EU leaders turned a blind eye to immigrants’ problems for too long - Molenbeek mayor

A Brussels district just miles from EU’s governing institutions in Brussels has turned into a breeding ground for terrorism. The Molenbeek district has been in the spotlight after it emerged that the Paris attackers were its residents. Why is Molenbeek proving to be a fertile ground for radical thought? Why is it so easy for jihadists to hide in the very heart of Europe? We ask the mayor of the Molenbeek municipality, Francoise Schepmans.

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Sophie Shevardnadze:Francois Schepmans, mayor of Molenbeek, great to have you with us. It’s been a while since we wanted to talk to you about everything that has happened. Molenbeek has been called a terrorist hotbed, a cradle of radicalism, the heart of jihadism in Europe, it’s gained a notorious reputation in the past months - should Europe be afraid of your little town?

Francoise Schepmans: Of course not! Molenbeek is a large municipality with about 100 thousand inhabitants, and is one of the administrative districts of Brussels - the capital of Belgium and Europe. There are many neighbourhoods in this community, which makes it very diverse. Yes, indeed, in the last few months, fingers have been pointed at Molenbeek because some individuals who’ve lived here have been directly involved in terrorist missions. This is a fact. But that refers to a small minority living in a certain part of ​​the city.

SS: Just want to go back a little bit. You have said you have received a list of terrorist suspects living in your area before the terrorist attacks in Paris in November. Some of the suspects on that list later turned out to be the men involved. Do you feel any responsiblity for letting them get away?

FS: Absolutely not! The mayors in Belgium have administrative authority; we do not have judicial or police authority. We can only conduct public inquiries.

So for the mayors of municipalities affected by terrorism - Molenbeek is not the only one in this regard – it’s important to know the names of people suspected of radicalism, those who have travelled to Syria or intend to go there, as well as proselytizers (of radicalism). We can’t carry out searches or arrests, that’s the work of federal agencies. Nevertheless, we were able to narrow down the list of suspects by crossing out people who no longer reside in the municipality. We can also conduct joint public investigations with our police officers, to establish the living conditions of these people.

We provided all this information to the state, Criminal Investigation Department and Federal Prosecutor's office. Thus, the mayors of the effected municipalities have done their part. I would like to emphasize that in addition to Molenbeek, some other cities have been affected by radicalism and jihadism. Molenbeek is a special case, because there was a criminal group of people that were radicalized – a mafia-type criminal organization that became violent.

SS: So, Madame Mayor, you’re saying it was the responsibility of federal police - were they aware of the situation? Did you request any help? What I’m trying to ask - are you powerless to do anything about this matter if the federalss aren’t involved?

FS: In my opinion, fighting terrorism efficiently relies on two types of co-operation – co-operation between local authorities, i.e. between the municipalities, and co-operation between the municipalities, regional and federal authorities. This is why we, as the local authorities, had asked for central support in order to improve our security situation. We need to have more police officers at the disposal of the municipalities, to be able to carry out public investigations and to identify citizens engaged in illegal activities. In our opinion, there is a direct link between the criminal activities of some individuals - such as arms and drug trafficking, forging documents - and the likelihood that radical thinking will turn into terrorism. The police needs to be more actively involved in tracking this. Therefore, it’s necessary for the federal government to give local authorities more police support. We really need an insight into the activities of illegal institutions, religious organisations, clubs, non-profit organisations and public organisations - in order to find out what they are actually doing. Finally, we need preventive measures, especially among young people, as the youth of today can radicalise in the future. That is, we need to work with them from the very beginning.

SS: But in Brussels alone there are 19 municipalities with 19 different mayors and six separate police departments - is it even possible for you to work together and coordinate security efforts if needed?

FS: Yes, that’s true, there are six police zones, but Brussels’ municipalities can be seen as administrative districts, for example like the districts of Paris. So it’s really necessary to establish a close co-operation between these districts and the police zones, in order to ensure that our actions are really working. I think that today, we need a coordinator, someone who can control everything related to such serious incidents as terrorism, large demonstrations, and major incidents in the entire region of Brussels. We consider it important, but such a position does not exist at the moment.

