Old Molenbeek: A No-Go Zone?

Molenbeek | Photo: © Kristof Vadino

Even before the most recent attacks, the Brussels suburb of Old Molenbeek suffered from a bad reputation. Historian and writer Hans Vandecandelaere shines a light on how things got to this point, explains why poverty and radicalisation continue to play a role and also tells us why new dynamics are to be expected.  

On 13 November 2015, a French-Belgian terror cell kills 130 people in Paris. It soon emerges that at least three of the suicide squad’s leaders have links to the suburb of Old Molenbeek. Brothers Brahim and Salah Abdeslam grew up here, and Abdelhamid Abaaoud’s father used to run a thriving shop in the suburb. For weeks, TV vans beleaguer the square outside the community centre, the Place Communale. In a nearby bistro, I sketch the structure of Molenbeek municipality on a coaster for a correspondent from the Washington Post who has flown in from the Middle East to explore this “hub of Muslim fundamentalism.” Outside, many of his colleagues consider the residents of the suburb fair game. Mount your camera on your tripod and off you go: “You live in Molenbeek and you’re Muslim. Would you mind telling us how you were radicalised?”

After the storm has subsided, a smaller garrison of media teams is doing better work and tries to find out what kind of suburb this really is. They talk about obscure “private” mosques, but they also consider other elements – after all, there are festivities, concerts and people who are actively involved in their neighbourhoods as well as different subgroups of Muslims and young people. Others paint a picture of an Old Molenbeek that has shed its Wild West character of the 1980s. But the damage is done. The loss of image is enormous.

The darkest time for the small suburb, located barely two kilometres from Brussels’ Grand Place, are the four months in which Salah Abdeslam rises to the status of most wanted terrorist in Europe. His arrest on 18 March 2016 at Old Molenbeek’s Rue des Quatre-Vents is a relief, but at the same time it puts the suburb’s much-interviewed residents in the hot seat yet again. “Is it true that everyone knew Salah was hiding here?” The attacks in Brussels and at Zaventem airport come four days later. And again the entire media world flocks to Molenbeek’s Place Communale to report from there. Then the nightmare is over. The pressure on the 18,500 Old Molenbeekers abates. After all the speculation, the time has come for facts and reflection. Hideouts, connections and arrests in Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden, Flanders, Wallonia and other Brussels communities eventually attest to an internationally active criminal network, controlled from Syria, in which the suburb was only a small link. The media reports who for months had degraded Old Molenbeek to a “caliphate of the West” were by and by found to be unjustified.

When the newspapers report about “riots in Molenbeek”, it goes without saying that they are talking about Old Molenbeek. Or possibly neighbouring Havenwijk as well, one of Belgium’s most infamous and most strongly mediatised suburbs. It has been given enough labels to make your head spin, and questionable clichés have been attached to it for decades: “the Marrakesh or the Bronx of Brussels”, “a suburb with a life of its own”, a no-go zone, a ghetto, dangerous, intolerant and disadvantaged, “a suburb where jihadists live, a monoculture of poverty rules and children who eat Aldi chips for breakfast are almost by definition illiterate.”

The 1980s: Dark Times

In the 1970s and 1980s, a strongly industrialised Old Molenbeek experienced massive social upheavals. Molenbeekers of Belgian origin who could afford to left the suburb’s densely populated centre and settled in Hoog-Molenbeek or on the as yet untouched green outskirts of Brussels. They left behind empty apartments and a remnant population that wanted to do the same but didn’t have the means to do so. Migrants settled in Old Molenbeek, taking advantage of the steeply declining rents. In 1981, almost 50 percent of Old Molenbeek’s residents were foreigners, with Moroccan Berbers without voting rights soon in the majority. The suburb deteriorated, the police looking the other way, while one of Brussels’ great dramas took place here. The industry moved away and with it thousands of jobs for low-skilled workers. Of the roughly two hundred businesses Molenbeek counted in 1974, only about seventy still existed in 1988. Brussels compensated for the loss of industry with a quick expansion of the service economy that mainly provided jobs for 360,000 usually highly qualified commuters. The crisis impeded the Moroccans in their social mobility. Old Molenbeek and the Brussels canal zone degraded into a post-industrial urban area in need of reinvention.

