It seems long ago. The city on lockdown, the raids, the cat tweets. Vestiges remain, some of them new. A green army lorry was parked at the weekly market across the street. It hadn’t been there the Monday before, and the Monday before that was the lockdown and the market was cancelled. The Saint-Gilles town hall overshadows the market. One of the mayor’s eight deputies told me he’d stepped onto the balcony for a morning smoke and found himself practically standing on top of the lorry. ‘I thought: “What the fuck is that?” I had no idea. Why now and not before, I don’t know.’ He laughed. ‘Bruxelles, quoi.’
Of all its town halls – Brussels has 19, one in each of the city’s communes – Saint-Gilles’s is often called the most beautiful. It’s all pilasters and pediments, domes on Corinthian pillars, a clock tower festooned with gilded angels blowing slender trumpets. The week of the army lorry was my first time inside its neoclassical salle des mariages where Saint-Gilles’s mayor, Charles Picqué, hosted a verre de l’amitié, a reception for his commune’s newest Belgian citizens. Most were black; a dozen wore headscarves; half a dozen were white. I was the only blond.
Mayor Picqué welcomed us in French and Flemish, then continued in the former. He spoke of how Belgium, while très compliquée, invented formules to manage its complex carrefour of Flemish, French and German-speaking peoples. Some countries would experience less conflict, he said, if they took the Belgian approach. But how has Belgium fared using the Belgian approach? It takes six governments, including six parliaments, to govern a country of only 30,000 km2. All this governance, Picqué said proudly, was designed to protect minorities. He meant Flemish living in predominantly francophone Brussels, francophones living in Dutch-speaking Flanders. He was not talking about the new minorities in front of him.
He also wasn’t talking about those under the protection of Françoise Schepmans, the mayor of the commune of Molenbeek. After the Paris attacks, it was revealed that she had previously received a terror suspect watch list – names of individuals returning from Syria and Iraq – that included three of the Paris attackers. The individuals were ‘suspected jihadists’, she emphasised to French-language television station rtbf, ‘so there are necessarily procedures to respect in order to avoid being arbitrary’. The commune of Molenbeek ‘reacted in the context of our jurisdiction, and it was for the federal police to act in terms of identification, arrest, interrogation’.
For some reason this was explained differently in the New York Times: ‘It’s not my job to track possible terrorists,’ she said. Here was the voice of the so-called ‘typical Belgian’ not wanting to take responsibility, not only after the fact – not my fault – but, more important, before it: not my job. The quotation wasn’t entirely fair to the mayor. Possibly more people know that now: they’ve heard about the 19 communes in a city that is also a region and has its own parliament; its six police departments; the resulting turf battles, fiefdoms, issues of language. The question of who takes responsibility for what – including that list – is unsurprisingly complex. The mayor shares responsibility for what happens in Molenbeek with the Brussels-Capital Region’s government and the feds. Her statement exhibited a general unawareness of how the outside world would take her words, but she expressed fairly the silo mentality of a hyper-decentralised system of government.
Mayor Picqué received a returning-jihadist suspect list, too. ‘Upper’ Saint-Gilles, where the town hall is, is different from ‘lower’ Saint-Gilles. Down here it’s rougher, the walls greyer. It’s poor. Arabic echoes on many streets. I walked through it on my way to central Brussels, the day after the verre de l’amitié, and continued to the centre’s Christmas market. Fewer people attending? Inevitably. More police? Not overwhelmingly. They strolled in twos, chatting. The big Ferris wheel turned to a circus tune. Further on, I sat in front of Café Walvis, a ten-minute walk from the Grand-Place, the Manneken Pis, Tintin, chocolate, lace, beer, moules-frites – tourist central – and looked across the canal at where Molenbeek begins. Five hundred feet away was the Abdeslam brothers’ home: one blew himself up; another hasn’t been caught. Five hundred feet – Molenbeek profonde it is not.
The most visible person during the lockdown used to work in Molenbeek town hall: the brother of two of the Paris attackers. Mohamed Abdeslam had been a secretary of Mayor Schepmans’s long-serving predecessor, Philippe Moureaux. When Schepmans succeeded Moureaux, Mohamed was transferred to the demography department, where he still works. The media found the family home. Mohamed emerged; he’d just been released unconditionally after having been detained for 36 hours. He didn’t read from a statement. He never looked down. Eyes wide open, gaunt-faced, he spoke French in a voice raised to be heard clearly, in halting phrases:
I am indeed one of the brothers … of those who participated … but in no way have I been involved … directly or indirectly … in any operation related to what happened … on Friday the 13th in Paris.
He seemed involuntarily in command of his hesitations.
I cannot tell you why. I cannot tell you how. We are a family … ouverte … you must also understand, despite the tragedy, that my parents are in shock … A message for the victims? Some will think I’m fake. Know that me and my family are moved by what happened … we’re thinking of the victims, the victims’ families. But you also have to understand that … we have a mum … we have a family … and that despite everything he remains her child.
‘He’ was his fugitive brother, Salah. It was riveting. It appeared unscripted, and earnest. The reporters for the most part refrained from filling those ponderous silences that were as much a part of what he said as the words. The question Belgium’s governments were being asked to answer, the question of responsibility, was a question here, too. In his eyes, in his tone, there was a mea culpa, an acknowledgment of the family having failed to keep the son within its fold. They’d been heartened months earlier when Salah stopped drinking and started praying; he’d previously been a bit of a hellion; they thought he was now finding his way. Mohamed is convinced Salah ultimately attacked no one, but, horrified by what he saw, abandoned the mission and ran. He appealed to his brother to surrender, saying his family ‘would rather see him in prison than in a cemetery’.
