Wounded, Belgium must rise to the challenge


Brussels, 22 March 2016. It is 8 am. It is the start of an ordinary day for me. I’m in Schaerbeek, not far from its magnificent station, waiting for my bus to go to work. Sitting in the bus shelter, I exchange texts with a friend. We chat about life, our problems, our dreams and, above all, our next meeting over a coffee where we can discuss how to fulfil the latter. I receive the first notification on my telephone: “Explosion at Zaventem airport!”

The news comes in little by little, my telephone heats up, it’s a bombing! My first reaction was passive, as if the news coming my way did not directly concern me, as if it were a far-away event, as if to protect myself.

I slowly came out of my stupor, only to be filled with an overwhelming sense of apprehension. In the increasingly intense exchange with my friend, I write: “I fear it is only the beginning,” at the same time as hoping, deep down, that it was not.

At around 9 a.m., my fears become reality. I receive a new notification: “Explosion at Maelbeek metro station!”

By the evening of 22 March, the anguish was palpable. My rather residential neighbourhood of Schaerbeek was cordoned off by the police. The terrorists had rented an apartment just a stone’s throw away from my home. It was from there that they had left by taxi for Brussels airport, to commit irreparable harm.

I was living through one of the worst moments in my country’s history since the Second World War. On 22 March 2016, the Brussels attacks hit the national airport and the Maelbeek metro station, killing at least 35 people, injuring over 300 and shattering an entire people.

Brussels has been struck at the heart, I have been struck, we have been struck.

Brussels is slowly waking up from what seems like a nightmare but is in fact very real. After the incomprehension, the sadness and the rage, the time has now come to make place for discernment.

It is time to step back a little, to forget the instantaneity of the news channels that inform us and sometimes misinform us, over and over again, in this headlong race for exclusivity, giving viewers “breaking news” gathered from unverified sources.

Let us take albeit a moment to leave this anxiety-provoking atmosphere, to breath, to reflect... How did we get here? Everyone asks themself this question, in some cases seeking answers in simplistic turns of phrase, devoid of nuance.

Unfortunately, the situation is so complex that immediate responses are only likely to accentuate the difficulties of the moment. We need to take the time to understand, the time to ask ourselves questions and to call ourselves into question, time to put the ills into words and, then also, and above all, time to act in the face of adversity.

One thing of which I am entirely convinced is that it is impossible to believe that a single cause can give rise to a phenomenon of this magnitude. Our society has produced young people who are acting against their own country in the name of what they consider to be higher doctrinal principles.

This phenomenon is the result of a multitude of causes, for which all of us are responsible. It is time we assumed this responsibly.

A phenomenon with multiple causes

The factors leading young people to radicalise are as many as they are complex. Each young person falling into this abyss is a different story, a singular journey. No rational analysis could ever provide a total understanding of this personal journey, the power of which we are not yet able to sufficiently measure, but the fallout of which we are suffering.

We are, nonetheless, able to identify major issues that society should be able to raise without apprehension, to gain a better grasp of the reasons behind such phenomena and to shape the new social contract that has become so essential and which should place our model of society within the context of a world in perpetual motion.

In my view, our questions should simultaneously take on board the democratic, socio-economic and religious aspects, to provide us with a better grasp of things without justifying the unjustifiable.

All too often neglected, the democratic issue is fundamental to meeting our current challenges. Our societies have evolved at all levels and yesterday’s challenges are no longer those of today. Our democratic model no longer offers dreams and opportunities for young people who seem to view the future with uncertainty. Is it not time we gave our democracies renewed respectability?

The democratic question is also a question of representativeness. It is not simply a matter of having the benches of parliament reflect a degree of sociological reality to give the children of diversity a sense of belonging to the national community.

Belonging to the national community also means having shared national references and narratives, symbols that unite people around shared values that are embodied in day-to-day life.

Belgian Muslims live with the belief that they are not considered as fully-fledged citizens, that they have to fight harder to, perhaps, secure the same rights as an ordinary citizen. The perception of being a second-class citizen does not seem to fade over the generations.

In this respect, the socio-economic issues shed some interesting light.

It starts at school, in Brussels’ many ghetto establishments, embassies of segregation, where otherness has become a utopia. This school that we know to be non-egalitarian, producing even greater segregation among the poorer population, a school where one young person in six in Brussels will leave without qualifications, with few future prospects and limited opportunities.

Belgium is still living with a 20th century educational system. The world of education is highly resilient to change. It very often, and very frighteningly, resists societal developments. It is a school system that highlights and accentuates differences in areas where it should be promoting the emergence of an US, the emergence of a shared identity.

It is a reactive system, responding to each malfunction with a prohibition, when it should be taking a critical approach and systematically analysing events in a fitting manner, and taking action based on a long-term vision. It is a school system that has not taken the train of the 21st century.

Its failings are carried over to the world of work, where the realities are harsh. The lack of prospects for young under-qualified people on an increasingly selective labour market comes to mind, the difficulties for those with qualifications to secure a first interview and, once hired, to discover the trials of the glass ceiling that will prevent them from climbing the career ladder – this inaccessible social mobility comes to mind.

In addition, the religious issue has, of course, played a major role. Our country has seen the development of a change in Islamic religious practice. Neither the Belgian authorities nor the Muslims of Belgium were really conscious of the danger awaiting us.

By granting Saudi Arabia, an indispensable economic partner, the task of managing the Great Mosque of Brussels and disseminating the norms governing Islam in Belgium, successive Belgian governments committed a terrible mistake.

They may have won a number of lucrative business deals but they have also allowed the development of the most archaic school of Islamic thought ever, cutting short any prospects of seeing the emergence of an Islam that would be in line with the country’s values.

In 1974, during the recognition of Islam in Belgium, the Belgian authorities also missed the opportunity to take the organisation of the religion in hand by granting fair funding for Islamic institutions and clear rules guaranteeing its independence and its renewal.

Still today, Belgian governments are closing their eyes. The mosques respecting the legislation on associations are few and far between, as are those finding themselves obliged to do so. Few imams express themselves in French or speak the language fluently. Islam in Belgium is, in fact, an Islam with no roots.

As a result, the organisations representing the faith are not up to the mark and are unable to impose anything. On the day following the attacks, the only remaining question was whether it was possible to pray for all the victims, without distinction. I dare not give you the response.

Interfaith prayer could not be organised in a Muslim place of worship in Belgium. Only a handful of events were held by cultural representatives, pushed by fear rather than conviction.

I think back to 11 September 2001, when the Muslim community in the United States held many interfaith prayer services, with dignity, in communion with the entire nation.

Believers and non-believers were there in the face of history, united in their pain and around shared values for a better future. In Brussels, we did not live up to our history.

The result is therefore a bitter one. Belgian Islam does not exist. Belgian Muslims are still referred back to their supposed cultural origins to practise their faith, the same cultural origin that is regarded as a flaw. How, with this in mind, can a Muslim counter-discourse be organised? How can young Belgian Muslims be offered a positive search for meaning?

Is it not time to give us the means to match our ambitions, to break out of our collective denial, to acknowledge our ills and to finally agree to question ourselves, so that we can become the architects of a more respectful, more equitable society where everyone can find a place? These are our challenges for the future.

Brussels, 23 March 2016. It is 8 a.m. I am waiting for my bus… Things will never be the same again, but my friend and I have decided to meet up over a coffee to finally fulfil our dreams.


This story has been translated from French.