That the Paris terrorist attacks had strong links to a suburb of Brussels didn’t shock many of us who live in the Belgian capital. Radio stations here in both French and Dutch are full of discussions about Molenbeek that elicit indignation, sorrow, anger, guilt, despair, defiance. But not surprise.
Friday’s attacks in Paris were but the latest in a litany of jihadist incidents over the last two years involving people with ties to Molenbeek, including the 2014 shooting at the Jewish museum in Brussels, the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January and the failed attack in August on a Thalys train.
The absence of surprise also makes sense because long before the emergence of jihadism, Molenbeek had acquired a reputation for lawlessness. Most people in Brussels have very little understanding of what such jihadism is and how it comes to link Brussels with Paris, Iraq and Syria, but they were already aware that Molenbeek had high levels of petty crime: muggings, drug dealing and burglaries.
It would suit some parts of the Belgian political establishment to keep the current agonizing at the level of Molenbeek — to blame, for example, the reign of Philippe Moureaux, the socialist mayor of Molenbeek from 1993-2012, an interior minister and justice minister in federal governments of the early 1980s. Or to fault certain mosques, as Prime Minister Charles Michel recently did.
But the more painful question that should be asked is: What do Molenbeek’s failures reveal about the deep dysfunction in the Belgian state? That Molenbeek has been allowed to become a breeding-ground for jihadism says some damning things about formal and informal structures in Belgium, and in particular Brussels.
Decades of failed reforms
What is remarkable about Molenbeek is the proximity of the poverty and lawlessness to the center of a European capital city, including the political and cultural institutions of the Brussels, Flemish and national governments. The sociologists tell us that the distribution of wealth in Brussels follows a pattern that is more commonly found in American cities — wealthy suburbs surrounding a hollowed-out center of poverty and blight. The European norm, exemplified by London and Paris, would have the most expensive and chic areas in the center.
Molenbeek fits the American pattern in that it is an area blighted by derelict industrial buildings and is on “the wrong side of the tracks,” which in this case means the wrong side of the canal that splits Brussels into east and west. But those on the other side of the world hearing about Molenbeek for the first time should dismiss all images of the South Bronx of the 1980s.
Molenbeek is, by comparison, tiny. It is one of the most densely populated parts of Brussels, but its population is only 95,000. And it is not that the entire borough is a no-go zone. The lawlessness problems are concentrated in much smaller areas.
All of which raises the question of why Molenbeek’s problems have been allowed to persist for so long. This is not a task on the same scale as reviving the South Bronx or redressing the industrial blight of Glasgow. The nearest parallel I can think of is Brixton, a London suburb, three miles south of Westminster. Blighted by wartime bomb damage, then home to large contingents of West Indian immigrants in the 1950s and 1960s, it suffered race riots in the 1980s. But much of Brixton has been turned round, so why not Molenbeek?
The answers are an indictment of the Belgian political establishment and of successive reforms over the past 40 years.
Those failures are perhaps one part politics and government; one part police and justice; one part fiscal and economic. In combination they created the vacuum that is being exploited by jihadi terrorists.
Belgium has the trappings of western political structures, but in practice those structures are flawed and have long been so. The academics Kris Deschouwer and Lieven De Winter gave a succinct, authoritative account of the development of political corruption and clientelism in an essay published back in 1998 as part of the piquantly titled book “Où va la Belgique?” (Whither Belgium?)
Patronage and parochialism
Almost from the beginning, they explain, the state suffered problems of political legitimacy.
Belgium came late, by western European standards, to statehood. As in Italy, another latecomer, there were already existing allegiances to the locality, and although Belgium’s liberal elite threw off Dutch rule in 1830, it could neither uproot nor supplant these attachments to the local community, often intertwined with the Roman Catholic Church. So the formal structure of a Belgian state was erected but framing within it the cultural, social and welfare structures of the Church’s state within a state. That was followed in due course by the development of a socialist/labor movement with its rival structures for mutual assurance, cultural associations, newspapers. Ranged against the Christian Democrats and the socialists were the anti-clerical and middle-class liberals, who constituted the third corner in Belgium’s political triangle. They did not have the same popular support, nor the equivalent social structures.
