MOLENBEEK, Belgium — “Here we go again. All Muslims are going to be blamed for what happened in Brussels this week,” says a young man selling nougat in the street who would only give his name as Mohammed.
“Life will get even worse for us here because we live in what is claimed to be the centre of global terrorism. If you have a beard like me, they look at you in a queer way. I was born and raised here, and so was my wife. But there is so much racism and discrimination. If it gets worse we will return to our homeland, Morocco.”
For Reiner Regensberg, the terror attacks had forced him to ask hard questions about his family’s future. His son and daughter “want out,” and were thinking about studying in Canada.
“Why stay here?” the mining executive asked. “There are schools in this city where there are no Belgian students. In those schools that are mixed there are serious tensions.”
A grim, despairing mood was to be found on both sides of the religious and cultural divide Wednesday as Muslims braced for more heavy criticism from what French-Canadians might call “old stock” Belgians.
Attending a peace rally downtown, Michael Borman said he felt for Muslims who had all fallen under suspicion of sheltering terrorists. “We are being torn apart over this,” he said
Similar feelings were expressed in the predominately Muslim district of Molenbeek after last November’s terror attacks on Paris were quickly linked to Belgian Muslims, mostly of Moroccan origin.
If anything, the sense of bewilderment and doubts about Belgium’s future are stronger now.
The gloom has been fed by the shared realization of Christian and Muslim Belgians that the security and intelligence authorities have been flying blind. They have made little progress identifying or understanding those who direct or carry out terrorist attacks that have paralyzed parts of Brussels and put people on edge everywhere, from the European Union’s glassy headquarters to the heavily fortified NATO complex near the airport.
“We are a people who are being destroyed from inside,” Regensberg said. “Even Muslims who have never been to Syria are being brainwashed in Belgium.”
It was a sentiment Mohammed, the confection seller, agreed with. “Since I became religious when I was 19 years old, I have become calmer and more respectful of everyone, but there are people who live here who have misunderstood the message of Islam,” he said. “It’s mixed their brains up and they do terrible things.”
Walking the streets of Molenbeek “the day after the shock,” as a Belgian television anchor described it, can be a bizarre experience.
The architecture, from the buildings’ facades to the cobblestones, is very turn of the 20th century European. But aside from journalists — and there were a lot of them around — almost everyone in the centre of Molenbeek was Arab.
The streets have the feel of a Middle Eastern souk or bazaar. Many residents, both men and women, wear conservative Islamic clothing. The butchers and the pokey restaurants offer halal meat.
In quite a few places there is not even the pretence of putting up signs in French or Flemish. Everything is in Arabic script, which helps explain why many Bruxellois do not feel comfortable going there.
“We do not merit the ugly reputation we have,” said Mohammed Trafant, a Berber from Morocco who grew up in Brussels. But he acknowledged he had trouble defending his community’s ambivalent reaction to terrorism.
“It’s true that there have been no big demonstrations against these acts of violence but most of us condemn them,” he said, adding not much attention had been paid to the fact this week’s bombings “killed innocent Muslims, too.”
For his part, Regensberg reserved his strongest criticism for police.
“They are always way behind the events,” he said, citing the fact Salah Abdeslam, the sole survivor of the Paris attacks, was finally captured last week only 500 metres from the apartment where he grew up.
“It is clear that a lot of people helped Abdeslam, but the police could never find out who they were or where they were,” said Regensberg, blaming his countrymen for their “laxism.”
“We are such a free country with everyone left alone to do what they want,” he said. “When Salafis (Sunni extremists) spoke freely in the streets about terrorism, it required radical measures but absolutely nothing was done.”
For Patrick, an electronics salesman who would not reveal his family name because he said this might harm his business with Muslims, the trouble began when the European Union relaxed border controls.
“I’ve said for 30 years that our borders should only be opened a little because otherwise we cannot pay close enough attention to not only those who come here but those who enter through other countries. This terrorism is troubling us deeply.”
Not that Patrick knows many Muslims because “I don’t very often frequent the places they go.”
But he added people should know that those arriving from the Middle East “have lived in hell there. It’s still not hell here yet but we’ve been getting a taste of what it is like and we don’t like it.”