That jihadism established itself in Europe’s ‘capital’ I don’t even find ironic, especially given what the EU and Belgium have in common: a political structure that makes assuming responsibility difficult if not risky to whoever dares to assume it and so makes shirking inevitable. The two were made for each other. Jihadism, meanwhile, best establishes itself where governments have trouble governing, exist vaguely, or are in chaos. Or are très compliqués. What other city could be the capital of both Europe and European jihadism?
But Molenbeek residents say the narrative of poor disaffected Muslim youth doesn’t wash. The Abdeslam brothers came from a middle-class family – a house on the main square, opposite the town hall where one of them worked directly for the mayor. Is Molenbeek poor, is it marginalised, are the schools atrocious? Yes, yes and yes. But certain imams have been known to preach jihadism. Salah and Ibrahim were brainwashed, more than one resident said. That’s what radicalisation is.
‘And where does most radicalisation take place?’ the Saint-Gilles deputy mayor said to me: ‘Prison.’ His boss, Mayor Picqué, echoed this during the lockdown. Of Saint-Gilles’s prison, whose 19th-century castle-like façade looks over the city hall’s shoulder, he said: ‘There’s no longer a gym … no library, no access to training or employment workshops. How can they not be places for recruitment?’ Moureaux, Picqué’s fellow socialist, saw his party’s future as depending on a minority, a ‘real’ one, Moroccan immigrants mostly, who were replacing the native working class. He had helped ease citizenship acquisition, subsidised Muslim associations and branded opponents Islamophobes.
The nationalist New Flemish Alliance – which carried the last elections but agreed to name the liberal francophone Charles Michel prime minister in another of those formules Picqué spoke of – wants to do away with the federal government entirely and create an independent Flanders. The problem is, always has been, and always will be Brussels, the mitochondrion floating in the Flemish cytoplasm, governed by Belgium’s French Community which will never let it go. (A measure of its tenacity: one of my best Belgian friends doesn’t feel necessarily Belgian, doesn’t ‘give a shit about Belgian identity’, but if Flanders ever tries to take Brussels with it – ‘Aux barricades!’) Countering the rising economic power of Flanders was one of the reasons the French Community was created, in 1980. Moureaux was its first minister-president.
So the lockdown became an opportunity. ‘I’m going to clean up Molenbeek,’ the interior minister (and Flemish nationalist) Jan Jambon said. Subtext: Brussels would be better off Flemish. He did add one truth: that the attacks in Paris ‘confront us with ourselves’. Belgium’s problem had become someone else’s problem. Paris’s problem. But was Paris’s problem now Brussels’s problem? Was there really an ‘imminent threat’? These were the words of Prime Minister Michel, repeated over and over by Belgium’s many governments throughout what became a kind of four-day weekend. The intelligence services possessed ‘relatively precise information of a risk of attacks, similar to those that took place in Paris’.
I was in south-eastern Belgium when the ‘imminent threat’ started. I hated the television at my friends’ house; that’s where the ‘lockdown’ was happening. Back in Saint-Gilles, it seemed television was still where the lockdown was happening. Central Brussels was shut, but towards evening I walked through my commune, its bars and cafes open. Just as I was passing the police station in ‘lower’ Saint-Gilles, dozens of cops poured out; some carried machine-guns, one gave a colleague a two-finger salute. Their energy was palpable, the late autumn sun was going down and they were headed out, I assumed, for the night. I caught one sentence, and I wondered what the context had been: ‘Il faut les mitrailler, hein!’ (You gotta spray ’em with bullets!)
Police raids took place across Brussels but most targeted Molenbeek. Some twenty individuals were detained, most of whom were released. Prior to the raids, the police had asked residents to refrain from tweeting police positions. The people obeyed but, with the surreal humour for which Belgians are known, tweeted cats instead: hiding, staring down the camera, reclining with cucumber slices over their eyes. At night’s end, the police tweeted a reward: an image of a bowl of dry cat food. A police force with a sense of humour, how great, someone tweeted. Il faut les mitrailler, hein?
When businesses, schools and the metro reopened, there was no statement that the threat was no longer imminent. The emphasis was rather: we can’t go on like this – although Europeans have: it’s called life in wartime – so what was the lockdown really about? Did the governments feel threatened by external (French) perceptions of their laissez-faireness in Molenbeek, the implication that Belgium had allowed a jihadist haven to come into existence under its nose, mainly because no one, in the end, was responsible – or took responsibility – for making sure one didn’t? Belgian governance is designed to protect minorities, Mayor Picqué told his new citizens. But it’s not designed to integrate them. It keeps them apart, like the Flemish, French and German-speaking regions that are their own worlds. Segregation masquerading as protection, insularity leading to small-mindedness. Especially among the politicians who live off it.
What minority ‘other’ stands a chance when integrated only as an electoral strategy? Belgian authorities were aware of the exodus to Syria and Iraq. But it’s become clear that, protected in their own worlds, they were simply relieved to see alienated constituents go. As a journalist said to me: ‘They never thought they’d come back.’