Molenbeek Broke My Heart

, a former resident, reflects on his struggles with Brussels’ most notorious neighbourhood. Teun Voeten is a cultural anthropologist and war photographer. He has published books on the undergound homeless of New York, the war in Sierra Leone and the drug violence in Mexico. The following piece featured in Politico. His website can be found here

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I called Molenbeek my home for nine years. In 2005, it was the city’s last affordable neighborhood — in large part because of its bad reputation. My apartment, just across the canal from the city center, is close to the home where two suspects in the Paris attacks were based, and around the corner from where the shooter from the foiled Thalys attack in August had been staying.

I was part of a new wave of young urban professionals, mostly white and college-educated — what the Belgians called bobo, (“bourgeois bohémiens”) — who settled in the area out of pragmatism. We had good intentions. Our contractor’s name was Hassan. He was Moroccan, and we thought that was very cool. We imagined that our kids would one day play happily with his on the street. We hoped for less garbage on the streets, less petty crime. We were confident our block would slowly improve, and that our lofts would increase in value. (We even dared to hope for a hip art gallery or a trendy bar.) We felt like pioneers of the Far West, like we were living in the trenches of the fight for a multicultural society.

Christmas lights in the municipality of Sint-Jans-Molenbeek (Molenbeek-Saint-Jean) in Brussels,  November 16, 2015.
Christmas lights in the municipality of Sint-Jans-Molenbeek (Molenbeek-Saint-Jean) in Brussels, November 16, 2015.
Slowly we woke up to reality. Hassan turned out to be a crook and disappeared with €95,000, the entire budget the tenants had pooled together for our building’s renovation. The neighborhood was hardly multicultural. Rather, with roughly 80 percent of the population of Moroccan origin, it was tragically conformist and homogenous. There may be a vibrant alternative culture in Casablanca and Marrakech, but certainly not in Molenbeek.

Over nine years, as I witnessed the neighborhood become increasingly intolerant. Alcohol became unavailable in most shops and supermarkets; I heard stories of fanatics at the Comte des Flandres metro station who pressured women to wear the veil; Islamic bookshops proliferated, and it became impossible to buy a decent newspaper. With an unemployment rate of 30 percent, the streets were eerily empty until late in the morning. Nowhere was there a bar or café where white, black and brown people would mingle. Instead, I witnessed petty crime, aggression, and frustrated youths who spat at our girlfriends and called them “filthy whores.” If you made a remark, you were inevitably scolded and called a racist. There used to be Jewish shops on Chaussée de Gand, but these were terrorized by gangs of young kids and most closed their doors around 2008. Openly gay people were routinely intimidated, and also packed up their bags.

I finally left Molenbeek in 2014. It was not out of fear. The tipping point, I remember, was an encounter with a Salafist, who tried to convert me on my street. It boiled down to this: I could no longer stand to live in this despondent, destitute, fatalistic neighborhood.
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The community of Molenbeek has a large, Moroccan community. Crime, poverty and fundmantalism are some of the less positive sides of this dynamic neigborhood.
Writings on the wall, Molenbeek | Teun Voeten
How did Molenbeek become Europe’s jihadi base? Essentially, it has to do with Belgium’s messy governance and the culture of denial that pervades the debate about Islam in the country. Molenbeek is a vibrant community, with narrow streets and a busy street life. There is a teahouse on every corner, a quiet mosque on every block, where people can congregate undisturbed. There are cheap apartments galore, no questions asked. Just like the guerrilla can hide in the jungle, jihadis feel safe in the disorganized Kashba of Molenbeek. The highway and the city’s busiest international railroad station are a stone’s throw away. It’s the perfect logistical base.

It is nearly impossible to explain to an outsider, but Belgium is a country of six governments, Brussels a city with 19 mayors. These many administrative posts are not filled with competent people. Security services are fragmented and tend to compete with one another. The lack of a strong, central authority may be one of the many quirks of this sometimes charmingly dysfunctional country, but just as it resulted in many botched trials — notably of the Brabant Killers, or “Nijvel Gang” who committed a series of violent raids between 1982 and 1985, and the Dutroux scandal in 1995, to name just two — it also creates the perfect breeding ground for potential terrorists.

