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worldwide wednesdays :: no, it isn't

it's been a while! honestly, my time has been tight enough that posts that require more research, like www and paranoid theory, have had to be sacrificed. that makes me a little unhappy, because there are all sorts of awesome things about the world [and about paranoia] that could do with some explaining. but in the wake of the terror attacks in belgium and the media reaction to it, i couldn't help but return to the world of worldwide wednesdays in order to give some background that just isn't coming out through most other channels.

that's not to say that this information isn't out there. it's actually a little embarrassing how quickly i was able to assemble both primary sources and corroboration, but somehow, this is all getting glossed over, despite the fact that these attacks have been given nearly round the clock coverage on major news networks [*cough* cnn *cough*]. we hear about "poor communication" between belgian authorities and their counterparts elsewhere in europe [most notably france]. but unless you know why there has been poor communication, it doesn't help anyone understand how to fix the problem.

likewise, there is a tendency to cast aspersions on the immigrant-heavy neighbourhood of molenbeek, as if its concentration of muslims alone is what has made it fertile ground for isis recruitment. the truth, as it frequently is, is a little more complex and has roots that go back farther than the rise of islamic state.

so here are a few things to consider that are probably more germane to the problem than "immigrants are all potential terrorists":

belgium is kind of weird

for centuries, the territory we now call belgium was the was part of different empires. the romans, the franks [not the same as the french, although they had their turn], the merovingians, the carolingians, the holy roman empire [german and italian], the spanish, the austrian hapsburgs, the french [i guess i sort of mentioned them earlier], and the dutch [during a period where the "low countries" united to form one not-quite-so-small state]. and the boundaries of the country were pretty much always in play during that time, with different empires maintaining control over different parts of modern-day belgium.

as a self-governing entity, belgium isn't a lot older than canada, which is sort of an apt comparison. in fact, belgium is a little like what would happen if you ground up the prickliest political issues in canada and the united states and stuck them in a pressure cooker for a while. like canada, there is a permanent state of tension between the two major regions: dutch-speaking flanders and french-speaking wallonia. however, whereas the balance in canada is heavily tipped in one direction- 80% of the population is anglophone- belgium's population is about 59% dutch [which they call flemish] [actually, they call it vlaams, because "flemish" is an english word. -ed.] and 40% french [walloon]. just to make things more difficult, there is a predominantly german-speaking bit in the east of the country that accounts for about 1% of the population.

in the middle, you have brussels, the capital, which is its own thing. technically, it's nestled inside the dutch/ flemish half of the country, and at one point it was a predominantly dutch city, but now it is pretty much a french city. however, the french in brussels are generally not from wallonia, but from other countries. more than 30% of the population is made up of immigrants and even then, the two-thirds who were born in belgium have only been there for a generation or two. most of this is immigration from other european countries- france is by far the largest exporter of people, with morocco, italy and romania behind it.

plus, of course, brussels is an international capital. politicians, bureaucrats, diplomats and many others spend a good part of their time in brussels, but aren't actually residents. that's important, because it means that these people, with their higher-than-average salaries, tend to drive up housing and other costs, benefit from national infrastructures, but they don't pay any local or national taxes.

the dutch and french sections of belgium aren't especially at ease with each other [there is a significant wallon separatist movement], which means that local jurisdictions like to retain many powers for themselves, rather than ceding them to the federal government. as a result, there are many, many organizations tasked with supplying services to small areas. brussels, a city of 1.4 million people, is served by no fewer than six police forces. small wonder that there are communication problems.

and this sort of gross inefficiency is everywhere in belgium [and in fact has gotten worse, not better, over the last thirty or so years]. very little is centralized, but it's the central government that is tasked with dealing with other national governments. the national government itself is fractured, with parties having to form coalitions in order to maintain power, coalitions that require the support of parties loyal to their particular area and who can impede any efforts to consolidate services or resources.

belgium can't afford to be itself

as you can imagine, that kind of duplication is ruinously expensive. the population of the entire country is only 11 million, but that doesn't include the aforementioned political nomads, who command some of the highest salaries. added to that, wallonia was a manufacturing powerhouse, a shining star of the industrial revolution. however, a steep decline in the industrial sector and the loss of control over lucrative minerals in the congo have devastated the economy, leaving the region significantly worse off than its northern partner. money is needed to pay for services in three official languages [yes, even the tiny german community enjoys official status], dozens of police forces, hundreds of local inspectors, overseers, planners and contractors and belgium isn't collecting nearly enough in taxes to do so.

sadly, the economic chasm that exists between the french and dutch halves of the country is an aggravating factor in pre-existing tensions, and leads people to be less interested in combined services, less the other come to dominate.

