The story of this district in Brussels, hideout for some of the terrorists of the 2015 Paris attacks, demonstrates that in the fight against radicalism new socio-political configurations and a mature and courageous Islamic leadership are needed

This article was published in Oasis 24. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2022-04-22 08:59:29

Many of the terrorists involved in the Paris attacks occurring on 13 November 2015 came from Molenbeek-Saint-Jean, a neighbourhood in Brussels that has since become the butt of aggressive discourse in France, Italy, the United States and elsewhere. Linked to Belgian jihadists who left to fight amongst Islamic State’s ranks in Syria during the period 2013-2014, this network continued its works with the attacks on Brussels airport and the “Maalbeek” underground station in Brussels on 22 March 2016. In the light of these events, one can justifiably ask whether there exists a “Molenbeek effect” on Islamic radicalism and what lessons may be learned from this case.

Contrary to the reporting in many newspapers, Molenbeek (literally “the mill stream”: “Molen” means “mill” and “Beek” means “stream”) is not a Brussels suburb. From a town-planning point of view, it can be considered a large neighbourhood with 92,000 inhabitants and one that falls within the urban agglomeration of the Belgian capital, which has a million inhabitants. From the administrative point of view, however, Molenbeek is a municipality in every respect, just like the other 18 municipalities forming Brussels. The politico-administrative architecture of the 19 municipalities must be understood according to the logic of a certain Belgian conservatism, which accords significant value to local self-government. Thus, the Burgomaster (i.e. the Mayor, Ed.) is head of the local police and the municipality can open primary and secondary schools.

Molenbeek is about a twenty minutes’ walk from the Grande Place

The Brussels agglomeration takes its name from the historic central municipality (the City of Brussels), which is the area comprising the Grande Place, the government buildings and the museums. This central municipality, whose medieval boundary walls were knocked down during the Napoleonic era, had the surrounding rural villages (including Molenbeek) added to it when the Belgian state was founded in 1830. Molenbeek is about a twenty minutes’ walk from the Grande Place and three or four underground stops from the centre, from which it is separated by the eighteenth-century canal connecting Brussels with the great port of Antwerp. From a territorial point of view, Molenbeek and the other 18 municipalities form one geographical continuity. This has the result that a foreigner cannot know which “municipality” he/she is in: something that the inhabitants of Brussels know perfectly well, on the other hand, as they know the boundaries between one municipality and the other.[1]

The Demographic Aspect

Molenbeek is situated in the territorial belt that grew up around the City of Brussels during the nineteenth century: a belt that was inhabited primarily by a working-class population and a middle class that worked in light industry (breweries, small steelworks, furniture factories and tailors’ workrooms). This urban belt (and particularly the part closest to the centre) began to empty as of the First World War, when the middle classes preferred to move to a second urban belt in a healthier, green area of Brussels.

Thus formed a zone that surrounds three quarters of the City of Brussels and corresponds to what British sociologists have called an “inner city.” Starting in the 1960s, new immigrants (especially Moroccans and Turks) came to settle here through the workings of the free property market. It is a poor environment with low rents and (from the 1970s onwards) old, disused workshops. To this must be added the fact that, in the 1970s, the families that had lived in the North district (near the Gare du Nord) gravitated towards Molenbeek in order to make room for the “Manhattan project” (the great towers that border on the Gare du Nord). Furthermore, during the 1960s and 1970s a small but significant Italian immigrant presence continued in Molenbeek. During the first decade of the new millennium, an important contingent with sub-Saharan origins began to arrive in addition to immigrants from other countries such as Kosovo and Chechnya.

It is in this belt containing Molenbeek that almost 80 per cent of the 250,000 Muslims inhabiting Brussels is concentrated. One may therefore talk of a Muslim belt in Brussels. They are, for the most part, Belgian citizens, given that Belgium has adopted a determined integration policy based on citizenship since the 1990s. If one considers that 40 per cent of these Muslims have been born in Belgium, it is no longer possible to associate Muslims with the idea of “foreign” or “immigrant”, even if the story of their presence begins from there.

