Following the terrorist attacks in Paris in November 2015, the international spotlight has been on Belgium as an alleged breeding ground for radical Islam. The finger of blame was further pointed to the municipality of Sint-Jans-Molenbeek in Brussels, an area of varied class and rich cultural diversity, as a hub of radicalisation. Analysis of what is behind this finger pointing.

The Brussels municipality of Molenbeek-Saint-Jean has been caught up in a political and media storm since the terrorist attacks of 13th November in Paris. From the very next day, Molenbeek had been put on the map as a symbol of jihadism in Europe; several of the attackers lived in the municipality. Over the following days, we witnessed the sad spectacle of blame being passed around: France blamed the Belgian intelligence services; in an intervention by the Interior Minister, the Belgian federal government pointed the finger at lax political management by the Molenbeek local authorities. The upshot of all this was that a municipality and its inhabitants had to face being viewed by the world as a breeding ground for jihadist terrorism.

Molenbeek-Saint-Jean is a municipality in the heart of Brussels, with nearly 100,000 inhabitants. The topography of the area reflects local socio-economic division: on one hand, the “downtown” districts of the municipality were adversely affected by de-industrialisation and now face social problems, with a largely young population, comprising mostly Muslims of Moroccan immigrant descent; on the other hand, in the “uptown” section of the municipality, there are more affluent districts, populated mainly by older, middle-class people of purely Belgian origin. This socio-economic, cultural and religious division is not limited to Molenbeek; it cuts across the entire Brussels region, splitting various municipalities in the capital down the middle into prosperous “uptown” and poorer “downtown” areas.

In the downtown districts of Molenbeek, where a significant number of Muslim people from migrant backgrounds are concentrated, unemployment and poverty are pandemics. In the districts of “Maritime” and “Molenbeek Historique”, the unemployment rates are 35% and 41% respectively. The figures for youth unemployment are even more striking: 47% and 52%[1]. In the working class districts of Molenbeek, half of young people are unemployed. 40% of the children in Molenbeek live in a household with no wage-earners. These levels of poverty and unemployment, among the highest in Belgium, cannot, in isolation, give us a full understanding of the phenomenon of radicalisation in the municipality. However, this highly precarious situation does make for fertile ground. In this context, a swing to violent radicalism is more common; this swing takes the form of a break in terms of theology and identity, partly encouraged by a widespread feeling of stigmatisation, discrimination and Islamophobia (“the indignity factor“), and partly by the spectacle of the extreme suffering of the Syrian and Palestinian peoples, which has met with international inaction (“the indignation factor“). The conditions for a swing to jihadism are present among a minority of young people in Molenbeek, but not just there.

Belgium, an exporter of jihadists to Syria and Iraq

In Western Europe, France, Britain, Belgium and Germany alone have “exported” nearly 80% of EU jihadist combatants that have gone to Iraq and Syria. Belgium is the country with the highest number of citizens leaving as a proportion of its population. In October 2015, official figures stated that 470 individuals were involved or had been involved in travelling from Belgium to Syria or Iraq with a jihadist group. This statistic does not refer to the number of people actually “on the ground”, which would give a figure of around two hundred individuals. The official figures mention 118 returnees, and about fifty people who have died.

The municipality of Molenbeek is one departure point for Belgian nationals who went to Syria and Iraq, but it is neither the only one nor the most significant. The triangle of Antwerp, Mechelen and Vilvoorde has been the main point of departure. Within the Brussels region, Belgian nationals have also come from the municipalities of Bruxelles-Ville, Schaerbeek and Anderlecht; each of these municipalities includes working class districts dogged by unemployment and poverty, with a significant Muslim population of Moroccan immigrant descent. Wallonia has been relatively little affected.

Mosques as launch pads for jihadists?