In due course, the formal state developed its own services in, for example, education, health care and other expressions of a welfare state, but it was obliged to do so respecting (and indeed using) the structures of the political parties. Deschouwer and De Winter delineate how the political parties asserted control over jobs and funds in the public services, extending across a vast range of semi-public and quasi-autonomous organizations. (Political appointments ranged, they point out, from the caretaker of a publicly owned kindergarten to the chairman-CEO of Sabena, the now-defunct national airline.)
Administrations were divided by their political allegiances. Politicians were masters of patronage, with jobs and money at their disposal, and, as a consequence, public service suffered.
Although attempts at reforms were made, in many cases those reforms were not deep-rooted, but involved formalizing the division of spoils, for instance, to allocate control of certain jobs between different political parties.
Belgium’s linguistic differences — between Flanders, the Dutch-speaking north, and Wallonia, the French-speaking south, with a small German-speaking enclave in the southeast — added extra layers of complexity to public service, particularly in and around Brussels, which was eventually designated as a bilingual region. Parallel structures were created to cater for the different language groups.
Casualty of industrialization
Those linguistic tensions were exacerbated by an inversion in the distribution of Belgium’s economic strength. Belgium was the second European country (after Britain) to undergo a classic 19th century industrial revolution, founded on its coal, steel and railway industries and helped by the mineral riches of the Congo. But a post-war economic downturn for the coal and steel industries hit Wallonia hard.
It was those heavy industries that spurred the first waves of economic migration to Belgium. Belgium companies went to the Mediterranean basin — North Africa as well as Italy — to entice migrants to the coal mines and steelworks. The large Muslim population, including that in Molenbeek, has its origins in migration from Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia.
However, the de-industrialization left areas of poverty and urban blight in what had been the country’s economic engine — the coal belt from Mons to Liège via Charleroi.
Those three cities can each provide its own examples of the tradition of political corruption. Abel Dubois became mayor of Mons in 1974. The previous year he had resigned from the national government in order, it later emerged, to prevent revelations of his involvement in a scandal over contracts with the national telephone operator, RTT. His wife and son ran a company with a monopoly contract with RTT and he was director of a company with contracts with RTT. He remained mayor until 1989.
Liège was another socialist stronghold. In the early 1990s, Belgium was rocked by the assassination of a Liégeois socialist politician, André Cools, who had been budget minister (1968-1971), a deputy prime minister (1969-1972), president of the Belgian socialists, Walloon minister of public works, and president of the Walloon parliament. Those convicted in 1994 of his assassination were Tunisians with links to the Italian mafia, but it was not until 2004 that convictions were secured of political rivals said to have ordered the killing. The investigation into the Cools assassination in turn brought to light corruption in the purchase by the Belgian state of helicopters from the Italian firm Agusta. A casualty of the Agusta-Dassault scandal was Willy Claes who was forced to resign as secretary-general of NATO.
In Charleroi, the socialists ruled unchallenged for more than 20 years until revelations in 2005 involving, inter alia, contracts for garbage collection and diversion of funds to sports clubs. Jean-Claude Van Cauwenberghe, who had long been head of the Charleroi socialists (like his father before him), was forced to step down as head of the Walloon regional government.
Fragmented law enforcement
It is important to understand that the politicization of appointments outlined by Deschouwer and De Winter extended to the police, the magistracy and the courts.
Until the latest wave of jihadism, the low point for Belgium’s international reputation was the affair of Marc Dutroux, a serial abductor and murderer of young girls. After his eventual arrest in 1996, the various revelations of police and judicial mistakes gave rise to allegations of political interference to protect him. Those allegations were never substantiated, but they are symptomatic of the distrust created by the politicization of the police and judiciary. Suspicions were reignited when in 1998 Dutroux escaped from a courtroom and briefly went on the run. The then-interior minister and justice minister resigned.
The Dutroux affair highlighted the fragmentation of police and court work in Belgium. Although reforms were made, the consolidation has been limited.