Molenbeek became known as the home of Belgian jihadists. The media portrayed the Brussels commune as a ‘no go area’ and a ‘jihadist hub’. But is this really the whole story? On 6 September 2016 EIP presented the first findings of an ambitious survey carried out in Molenbeek at an event at the Committee of the Regions in Brussels.

The European Institute of Peace carried out a comprehensive study of the two Molenbeek districts mostly affected by violent extremism. The randomised survey, based on hundreds of door-to-door interviews with citizens in Molenbeek reveals perceptions on what drives violent extremism and how it affected the community. First results of  EIP’s survey challenge unfounded claims and misperceptions about Molenbeek.

Why Molenbeek?

Out of the nineteen municipalities that form the Brussels-Capital Region, Molenbeek – with a population of 96,586 - is the one that has been linked to violent extremism. Several individuals involved in terrorist attacks across Europe had close links within the community. Molenbeek also saw at least 47 people leave for Syria since the outbreak of the conflict in 2011, in other words, 10% of the total number of Belgian foreign fighters used to live in Molenbeek.

EIP’s social mapping survey focused on two districts of Molenbeek – the ‘Quartier Maritime’ and the ‘Centre Historique’ - with a combined population of 36,436. Both districts were linked to violent extremism in the past and are considered to be among the poorest districts in Belgium. The two districts have a large population with a foreign background (ca. 71-81%) and are home to a large Muslim community – predominantly from North Africa and Morocco.

Our research aims to provide an analysis of the social patterns of the districts in which violent extremists have been known to operate. Our survey is based on 406 structured interviews with inhabitants of Molenbeek (149 women and 257 men) and ten semi-structured in-depth interviews with citizens who have witnessed the process of radicalisation. Through these interviews, our research shows a ‘social mapping’ of the population of Molenbeek and offers insights into how a community copes with radicalisation and violent extremism.

Voices from Molenbeek - main findings

>> Main driver of violent radicalisation in Molenbeek: Lack of opportunities.

The perceived lack of opportunities combined with tendencies of social isolation were found to be the main drivers that permitted the emergence of Islamist violent extremism in Molenbeek. The process of radicalisation was described as a ‘response to fundamental vulnerabilities’ highlighting a sense of ‘social isolation’ and the ‘search for meaning in life’. For example, many young Molenbeekois, particularly from the North African community, do not see an added value in education as they do not believe it will help them on the labour market. Respondents explained that radical discourses often provide answers to young people that do not see a perspective in life.

The role of religion in the process of violent radicalisation is a more complex matter. On the one hand, our results show that many individuals that had been radicalised in Molenbeek were undergoing profound religious changes – ie becoming more puritanical. This was often facilitated by online propaganda. On the other hand, we cannot point to religion as the main driver of violent radicalisation: many of the individuals that became radicals were described as ‘not knowing anything about religion’. In many cases, the Molenbeekois that radicalised were former delinquents, and the sudden shift to extreme interpretations of Islam was often described as a ‘quick solution to eradicate past wrongdoings’.

>> As a response to radicalisation, citizens of Molenbeek want credible dialogues with community leaders and more religious education.

Respondents to our survey identified ‘religious education’ and ‘promoting diversity and dialogue’ as the two most powerful responses to counter violent radicalisation. Many participants highlighted the absence of religious knowledge among young people which - in their view - makes them susceptible to a more radical discourse. Respondents think that religious education will help young people to develop a more critical mindset. Many thought this could become an effective tool to counter extremist discourses.

‘Promotion of dialogues’ was another important aspect to prevent violent radicalisation. Dialogues, however, need to be held on topics that interest young Molenbeekois, especially those in the North African community. This includes addressing controversial topics such as radicalisation, the role of religion in European societies as well as Western foreign policy in the Middle East. Many young Molenbeekois have profound questions about these issues, but do find insufficient support from the authorities and community leaders. 

>> Unemployment is the most important concern for Molenbeekois.

The most salient problems in Molenbeek are perceived to be unemployment (31%); education (15%) and anti-social behaviour in the neighbourhood (15%). Security (5%) and terrorism (4%) as well as religious extremist violence (3%) rank fairly low among concerns of the Molenbeekois. Many parents, however, are very concerned about the ‘perverse influences’ that their children are exposed to when not at school or home.

Survey results suggest that the biggest security challenges in Molenbeek are drug dealing (27%) and theft (24%). 17% of the surveyed citizens – in particular respondents from the North African community -  said that there are ‘no security concerns at all’.

>> Molenbeekois do not support extremism.

Citizens of Molenbeek do not support religious extremism. It is widely seen as a ‘deliberate distortion of religion’. 41% of the respondents expressed ‘sadness’ and 29 % ‘anger and shock’ when asked to reflect upon the departure of someone from the neighbourhood to Syria. 11% were ‘indifferent’ and only one respondent out of the 406 surveyed was feeling ‘proud’.

