Interview: On Religion, Politics, and the Brussels Attacks
Cambridge Institute on Religion and International Studies Blog, Interview held on 9 May 2016.
CIRIS research associate Arthur Ghins was in Brussels at the time of the recent terrorist attacks on the airport and subway. In this interview with CIRIS managing director Judd Birdsall he reflects on the religious and political dynamics of contemporary Belgium from his vantage point as both as a resident of Brussels and as a scholar of 19th century European political thought.
CIRIS: What was your immediate reaction when you heard the news about the attacks?
Ghins: I was stunned, of course. I think the psychological impact of a terrorist attack is far greater when it happens in the town where you grew up, in places you have been to hundreds of times. Even though I had already been deeply shocked by the Paris attacks, the geographical distance had also been somehow a symbolic distance. When the attacks happened in Brussels, I thought: this is happening here and now, it’s going to have a massive impact on our daily lives.
Maybe this will sound a bit naïve, but I was also all the more astonished because I did not seriously think that Brussels was a genuine target. Perhaps in part because I thought quite cynically that terrorists would not decide to strike their “headquarters” in Europe. Sadly enough, Belgium is indeed the country in Europe that proportionally has sent the highest number of youngsters to fight for ISIS in Syria.
CIRIS: So why would the terrorists attack their own country of residence?
Ghins: People have said that Brussels was hit because it is home to the EU institutions. But in fact, investigators have shown that Brussels was not a ‘first choice’ target. Those who committed the attacks initially intended to strike again in Paris, but they ultimately decided to operate in Brussels, because of police pressure and lack of time. Maelbeek, the metro station that was bombed, is not the closest metro station to the main EU institutions. And if you read the statement ISIS released after the attacks, they do not mention the EU a single time, but simply refer to the fact that Belgium is involved in the coalition against ISIS.
Given the aura of Paris, a second attack there may have seemed to the terrorists a first choice, but Brussels was perhaps an easier, if less emblematic target. This gives the impression that the selection of locations for possible attacks is at least in part guided by very practical considerations about what is possible where and when.
Having said that, worrisome elements were already numerous. In May 2014, the shooting at the Jewish museum was the first attack ever claimed by ISIS in a Western country. Last January, a terrorist cell was dismantled in Verviers, a small town close to the German Border, with several presumed terrorists shot dead. And just a few months ago, the leader of a terrorist group called Sharia4Belgium was sentenced to 12 years imprisonment. It is clear that many indicators about a large-scale terrorist attack in Belgium are already evident. It is easy to say “we should have known” afterwards. But we often prefer to ignore threats to our own place of residence in order not to become completely paranoid.
CIRIS: How would you characterise the mood among Belgians now a few weeks after the attacks?
Ghins: My sense is that Belgians feel extremely helpless about what’s going on in their country. The way the crisis was dealt with raises many questions. Brussels is at the moment in a state of complete chaos. For instance, for more than four weeks after the attacks, metros have been serving only a limited number of stations for a shorter period each day. At the same time, several key road tunnels that lead to the city centre have recently been completely shut for maintenance works that should have been carried out years ago. With people using their car because they are afraid of using public transport, moving around the city has become a nightmare.
To make matters worse, five days after the attacks, 400 hundred skinheads coming from the northern part of the country came to Brussels city centre and invaded the ‘Place de la Bourse’ that had become an improvised place of remembrance for victims. Also, a few days after the attacks, Brussels’ airport police and air traffic controllers went on strike.
These are not just anecdotes about Brussels. The attacks now appear as an epiphenomenon of larger, massive problems about the way the state is run. The very competency of some of Belgium’s ministers has been cast in doubt.
In mid-April, the transport minister of the federal government had to resign, notably because she had neglected warnings by the European Commission about Brussels airport’s dodgy security standards. More generally, I think there has been a complete incapacity of Belgian political leaders to put events into perspective. The federal government has failed to give the population a sense of how it envisages its action after what happened. This has deepened the gap between politicians and citizens, who are becoming more and more fatalistic and indifferent to politics.
In a country like Belgium, the problem is even more severe since there is no such thing as one national public sphere. There are two: the Flemish and the Francophone. It makes any attempt to create a sense of cohesion amongst the whole population very difficult, even when national tragedies happen.
CIRIS: Belgium has received a great deal of criticism for allegedly allowing a hot bed of jihadism to develop in Molenbeek. Is this criticism warranted?
Ghins: I do think that Belgian political authorities are responsible for the deterioration of the situation, not only in Molenbeek but also in other cities in the country.
Molenbeek has now become the archetype of the place providing fertile ground for radicalisation: a poor, Muslim ghetto where unemployment is rife and the school dropout rate is high. Philippe Moureaux, a socialist politician who has been mayor of Molenbeek for twenty years until 2012, has been accused of blindness vis-à-vis the rise of Islamism, as well as of petty electioneering and clientelism with citizens from immigrant origins. He has been turned into the perfect scapegoat, but the problem goes way beyond one person.
One of the problems of Belgium is the overly complex division of competences between the federal government and other regional and communautary entities. Belgium is a federal state with three regions—Brussels, Flanders and Wallonie—and three different communities—the Flemish, the French, and the small German speaking community—which have all received a certain number of competencies throughout the years during various state reforms. This has to some extent pacified the north-south relationship, but it inevitably makes the coordination of efforts against radicalisation and terrorism more arduous.
