Martin Conway, professor of Contemporary European History at Oxford, explains the underlying issues behind the recent terrorist attacks in Brussels. Molenbeek, in the international spotlight as a jihadi hub, is just a few minutes away from the heart of the European Union, and its problems resonate across the continent.


 View of Charbonnages Embankment near metro station Comte de Flandre (Graaf van Vlaanderen). Borough of Sint-Jans-Molenbeek.The Charbonnages Embankment in Molenbeek, the Brussels borough that has become a hub for jihadis

By Dr Martin Conway 
(Modern History, Lincoln)

'What we feared has happened,' remarked Charles Michel, the prime minister of Belgium, in the immediate aftermath of the horrible and violent attacks on Brussels airport and the Maelbeek metro station last month.

Yes, indeed. Nothing is less surprising than that the vortex of terrorism and repression that has developed since the November 2015 attacks in Paris should have resulted in these new violent attacks.

But that doesn't mean we shouldn’t consider how these circumstances came about. These events reflect several, much longer-term issues.

Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel and other European leaders are grappling with tackling the wider problems behind the current wave of terrorism

First of all, there is the ever more emphatic pursuit of a level of security that can never be achieved. European leaders from François Hollande to David Cameron are promising somehow to wipe away the threat of terrorism from Europe. That of course cannot happen.

Only those who believe most naively in the capacities of Europe’s current intelligence structures – hovering over the incessant noise of email, mobile phone messages and the twittersphere – will believe that what has come into existence can be willed to disappear.

There is indeed a police problem – one above all of capacity and coordination – but the solution to Europe’s security crisis can never simply be more security.

That has to be combined with more imaginative efforts to look at the origins of the problems. And that of course means that Europeans need to look at themselves and the societies they inhabit.

Brussels was not randomly selected for this attack. It is a prosperous, peaceful and predominantly secular city. In many ways it embodies the values that many in 21st-century Europe hold dear. But it is also home to radicalised minorities.

Most bars on most nights of the week within easy reach of the Maelbeek metro station will contain a cross-section of the successful young generations of Europe. They mix in those easily permeable domains between European institutions, lobbying and journalism.

But think also of those who are not present in those bars: the micro-communities of Europe’s margin. Some of those are well established and familiar; but others are emphatically more recent – notably the arrival in the poorer districts of central Brussels of populations from North Africa and the Middle East.People gathered in front of the Stock Exchange to remember the victims of the terrorist attacks that took place on March An area with a large Muslim population and high unemployment, Molenbeek is in the international spotlight as a breeding ground for a radical and violent version of Islam and home to the men who carried out the November Paris attacks

These are people with relatively little interest in the society they now inhabit. And indeed Belgium seems to have little to offer to them, beyond the immediate and insubstantial opportunities of transient employment. They are the expendable populations, and they know themselves to be that.

Which brings us inevitably to Molenbeek. That one commune of the 19 which constitute the city of Brussels should have come to symbolise all its problems is in many respects unfair.

What has happened in Molenbeek could easily have happened in the neighbouring communes of Anderlecht or Schaerbeek. But the wider reality is indisputable – inner-city communities often lack clear structures of governance, social solidarity and opportunity.

There is a Belgian and a European explanation for that. The Belgian dimension must focus on the manifold complexities of the Belgian state.

It is inefficient and simply lacks the capacity to provide effective governance to many of the most disadvantaged populations who now live on its territory.

Belgium is not, by contemporary European standards, a conventional state. It lacks an instinctive ethos of centralism. Belgians know themselves to be diverse and are rightly proud of the fact that they do many things at a local, rather than national level.It's just a few minutes away from the heart of the European UnionMolenbeek is just a few minutes away from the heart of the European Union

That works when the participants sign up to rather basic values of co-existence, but it fails when they contain populations who do not experience the basic amenities and opportunities which draw people into the European social contract.

But it is that social contract which has been stretched to breaking point and beyond, in Belgium and elsewhere, over the past 20 years or more. The replacement of structures of social solidarity with the relentless logic of the market, have hollowed out the ways in which the poorer communities of Brussels and many other cities across Europe have invested in their larger collective existence.

There are of course many reasons for that, most obviously the way in which the scale and diversity of migration has transformed cities into communities where there is no identifiable majority.

But the larger picture, in Brussels and elsewhere, is the degree to which social inequality has generated its own dynamics of marginalisation and radicalisation.

In Molenbeek, as in many other disadvantaged communities, the emergence of cultures of militant Islam has been less a stand-alone phenomenon than the product of wider phenomena of poor schooling, limited economic opportunities and consequent petty criminality.People gathered in front of the Stock Exchange to remember the victims of the terrorist attacks that took place on March Mourners gathered in front of the Stock Exchange in Belgium to remember the March attacks

Previous manifestations of terrorism in Western Europe have had immediate and tangible origins. The conflicts between communities in Northern Ireland and between Basques and the Spanish state are two of the most well-known causes of the 20th Century.

It is tempting to see the current waves of terrorism as very different – the result of the sudden invasion of militant Islam. But in many respects the origins of the current violence remain just as local.