80 per cent of the 250,000 Muslims inhabiting Brussels is concentrated here

Approximately 36,000 “Muslims” live in Molenbeek and 27,000 of them are of Moroccan origin. They live mainly in the part near the centre, whereas the greener, more suburban neighbourhoods are inhabited mainly by the middle class. This state of affairs is the result of a dynamic of co-national attraction and family reunification typical of every migration but also, and above all, of a secondary property market that offers rented accommodation at low prices. In this sense, situations similar to the French one of concentration in “rent-controlled housing” (the HLM – habitations à loyer modéré) typical of the banlieues and resulting from a public policy of social house-building, are almost non-existent in Brussels. It remains to be seen whether there also exists any specific characteristic linked to the heavy presence of people originally from the Moroccan Rif area, which has a long tradition of particularism and opposition to power.

The Other European Contexts

A comparison with other European contexts is useful if we are to understand the Muslim presence in Molenbeek. Muslims constitute, on average, about 4-5 per cent of the population in Europe and they are basically an urban phenomenon. In Belgium, they constitute 6 per cent and in Italy, 2-3 per cent. If they constitute 10 per cent at most in Milan, in Brussels they constitute 22 per cent and amongst the under-25s the figure reaches 30 per cent; in Europe, they are over 20 per cent in the cities of Birmingham and Bradford in the United Kingdom, in Marseilles and Roubaix in France, in Stockholm and Malmö in Sweden and in Rotterdam in the Netherlands. They are 39 per cent in Molenbeek, 37 per cent in Schaerbeek, 29 per cent in the City of Brussels and 27 per cent in Anderlecht. And here, too, the percentage is much higher amongst the under-25s.

This Muslim presence cannot be dissociated from the more general reality in Brussels, a cosmopolitan city in which half of the million people living there were born outside Belgium: 20 per cent in Europe and 30 per cent outside Europe. The cosmopolitanism exists at both the top end and the bottom end. At the top end it is represented by the officials working at the European institutions and NATO, as well as by the hundreds of lobbies besieging the European institutions and by the managers of the multinationals, all of whom enjoy high salaries and “consume” the city without taking part in its life. Since the 1990s, the bottom end has been represented by illegal immigrants, refugees and workers coming from all sorts of countries: Poland, Russia, the Baltic countries, Romania, Bulgaria, sub-Saharan Africa and the Asian countries.

Brussels is a truly “global city”, in the sense indicated by the Dutch-born United States sociologist, Saskia Sassen. It is also a global city in the sense of a growing connection between local and global realities

They are the people whom the sociologist Alain Tarrius has called “globalization’s ants.” The Muslims fall between these two groups. They are Belgian citizens, immigrants who arrived a few decades ago and upwardly socially mobile to a certain extent. But they are also, to a certain extent, struggling to find their place, for a variety of reasons that include structural unemployment, discrimination, religiously motivated social withdrawal and particular models of upbringing within the family.

Thus Brussels is a truly “global city”, in the sense indicated by the Dutch-born United States sociologist, Saskia Sassen. It is also a global city in the sense of a growing connection between local and global realities. A connection of people, ideas and goods that gives rise to new constructions and new accomodations that, in their turn, require time, social energy, innovation and trial and error. The Islam to which numerous Muslims have increasingly been referring over the last fifty years is a part of this dynamic characterising Brussels, the global city.

Islamic Religious Rootedness

Like those throughout Belgium and Europe, the Muslim population in Molenbeek has been strongly Islamized from the period 1975-1980 onwards. This is not just any old Islam, however, but a religious rootedness fostered by specific institutions and groups: Jamā‘at al-Tablīgh, the pietist movement that has greatly contributed to the rigorist Moroccan Islamization of the 1980s and 1990s; the important al-Khalīl mosque founded by the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brothers, with its private school; the mosque that is close to the Liberation Party (Hizb al-Tahrīr), a radical Islamist formation that advocates the Caliphate’s establishment and was born of a split within the Muslim Brotherhood caused by the latters’ engagement in electoral politics in Egypt and Jordan; and, finally, various Salafi places of preaching and teaching. Naturally, there are also mosques and prayer halls that do not have political or radical connotations. But in Molenbeek (as in other municipalities, where the phenomenon is less visible, however), a type of Islam has been propagated over the decades that, if not radical, has nevertheless prepared the ground in which the radicalism would then take root.

