A Christmas tree stood in the empty shopping mall, its red decorations gleaming under the neon light. Just a handful of lost tourists walked past the army patrols on the Rue Neuve, Brussels’ bustling commercial artery. Normally, thousands of people would fill the street to shop, dine and celebrate the end of the year, but now, the streets were empty.
The patrols were there, and the revelers gone, because Salah Abdeslam, a Belgian-born French national linked to the November 13 Paris terrorist attack that left 130 people dead and more than 350 wounded, remained at large, and authorities had ordered a lockdown of the city.
A few miles further east, in Jette, a Brussels district where one of the Paris suspects used to live, and in Molenbeek, the Brussels commune home to Abdeslam, journalists had been circling their residences like morbid paparazzi, banging on people’s doors in hope of a juicy quote from a grieving relative. “Now we mourn,” one admonished me, her voice cracking through the intercom system before the connection went silent. The whole city appeared to be mourning; a son who had left for Syria, the Paris victims, a way of life.
This year, the holidays were hardly a cause for celebration: Nearly half of Belgians believe another terror attack is imminent, according to one poll. For the first time, a strike at the heart of Europe, as many have predicted, is a probable scenario. Not by way of the crumbling of the Schengen agreement, which regulates the bloc’s open-border policy, but in the vicious dreams of thousands of foreign fighters and voters for right-wing European extremists, all of whom view multi-cultural and supranational identities as anathema. “Perpetual peace,” which has come to color our collective understanding of post-war Europe and imbued my experience living and studying in three EU countries, is no more.
I grew up just a few dozen miles from Molenbeek, but could hardly be called a local.
I grew up just a few dozen miles from Molenbeek, but could hardly be called a local. As with so much reporting on complex, international events, many perspectives from local residents were missing, and while I was Belgian, I was ashamed to realize I didn’t know the district intimately. I was raised in Antwerp (a province north of Brussels near the Dutch border with its own terrorism problem) by a Belgian father and a Dutch mother, attended Leuven University, a Catholic college east of Brussels, and studied abroad in France and Spain. It was in Spain, as an exchange student funded by the EU’s Erasmus program in 2006, an initiative named after the Dutch renaissance scholar, that I spent a night in the southern city of Granada’s ancient caves. The caves look out over the Alhambra, the former palace of local emirs. This was years before I would learn how to read the Arabic signs that led to the dwellings in the hills surrounding the city, or leave for Saudi Arabia to work as a journalist.
That night, sheltered in a cave, our group spoke a mix of Polish, French, Italian, some English, and jejune Spanish, riddled with the subjunctive clauses—“espero,” “quiero,” and “no dudo,”—typical of people dreaming about their future. I wanted to be a writer, maybe live in New York one day. Moorish poets compared the Alhambra to a “pearl set in emeralds,” for the color of the palace’s walls set against the dark green of the surrounding forest. We were nothing like pearls, just students sheltered by the rocks, weathering the bourgeois aspirations of what Stefan Wolff, a professor of international security at the University of Birmingham, has coined the “Erasmus generation.”
Since 1987, European officials have funded more than three million Erasmus students to spend a semester abroad in the hopes of cultivating a common European identity and fostering an electorate unwilling to vote for anti-immigrant parties. By spending a part of the grants on inordinate amounts of alcohol, the bureaucrats’ elusive goal, in the early hours of dawn, when Castilian lisps rolled smoothly off the tongue, seemed possible. Rent was another big expenditure, and, for about 200 euros ($217) per month, I shared a small apartment with three roommates in the center of Salamanca, next to a busy nightclub. Kat, my best friend from Poland, had found a room on the city’s outskirts for significantly less, and supplemented her income by waitressing at the Spanish Riviera. “Erasmus,” she told me, “was a way for us to travel, to learn a new language and experience things we ordinarily couldn’t.” She now runs a design business in Berlin with a dear friend we met in Spain.
These friendships became an economic buoy in 2008, the year Lehman Brothers folded, when job offers evaporated as quickly as traders sold stock. “The Erasmus generation is one faced with a prospect of joblessness,” said Polish philosopher Jarosław Makowski, director of the Warsaw-based think tank Civic Institute. “A generation experiencing a crisis of hope,” he wrote in a piece for VoxEurope. “At the same time, it is one that has grown to know Europe’s diversity through peer contact.”
Many parents of foreign fighters said their children succumbed to extremist thoughts after struggling to keep up with their peers in school.
While the program managed to draw from middle class families in the bloc’s emerging economies, faithful to their newly bestowed EU identities, it fell woefully short of selling that dream to those further West, hindered by deeply segregated educational systems.
In 2006, the year I left for Spain, hundreds of youth, those who would later leave to fight with extremists in Syria, were still in school. By 2015, Belgium would be supplying the highest number of foreign fighters per capita in Western Europe. Several of them, as students, were failing their math and language classes the year of their departure, police records show. Multiple youth whose parents I spoke with had dropped out of school before leaving. And while a series of different factors contribute to one’s decision to travel to Syria, many parents of foreign fighters said their children succumbed to extremist thoughts after struggling to keep up with their peers in school.
