What happened in Belgium is complicated

Many people have asked about my reaction to the horrible terrorist attacks in Brussels on March 22nd, 2016. They hear American news reports about ghettos in Brussels where the police are afraid to go. About Muslims rejecting Belgium. How Belgium and especially Brussels is the cesspit of Europe. And above all they ask the question: “How could this happen ?”. Well… it’s complicated

What is Belgium ?

First a little bit of history about Belgium and the Belgians. Belgium is a very small country nestled in between the large powers of old: France, Germany, The Netherlands and Great Britain. While they were ruling the seas and duking it out amongst each other, we were mainly farmers or weavers minding our own business. In the course of history we were part of France, the Austrian empire, Spain and lastly the Netherlands. In 1830, we gained our independence from the Netherlands. We have three official languages and we are usually labeled “the country that shouldn’t exist”.

Who are the Belgians ?

Usually, there’s no such thing. After all, over the centuries we’ve been part of every single large European empire. You have Flemish people, Dutch speaking from the Northern part; Walloons, French speaking from the Southern part and the smaller German speaking population in the East.

Belgian nationalism doesn’t exist. Except when it comes to football. We quibble over regional issues, we have road signs in different languages depending which side of the fictitious language border you find yourself on, and we take more than a year to form a national government. And that’s fine with us. We don’t fret about it. We still make the best beer in the world, despite of what the Germans think, we know we invented fries, even though the French have stolen that, and our chocolate will always be better than the Swiss. We have a very healthy dose of self-deprecating humor. After all, our most well-known national symbol is a little guy taking a piss.

It may make us the laughing stock of the Western civilized world, but we’ll have a beer, eat our national  dish of mussels or stoofvlees, and let our national symbol piss on all that nonsense.

But when are threatened from the outside or attacked viciously, like we were last Tuesday, we come together and will fight fiercely for our country. It is quite appropriate that the coat of arms of our royal family, who ironically is usually disregarded as an antique relic, has a rearing lion on it. We will defend ourselves fiercely and bravely against anyone who threatens our peculiar way of life.

Islam in Belgium

What about the reports of Muslim ghetto’s ? By now you should have heard of “Molenbeek” or “Schaarbeek” or “Sint Joost”. Suburbs of Brussels where so called Sharia law is in effect and us native Belgians are afraid to enter.

That is as inaccurate and wrong as the botched pronunciation from all those American news reporters who, from behind their cozy desk, seem to know the neighborhoods better than us. Even though they never have set foot in them or walked those streets. I did. And I recall in the 1980’s walking through Schaarbeek or Molenbeek. And yes, feeling a bit like an outsider in those, largely Muslim, neighborhoods.

We are a welcoming bunch us Belgians. And we let people be. We let them do their thing. So when people immigrated from Turkey, Tunisia, Algeria or Morocco, we let them do their thing. Which indeed has led over the decades to a community within a community. I won’t deny that. As a native Belgian I stand out in those communities. But not any more than a White American would stand out in South Los Angeles, or South Detroit, or Harlem. Or even here in Dallas in Oak Cliff. And even though I may have gotten the occasional strange look or question while walking those neighborhoods, I was never attacked or robbed or hassled. Sure, it happens. Just like it does in every large metropolitan area around the world. But I wouldn’t say it’s the norm.

So why is it complicated ?

Due to our lack of clear nationalism, our tolerance towards others and “Laissez faire” attitude, we have indeed allowed large communities of the same ethnicity and religious background to flourish. Which on the one hand is awesome. After all, Brussels has the second largest number of foreign nationals in the world. Second only after Dubai. On the other hand, it created an environment where disenfranchised youngsters don’t feel any more Belgian than those who grew up 5,000 miles away. Just like the Flemish feel Flemish first and Belgian second. Or the Walloons feel Walloon first and Belgian second. Several of the terrorists in the Paris and Brussels attacks are second or even third generation Belgian immigrants. They are Belgian. They grew up Belgium. Went to Belgian schools. And yet, they became disenfranchised with their circumstances. And that environment is a breeding ground for extremism and radicalism. Not any different than disenfranchised youth in South Los Angeles joining a violent gang like the Crips or Bloods. Or malcontent youth from Hispanic origin joining the 18th street gang. Unfortunately, the disenfranchised Muslim youth from Brussels joined radical Islam. This is a problem we, as Belgians, have known about for years and we have failed to do anything about it.