But the most important factor is Belgium’s culture of denial. The country’s political debate has been dominated by a complacent progressive elite who firmly believes society can be designed and planned. Observers who point to unpleasant truths such as the high incidence of crime among Moroccan youth and violent tendencies in radical Islam are accused of being propagandists of the extreme-right, and are subsequently ignored and ostracized.
Philippe Moureaux, former mayor of Molenbeek | OLIVIER VIN/AFP/Getty
The debate is paralyzed by a paternalistic discourse in which radical Muslim youths are seen, above all, as victims of social and economic exclusion. They in turn internalize this frame of reference, of course, because it arouses sympathy and frees them from taking responsibility for their actions. The former Socialist mayor Philippe Moureax, who governed Molenbeek from 1992 to 2012 as his private fiefdom, perfected this culture of denial and is to a large extent responsible for the current state of affairs in the neighborhood.

Two journalists had already reported on the presence of radical Islamists in Molenbeek and the danger they posed — and both became victims of character assassination. In 2006, Hind Fraihi, a young Flemish woman of Morrocan descent published “Undercover in Little Morocco: Behind the Closed Doors of Radical Islam.” Her community called her a traitor; progressive media called her a “spy” and a “girl with personal problems.”

In 2008, Arthur van Amerongen was tarred and feathered for “Brussels Eurabia,” and called a “Batavian Fascist” by a francophone newspaper. When he and I went back to Molenbeek in March and I subsequently described it as an “ethnic and religious enclave and a parochial, closed community” in an interview with Brussel Deze Week, that too provoked the wrath of progressive Belgium and an ensuing media storm.

I always thought as myself as a defender of human rights and human dignity, beyond left- or right-wing categories. Now suddenly I was painted as a right-wing firebrand. For some people I became an “untouchable” and I even lost a few friends, who refused to talk to me.

There are immense problems in Molenbeek, problems of a truly global scale that transcend the municipal and national levels. Still, there is hope. After my interview appeared, Molenbeek mayor Françoise Schepmans invited me to her cabinet and we had an open discussion. I was asked to defend my point of view at the local cultural center De Vaartkapoen — a rather hostile audience of 60 people, many whom felt I had offended their community, were polite and interested to engage in debate. Last week, as I showed foreign TV crews around my old neighborhood, I was greeted in the most cordial way at the grocery, the bakery and the snackbar I used to go to.

Most people in Molenbeek are decent people who want the best for their families. But we should not close our eyes to the fact that it is also home to a very deep, and very dangerous, undercurrent of radical Islamism.

The community of Molenbeek has a large, Moroccan community. Crime, poverty and fundmantalism are some of the less positive sides of this dynamic neigborhood.
Night falls on Molenbeek | Teun Voeten


  1. I thought this an important piece in that it grappled with the complexity of the issue on the ground and addressed the issue of how terms like "racism" and indeed "Islamophobic" are used not for descriptive purposes but as a silencer against free expression and understanding.

    Much of the talk about "understanding" Muslim communities or culture (to the extent that there is a oneness about either) is really a mask for preventing understanding. We cannot understand what we cannot discuss. When people discuss they are attacked with the chant of racist, Islamophobe.

  2. This article could of been written about Tower Hamlets, East London. For those who dont know, its where the Muslim Patrol, er..patrolled.Where gay pubs are attacked, their patrons stabbed. I understand the parent group Shariiah4UK had a sister group in Belgium , called Shariah4Belguim. Maybe its all a coincidence.What is not coincidence is the the powers that be dont live in these areas.If your only experience of Islam is the doctor who delivered your kid, or the dentist who fixed your teeth, or the funny lecturer who always seemed kind, you have just met the extremists of the religion, in that they represent such a marginal view of Islam its irrelevant. (I loved your Qutb comment btw AM on another article)

  3. DaithiD,

    again we find the tendency to lump the Muslims together in an "imagined community" of religious loons.

    Is there any evidence rather than prejudice to show that the doctor type you refer to constitutes an insignificant minority?

    Even in Rwanda where there was basically only one source of information and one source of authority there was not the homogeneity within the Hutus that you ascribe to the Muslims who have access to wider sources of information.

    Interestingly, I read that the one religious body that behaved well in Rwanda during the genocide was the Muslims. The Christians murdered with gay abandon.

  4. DaithiD,

    Qutb was some character now. I think his influence has been much more a contributory factor in intellectual terms to the likes of ISIS than the Koran per se. Plus the fact that Nasser hanged him - making a martyr of him and causing him to be a focal point for later generations.