They lie in the willingness of young men of immigrant populations to turn the quasi-criminal expertise learned in their formerly marginal lives to more political and violent ends.

For some, such radicalisation leads to Syria and back. For others, there is no need to travel further than across the cities of Brussels and Paris from the neighbourhoods of the marginalised to the bars, music venues and metro stations of the comfortable classes.

All of which suggests that the problems that we – a pronoun which is more exclusive than we are often inclined to recognise – confront today are not going to go away soon.

The current terrorism is so amorphous and so shallow in its political affiliations that it may fade away, as those drawn towards it today are attracted to the more immediate opportunities of tomorrow.

But it is more likely that the breaking up, arrest and imprisonment of particular networks of individuals will simply be replaced by other such groups, who will similarly find in particular languages of Islam the vehicle for their angers and their emotional rejection of wider society.

Putting back together Europe's social contract might take longer than any of us would like to think.

Professor Conway's article appeared in The Conversation.

Images: Bodleian Library, Oxford University Images

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By Nick Oulton

This article is an excellent example of blaming the victims.

Belgium should certainly address the legitimate grievances of immigrant communities. But there is no way those who carried out these attacks could be satisfied unless we are willing to allow the creation of an Islamic state in the heart of Europe: at the very least an Islamic region centred on Molenbeek, where Sharia, not Belgian law would prevail. Maybe we will have to go all the way to power sharing, in which hitherto unitary states are co-ruled by representatives of the major communities, as in Lebanon. In Belgium's case, this would mean that as well as Walloons and Flemings, room would have to be found for Sunni Muslims (maybe Shia Muslims too?) in Belgium's federal system of government and administration, not as individuals but as representatives of their communities. Would this be enough?

This article also seems to blame the market. Well, the immigrant parents and grandparents of the perpetrators certainly thought their opportunities would be better if they submitted to exploitation by Belgian neo-liberalism rather than by the socialism or crony capitalism of their countries of origin. That's why they came.

There's certainly room for research to understand better why in some immigrant communities there is much upward mobility (e.g. in Britain, Ugandan Asians), while in others there is very little. But endless hand-wringing about the supposed shortcomings of Western culture and civilisation is not the way forward.


Nick Oulton hits the nail on the head

By Ambassador Tari...

A very interesting article though perhaps due to lack of space it only scratches the surface besides not offering any solutions or approaches to that end.In my negotiations with the EU in Brussels and in Pakistan I pointed out in 2003 that while the EU was worried about extremism and terrorism elsewhere, the French suburbs where so many alienated young people of North African descent lived in conditions of deprivation and lack of opportunity should be their own area of concern.In bilateral interaction the EU tended to push their own programmes and projects for us while only a few matured as our own priorities were not found that acceptable.I notice a change now since after these tragic recent events in Paris and Brussels there is a realisation in at least higher EU policy circles that a country like Pakistan which has facing these challenges over a decade has priorities which should shape EU cooperative programs.

By Garry Brown

The simple corollary is that the time constant for social change (on all sides) that is required for stability should be realistic. Even Ireland tells one that the social norms that underpin social cohesion take at least a generation to change and the mechanism for this change ultimately is through the experience of children, who persuade their parents that some change is not to be feared. By this measure the current rate of social change, required if recent immigrants from fundamentally different cultures and value systems are not to feel marginalized, seems unrealistically fast.

By Steve Hills

I looked for the article Mr Oulton commented on and couldn't find it - the one I saw tried to neutrally identify the factors which might be involved in Belgium's problems and (I thought) suggested the outcome derived from complex interactions between them (complex in the complexity theory sense). I didn't see any blaming of victims, for example, and I wondered if there are none so perspicacious as those know what they are going to see before they see it.

By Michael Ewans

I totally agree with Nick Oulton's critique of the article, which is both platitudinous and wrong!

By M.Birks

Mr. Oulton has hit the nail on the head. These 'marginalised' immigrants came from abroad and if they don't like Europe they are free to go back abroad. Europe's policy should be one of instant deportation of offenders.

By Reg Hall

Can't help adding a loud 'hurrah' to Nick Oulton's comment. I had thought that Blairite multiculturalism was dead but I see it lives on in the home of lost causes.

By Timothy keates

The article is very interesting, well written, and makes some good points. However, I would draw the line at designating areas of European cities where Sharia law would be permitted. I refer, of course, to hand-chopping, stoning, certain obnoxious treatments of women. Surely such an eventuality must be unthinkable. And if such districts were organised, what would happen to women who attempted to escape to non-Sharia places? The possible, if not probable, chaos would be unimaginable. 'Multiculturalism', in certain of its manifestations, is an extremely delicate matter, to be handled with the utmost care.

By David

Good article. Though it is very vague on structures of causation and devising effective solutions based on these. I would encourage the author and all Oxford dons and academics to assess and re-evaluate what they believe, read and were taught on this issue. Read the following web site to gain a clearer understanding of this, and what is involved in terms of long term effective solutions

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