SS:The Belgian Interior Minister Jan Jambon said authorities “don’t have control over the situation in Molenbeek”, saying Belgium needs to “clean up” the district. What efforts are authorities undertaking? Has anything changed?

FS: Minister of the Interior, Jan Jambon, declared right after the terror acts in Paris, that strong measures have to be taken in the municipality of Molenbeek. He even mentioned purges. But you know, aside from that statement… if federal authorities were to support local communities in their fight against radicalization, I would welcome it. As mayor of Molenbeek, I do expect strong measures from the federal authorities, and in particular I expect extra police force and financial assistance for some measures that we can run locally. The municipalities lack funds to combat terrorism and radicalism efficiently.

SS:What’s going on right now? Are any of the terrorist suspects being monitored today?

FS: Yes, of course. After the Paris attacks, numerous measures were implemented in and around Brussels, and in Molenbeek in particular. Police performed about 60 raids; some suspects were taken into custody. We have been doing our best to eradicate this terrorist group, which, as I said, was directly connected with those acts of terror. As for Molenbeek, I was saying from the very beginning that there was a connection between the two facts: firstly, these people lived in the same neighbourhood - some of them turned into criminals and led a criminal way of life. Secondly - the fact that they were influenced by radical ideas they gathered from preachers and social networks. And so these people turned from criminal activities to radical activities - even terrorist actions. Therefore, today, we conduct investigations and detain suspects in that area and try hard to put an end to it. That’s our first line of response. We also need to continue our anti-terrorist projects. This time, it happened in Molenbeek, but there are other communes touched by jihadism. We need to produce a global anti-terrorism plan and work out preventive measures.

SS:The Paris attackers, they weren’t the only terrorists to come from Molenbeek - at least four terror acts in the last two years have been linked to your neighbourhood. How do you explain thriving radicalism just a couple of miles away from Europe’s governing institutions in Brussels?How is that even possible? Why is it so easy for jihadists for instance to hide in Molenbeek?

FS: There are several reasons. As I said before, Molenbeek is quite a big municipality. We have an area with a large Muslim presence, with residents coming mostly from Morocco. And as we found out, all of these jihadists were originally from Morocco. What I think happened, is that for many years these people “stewed” in their own isolated community and inevitably fell under some religious influences, not necessarily from Morocco, rather from the Middle East – such as Wahhabism or Salafism. Fundamentalism made its way to Molenbeek in the 2000-s, times when we saw the murder of commander Massoud, the case of sheikh Al Bassam, and the act of terror in Madrid. This means that Molenbeek has harboured fundamentalists ever since. Obviously we should have done a better job tracking them. But, again, I’d like to emphasize that in the first place, this responsibility is with the state security services, intelligence service, federal police and prosecution office. At the local level we can’t control all the messages circulated by imams in the neighbourhoods.

So in fact, it all started in the 2000s, and the municipality proved to be a fruitful soil for fundamentalism. I think it’s one of the reasons why some people ended up as converted fundamentalists, or went to Syria, to join jihadist groups and commit acts of terror.

SS: Is Molenbeek’s location what attracts jihadists? Is part of a European capital, it’s between France and Germany, part of the Schengen and makes it easy to travel - something the latest attackers took advantage of…What do you think, geographically, why Molenbeek?

FS: As I said, there are several reasons for that. The Number one reason has to do with geography. In the 1970s, a large group of immigrants came to Molenbeek from Morocco. It was a Muslim community sharing common background that eventually picked up some religious influences from the Middle East. As a fairly homogenous community, it proved to be more susceptible to fundamentalism than other municipalities in Brussels or other cities - despite the fact that both fundamentalism and jihadism can be found in other Belgian cities. If we take Sharia4Belgium – which, by the way, was recently taken to court, with its leaders convicted – this organisation originated in Flanders, in Antwerp - not in Brussels.

So I think it has to do with Molenbeek’s history, its people and the fact that all of them knew each other. That’s why a criminal group became a jihadist one. There are several reasons why people point fingers at Molenbeek these days, but what happened in Molenbeek could have happened in any other municipality in Brussels, or in any another city in Belgium, and even, I dare say, in France or Germany.