There are 24 mosques in Molenbeek-Saint-Jean. This number shows the significance of the Muslim community, but above all it indicates the theological diversity and “ethno-national segmentation” of Muslims in Molenbeek. In the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks, unwise observers have alleged that imams and mosques are responsible for the phenomenon of radicalisation. Speaking in parliament, Prime Minister Charles Michel announced his government’s determination to “dismantle unrecognised places of worship that spread jihadism”. Was he talking about mosques? This is not clear. If so, he would be going against expert opinion.

If it is not now happening in mosques, this is primarily because they are places that are notoriously under surveillance by the intelligence services. As Younous Lamghari, a researcher at the Université Libre de Bruxelles explains[2], radicalisation takes place most often among people who have turned their backs on “institutional bodies spreading Islam”, such as mosques. Radicalisation now takes place in more informal spaces (neighbourhoods, prisons, sports clubs, circles of friends) or virtual spaces (social networks and websites). Olivier Roy, a French political scientist specialising in Islam, explains[3] that “jihadism is a nihilist and generational revolt”, and that in the vast majority of cases the profile that comes up is that of individuals with little religious culture who “islamise” radicalism rather than radicalising their Islam.

All too often in Belgium and France the word “community” is seen as a dirty word in political discourse. In their relations with members of the Muslim community, public authorities aim to act in a way that preserves the separation of church and state; specifically to resist the temptation to bring the Muslim faith into the political domain, like the Gallican Church, or create an exceptional system for it. From this perspective, Molenbeek, with its score of mosques and its rich and dynamic network of community organisations, offers potential for the authorities to capitalise on, not just to create solid social bulwarks against religious radicalism, but also to create the conditions for stronger co-existence and social cohesion. Molenbeek could be an important testing ground, a role model in the city of Brussels, where the multi-cultural challenge is a fundamental issue.

If mosques are not jihadist launch pads, where are young Muslims becoming radicalised and how?

The recipe for radicalisation: religion, identity, indignity and indignation

Each journey to radicalisation is unique, bringing together various factors in an original way.

In theological terms, radicalisation is characterised by adherence to a politicised and polarising religious belief; a religious interpretation that is hardline and above all combative. Radicalisation causes a split both with western society and with the majority Muslim community; hence the avoidance of mosques and the rejection of “their parents’ Islam”, which does not offer the radicalism that these young people are seeking. They look elsewhere to find this radicalism: among their immediate circle of friends and on the Internet.

In terms of identity, radicalism mostly involves young people with mixed backgrounds (foreign origin, converted to Islam, single-parent families) who find it difficult to reconcile their different sympathies. Piecing together an identity in this way can be painful, leaving people fragile and frustrated; a state of identity stress disorder makes people more receptive to radical discourses.

In socio-political terms, the ubiquity of Islam in the public debate gives rise to a deep feeling of injustice and anger. Direct or indirect experiences of discrimination, stigmatisation and rejection are a powerful catalyst for polarisation along the lines of “they don’t want us, they are against us“. Islamophobia, discrimination and stigmatisation make up the indignity factor for a significant number of young Muslims.

In geopolitical terms, international inaction in the face of the extreme suffering of the Syrian people is a powerful indignation factor for many young Muslims and non-Muslims. This indignation is all the more painful as it is coupled with a lack of understanding of the real facts of the conflicts in the Middle East. The difficulty in understanding the situation often encourages a simplified black-and-white interpretation with a tendency towards conspiracy theories. Violent videos exposing the atrocities of the conflict in Syria give the impression that the traditional media is not talking about what is really going on.

Religious radicalism does not mean violence

How do people mobilise to go to fight in Syria? Why is Molenbeek a hotbed of recruitment for aspiring jihadists?