The EU exchange program, despite its funding provisions, has a poor track record of integrating minorities (a year’s tuition at a Belgian university then was around $550; the EU paid between $250 and $450 per month to help cover students’ costs abroad). Belgian universities are overwhelmingly white, and many residents of the country’s Muslim-majority areas don’t finish higher education. Many go on to be unemployed and struggle to reconcile their Muslim identity with secular institutions, structural racism, and Western participation in the conflicts in Palestine, Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Slowly, the more quotidian dreams of an estimated 516 Belgian foreign fighters were supplanted by the promise of the caliphate, where Belgians, Germans, Frenchmen, Italians, and others flock together, and diversity is welcomed, but only in the strictest ways of extremist thought: “[It’s] a kind of mini-Europe,” one Belgian foreign fighter is quoted as saying by researcher Montasser AlDeme’meh, who lived among a group of Belgian fighters in Syria in July 2014.
Class, or the general lack of opportunities for Muslim youth, isn’t the only factor at play. Olivier Roy, a French professor and political scientist at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy, reframed the debate as a generational battle between youth and their parents, who adhere to a more flexible brand of Islam after moving West. In an interview with Quartz, he has likened fighters’ motives to those of the left-wing Baader Meinhof radicals in Germany, who revolted against their parents’ Nazi collaboration, or to those of the French radicals who installed democracy at the end of the 19th century. “Infidels,” he said, is just an updated term for the (Erasmus) “bourgeois.”
The dichotomy of these dreams, it appeared, proved fatal. It is the laws of ISIS, not the EU, that provide the common identity so many are craving. Two realities that could never assimilate, let alone integrate, had painfully come to overlap: In my fears during my walk through Brussels, in Abdeslam’s fear of getting caught, and in our mothers’ mutual concern for our safety.
Three mothers of foreign fighters sat next to me in a stuffy courtroom at the Palace of Justice in Brussels on the Tuesday after the Paris attacks. The palace, a neoclassical colossus and, perhaps fittingly for the giant task it had assumed, the biggest courthouse in the world, hosted a long-awaited trial against recruiters for armed groups in Syria who had lured their sons. These women hoped for answers to some of the questions that violence in Paris, Beirut, Egypt and elsewhere, posed.
The federal prosecutor charged Jean-Louis Denis, a Muslim convert from Elsene, Brussels, with leading a terrorist organization, inciting violence, and recruiting youth for its cause. Denis and his wife, along with two accomplices, ran a collective, “Le Resto du Tawhid,” which distributed food to the poor in Brussels, but also served as a vehicle to proselytize. Denis denied all charges, despite the 33 boxes of files and recordings of wiretapped conversations that the prosecutor said point to the contrary. Denis was convicted on Jan. 29 and received ten years in prison for his crimes.
Local media have compared him to the Pied Piper, his lyric, jihadist messages besotting young, impressionable minds. “We love death, and death is a return to Allah,” he said. “You don’t have to ask anyone for permission for jihad.” In the sixteenth century, at the height of European witch hunts, the Pied Piper was equated with the devil; in the nineteenth century, people conflated the Piper with the plague that killed the children off. In the twenty-first century, it’s ISIS, or other armed groups, luring them away from their parents to a violent death.
“Denis is lying,” one mother said.
A large, old painting hung beside the defendants’ heads, nearly covering the courtroom’s wall from left to right. In it, armed men of the Polish army sit tall on horses in a green valley just outside Vienna, then occupied by the Ottomans, ready to overtake it. Historians generally consider the siege as the beginning of the Ottoman Empire’s decline.
Many right-wing commentators have equated Muslim immigration to Europe with an “army of invaders” looking to destroy so-called Western values.
The scene’s symbolism did not escape me. Many right-wing commentators have equated Muslim immigration to Europe with an “army of invaders” looking to destroy so-called Western values, going as far back as the Battle of Vienna in 1683, or the Reconquista in 1492, to prove their point. Memories of that event, when Christian monarchs recaptured Granada, where Muslims had ruled for centuries and where I had visited as a student, still invigorate the Spanish and Polish politicians who today refuse to take in (Muslim) refugees. Their decisions to exclude newcomers are justified in part, the politicians said, by reports that at least two of the Paris attackers reached Europe by hiding among the crowds of refugees who entered the EU through Greece last summer.
Hungarian officials say Abdeslam picked up his two alleged accomplices at Budapest’s central train station in September, as thousands of refugees made their way to Munich. Maybe Abdeslam handed them the same message Denis gave a young follower before he left for Syria: “You don’t care about your body. If it’s exploded in one thousand pieces on Allah’s yard, that’s good. It’s not your body that counts. Don’t worry, Allah will resuscitate you.”
This fearful message, abused by ISIS supporters and nationalists such as French populist Marine Le Pen alike, continues to gain popularity among European youth, no matter Erasmus’s famed battle against dogmatism. So far, about thirty thousand foreign fighters have joined armed groups in Syria, a far cry from the more than three million Erasmus students who participated in the exchange program. But Europe’s failure to transcend its capitalist roots and embrace diversity has created a disaffected underclass whose frustrations continue to feed the pipeline to Syria. Politicians don’t really know what’s going on, one mother at the terrorism trial in the justice palace told me. Our sons, she said, “keep on leaving.”