France has also seen some very painful events, for example the terrorist attack carried out by the radicalized criminal Mohammed Merah - which resulted in the deaths of a number of people. So Molenbeek is not the only place to focus on in terms of fighting terrorism. We need to be vigilant. What happened in Molenbeek can happen in other city and any other place.     

SS:Your town, Molenbeek, Home to about a hundred thousand people like you said, Molenbeek has a surplus of young Muslims - and around 50 per cent of under 25s in Molenbeek are unemployed… Creating jobs and engaging young people would steer them away from radicalisation - but that takes time. What do you do in the meantime? What do you do now? And if there are no jobs to be created, what then?

FS: That’s true. There are many young people in Molenbeek. And I would say that young people are always society’s treasure, when they are well educated. The problem here, in my municipality, is that these young people are not educated well enough to claim the jobs offered by the town and larger metropolitan areas. There is also a discrimination problem – sometimes these young people have difficulty getting a job due to their background or religion. The way to address all this is by creating opportunities, and in particular by making changes to the education system – and that’s the most important part. We need efficient schools, we need to work with people from the earliest possible age, and we need to have parents take more responsibility for the education of their children. We need parents to understand how crucial it is for their sons and daughters to receive a good education. We also need to create employment opportunities. For this, we need to provide preconditions for businesses to open in Molenbeek.

This is only possible with the support from the federal and regional authorities, because here we have no access to economic instruments and mechanisms. We need the support of the federal authorities of Brussels, and Europe too. We really need help in creating more jobs for these young people.

SS:I understand there is a necessity to develop jobs for young Muslims living in Molenbeek, but you’re saying what should be done, is anything being done now?

FS: Is anything being done to create jobs? No. There are very few job opportunities in and around Brussels because the unemployment rate here is so high. You know what most people know about Brussels is that it’s a great capital city in Europe, but what one also needs to know is that this is one of Europe’s poorest areas, because the taxpayers who work in Brussels, in fact live outside the city - not in the city itself. That’s why we need support to create more jobs. And we do not have enough funds to do it. My vision is that we need support from other regions of Belgium and Europe . We need to give these young people a hope and a future. As I said, creating jobs is important, but on a larger scale it’s important to have them understand that they need to become part of society. Too many of these young people think that society in Europe is not “theirs” and they treat it as alien. We need to have these young people understand from an early age the following: “You are citizens of Europe, you have rights, but you also have responsibilities such as to find a place in life.” We have failed to get this message across to the present-day youth. We need to really urge parents to take good care of their children and raise them to be part of the society - that has accepted them. These ideas have not been transmitted well enough during the past decades in Europe. We gave shelter to large masses of immigrants, but nothing has been done to involve them in Belgium’s social life. This mistake is several decades old now. I have always said that for young people to do well in Belgium they need to learn French or Dutch when they arrive here, they need to be actively involved in the life of the community and its organisations. They need to seek a job; they need to bring up girls and boys as equals. They need to have weddings in Belgium according to Belgian law, not outside the country. And Belgium – as well as other European countries - had to promote these ideas, but it failed to do so.

SS:Belgium’s right-wing has harboured anti-Muslim, anti-migrant sentiment for quite some time, and I’d imagine now it will only grow and more people will share it - how do you protect the migrants and the arriving refugees in your town against the threat of anti-migrant violence?

FS: I think that all the latest events, they showed that our immigration strategy was incomplete. In particular, there is a misunderstanding between the new arrivals and Belgium’s own population. In Belgium, different communities usually find ways to get along with each other quite well. However, recently, due to the latest events including terrorist attacks in Paris, due to jihadism and war in Syria, as well as the economic crisis, tensions between the communities have been growing. One can feel a certain “withdrawal” - both on the part of Europeans/Belgians and the immigrants. We need to counter this tendency.

However, everyday life in Molenbeek is quite ok, people get along well with each other here on a daily basis.

The next day after terrorist attacks in Paris we held a large meeting in the town square of Molenbeek. People from all neighbourhoods, all districts, people of all ages gathered together.