another effect of the fragile economic situation and the overlapping services is that few of those provincial or municipal employees are paid very well, or trained very well. police are often little more than security guards, because the salary just can't attract more qualified people. for the salary they're earning, there is little incentive for police to risk their bodies and their lives in high crime areas, which leaves criminals with an impunity towards the law.

likewise, low salaries and extremely localised politics invites corruption, which has been a huge concern at every level of government in the country.

although violent crimes tend to get more attention, one of the most insidious criminal enterprises in molenbeek is the selling of illegal weapons. ak-47s, like the ones used in the charlie hebdo murders, are easily obtained on the streets of molenbeek.

brussels is a hole

donald trump got upbraided for referring to brussels as a "hellhole", and rightly so, but the second part of that word isn't entirely wrong. brussels is one of the few european capitals to have suffered a "doughnut effect" in recent years. this is a well known phenomena in north america: middle class and wealthy people flee the city for the suburbs and take their money with them. what's left is a hole in the middle, neglected and impoverished. in european cities like london and paris, it's central neighbourhoods that command the highest prices, but brussels has tumbled into the territory of 70s and early 80s new york. infrastructure money has become increasingly focused on moving middle class workers from the flemish suburbs to the city and the centre has largely collapsed: the hole in the doughnut.

many immigrants are not immigrants

as we touched on earlier, much of the population of brussels has been in belgium for only a couple of generations. that's because, when industry was flying, up until the 70s, belgium was desperate to find workers and practically begged people to move from the colonies of north and central africa. those people formed communities in the areas where they ended up- including the much-maligned molenbeek- and are still perceived by many white belgians as "others". in fact, the current generation is as belgian as anyone else in this somewhat confused country.

unfortunately, many of their communities were the hardest hit with the economic decline, which means that many of these visible minority belgians have grown up facing increasing poverty, hopelessness and, just to top things off, suspicion and sometimes aggression from their countrymen. oh, and that gap between the rich in brussels and the poor? it's increased considerably in recent years and is among the worst in western europe. so add to that stress the ability to see white, dutch-speaking citizens of your city doing much better than you, living in places that are well-tended and well-serviced, while you wait for the truck-sized potholes in your street to be fixed and fear walking down dark streets because you know damn well the police won't help you.

is that an excuse for terrorist behaviour? of course not. but it is a road map to desperation, and groups like isis feed on desperation like vampires on blood. their recruitment techniques are like psychological roadmaps designed to bring vulnerable people into the fold. think of isis in this case as clever entrepreneurs, setting up a starbucks on the ground floor of a busy office building.

well all that sounds depressing, doesn't it?

absolutely. if it were a matter of a federal security force weeding out a few dangerous religious leaders, the task would be relatively easy. but there are so many complications that it's hard to know where to start. but starting is not optional.

one city, one police force. international pressure combined with domestic pressure should help the push to scrap the six competing police forces in brussels and replace them with one, which would in itself help ensure that important information is more accessible. and that people aren't just selling high calibre weapons on the streets.

reform education. since schooling is largely the purview of the desperately underfunded city government, many of molenbeek's residents don't receive adequate education to allow them to compete with people from wealthier areas and often don't develop strong language skills in french, flemish or german.

not the problem
put the kids to work. governments at all levels need to address the problem of unemployment, in particular youth unemployment. youth unemployment is high in belgium anyway, but it's out of control with the youth of molenbeek. the lack of education, the existing urban poverty, the lack of resources to help those who want to escape and the tensions between whites and non-whites, who can perceive themselves as being in competition with the 'other', create a system where areas like molenbeek are often just recycling the poor back where they came from. unless someone like isis comes along.

indirectly, improving the employment situation would also encourage more people to stay longer in one area. conditions being what they are, people tend to drift in and out of the area, and that makes it difficult to track who is where. stability breeds security.

speak the language. the police force and any other officials who deal with the muslim community need to find people who can speak arabic. such people have been difficult to acquire, but they are crucial to building bridges with the muslim community. of the 114 imams in brussels [at last count], eight speak one of the country's official languages. while it's always desirable to have community leaders who can speak to those inside, that's a longer-term solution. in the short term, the mountain needs to move to mohammed. [side note :: this process has been started, so there is some good news.] 

that's just a brief [seriously, it's brief] account of what i've managed to turn up on this issue. and if i can find this out, there is no reason i should have to hear any paid journalist tell me that there are just problems in belgium but stop short of being able to provide any details. there is no reason why i should have to listen to anyone saying that the issue in molenbeek is with recent immigrants, or particular mosques or anything of the sort because, as you've likely gleaned from the title of this post, no it isn't. this is a problem that has arisen from the peculiar confluence of circumstances in belgium. that's not to say that it can't happen in other places [some have mentioned bosnia as an area of particular concern], but surface-level, reactionary answers make the problem worse, because they point us in the wrong direction when we look for solutions.

here's a partial list of sources i used to write this, in no particular order ::


as long as you're here, why not read more?

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