Brussels again is a good example in that regard. The city has been for years a point of contention, because it is a predominantly French-speaking city located in Flanders. To accommodate the diverging interests of the two major linguistic communities, the city has been turned into a complex maze of political entities. In addition, there are six different political zones for a city of 1.2 millions people. To make things worse, it has been underfunded since it became an autonomous region in 1989. Given this fragmentation, it is difficult to know in each case who is responsible for what.
One example says it all. A couple of months ago, a municipal politician drew attention to the lack of funding available to hire desperately needed social and youth workers in certain areas of Molenbeek. She pressed several political entities to get funding, with virtually no result. Another problem is the indulgence with which radical Islam has been dealt with in past decades. For instance, there are suspicions that the great mosque of Brussels, which was given to Saudi Arabia by the Belgian king himself in 1969, is used as a platform to preach Wahhabism. The Centre islamique et culturel de Belgique, a non-profit organisation which runs the mosque, is legally required to submit annual accounts. A newspaper recently revealed it had never done so, with apparent impunity. Tackling these issues is made difficult by the dispersal of potential levers of action, even when political will is present.
CIRIS: What more can the Belgian state, church, or society at large do to combat radicalisation and foster social cohesion?
Ghins: Retransferring competencies from regions and communities to the federal state is probably illusionary. But a thorough reflection is needed on how to best organise and define the respective roles of each entity in the fight against radicalisation.
Police and intelligence services also need to be re-thought. For instance, observers agree that a fusion of the six different police zones in Brussels would be beneficial in terms of efficiency, but there is still a lack of political will to initiate the process. Politicians—especially the upcoming generation of politicians—need to demonstrate their capacity to bring new ideas into the political life of the country, by opening up other long-term perspectives for Belgium than the mere dismantlement of the state apparatus between linguistic communities. If the state becomes just an empty shell, its capacity to integrate minorities will completely vanish.
We need to invest in education. Education, in its different dimensions, is indeed the only hope to defuse radicalisation in the long run, by giving youngsters the tools to achieve personal confidence and develop critical thinking. Very concretely, setting up history of religions classes—not necessarily ‘religious’ classes—in the official schooling system is an example of how we could help students to develop mutual respect for each other’s beliefs.
One of Belgium’s assets is its thriving voluntary sector, and the incredible enthusiasm of many youngsters for Scouting. Apparently Belgium is one of the countries in the world where Scouts are the most popular. At a local level, we have to take advantage of that, by encouraging youngsters from difficult neighbourhoods to participate in these initiatives, which help developing empathy for others through teamwork.
Then there is the inter-religious dialogue. Here also, there is room for optimism. Last month, the Exécutif des musulmans de Belgique, the officially recognised representative body of Belgian Muslims, elected a new president, Salah Echallaoui. As an inspector of religious teaching in schools, he has shown willingness to build a genuine dialogue with representatives of other religious faiths.
On the 25th of March, three days after the attacks, it was refreshing to see on TV Mr Echalloui, the bishop of Brussels, and the president of the Jewish consistory of Belgium agreeing on the need they all had to work towards greater rapprochement and mutual understanding. This is a welcome move. In times of distress, I think Christians and Jews, have a role to play in helping Muslims in their fight against jihadism. There is a potential mutual support Abrahamic religions can lend to each other in defining their role in secular societies, because they share some fundamental intuitions.
CIRIS: Thinking about your doctoral research on Benjamin Constant and Alexis de Tocquville, what lessons can we learn from the history of religion and politics in Europe that we might apply to contemporary policy challenges regarding religion?
Ghins: I think there is an urgent need to retrieve a sense of the positive role religions can play in the public sphere. This is in fact one of the main ideas we can learn from 19th century French liberal figures like Benjamin Constant and Alexis de Tocqueville. Those people were writing in the post-revolutionary anti-religious climate, and were trying to defend the idea that religion and freedom are in fact not antithetical, but can work together in a beneficial manner. Their message was that freedom can help preventing religion from falling into the trap of fanaticism and that religion can benefit liberal democracies by putting citizens’ daily interests into perspective and encourage them to work toward the common good.
I am in general very cautious about applying lessons from the past to contemporary issues.
But I think Tocqueville’s insight still holds true today. This is not exactly the kind of message that is à la mode nowadays. In countries like France and Belgium, the dominant view is that religion should be relegated at all costs to the private sphere, because it is perceived as a potential threat to freedom and as a possible source of fanaticism.
In Belgium, there is now talk of inscribing the “laicité” of the state in the Constitution, like in the French model. This would not change anything in practice, since Belgium already has an effective church-state separation. This ideological manoeuvre rides on the current wave of suspicion towards religion, and is implicitly but very strikingly aimed at muzzling them.
No doubt, Islamophobia is rising in Europe, but there is also an increasing Christianophobia. We could probably talk about a rising “religiophobia” in general. In countries like Belgium, trench warfare is progressively taking root between believers and those who wish to proceed to a total laicization of the public square. Tension grows because those two camps do not understand each other and remain unyielding.
For youngsters, it is incredibly difficult to find where to stand in such a climate. Temptation is high to radicalise one’s religious or non-religious identity. Obviously, this does not make mutual understanding between communities easier. Nor does it encourage religious groups to have an open and welcoming attitude towards a society that sees them with distrust.
We have to defuse that vicious cycle. And I think rediscovering how religions can positively contribute to the life of the polis, like 19th century French liberals taught us, is one step in that direction. Religions are not simply about power and control, but about solidarity, building social ties, attention to frailty, and respect for human lives. For those 19th century liberals, the separation of religion from politics was never an argument for the expulsion of religion from the public sphere, but an indispensable prerequisite for a harmonious relationship between them. It is only when religions feel at home in Western cities that they can give the best of themselves.