As in the whole of Europe, a religious enthusiasm has developed that has found its expression in mosque-building and – under the pietist and Salafi influence – the exacerbation of a normative Islam that regulates what is halāl (licit) and is founded on behavioural norms and devotionalism. The religious presence within the Brussels “Muslim belt” is considerable: 20 mosques in Molenbeek, 35 in the adjacent territory of Anderlecht and Koekelberg and 77 in the whole of Brussels. To this must be added the Islamic associations, the Islamic bookshops and the religious education centres. In short, a remarkably rich array of religious elements on offer, the majority of which are marked by a political or pietist vision.

In this respect, we can make three observations:

1) This spread of religion is the price that societies guaranteeing religious freedom pay. Indeed, in the situation marking the Muslim world in the last few decades, it is a certain type of Islam that has been prevailing.

2) When there is a population concentration built around that population’s own, distinct identity, then elements of self-organization will emerge. I would not use the word ghetto: Molenbeek does not have ghettoes. It has, rather, spaces that are ethno-religiously identifiable and that tend to be self-centring at the social, cultural and even economic levels, with their own ethnic, halāl trade. Molenbeek is not a place of social disorganization, either: it constitutes, rather, a particular form of social organization within the city. One could go back to William Foote Whyte, the sociologist and author of the famous book Street Corner Society, which was published in 1943 and dedicated to an Italian slum in Boston referred to under the pseudonym of Cornerville. “Cornerville’s problem,” writes Foote Whyte, “is not lack of organization but failure of its organization to mesh with the structure of the society around it.”[2] Instead of saying “failure of its organization”, we could write “its difference”. This self-centring also concerns the young: for social and ethnic reasons, they remain inside these networks and have few contacts with other young people. And this goes both for the boys and for the girls. Thus an “amongst themselves” is created. One must not make generalisations, but this is a trend that reveals the difficulty of coming out of one’s own environment (for both internal and external reasons): there are no places where all the young can socialize together. This is, moreover, what I had observed during my research on Brussels:[3] young Muslims are hyper-socialized from the religious point of view and hypo-socialized in their contextual relationships (e.g. youth associations) and this is the case despite sport, which enjoys a primary role. But even in this context, the trend of organizing inter-ethnic and inter-religious sporting activities is emerging in Brussels. All of this self-centring is occurring despite the great opening up to political participation whereby numerous candidates of Moroccan or Turkish origin are being elected from the Socialist, Christian Democrat and Ecological lists (but not the liberal ones); despite multi-cultural politics and policies promoting social integration; despite the fact that the municipal political power has been close to its Muslims; and despite the policy of urban renewal carried out from the 1980s onwards. The municipality of Molenbeek is alive. It is not an urban has-been.

3) The issue of the different generations’ socialization is a central one and it is being raised nowadays both in the Belgian context and, more generally, in the countries with older Muslim immigration histories (in relation to the third and fourth generations). The lesson that we can learn is that the propagational force of a certain kind of Islam operates in direct conflict with the ‘natural’ processes of socialization and inclusion that have been observed in the history of migration.

Leaving to Wage Jihad

Those who leave to wage jihad nowadays are bound for Syria and Iraq. They come primarily from the Arab populations and, therefore, in Belgium’s case, the population of Moroccan origin (and the converts). There are also some Chechens but they are not very numerous in Belgium, whilst the population of Turkish origin has been less affected by this phenomenon. As we have seen, an important concentration of Molenbeek’s population is of Moroccan origin. This concentration, combined with the Salafi-Islamist-Islamic immersion and the self-centring, explains the presence of a local jihadist network. Are Belgian politicians or the Molenbeek authorities somehow responsible in all this? Partly, but no more than elsewhere, in my opinion. It has been written that Belgium is a failed state but this seems to me to be an oversimplification.[4]

