What is it about Molenbeek? The Belgian suburb that was a base for Paris terror attacks

Locals light candles during a vigil to the victims of the Paris attacks in Molenbeek, November 2015. Image: Getty.

Just as during the German invasions of 1914 and 1940, war, it seems, is coming to France through Belgium. If one follows the logic of the statements of various French political leaders since the bloody attacks in Paris on 13 November, Belgium has become the base from which Islamic State has brought the conflicts of the Middle East to the streets of Paris.

There is much about that logic that would not withstand serious analysis. France has grown many of its problems within its own suburbs. And groups committed to armed action, from the Resistance movements of World War II to the Basque nationalist groups of the 1980s and 1990s, have often found it expedient to use neighbouring territories as a base from which to launch their operations.

That said, the French authorities have a case. Molenbeek – an urban commune on the north-western edges of Brussels – is unlikely to feature any time soon on tourist-bus tours of historic Brussels.

Though it lies only a couple of kilometres from the Grand Place and the Manneken Pis, and a mere taxi ride from European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker’s office, Molenbeek is another world. This inner-city area, now on the front pages of newspapers across Europe, is deprived of funds, social cohesion and effective government.

Former residents have left for more prosperous suburbs on the outskirts of Brussels. In their place, a fractured community has emerged. Those who carried out the gun attacks in Paris allegedly found convenient anonymity there, as well as access to weaponry and the support of like-minded radicalised Islamic militants.

It was not always so. Molenbeek was, only 20 years ago, a Socialist bastion of working-class Brussels. It is francophone for the most part, but composed predominantly of people who, a couple of generations earlier, had arrived as Dutch-speaking migrants from Flanders.

Times, however, have changed. Its former football team, FC Brussels, has slipped into the third division – and, in the last communal elections, the Socialists, who controlled the commune for decades under the leadership of leading Brussels political figure Philippe Moureaux, finally lost control amid a multitude of accusations of institutionalised corruption.

The present mayor, Françoise Schepmans, is an implausibly middle-class Liberal, who presides over a commune which is indisputably broke, but also broken.

The combined impact of urban decline, social exodus and the remorseless development of Brussels as a city that exists to service a rootless international elite has found its mirror in the transformation of Molenbeek into a commune composed, in large part of short-term migrant workers – drawn from a vast array of cultural backgrounds, united only by their limited engagement with somewhere called Belgium.

All of this is a step beyond what Europeans have become accustomed to think of as multiculturalism. Brussels has long been a multicultural city, and especially so since the arrival of substantial communities of North African, Turkish and Central African migrants in the 1960s and 1970s. But Molenbeek, in common with some of the other inner-city districts of Brussels, has become a micro-world of multiple communities within which people construct their own sense of identity.


A world away from Brussels

Much of this is the product of the contemporary tides of globalisation. What is true of Molenbeek would be equally true of areas of London and Paris. But what is specifically Belgian about this story is the state of Belgium.

Belgium has many virtues as a political community. It has provided a model of how the decline of national loyalties need not be accompanied by mass mobilisation and political violence.

But the radical devolution of central power that has occurred since the 1980s has emptied the Belgian federal institutions of much of their former power. Their responsibilities have gradually been devolved to a complex structure of regions and linguistic communities.

That is a contemporary story of the decline of centralising nationalism. But, as current events have served to reveal, that has also resulted in the erosion of public institutions.

Molenbeek lacks not only resources, but also the support provided by an effective state authority. As one of 19 largely independent communes of the city of Brussels, its public officials, who are confronted by all of the problems of an inner-city suburb, lack the ability to provide effective schooling, social services or the public structures which might generate the ties of community. The consequence is a world where the more conventional role of the state has been supplanted by other less formal sources of provision, support and community.

It also, as we have discovered, lacks much by way of an effective police. That is not unique to Molenbeek. Ever since the horrific child kidnappings committed by Marc Dutroux and his accomplices in the 1990s, the manifold shortcomings of the Belgian police have hardly been a secret. Too much localism, too many overlapping authorities and too much politicisation of nominations have all diminished the capacity of Belgium’s multiple police forces to rise to more than the most mundane challenges.

This, as the events of the past few days have demonstrated, has left Molenbeek vulnerable to gangsterism and opportunistic terrorism. To fix such problems, Belgium, it seems, might have to reinvent itself as a state.The Conversation

Martin Conway is professor of contemporary European history at the University of Oxford.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Segregated playgrounds are just the start: inequality is built into the fabric of our cities

Yet more luxury flats. Image: Getty.