The various migrant riots of 1991 were a milestone in that they accelerated a gradual awareness of these tensions. Two years earlier, Brussels had become an independent region with its own competences. Suburbs that were now called “underprivileged” or “disadvantaged” once again received increased attention from higher up. Old Molenbeek stood at the beginning of a renewal. Dutch-language education emerged from a deep crisis. The number of cultural events, often free, has increased significantly since the 1990s. Trade has been modernised. Lots have been beautified by new residential or commercial buildings. A new middle class has found its way into the suburb, initially aided by subsidies, later through the injection of private capital. Here and there, even contemporary architecture has appeared, and the re-design of public spaces has set in motion a process of cautious mobility. Add to that a new wave of migration over the last fifteen years, primarily from Sub-Saharan Africa and Eastern Europe, and you can see that in some ways, Old Molenbeek has had to start again at zero. On the other hand, the influx of different ethnic groups is beginning to counterbalance the predominantly Maghrebian presence.

Surprising Dynamics and Painful Realities

There is a tendency to paint the suburb as a no-go zone, or as an enclave in which the residents shut themselves away. But a proportion of young Molenbeekers make their way to secondary schools and universities outside Molenbeek every morning, and many adults commute from the “village” to work every day. People suffering from appendicitis have to seek treatment in other suburbs because Molenbeek doesn’t have any hospitals. The level of mobility is closely related to work, age and socio-economic background: the working population on the one hand and the non-working population on the other, the more sedentary “villagers” of the first generation compared to the more mobile residents of the third. Not to mention international connections, annual holidays, the acquisition of property abroad, the arrangement of weddings and the expansion of trade networks. Old Molenbeek is by no means an island unto itself. It is in touch with the rest of the city and the rest of the world, and its external borders are more porous than you’d think.

In addition, a transformation is happening at those external borders that will attract more city dwellers in the long run. At the Charleroi canal, the creation of new lofts is adding a new dimension to the quays: the city doesn’t have so much a functional as an emotional connection to the water. The canal is gradually becoming a new place to be, relying on the charms of living with water views. The centre of Brussels is moving west. If Old Molenbeek manages to become a part of it, it will attract various groups of people: tourists, business travellers, students and even more middle-class people who are no longer scared. This in turn will herald further changes. Retail will diversify and specialise further, there will be more cafés, bookshops and chocolatiers. In the long run, perhaps offices and factories will also contribute to a diversification of jobs. There will be even more of a mix of disadvantaged and privileged people, and culture and leisure opportunities in Molenbeek will increase.

Yet beneath this dynamic mantle hides a painful reality. Old Molenbeek is a suburb where, apart from the suicide rate, almost all measurable indicators are still in the red – the classic consequence of staggering unemployment rates, bad air quality, overpopulation, poverty, lack of public spaces and incredibly small living spaces. Exceptional demographic development and a shocking lack of affordable, decent housing are forcing people to live in basements, attics or shared rooms. And when these are full, there are still backyards or garages to fill.

These precarious situations are clearly visible in the urban landscape. People are queueing at bath houses to shower for fifty cents per half hour. Thrift stores, patched-up cookers or piles of discounted pots of Nutella are everywhere. At the Thursday markets, you can haggle until you get a crate of strawberries for next to nothing and buy homemade flatbread below market price, offered discreetly by sellers with shopping trolleys.

But Old Molenbeek doesn’t just know scarcity. Wealth is created here as well: from the worst forms of the informal economy and the immense gains of rapacious landlords to impressive globalised business know-how. Entrepreneurship is booming. In the pita stalls, you’ll find less and less fat dripping down the walls. Over the past decade, bakers and fishmongers have taken a quantum leap in terms of quality and begun to diversify their selections by offering prepared meals. The Chaussée de Gand is the flagship of trade, with an average monthly rent of 2,000 to 3,000 Euro that is suffocating the junk dealers. The middle class is recovering and regaining its Belgian post-war glory – except the new entrepreneurs are different, have darker skin and, most importantly, are more connected to the rest of the world than ever. In 2011, a total of 384 businesses in Old Molenbeek offered the promise of riches for some and an alternative to unemployment for others.

Molenbeek’s Musicality

The suburb can only be understood in its multitude of social groups, each in turn divided into several subgroups. From this perspective, Old Molenbeek becomes a kind of immense symphony orchestra with very diverse social forms of expression. There are different kinds of traders: junk dealers and global entrepreneurs. The Moroccan majority is divided into first-, second- and third-generation immigrants. There are old-timers and newcomers, the latter sometimes seen by the former as competitors in a limited labour market. The newcomers in turn are divided into Moroccans from Morocco, the Netherlands, Italy and, especially since 2008, from Spain, with or without papers. In addition, there are less well-known networks amongst the other ethnic groups, a cluster of socially upwardly mobile people who are done with the suburb, and a new middle class that is looking for a future here. Tenants and homeowners, young people who are upwardly mobile, are struggling or have given up, strict and most of all moderate Muslims, loyal local residents and commuters, highly skilled and large numbers of low-skilled workers: they all make up the suburb’s musicality. Molenbeek can be understood as a multitude of small and large networks. There are strictly Islamic networks who speak out against initiatives aimed at brightening up life in the neighbourhood with dancing and music. There are networks rooted in ethnicity. And there are creative people who get involved in theatre, music and cinema. They all come together, yet, problematically, all these social forms of expression find little attention in research, reinforcing the tendency to perceive Old Molenbeek as a Maghrebian ghetto.