During the 1980s, in the wake of the enthusiasm for the Iranian Islamic revolution launched by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979, groups of Moroccan Muslims residing in Belgium underwent “conversions” to Shi‘ism (an analogous phenomenon occurred in Morocco). There were attempts to spread Shi‘ism in its revolutionary form, which fact generated a certain disquiet. Then, in the 1990s, cells supporting the Algerian Armed Islamic Group (GIA) sprang up. At that point, Belgium set up an anti-terrorist squad, specialising in Islam, within its police force. At that time, however, there was only a limited number of cases and the acts were carried out by “immigrants”, often against targets abroad. In any case, attacks were averted, including one on the American base of Kleine Broghel by the Nizar Trabelsi cell. The surprise came from 2005 onwards, with the appearance of young, second-generation men born or raised in Brussels who converted to radicalism and, in some cases, left for Pakistan or Somalia to join the ranks of al-Qaeda or al-Shabab.

The extent of the phenomenon (made possible by Facebook and the other social networks) has been astonishing. The fact is that the dynamics at work in contemporary Islam have not been understood and the thinking has been that it was enough to invest in the multicultural. But it has not been like that. It nevertheless remains to be understood what the public authorities could have done and whether they were aware of the importance of this Islamization. Radical speeches cannot be forbidden in a free society, unless they are incitements to hatred or violence. Besides, Belgium has a great respect for freedom and this translates as a wide-ranging tolerance and a reluctance to apply repressive policies. Trust is placed in the population having a certain capacity for self-management and internal negotiation. A counter-balancing current ought to have grown up within the Muslim communities themselves. But this did not happen.

Philippe Moreaux, the socialist ex-Burgomaster of Molenbeek, has been accused of turning a blind eye.[5] Le Monde entitled one of its articles “The Flaws of Communal Clientelism.”[6] Without wanting to be reductionist, I would like to draw attention to one or two aspects. Until the events of recent years, politicians, intellectuals and researchers ignored or underestimated the place occupied by Islam. The latter was neglected or reduced to the most sensational facts hitting the headlines. Miscomprehension reigned (and still reigns). It is not a question of knowing about this or that person or of limiting oneself to this or that radical act but, rather, of having an in-depth knowledge of the realities and the various forms of reasoning at work as a whole. This miscomprehension has made and is continuing to make it impossible to take the appropriate measures.

The lack of interest in Islam has gone hand in hand with the idea that the Islamic actors could be manipulated by granting subsidies, entering into superficial dialogue or, sometimes – following a Napoleonic logic – imposing one’s authority. The backdrop to all this is the electoral impact calculation, something politically vital in municipalities where populations of Muslim origin and Muslim discourse are so well rooted.

The municipality of Molenbeek and Philippe Moreaux have made important investments in multicultural policies, thereby helping to give dignity to the municipality’s various populations. This recognition is ambivalent, however, because it risks keeping some citizens fixed in the unchanging customs of a culture that is “other”. Nevertheless, rightful attention to the multiplicity of cultures is something different from the specific issue of Islam and in no way does it solve the problems created by contemporary Islam’s leanings. In this respect, it is important to take account of the specific features of religious dynamics and of Islam, in particular. In general, people are continuing not to understand and, faced with the urgency of the matter, they improvise, spending public money on short-sighted measures. These measures often serve more to announce to the electorate that something is being done than to address the problem in a genuinely effective manner.

As far as radicalism is concerned, the public authorities certainly cannot take action by themselves (apart from the indispensable action taken by the police and the judiciary). There is also, and above all, a question of ideas, of world visions. Here the important issue of the emergence of a mature and courageous Muslim leadership comes into play: a leadership capable of arguing and counter-arguing not only with the radical forms of discourse but also regarding Muslim thinking more generally and one that may prove capable of proposing another way of living the faith.