It is clear that there is a significant “desire to go” in Molenbeek – that is to say, support for a hardline combative interpretation of Islam is certainly more widespread than elsewhere. However, this desire to fight could not materialise into concrete action without the effective “capacity to go” – that is to say all the practical resources that enable people to reach the theatre of operations. Why was there such a concentration of profiles from Molenbeek? One explanation relates to the dynamics of recruitment. They are highly personalised: “the existence of these hotbeds results from the personal nature of recruitment. Joining the Islamic State is not a rational act so much as an emotional one, and the involvement of family or a close acquaintance in the radicalization process is a frequent determinant of the outcome. Where one joins, another is more likely to follow. Areas where there are close-knit groups of susceptible youth, often lacking a sense of purpose or belonging outside their own circle, have proved to generate a momentum of recruitment that spreads through personal contacts from group to group[4]. This explanation fits with empirically observed facts: we have often seen entire groups of siblings or families leave together. The profile of the attackers in the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January 2015 (the Kouachi brothers) and then the Paris attacks in November 2015 (the Abdeslam brothers) show that recruitment is carried out among groups of friends, neighbours and acquaintances. We try to enlist the people who are closest to us. Bearing this in mind, perhaps the role of social media and the Internet as a catalyst to involvement is sometimes overestimated; in fact it just prepares the ground rather than actually convincing people to get involved – this stage is carried out in interpersonal relationships with close acquaintances (family, friends, neighbours). This recruitment dynamic among close acquaintances has also been observed in small municipalities in Norway such as Lisleby, or in Lunel in France.

A correct diagnosis does not guarantee good policy

The great majority of Salafists are non-politicised Quietists who condemn jihadism. Also, not all individuals who sympathise with the jihadist cause are violent. Including these important nuances can prevent diagnostic errors that could be fatal in the area of public policy. More generally, what explains the progression from sympathiser to violent activist? Intuitively, one would expect the progression to violence to be explained by stronger ideological support; this would mean that whether a jihadist sympathiser reaches the stage of violent involvement or not would be determined by his level of conviction and support for the plans of IS or the al-Nusra Front.

In a study entitled “Qui sont ces Belges partis combattre en Syrie?[5] (Who are the Belgians who have gone to fight in Syria?), published in May 2014 by Etopia[6], we propose an alternative hypothesis. In our opinion, the progression to violent action can be explained by the question of family obligations: the more family responsibility a militant has, the less tempted he will be to get involved in political violence. The majority of those who would choose to join the armed struggle are therefore those with the least family responsibilities. In this sense, they act as a disincentive for militants who might become involved in violent action. This hypothesis notably explains the young age of the majority of the prospective jihadists: the younger you are, the less likely you are to have family responsibilities.

This helps us to understand how the indirect link between the experience of unemployment and social exclusion can have an impact on paths to radicalisation. Not having a job stops many young people in Molenbeek and elsewhere from entering the active life that would enable them to take on family responsibilities. For young people with a traditional frame of reference and value system, having a job is the vital gateway to getting married and building a family.

It is also clear that the public response should partly involve reducing the level of radicalisation by controlling the indignity factor of Islamophobia and discrimination and changing our policy in the Middle East to control the indignation factor. It should also involve reducing the propensity to jihadist violence by removing the obstacles that are currently preventing young people from entering active life. That is to say, active measures should be taken to fight unemployment and the causes of unemployment: discrimination in recruitment, the lack of professional training and pupils dropping out of school.

The only realistic approach now is to invest at least as much in social cohesion and equal opportunities as we do in our security apparatus.



[1] Statistics by district

[2] Younous Lamghari, “(De Zemmour à Charlie) Jeunes : comment ils se radicalisent”, in Politique. Revue de débats, no. 89, March-April 2015, Brussels, [online]

[3] Mohssin El Ghabri, Soufian Gharbaoui, Qui sont ces Belges partis combattre en Syrie ?, Etopia, Namur, 2014, [online]

[4] The Soufan Group, Foreign Fighters in Syria and Iraq, December 2015, p. 6-7

[5] Mohssin El Ghabri, Soufian Gharbaoui, Qui sont ces Belges partis combattre en Syrie ?, Etopia, Namur, 2014, [online]

[6] Etopia is the Belgian French-speaking Green foundation

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