Hybrid forms go unnoticed as well. At the Tha Moury restaurant on said Place Communale, manager Mohammed and two Vietnamese chefs prepare Thai dishes by the sweat of their brow. Cultures mixing even further will be a fact in the coming years. Until then, a many-layered Moroccan landscape with marked cultural and religious characteristics will set the tone. Room for being different is still in its infancy. A typical Belgian bistro and terrace would already lend quite a different look to the urban landscape. Old Molenbeek is a synonym for diversity, however this diversity doesn’t find sufficient expression due to a lack of relevant choices. During Ramadan, everything is closed, and you have to leave the suburb to catch up with people.

The Mosaic of Islam and Youth

The Avicennes neighbourhood centre makes sure Aziz, 16, is rapping instead of hanging out in the streets. The Avicennes neighbourhood centre makes sure Aziz, 16, is rapping instead of hanging out in the streets. | Photo: © Kristof Vadino Over the last 25 years, Islam has taken centre stage, and not without some disadvantages. Sexual education in a class full of Muslim students can create tensions. On the other hand, this is a dynamic and diverse community of believers. I have met very progressive Muslims, most noticeably during one-on-one conversations; not so much when you speak with Rachida who wears a headscarf or Rachid the Moroccan, but with Rachida or Rachid in general.

In 2013, 36,450 out of 94,650 Molenbeek residents, or nearly 40 percent of the population, were Muslim. There are no figures for individual neighbourhoods, but a large number of Muslims live in Old Molenbeek. Thus Old Molenbeek forms a small urban area with a village character where piety is quite pronounced and religious-cultural rules of conduct determine public behaviour to a certain degree. Out of consideration for one’s parents, it simply isn’t done to stroll through the streets hand in hand with one’s latest flame. Women do smoke and sit in cafés, but preferably not in the “village”.

To some degree, ethnic-religious communitarisation in Old Molenbeek is a consequence of exclusion and a lack of integration through employment. The 1980s were a turning point. Before then, the community had better prospects, with a larger social framework to evolve in. The disappearance of work structures as a consequence of the crisis led to an ethnic-religious withdrawal.

Islam in Old Molenbeek is linked to the suburb’s demographic composition and socio-cultural realities. It has to make sense of what people are going through. Muslim trends in favour of sports, science and education are primarily adopted by those who have enjoyed higher education and identify with those trends. In Old Molenbeek, such discussions make little sense because the low-skilled prefer to follow the uncomplicated basic Islamic principles of halal and haram: “Love your neighbours. Take care of your kids. Islam is good and if you pray a lot, you can collect points for paradise.”

The underlying theme is the preservation of tradition and ethics. However, its interpretation is complex. Social control of public behaviour is as much the order of the day as it is dynamic. As recently as twenty years ago, you barely saw any women in the streets. Today, there’s almost a reversal of roles because women have conquered the streetscape. And context is important, too. Are you talking to Muslims one-on-one or as part of a group? As a Moroccan Muslim, do you live in the suburb or not? Are you a Brazilian who performs in public for fun or because of your ethnic-religious affiliation? Man or woman, child or adolescent, the boundaries of what you are and aren’t allowed to do can vary in each case, from “a lot” to “currently impossible”. There is some wiggle room where piety is concerned, while the question of taboos and social control is mainly an issue for the local community.

Distinctions need to be made for the younger population as well. Old Molenbeek is home to many large families. One in three residents is under 19 years old. However, this environment with many children is also characterised by early school leaving and youth unemployment. 54 percent of young people under 24 are unemployed. Since many of them live in families without any income from work, work becomes an abstract concept. But these high figures obscure a number of young people who are working hard on their careers. Many of them have a pluralist identity and are tired of being quizzed about subjects such as their suburb, ethnicity, religion or integration. They generally have to justify themselves more often than their peers from Bruges or the Brussels city centre, even though they have little time for their neighbourhood. They just live there. Everything else is a projection by the outside world.