Criminality and Jihadism

Not a few persons involved in the terrorist acts had a criminal past (in the drugs trade, above all), onto which the shift towards jihadist action was grafted after a childhood and early adulthood lived in relative social marginalization. What connection exists between these two phenomena? Is politics responsible? I do not have enough elements to give a definitive answer. Certainly, a criminal past and the experience of committing a criminal act help a person to adopt the appropriate strategies for carrying out terrorist acts.

The municipal authority’s relative tolerance towards the drugs trade is well known: the issue is whether an appropriate repressive policy is possible in the face of a widespread petty criminality that operates in a grey area. Some people from within the community have told me of a solidarity between the Rif, which produces cannabis, and the community in Europe and therefore at Molenbeek. That would explain both the conspiracy of silence about the jihadist network and the extent of the latter’s reach.

Molenbeek has become the object of a more intense police monitoring, nowadays, and this has reduced the ordinary crime-rate as well. The local police have received reinforcements from the federal police. I think it may be said that the sources of radicalism are under surveillance, in prison or have already been prosecuted. There remains the task of regulating what Islam may become in the future, on the other hand. Indeed, it seems to me that those responsible and the leaders of the mosques (or, at least, the most important mosques) have not understood what is at stake as regards their teaching or their vision of Islam. Nor has the issue of work for the numerous unemployed young people been resolved.

Here we touch upon the subject of the crisis in Brussels and the socio-economic rift between a well-off élite and the less well-off Muslim and non-Muslim population that sees itself as increasingly marginalized in a wealthy city. Moreover, the well-off are often elderly, whereas the Muslim population is young. The socio-economic divide and the generational, ethno-religious and territorial ones are overlapping dangerously. Nevertheless, there are lively forces that are still trying to build bridges.

So is it Molenbeek’s fault? Not as such. But a series of town-planning, cultural and political circumstances explain why what happened originated in Molenbeek. I believe (but it would be necessary to effect a detailed comparison) that the same events could have been produced in Roubaix, Marseilles, Lyon or – in another cultural area – in Birmingham or Bradford.

Global cities – and Brussels is one such city – produce a fragmented life connected to things elsewhere. Such things allow citizens to live multiple experiences, as the German sociologist Georg Simmel said: they allow Charles Baudelaire’s Flâneur to experience diversity. All this is very stimulating but, at the same time, it raises the question of collective management and of how these cities can preserve and build polis. There is a need for new configurations and the challenge is to find the conditions and methods for constructing these new configurations alongside the religiously committed Muslim populations. We have a long road ahead of us.

Text translated from French

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation

[1] As regards the history of Brussels, see Benedikte Zitouni, Agglomérer. Une anatomie de l’extension bruxelloise (1828-1915) (VUB Press, Brussels, 2010). The process of agglomeration continued in subsequent decades.

[2] William Foote Whyte, Street Corner Society (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1993 [1943]), p. 273.

[3] Felice Dassetto, L’iris et le croissant (Presses Universitaires de Louvain, Brussels, 2011).

[4] See, for example, Tim King, “Belgium is a Failed State,” Politico, 2 December 2015,

[5] A former professor of Modern History at the Free University of Brussels (ULB), a socialist with Marxist leanings and a Mason, Philippe Moureaux has had a long political career. During the 1980s he was Minister of the Interior and author of the law against racism and xenophobia. He was Burgomaster of Molenbeek from 1992 to 2012. During his career, he moved from a position of reticence regarding the Muslim populations to one of explicit support. In order to justify his actions and respond to accusations that he had turned a blind eye on the communalism, he published La Verité sur Molenbeek, (Éditions La Boite à Pandore, Brussels, 2016) in February 2016.

[6] Matthieu Demeestere, “A Molenbeek, les failles du clientélisme communautaire,” Le Monde, 30 December 2015,

To cite this article

Printed version:
Felice Dassetto, “The Molenbeek Effect: the Facts beyond the Myth”, Oasis, year XII, n. 24, December 2016, pp. 83-92.

Online version:
Felice Dassetto, “The Molenbeek Effect: the Facts beyond the Myth”, Oasis [online], published on 16th March 2017, URL: