of Belgium, and of Europe, and of NATO, and of dozens of other organisations besides.

North African Belgians. Brussels, February 2016.
North African Belgians. Brussels, February 2016.

The Takfiris chose their targets well. Every European policymaker, every NATO official, has gone through Maelbeek and that airport. As my city froze up, they must have been smiling in Raqqa.

But my city lived up to my hopes. The emergency services did a stellar job. Thousands of strangers offered to put stranded passengers and commuters up for the night. Taxis ferried people for free. Blood donors queued at the doors of hospitals.

And the beasts slouching forth to be born – the haters and the cynics, the racists and the nitpickers – were roundly shouted down.

Yesterday, my city was hit.

Today, we are dusting ourselves off, picking ourselves up, and getting ready to continue with our lives.

But first, there are the questions.

Perhaps this was not necessary. Perhaps these Takfiris could have been stopped in time. But they got through.

Synagogue for sale. Schaerbeek, March 2016.
Synagogue for sale. Schaerbeek, March 2016.

As we knew they someday would. As we knew they would, even as the streets of my city were flooded with heavily armed soldiers following last November’s attacks on Paris.

My city had become a very Belgian version of a Hollywood war movie, with bright young guys in camouflage packing FN machine guns politely greeting us in a range of languages as we went about our business. Yesterday, like every day since Paris, the soldiers were at the airport, and on rue de la Loi.

They could do nothing.

As, deep down, we knew.

How were they supposed to zero in on that one bad man with a bag in a city filled, like every city, with thousands of men carrying bags?

Our government sent these soldiers out to reassure us. They did that. But nothing else. Meanwhile, stories keep seeping out of how police and intel work has been short-changed.

They seem to have forgotten where our security really lies, these politicians ruling our country. Perhaps it is because they are not zinnekes.

Brussels needs a hand. City center, January 2016.
Austerity sucks. City center, January 2016.

Our security lies in knowledge. The knowledge to recognise those bad men. The knowledge to monitor them, and to catch them before they strike.

And, most importantly, the knowledge to reduce their number.

The men who carry out these attacks are also zinnekes. They are the sons of my city. As the attackers of Paris were the sons of France, the attackers of London the sons of Britain, and the attackers of Madrid the sons of Spain.

Why did they turn so murderously on their home? What pushed them to see their city as the Enemy, their lives as expendable, and every one of their fellow citizens as deserving of death?

Some say the trouble lies in Islam. That if only Islamic leaders would condemn these attacks, all would be well.

A moment’s thought reveals how mistaken that line of thinking is.

'Jihadists' live here. Schaerbeek, February 2016.
‘Jihadists’ live here too. Schaerbeek, February 2016.

“Islam” is not a church, any more than “Christianity” is a church. Islam is a broad religion, one whose range of denominations is arguably broader than the full panoply of Christian ones (just think of Sufis seeking God through ecstasy at one extreme, and Takfiris wielding the Koran as a sword at the other).

Islam does not have an equivalent to the hugely successful hierarchical organisation that is the 2000-year old Catholic Church. Rather, Islam’s origins are akin to the 16th-century Christian Reformation. The Koran repeats many of the stories found in the Old and New Testament, but adds a crucial injunction to believers: your relationship is with God alone. He alone you must follow. There can be no human priest to mediate between God and you. No-one stands between you and the Almighty.

That’s exactly what Martin Luther would be preaching nine centuries later.

As there is no Muslim Church, but thousands of flavours of Islam, there cannot be a “Muslim Pope” that can condemn Takfirism. There is no unified religious leadership that can tell pious Saudi Wahabis that their funding of mosques and madrassas around the world is dangerous and should be stopped (Wahabi and Salafi doctrine offer many pathways to Takfirism). Individual Wahabi leaders are fighting that danger, but the followers of each are only a tiny subset of the total Wahabi population. They cannot do what a Pope can do.

Yet they try. Large groups of Muslim leaders of various denominations regularly come together to condemn these attacks in the toughest terms.