In Old Molenbeek, you’ll find young people who really are making something of their lives along with others who are lacking structures and often have a difficult, sometimes criminal, past. This residual group has nothing left to hold on to. Some of them give up and develop a world view where everything is about humiliation, discrimination and an “us against them”-type distrust. However, there is also a group of young people who, while they do experience difficulties, still find stability in sports associations and youth clubs, in their hobbies or their relationships. All these groups don’t mix easily. Those who do well at school won’t have anything to do with those who hang out in the streets. Within the Moroccan community, for example, there is a certain condescension towards the latter. And those who hang out in the streets in turn have little faith in their community’s spokespeople.

And what about Jihadism?

We must not have a blinkered view of Old Molenbeek. At the same time, a nuanced appraisal and downplaying the issues aren’t the same thing. Challenges need to be discussed openly, but to the point and from a suitable perspective. Discrimination code postale – discrimination because of one’s post code – is already a fixed term in the suburb and must be avoided. Some local jobseekers are already providing a different address on their resumes or changing their Moroccan name to something more Belgian. After the attacks in Paris and Brussels, it is more important than ever to take thousands of residents out of the firing line by refraining from making unfounded claims – not least because we’ll need those regular people in the fight against radicalisation and people departing for Syria.

“Not having a blinkered view” also means understanding jihadism as a marginal phenomenon within a complex neighbourhood. According to Brussels terrorism expert Rik Coolsaet who teaches at Ghent University, many different kinds of sympathisers live in Molenbeek. They are usually motivated by a lack of future prospects. Some of them are relatively wealthy and have no criminal record. They will often say that they don’t feel accepted. For others, violent extremism is a new form of deviant behaviour, similar to drug dealing and robberies in the past. This second group consists of networks of local friends whose members form a closed circle in which silence and solidarity are paramount. They keep to the fringes of the suburb and of their families and are involved in criminal activities. If required, they will provide hideouts for each other. Their hard core has a massive potential for hate and is generally known to the police. Around this core is a broader group of young people who are not necessarily involved in crime but exhibit a form of street solidarity.

For Rik Coolsaet, unlike previous waves of jihadism, this has almost nothing to do with religious or ideological principles. Those departing for Syria these days have very few political or religious convictions. Their motivation does not come from the mosques; it comes from the streets, a closed circle of friends, social media or the “private” mosques of recruiters. Their “copy-and-paste” version of Islam is at most an ideological basis to justify their terrorist acts.

Figures for the hard core are in the double-digit range, while nobody knows the exact size of the group of young people that revolves around it. All we know is that the average monthly number of people going to Syria has decreased considerably since 2015. The challenge lies in getting information from the ground to the responsible authorities, through cooperation with imams, parents, teachers and social workers. That is precisely why a climate of trust and a preventive approach are so important. But such a climate is hard to achieve if the residents are being put in the hot seat again and again.

Incidentally, there was a noticeable difference in Old Molenbeek in the reactions to the attacks on the editors of Charlie Hebdo and to the later attacks in Paris and Brussels. In early 2015, Muslims consistently condemned the violence, however many still felt offended because the caricatures had ridiculed their prophet. With the more recent attacks, the discussion about free speech has disappeared and indiscriminate terror unequivocally condemned. Awareness of the issue of radicalisation is increasing. These are encouraging signs. The only things left to do now are the completion of socio-economic projects and the creation of a people-oriented police force who are considered allies and can penetrate even the darkest corners of the suburb.
  • A police operation after the Paris attacks. The relationship between the suburb’s residents and the police is complicated. Photo: © Kristof Vadino
    A police operation after the Paris attacks. The relationship between the suburb’s residents and the police is complicated.
  • Solidarity with the Paris victims at the Place Communale. Photo: © Kristof Vadino
    Solidarity with the Paris victims at the Place Communale.
  • Women with and without headscarves meet on the Place Communale. Photo: © Kristof Vadino
    Women with and without headscarves meet on the Place Communale.
  • Restaurant Tha Moury: Vietnamese chef, Moroccan-Belgian owner, Thai cuisine. Photo: © Kristof Vadino
    Restaurant Tha Moury: Vietnamese chef, Moroccan-Belgian owner, Thai cuisine.
  • There are many run-down apartments on Rue Fin, just like in the rest of Old Molenbeek. Photo: © Kristof Vadino
    There are many run-down apartments on Rue Fin, just like in the rest of Old Molenbeek.
  • Anna from Italy and Christophe from Switzerland in their loft, which was originally a print shop. Photo: © Kristof Vadino
    Anna from Italy and Christophe from Switzerland in their loft, which was originally a print shop.
  • The Charleroi canal is slowly becoming the new <em>place to be</em>. Photo: © Kristof Vadino
    The Charleroi canal is slowly becoming the new place to be.