Developers in London have come under scrutiny for segregating people who live in social or affordable housing from residents who pay market rates. Prominent cases have included children from social housing being blocked from using a playground in a new development, and “poor doors” providing separate entrances for social housing residents.

Of course, segregation has long been a reality in cities around the world. For example, gated communities have been documented in the US cities since the 1970s, while racially segregated urban areas existed in South Africa under apartheid. Research by myself and other academics has shown that urban spaces which divide and exclude society’s poorer or more vulnerable citizens are still expanding rapidly, even replacing public provision of facilities and services – such as parks and playgrounds – in cities around the world.

Gated developments in Gurgaon, India, have created a patchwork of privatised services; elite developments in Hanoi, Vietnam, offer rich residents cleaner air; and luxury condos in Toronto, Canada, displace local residents in favour of foreign investors. An extreme example is the Eko Atlantic project in Nigeria – a private city being built in Lagos, where the majority of other residents face extreme levels of deprivation and poverty.

A commodity, or a right?

Although these developments come with their own unique context and characteristics, they all have one thing in common: they effectively segregate city dwellers. By providing the sorts of facilities and services which would normally be run by public authorities, but reserving them exclusively for certain residents, such developments threaten the wider public’s access to green spaces, decent housing, playgrounds and even safe sewage systems.

Access to basic services, which was once considered to be the right of all citizens, is at risk of becoming a commodity. Privatisation may start with minor services such as the landscaping or upkeep of neighbourhoods: for example, the maintenance of some new-build estates in the UK are being left to developers in return for a service charge. This might seem insignificant, but it introduces an unregulated cost for the residents.

Privatising the provision of municipal services may be seen by some as a way for wealthier residents to enjoy a better standard of living – as in Hanoi. But in the worst cases, it puts in a paywall in front of fundamental services such as sewage disposal – as happened in Gurgaon. In other words, privatisation may start with insignificant services and expand to more fundamental ones, creating greater segregation and inequality in cities.


A divided city

My own research on branded housing projects in Turkey has highlighted the drastic consequences of the gradual expansion of exclusive services and facilities through segregated developments. These private housing developments – known for their extensive use of branding – have sprung up in Istanbul and other Turkish cities over the past two decades, since the government began to favour a more neoliberal approach.

By 2014, there were more than 800 branded housing projects in Istanbul alone. They vary in scale from a single high-rise building to developments aiming to accommodate more than 20,000 residents. Today, this development type can be seen in every city in Turkey, from small towns to the largest metropolitan areas.

The branded housing projects are segregated by design, often featuring a single tower or an enclosing cluster of buildings, as well as walls and fences. They provide an extensive array of services and facilities exclusively for their residents, including parks, playgrounds, sports pitches, health clinics and landscaping.

Making the same services and facilities available within each project effectively prevents interaction between residents and people living outside of their development. What’s more, these projects often exist in neighbourhoods which lack publicly accessible open spaces such as parks and playgrounds.

This is a city-wide problem in Istanbul since the amount of publicly accessible green spaces in Istanbul is as low as 2.2 per cent of the total urban area. In London, 33 per cent of the city’s area is made up of parks and gardens open to the public – which shows the severity of the problem in Istanbul.

These branded housing projects do not feature any affordable units or social housing, so there are no opportunities for less privileged city-dwellers to enjoy vital facilities such as green spaces. This has knock-on effects on excluded residents’ mental and physical health, contributing to greater inequality in these respects, too.

Emerging alternatives

To prevent increasing inequality, exclusion and segregation in cities, fundamental urban services must be maintained or improved and kept in public ownership and made accessible for every city-dweller. There are emerging alternatives that show ways to do this and challenge privatisation policies.

For example, in some cities, local governments have “remunicipalised” key services, bringing them back into public ownership. A report by Dutch think-tank the Transnational Institute identified 235 cases where water supplies were remunicipalised across 37 countries between 2000 and 2015. The water remunicipalisation tracker keeps track of successful examples of remunicipalisation cases around the world, as well as ongoing campaigns.

It is vitally important to keep urban services public and reverse subtle forms or privatisation by focusing on delivering a decent standard of living for all residents. Local authorities need to be committed to this goal – but they must also receive adequate funds from local taxes and central governments. Only then, will quality services be available to all people living in cities.

The Conversation

Bilge Serin, Research Associate, University of Glasgow.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.