  5. AM, Christians do kill. The difference is its in spite of their text, rather than definitively sanctioned.Yes I do know they are a marginal view, a faithfully Muslim man cannot look on a naked woman even in childbirth, Doctors were killed for this in Raqqa when ISIS took over. I know how they are supposed to behave around us kafirs because nearly 2/3 of the Koran is about how they are supposed to deal with us. If they dont follow their texts, how is that representative of Islam? Remember its those who espouse the ideology as it is written I class as Muslim, someone like Maryam Namazie for example,I would never of put in that bracket.
    But my point is more about the differing experiences of Islam,my experience at University was markedly different to what I experienced in Tower Hamlets. Much of the discourse is around essentially two differing realities which dont overlap.
    PS after reading this article I investigated further,and Molenbeek was indeed the base of Shariah4Belgium.

  6. DaithiD,

    the Old Testament is the text - full of murder, hatred, genocide, infanticide - the Christians have yet to denounce it as a work of fiction or denounce the god of the OT as an obnoxious old tyrant.

    People can find in it what they want. Can there be a more hateful god than that described by Stephen Fry? At least Muslims or some of them seem to expect a good jump when they reach the pearly gates: Christians seem to want to do nothing other than massage the ego of a megalomaniac who wants to be praised 24/7.

    A Muslim can look on whatever he wants. Listen to Frankie about them - they ride the piece out and smoke joints like Bob Marley. Good for them. If it is in some text that they cannot, they don't pay too much attention to the text. Every religion has its biblical literalists but they seem to be the minority of the religion. You seem to suggest they are a majority in Islam.

    What is seems you are opposed to is the text but at the same time seem more than happy to wrap it around all Muslims, tell us that those outside it are only a few - and in my view that doesn't work.

  7. AM, I drink with self described Muslims nearly every Friday after work. How is that indicative of the faith? Surely the only measure is whats in its texts? In terms of numbers, evidence would point to a majority not practicing their faith as its meant to be, I dont class them as Muslim, neither do practicing Muslims.
    Just like Adams mouthing Republican sentiments cant obscure the fact he isnt one on any fair measure. Or are we to believe Sinn Fein is still a Republican party just because a majority still think it is?

  8. DaithiD,

    I don't think that answers the question. More and more we are being asked to accept your view of what the faith is which you depict as seamless.

    Now that we can rule out the boozers from your definition (even though we are supposed to infer that the boozers don't practice or believe or practice in their own way like most religions) what are we left with? And within the category of practitioners we still have room for nuance and degree. I don't see any reason for insisting that the bulk of those who do Friday prayer are any more endeared to the murderous Allah than the bulk of Sunday worshipping Christians are endeared to the murderous god they venerate.

  9. AM, we are massively out of sync on this. If someone is drinking, they are a bad Muslim, so prohibited is it.But maybe they do pray on Fridays, so they are just bad Muslims. Surely the question to ask is : who is a good Muslim? Or even better, who was the best Muslim? Because there is an answer to it, every Muslim will tell you. I can switch between Muslim's/Islam too easily writing, as ever, its the ideology as it written I have major concerns over.
    But dont make it sound like I have dreamt up some imaginary worst case of a Muslim, and anyone who doesnt fit it as it is not one. Surely the best Muslim, as well as one could observe at least, is one least in conflict with all the traditions of his faith?
    You yourself have sat in Orange Lodges, Im sure you were treated like a gent. What does it say of Orangeism?
    I may not comment on this subject anymore, it does me no good.

  10. DaithiD,

    we must be thankful for small mercies. Being massively out of sync is what makes the world of ideas and knowledge go round. Is the bishop a better Catholic because he sounds more pious than the beer swilling Catholic? Dom Helder Camara, the one time archbishop of Olinda and Recife, in his book The Desert Is Fertile (I read it during the 1981 hunger strike) seemed to suggest that the atheist who helps the poor is a better Christian than the alter rail biter.

    I think you have conjured up the worst type of Muslim, argued that he typifies the religion and that the rest fall short. That is how it reads to me. I might be wrong but ...

  11. Yeah but what if you massively out of sync with a new employer, and they decide to do an internet search of you?

  12. That is a judgement call you have to make. Perhaps the optimum situation is to refrain from expressing views that might cause your employer to hound you and deprive you of what you need to live. But that does not mean expressing the views your employer wants you to express when they are not your own views.