The North African community in Molenbeek adheres to conservative religious norms but this cannot be equated with support for extremism. The overwhelming majority reject any link between religion and radicalisation. Radical Islam was often described as the ‘antithesis’ or ‘perverse manipulation’ of religion.

>> Molenbeekois experience discrimination.

There are differences of perceived discrimination inside and outside Molenbeek. Molenbeekois without a migrant background experience discrimination inside Molenbeek: 16% said they were discriminated against ‘often’ or ‘very often’ while another 15% were discriminated against ‘sometimes’. Respondents with a North African background experience discrimination more frequently outside Molenbeek: 27% said that discrimination occurs ‘often’ or ‘very often’ while 32% said that they have been discriminated against ‘sometimes’.

Women experience significantly more unease about practicing their religion than men. Wearing religious clothing, such as the hijab, was identified as one source of discrimination, in particular on the labour market. The fact of living in ‘Molenbeek’ has become another source of perceived discrimination. Respondents also observed that having a foreign name and a Molenbeek postcode – especially since the terror attacks in Brussels – is a fundamental disadvantage that is very hard to overcome when applying for a job.

>> The North African community does not have many contacts with other groups in Molenbeek. Family values are important norms.

The survey finds stronger bonding relationships among people from the same population group. For example, a Molenbeekois with a Moroccan background engages more with people from the Moroccan community and is less likely to have friends outside Molenbeek.

A large number of respondents from North African community identify their family as ‘the most important aspect of their life’. Many do not have any friends beyond their immediate relatives. Similarly, Molenbeekois of the North African community are less likely to be part of civic organisations or to have links to the local political establishment. Education is found to offset this effect, positively stimulating participation in politics, civic associations, as well as increasing relationships with people from other religions and other ethnicities.

Many respondents recognised that these societal bridges are missing. There is a demand for more dialogue and diversity through events that bring together communities, but also through increased dialogue with the authorities.

>> There is a lack of credible community leaders and role models.

Molenbeekois have very low levels of trust in journalists and politicians – the two institutions which, many respondents claim, have tarnished the image of the neighbourhood in the aftermath of the attacks in Brussels and Paris. 73% of the respondents ‘fully disagree’ with the media portrayal of Molenbeek and another 12% ‘somewhat disagree’. Similarly, imams are described as ‘outdated’ and unable to hold sway over young Muslims.

The lack of credible community leaders partly explains why the extremist discourse was attractive to disenfranchised youth, capturing the minds in ways the current leadership – politicians, religious leaders, and other opinion leaders – do not.

>> Molenbeekois want a police force that is closer to the community.

Our research finds that trust in the police is relatively high while 57% of the respondents consider the police to be ‘ineffective’, the majority of the respondents does express the wish for a better police force to address the security challenges of the neighbourhood. We did not find any evidence of the existence of ‘no-go zones’ where the police are not able to operate; on the contrary, Molenbeek is a community that is open for a closer relationship with the police. Many felt that this could be achieved by creating more dialogue between the police and the community and having a police force that is more representative of the community, for example by having more Arab speaking police officers.

>> The North African community in Molenbeek adheres to conservative norms.

Muslims in Molenbeek feel very strongly about Islam and Islamic values, both in the religious and civic realm. Examples include the importance attached to religious education, religious celebrations such as the Ramadan, and the surprise of many that the religious dress code is seen as controversial by non-Muslims. Within the community, there is a strong determination to conform to Islamic practices. Breaking the norms is seen as clear breach of social norms.

For example, we spoke to Moroccan atheists who experienced strong discrimination by their Moroccan peers after openly speaking about atheism.

Molenbeek’s Muslims do not actively pursue an Islamic political project or seek to impose their practices on others. In fact, Christians and Muslims in Molenbeek respect each other and peacefully co-exist. But there are important norms and social conventions derived from Islam, that form and shape public life in Molenbeek.

>> Some tensions exist between Belgian norms and the everyday practice of Islam.

There are more Muslims in Molenbeek that consider their religion as a ‘very important’ part of their life (68%) than Christians (29%). 64% of Molenbeek’s Muslims said to be ‘very at ease’ in practicing their religion, as opposed to 51% of Molenbeek’s Christians. A majority of Muslims is very satisfied with the general lifestyle in Molenbeek, some remarked that life is ‘just like in Morocco’ with no problems at all when it comes to the everyday practice of Islam.

Nonetheless, some tensions became apparent. First, the recent terrorist attacks have increased suspicion toward Muslims. Many respondents (45%)expressed concern of increased discrimination and ‘suspicious looks’ from non-Muslims especially in a religious context. Second, many Muslims feel restrained in the practice of their religion by the Belgian state. This is often linked to religious dress codes, as a hijab or other forms of religious dresses are prohibited by employers.

The ban on religious slaughter is another example that many Muslims mention when asked about everyday practice of Islam, Many Muslims in Molenbeek perceive the ban as an issue that limits their freedom to practice their religion. Respondents also perceive society as ‘too individualistic’ and thereby at odds with traditional family values that play a strong role in Islam.