The perception of Molenbeek spread by other countries and the mass media is wrong because it’s based on views of those who really know nothing about Molenbeek, or Belgium.

SS:After the latest events, I still don’t understand what’s going on between the migrant community and the Belgian community - are they being pushed further away from each other, are they being friendly? Because in other towns in Europe for instance you see how local population is very aggressive towards the migrant population.

FS: No, not in our town. Local residents are not aggressive towards migrants. But they are very much concerned – and I would say that these concerns have swept across the town – in particular about what is currently going on in the world, due to the flow of Syrian refugees and those who come to live in Belgium. They come to seek a permanent residence permit, because of terrorism and jihadism. These concerns are shared by all Belgian nationals: both those who were born here and foreigners. All are worried about the future, about economic and social issues. People are concerned about the co-existence of ethnic groups, jobs and the promotion of diversity - but there is no aggressive behaviour. I insist that nothing has changed. We live today the same way we lived before the terrorist attacks in Paris. 

SS:I spoke to a German politician recently and he told me German leaders are trying to avoid the French-Belgian experience of ghettos, purposely settling new arrivals among locals. Do you think that will work?

FS: Of course we never placed immigrants in ghettos. Today all the new arrivals – the immigrants, asylum-seekers who come from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan – they’re not sent to ghettos. The authorities distribute asylum-seekers among various Belgian towns. As for the high concentrations of foreigners in certain districts, it came about naturally, step by step. To give you an example, Moroccan migrants have been flowing into Belgium for years and it’s natural that they come to live in places where other Moroccans have settled down. The same applies to migrants from other countries. It was inevitable, and Belgium has never done anything to oppose the trend. It may be this was favoured by immigrants in some way. So there are ghettos, but they have formed naturally. There has never been any political will to settle migrants of the same origin close to one another; there has never been any intention to bar these people from participation in the country’s social life. These things just haven’t been there at all. And, of course, no one wishes to create new ghettos today; on the contrary, as to my municipality, I’ll tell you that I want diversity to be promoted in Molenbeek. I want people of other nationalities to live in my town, not only native-born Belgians. I would like other nationalities to be able to settle in the districts where Moroccan communities live, to create diversity. But I realise, of course, that it will be hard to bring this idea to life because of all that we’ve gone through. Today, my immediate goal is to improve the image of my municipality, to show that Molenbeek still has many advantages in the face of all the dramatic events we have witnessed...

SS:But let me ask you this - do you feel that it’s hard to crack down on a community full of migrants since you might be accused of Islamophobia or racism?

FS: Of course, people fear Islamophobia, racism and disagreements between communities. You know, racism can come from native Belgians and be directed against foreigners, immigrants, and it can come from foreigners who may not be satisfied with the society that has accepted them. There are certain fears but we need to overcome those fears if we want to live and work together. In any case, we don’t have a choice. Molenbeek has plenty of resources to prove that we are capable of living side by side. It’s essential for our future and the development of our towns. Towns must become cosmopolitan and thrive in constant motion, and the people inhabiting them must provide diversity.

SS: Yes, but talking about fighting radicalism, you just proved my point that authorities are very cautious, afraid of being called racist. Is this why Belgian politicians were so unwilling to tackle the problem of radicalisation in Molenbeek before?

FS: I think the mistake we made in Molenbeek and in other municipalities in the past is that we knew we had to be tolerant but we totally forgot that we had to be demanding as well. And for quite a long period of time, Molenbeek did not have any requirements in place. Besides, ghettos that have been forming in Belgium for years have always been thought of as multicultural, social labs. We were told that if you give these people a place to live in, the fact that they live confined to their community is, in itself, not a problem; And everybody was convinced by that. In my opinion, we failed to be demanding enough. We simply did not wish strongly enough to emancipate the newly arrived migrants, to turn them into true nationals of the country that accepted them. We used to turn a blind eye on the problem for too long and now we – especially our politicians, intellectuals, social and economic leaders who failed to take a strong stand on the problem – we all have to bear the responsibility for what has come out of it.