Belgium currently finds itself in the middle of Europe's vicious cycle of terrorism and Islamophobia: Terrorists attack, politicians respond with anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant attitudes and many young people feel even more pessimistic about integration into European society, which makes the anti-Western message of radicals more appealing to misguided youth.
I have been in Belgium for the past five weeks to learn about the experiences of Belgian youth. In my research I have seen signs that this cycle of terrorism and Islamophobia is going to continue. But I also see signs that Belgium may go in a better direction, if the country's political leaders can take responsibility for their role in fueling the fire of radicalization with divisive politics. The offers to resign from Belgium's Interior Minister Jan Jambon and Justice Minister Koen Geens show that there may be an opportunity to move in a new direction, away from the current trend of divisive politics.
Belgium's trend of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim politics influenced the country's response to the Paris attacks. Minister Jambon placed the blame of the international incident on Molenbeek, a largely Muslim and Moroccan community in Brussels. This diverse community of 100,000 residents has since been further stigmatized by this political rhetoric and treated like it has collectively done something wrong because of the actions of a handful of terrorists. Minister Jambon's response did little to address some of the root causes of radicalization, like unemployment. Molenbeek has a 40% youth unemployment rate, which is nearly double the national average for Belgium, and a plan to improve these conditions would be incredibly more effective than further stigmatizing a disadvantaged community.
This form of divisive politics in Belgium predates the Paris attacks. For example, Belgium has banned religious dress and religious symbols from most public schools. While this ban is presented as a neutral political decision, it has a significant impact on religious minorities, like Jewish, Sikh and Muslim families. One impact of this ban is that many Muslim girls are excluded from public schools and must rely on home-schooling or private school education. Another consequence of this ban is that some qualified Muslim women are excluded from working as teachers.
There may be no clearer example of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim politics than in the city of Antwerp, the biggest city in Belgium's Flanders region. The Mayor of Antwerp, Bart De Wever, has publicly referred to Berbers, a Moroccan ethnic group, as being problematic migrants. In 2014, the city of Antwerp also imposed a special tax on small businesses often started by entrepreneurs of migrant backgrounds and frequented by consumers of migrant backgrounds. These businesses, including night shops, phone shops and shisha bars, are targeted with a special tax for being "image-damaging."
When looking at Belgian politics, it's difficult to believe Mayor De Wever when he says that Tuesday's tragedy is a sign that the tolerance of Europe has been abused. It's also difficult to believe that the answer to this problem is more divisive politics, as Donald Trump and Ted Cruz have encouraged. Belgian political leaders have struggled with creating a political culture that encourages all Belgians to work together to solve problems, including the problem of radicalization. They can start creating a new political culture by changing policies and attitudes that have pushed Muslim communities to the margins of Belgian society.
At this political crossroads Belgium has an opportunity to change its image from being the "jihadi capital"of Europe to Europe's capital of social and economic integration. That's an important part of how Belgium can break Europe's cycle of terrorism and Islamophobia. And an important part of how the West can work together to defeat ISIS.