But since every Muslim has a personal line to God, those who, like the Takfiris, think that this means they must wield cruelty, suicide and mayhem to do God’s work, do not feel bound by these calls. Indeed, to Takfiris, all these muslim leaders are apostates deserving of death. That is why, in the lands ruled by ISIS, local Muslims are executed in their many hundreds for the smallest transgressions, and why so many are desperate to get into Europe.

The promise of a better life. Rue Rogier, February 2016.
The promise of a better life. Rue Rogier, February 2016.

Islam’s strength is its lack of a Church. That is also its greatest weakness.

Others say the trouble lies in the cosmopolitan nature of my city. They note the religious and ethnic origins of the sons who turn against us, and conclude that these other cultures are the enemy. If only Europe was Christian and white, the problem would go away, they say.

That, too, is mistaken.

Saying that all these Takfiri thugs are North African, or grew up Muslim, is not only false (since they include white converts who grew up Christian), but it is about as useful as saying that they have two arms, two legs, and a penis.

The world has 1.6 billion Muslims, 3.6 billion men and over 6 billion non-whites. It is obvious that the overwhelming majority do not see murderous terror to be their life’s calling any more than you or I do. Islam is no more to blame for these attacks than Christianity is to blame for the Catholic Church’s decade-long protection of paedophile priests.

Yet others believe that if only we had more security, all would be well. Checking passengers and bags before they reach airports, train stations or schools may be expensive and inconvenient, they admit, but it would keep the bombers out.

But when you point out that checkpoints out in the open, in addition to exposing all to wind, rain, and cold, would themselves become thronged with people and thus make an ideal target, they fall silent.

Pro-refugee march. Schaerbeek, September 2015.
Pro-refugee march. Schaerbeek, September 2015.

Others judiciously point out that ISIS is more than a religious cult. Its Takfiri ideology masks a rational actor. It has been controlling territory for years and runs a state of sorts, set up in finest mukhabarat fashion by senior officers of Saddam Hussein’s services (many, in a delicious twist of irony, trained by the Soviet-era KGB).

ISIS issued clear demands for “crusader” states including Belgium: stop bombing us, or else. Belgium did not heed that call. “Or else” happened. The suicide bombers were blowback from a war Belgium is waging far away, without its population being much concerned.

Back in 2004, Spain was hit by massive bombing coupled with a similar demand: remove your troops from Iraq. Spain complied. It has not, it seems, been targeted since.

Thoughtful observers note that almost all the bombers – including the Bakraoui brothers that attacked my airport – are alienated small-time criminals who grew up in our tough, poor neighbourhoods. So, too, are the would-be jihadists travelling to the so-called ‘Caliphate’ from around the world. Almost to a man (and woman), they grew up in areas of high unemployment and entrenched poverty where frustration is sky high. They become radicalised online and decamp to the Syrian utopia to become Takfiri cannon-fodder. That is where their conversion to fighter, beheader and suicide bomber is completed.

By and large, the ISIS shock troops started off as the bad kids in our poorest classrooms.

That, too, is a large group that must be sifted. Most poor, bad kids do not grow up to become suicide bombers.

But “bad kids in tough settings” is a much smaller group than “scary foreigner”. And it is one that our social services and youth workers can understand and work with (and that the police can monitor and if necessary interdict).

It is a group we can, all of us zinnekes, make ever smaller. Just be reaching out a helping hand.

In this war, my city is better served by a pizza-munching, mohawk-wearing hacker genius on weed sitting in a basement full of computers than by a paratrooper in full combat gear.

It is better served by a local policeman who knows his beat that by robocops who invade it.

It is better served by local youth groups than by bag searches at airports.

And it is much better served by those who reach out to our poor communities than by those who would fear them.

The solution is not to turn away from what makes Brussels the city it is. It is to embrace our inner Brusseleir, and to remember that we are all in it together, from Uccle to Molenbeek. We are all zinnekes.

Yesterday, my city was hit.

Today, I know my city can win.

Photographs courtesy of Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.