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Malia Bouattia

Brussels, at the heart of the EU's Islamophobic policymaking

In recent years, Brussels has been the target of a number of terror attacks [AFP]

Date of publication: 31 August, 2017

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Comment: Belgium may be leading the way in Islamophobic policymaking, but we can also learn much from their resistance and activism, writes Malia Bouattia.
Belgium is in many ways considered the centre of Europe, with Brussels serving as the capital of the European Union. It is therefore relevant to reflect on how the centre of our continent, the place that plays host to our EU institutions, addresses questions of equality and social justice. 

As you step out onto the streets of Brussels today, you're met with soldiers in full uniform roaming the streets with rifles - fingers resting permanently on the trigger - and police officers harassing Moroccan and Congolese men for their documents.

In the last few years, Brussels has been the target of a number of terror attacks including coordinated nail-bombings in Brussels airport and a central metro station.

The most recent of these attacks took place this July when a soldier was attacked and stabbed. The state's response to this was to flood the city with soldiers in order to "increase security". At the same time, politicians and media rhetoric of fearing "the other" has only grown, and further fanned the flames of the rise of right-wing nationalism. 

This is perhaps unsurprising given that members of the Flemish nationalist party, Nouvelle Alliance Flamands (N-VA) gained seats in government. Following their election win, Secretary of State for Asylum and Migration, Theo Francken was found celebrating the birthday of known Nazi collaborator Bob Maes.

In the name of fighting terrorism and challenging radicalisation, civil liberties are being curtailed

"With openly fascist people in power from the extreme right, racism is legitimised and encouraged everywhere" explains Farida Aarras, from the FREE ALI AARRAS campaign. She has had first hand experience of the rising attacks from both street movements and the state. 

When the French fascist group Géneration Identitaire tried to capitalise on the airport bombings by organising a march, Farida was a co-organiser of the counter- demonstration.

The protests, which were due to take place in Molenbeek - a predominantly Moroccan Muslim area - were banned by the Mayor. Despite heightened racist attacks during those weeks - the Collectif Contre L'Islamophobie En Belgique (CCIB) recorded 36 incidents of Islamophobia including physical abuse and harassment - there seemed to be no differentiation made between the two sides protesting.

This is increasingly becoming a dominant feature of the War on Terror: In the name of fighting terrorism and challenging radicalisation, civil liberties are being curtailed and progressive political movements targeted and stifled. Over 30 anti-fascist demonstrators were arrested by Belgian police on the day, simply for gathering.

Muslims have not been made to feel safer, instead many faced the brunt of police brutality and harassment

Islamophobia has undoubtedly risen across Belgium. Yet, with heavy military and police presence, Muslims have not been made to feel safer, instead many faced the brunt of police brutality and harassment.

Aarras describes the days that followed the explosions as some of the most traumatic for the Muslim community, with often violent raids in the poorest areas of Brussels. She spoke of the total fear and terror inflicted by the state, so much so that families found themselves silenced and unable to share their experiences of being interrogated by the police.

Many felt this systematic targeting was counterproductive, because it appeared that no in-depth investigative efforts had been made to find the culprits, instead all Muslims were made to suffer.

Increased police presence on the streets of the
Brussels suburb Molenbeek [AFP]

Earlier this week, on a sunny afternoon I visited Molenbeek and within minutes I saw a group of police officers searching Moroccan men who were clearly doing nothing more than minding their own business and enjoying the pre-Eid buzz.

Further down the road I witnessed two undercover police officers holding a Moroccan teenager facedown on the floor - one sitting on his legs and the other on his neck - despite the fact that they were both much larger and heavier than their captive.

I cast around desperately for some sort of support, but I couldn't even find outrage from passers by. When I spoke about this scene to Molenbeek resident Mohamed Mimon, a student and anti-racist activist from Jeunes Organisés et Combatif (JOC), he laughed and said I was lucky that was all that happened. 

He recounted how just after the events in 2016 the neighbourhood resembled the Israeli checkpoints in the West Bank, with anyone wishing to enter having to undergo extensive police checks. Mimon explained that the state went even further. "The government were trying to introduce through the Canal Plan a way to have a list of the names of every single person living in Molenbeek, their address and all their information."

Belgium is very much leading the way in state repression, racial profiling, and the demonisation of Muslims and minority groups. As such, it is also emblematic of the political culture across the continent, one in which states increasingly normalise the idea that there is a fundamental danger coming from Muslim communities as a whole, which needs to be surveilled, controlled and kept under semi-continuous occupation.

In the process, political repression and curtailed civil liberties for the population as a whole are increasingly on the cards. 

Belgium is very much leading the way in state repression, racial profiling, and the demonisation of Muslims and minority groups

Last week, I attended a play in Antwerp by actors, poets, and musicians of African and Caribbean decent from across Europe. The play expressed the anger and rage felt by Congolese, Moroccan and other communities in Belgium over the racism they face, presented through an interpretation of Malcolm X's life.

The work ended with a list of each high profile terrorist attack committed since 9/11 with the words "Chickens Coming Home To Roost". Seeing artists use such a mainstream space to engage with the question of violence and the role of western foreign policy today, especially given its absence from most public spaces in Belgium, was surprising and encouraging.

Looking around the theatre, I was clearly not the only one who felt this way. Despite such a hostile political climate, we can learn much from activists in Brussels, where opposition to the equivalent of the PREVENT strategy was led by trade unionists, academics and public figures. The chancellor of the Université libre de Bruxelles (ULB), trade unions, and community organisers all made important arguments in the public sphere about the link between rising Islamophobia and the rolling back of civil liberties. 

These alliances are only temporary and limited to specific flash points, but they point the way forward for the show our resistance needs to take. It holds all the more significance that it is taking place at the heart of the EU's capital, a stone's throw from the institutions where the continent-wide marginalisation of Muslim communities is being debated, legislated, and normalised. 

As always, the struggle continues.



Malia Bouattia is an activist, the former President of the National Union of Students, and co-founder of the Students not Suspects/Educators not Informants Network.

Follow her on Twitter: @MaliaBouattia

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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