When my family moved from Europe back to the Middle East, some of our Belgian friends who were unfamiliar with the region were worried about us and expressed concern for our safety.
So it felt bizarre that my wife and I found ourselves checking on the well-being of friends in Belgium after the terrorist attacks at Brussels airport and in the metro system. To add to the irony, colleagues and friends in Gaza, who have more than enough on their plates, contacted my wife to check that her family in Belgium was all right.
The scenes of the destruction and slaughter were unreal when juxtaposed against the casual, everyday mundanity with which I have used both the airport and the metro over the years. However, although the onslaught was shocking, it was sadly not surprising, especially following the Paris attacks in November last year. “We feared a terrorist attack, and it occurred,” declared the Belgian premier Charles Michel solemnly.
Brussels is, after all, not only the capital of Belgium, it is also the unofficial capital of the European Union and hosts Nato’s headquarters. It is also home to a pool of disillusioned and marginalised young Muslims who can be preyed upon by jihadist recruiters.
In the aftermath of the attacks, the fear is palpable, even for those who are determined not to allow terror to guide their lives. “It’s not easy not to have fear,” one Belgian admitted to me, “and I try not to fear, just love.”
Belgium’s Muslim minority is not only fearful of the terrorists but also the almost inevitable backlash from the mainstream.
“It was always a dream for me to have a [trendy] beard,” recalls Hassan Al Hilou, a 16-year-old entrepreneur who has started up an online platform for youth. “But I am scared of my own hair and scared of my own name.”
Syrian refugees are also feeling the heat. “I have escaped from a war zone and now I am feeling threatened just walking down the street,” one refugee who has received threats said.
In addition to the solidarity, defiance and soul-searching has come the inevitable finger pointing, with reports of intelligence failures and bungling, which prompted justice minister Jan Jambon to offer his resignation.
However, it is easy to find fault and condemn in hindsight, as happened previously in the United States after the September 11 attacks, or in Paris, London and Madrid, among others. But, at the end of the day, even after all the precautions are taken, determined killers will eventually locate a weakness or gap to exploit. “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone,” European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker said in Belgium’s defence.
Some criticism is also agenda-driven. It seems to have become almost routine for governments and interest groups to seize on every terror attack to roll back civil liberties and trample on privacy protections.
The EU’s counter-terrorism coordinator Gilles de Kerchove hinted at this after the Charlie Hebdo massacre when he urged European representatives to “never let a good crisis go to waste”. And true enough, Mr Kerchove pounced on the Brussels bombings to try to push through controversial legislation on airline passenger data.
This tendency has me and many others who value our hard-won freedoms worried. “We are gradually moving towards a state in which our security will come at a heavy price,” says my friend Jan, despite his concern about extremist activity in his neighbourhood, Molenbeek, an area of Brussels dubbed “jihad central” by the more sensationalist segments of the media. “I hate the voices who say that it is either freedom or security.”
Just as occurred with the Front National in France following the Paris attacks, the latest atrocities have provided Belgium’s faltering far-right with a surge in support, with its ripple effects empowering everyone from Geert Wilders in the Netherlands to Donald Trump across the Atlantic.
The anti-immigrant Vlaams Belang claims that its support has grown by 25 per cent since the attacks while the fringe white supremacist Voorpost says its membership doubled in just three days. Vlaams Belang’s leader Tom Van Grieken has already seized on the opportunity to demand a “watertight” border policy and the “preventive detention” of known Islamist extremists, which sounds like far-right code for harassing Muslims.
But some are hopeful that the combined power of young moderates on both sides can overcome the religious and racial supremacists. “I believe in this generation,” insists Al Hilou. “We know how to accept everyone and their cultures, how to live together with love and not with hate.”
For its part, the Belgian government immediately unveiled plans to resume air strikes against ISIL targets, as if bombing Syria or Iraq would somehow de-radicalise extremists in Brussels.
The Belgian government’s fixation on security and the “war on terrorism” divert vital resources from the policies that would prevent the home-grown terrorist threat, which draws on the alienation, disenchantment, exclusion and marginalisation felt by inner-city Muslim youth, making them softer targets for extremist brainwashing.
The way to deprive jihadist recruiters of a fresh supply of young people willing to die would be to give youth greater reasons to live, by promoting respectful integration and mutual tolerance, and investing in education and job creation.
Khaled Diab is a Belgian-Egyptian journalist in Jerusalem