So why don’t the “good” Muslims get rid of the “bad” ones ?

That’s akin to asking why the “good” people aren’t getting rid of the “bad” apples in those problematic neighborhoods in the large American metropolitan areas. My child, brother, friend may be a member of such-and-such organization, but he’s a good guy. He wouldn’t hurt innocent people. Until they kill a mother during a robbery. Or until they blow themselves up in an airport or metro station. We all know gangs commit murder and radical Muslims commit acts of terror. But we always hope that the one member we know personally won’t go to those extremes. It is a sad reality of faith in human nature. Sure, just like in the troubled American metropolitan areas, there are grassroots and governmental funded attempts to de-radicalize Molenbeek and Schaarbeek. And just like in the US, I fear it will take years, if not decades, to root out the rotten apples.

And just like not every person in South Los Angeles is a violent gang member, not every Muslim living in Molenbeek or Schaarbeek is a violent radical Muslim. The majority of them love Belgium as much as the Flemish and Walloon population. We all come together under our Belgian flag when our national football team plays a big game. We will fly the tri-colore (as our flag is affectionately called), when our country is under siege or threatened. And when this is all over, each one will go back to their daily business. For Muslims, that may mean perhaps praying five times a day. Or eating Halal meals. Or speaking Arabic. And the Flemish will drink their “pintje” and play a football game and perhaps bet on the pigeons. We will live next to each other in our spirit of “Laissez faire” until the next major event shocks us all and brings us all together again to defend and stand up for this little country that shouldn’t exist, but which is known for its tolerance and high quality of living.

Because after all, we’re proud of this country. We’re proud of who we are. We’re proud of our tolerance. The rotten apples may shock us, hurt us and wound us. But they will never defeat us. They’re not Belgian. They’re scum who took advantage of our tolerance. Our national symbol will piss on them and what they are trying to do. And after they’re gone, we’ll still be here, making fun of our country, not agreeing on a government, fighting about language. And coming together when the next vermin tries to poke the lion. At which time, he will rear again and defeat you.


PS: I realize a Facebook post by Mr. Bart Schouppe was published a little before mine and went quite viral. I started working on this article a few days ago more in an attempt to explain the Muslim situation in Belgium. I would like to thank Mr. Schouppe for the inspiration and courage to publish his message.


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4 Responses to What happened in Belgium is complicated

  1. Blake says:

    Beautifully stated. I would add we are as out of place in Oak Lawn as Oak Cliff, Americans segregate far more strictly than Belgians.

  2. Josie Alexander/ Geessels says:

    As a new American I will never look down on my old country Belgium where I grew up, went to school and had my first boyfriend…..I go back every year and still miss the cozy streets, little cafe’s and oh so full of good food restaurants. I made friends for live in Belgium and miss them still every day.. I followed my American husband over here back in 2009 to be with his older folks, his daughter and his 2 granddaughters. After being in Germany , Korea and retirement in Belgium from 2000 till 2009 after my mother died, we decided it was time to come to this great country…. We have been married for 25 years now and we both still miss “my” little country of Belgium.
    Thank you so much Michael to share your input, We could not agree more ….

  3. Martine says:

    Very well said Mick! You are absolutely correct.

  4. I had never thought of Belgium and Belgians this way. So true, all of it. This tolerance is in my being. It is what made us Belgian. It is what will keep us from hating “them”. Because “them” are also “us” . Thank you for sharing this with us Michael.

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