“It happened.” That was how many Brussels residents felt when terrorist attacks struck on March 22. After all, they had been mentally preparing for such a blow for months.
The government had already locked down the city in November 2015, declaring it under “imminent” threat. This halted all life for four long days — a life-size test of the state of exception. Since then soldiers colonized the streets of the Belgian capital and other major cities like Antwerp.
Brussels was a likely target. After all, Belgium played an important role in the lives of the organizers and suspected organizers of recent European attacks. The Brussels attacks were perfectly timed. Just a few days earlier, Salah Abdeslam — one of the main suspects in the Paris attacks — was arrested. Liberal prime minister Charles Michel and the interior minister Jan Jambon (a member of N-VA, the Flemish nationalist party) gloried in the arrest, taking a selfie showing themselves with a group of soldiers.
If any proof was needed that the “anti-terrorist” strategy the Belgian government pursued would surely end in failure, March 22 provided tragic evidence. The soldiers at the Zaventem Airport and in the metro could do nothing to stop the jihadists. The show of security orchestrated by the liberal-nationalist coalition resulted in a dramatic fiasco.
The Social Context of Belgian Terror
ISIS chose to strike the airport and metro system. The economic impact of closing Zaventem Airport and the psychological effect of a metro explosion in the heart of a European city — combined with Brussels’s status as the European capital and center of multiculturalism — made it a perfect location for ISIS to strike.
Belgium has also participated in the international coalition against ISIS in Iraq. And it has been the European nation with the highest number of its residents — relative to population —traveling to Syria to fight. More than five hundred Belgians have joined either ISIS or Al Nusra.
Of course these Belgians, like other foreign fighters in Syria, are motivated by multiple and complex reasons. For one, Belgium provides fertile ground for the growth of sectarian gangs. The physical proximity of wealthy and poor and of white and minority neighborhoods is much smaller in Brussels than it is in the major French cities.
As a result, the city does not experience the same geographical concentration of oppression as the French banlieues. But the descendants of Moroccan and Turkish immigrants — who arrived in the 1960s in response to the Belgian capital’s need for a workforce and from whom the greater part of the country’s seven hundred thousand Muslims trace their roots — do suffer racist and Islamophobic discrimination.
Brussels itself is especially susceptible to the development of reactionary forces. Belgium’s most multicultural city, it is at the same time the country’s economic lung and poor child. The numbers are telling: one-fifth of the Brussels region’s inhabitants are jobless, while the official rate for Belgium as a whole is 8.5 percent. One in three Brussels residents live under the poverty line.
In some of the working-class districts of Brussels’s poor crescent — comprising the municipal areas of Bruxelles-ville, Schaerbeek, Saint-Josse, Anderlecht, Saint-Gilles, and Molenbeek — the youth unemployment rate exceeds 50 percent, even though Belgo-Moroccans today have relatively more qualifications than other groups of workers. Despite this, a young Belgo-Moroccan or Belgo-Congolese worker is three times less likely to find a job than a young person of Belgian origin.
The alienation of Belgians with Muslim backgrounds runs even deeper. Social selection rages in an educational system that works like a market, and in which Catholic schools — state-funded and privately run — comprise half of the country’s total.
The importance of this Catholic pillar of Belgian society manifests itself each year on the national holiday, when the prime minister attends the Catholic Te Deum ceremony with the king. It provokes little outrage, making the goals of politicians and columnists who applaud laïcité — French state secularism — and rally against the hijab obvious. They want to stigmatize Muslims.
Almost no schools still allow students to wear headscarves, and the niqab has been banned in public — first in the city of Molenbeek, whose government was at that time led by the Socialist Party.
The tensions are impossible to ignore. Unlike Paris and other major French cities where the popular classes are relegated to the periphery, in Brussels the working-class districts make up the heart of the city: it is only ten minutes’ walk from Molenbeek to the hipsters of the Dansaert district in the center of the capital. Poor youth in Belgium complain about police harassment and it is clear that verbal and physical violence against immigrants has spiked in recent years.
In such a context, it is hardly surprising that fundamentalist far right forces have managed to recruit so many people.
Although the media tends to focus on Molenbeek, many other cities are also affected by this trend. In fact the N-VA’s Flemish fiefdom Antwerp exports the most Belgian ISIS combatants. In January 2015, a terrorist cell was discovered in Verviers. And a number of other localities — both within and outside Brussels — have appeared in different investigations.
Belgium’s relationship to jihadism isn’t limited to action in Syria. The organizers of other European attacks have lived in or passed through Belgium, like Mehdi Nemmouche — who attacked the Brussels Jewish Museum — or Amedy Coulibaly — who bought weapons in Belgium before going to carry out attacks against the Paris Hyper Cacher kosher supermarket last January. Two of the authors of the November Paris attacks also lived in the Brussels region.
This phenomenon does not have one obvious cause. In the context described, it is generally not religion that motivates people to head off to join organizations like ISIS and enter into action. No typical social or religious profile can describe those who have perpetrated attacks in Europe: Abdelhamid Abaaoud, one of the presumed organizers of the Paris attacks, studied at the prestigious Collège Saint-Pierre d’Uccle and did not attend mosque.
Many of these young men are steeped in an identity crisis; some seek glory and a cause to stand for; others seek redemption or a kind of “release.” They are mainly recruited online — thanks to a well-established propaganda operation — or in the streets. Those taken into Belgium’s or France’s inhuman jail system — where most prisoners come from postcolonial and immigrant backgrounds — are easily targeted for recruitment to fundamentalist circles.
ISIS’s propaganda is without a doubt fed by structural racism in European societies, combined with the imperialist wars waged by the United States and its European allies — and more recently Russia — in the Middle East.
A policy of youth prevention, care, and cultural exchange in partnership with local communities would clearly help, and it would stand in stark contrast to the repressive policies that have been in place for years.
In the long term, anticapitalist forces must play a leading role creating these programs, both as agents of resistance and as representatives of the radical perspective of another mode of society. But in the short term we must at the very least correctly response to today’s tense environment.
Policing the Left Alternative
The Brussels attacks have not benefited the government and reactionary forces in Belgium as much as they would have hoped. But nor have they helped the workers’ movement and the Left. The political advantage that could be gained from the attacks was already wasted by the government after the Paris attacks, when it finally made the dream of mobilizing the army in the streets — part of the N-VA program — a reality.
The earlier attacks also diverted attention from the liberal-nationalist coalition’s austerity policies and handed a gold-plated excuse to the most collaborationist wing of the trade union bureaucracy, which stopped its actions against the government.
They also gave the Belgian far right more leeway to promote racist and provocative discourse. Most of this has come from the N-VA: party president Bart de Wever said that he felt “hatred [toward Belgian Muslims], because these people are still receiving support from their community.”
Interior Minister Jambon has multiplied his incendiary statements, first by comparing fleeing jihadists to the Jews who took to hiding during World War II, and then by claiming that a significant proportion of Belgium’s Muslims “danced” in celebration of the attacks. He even went as far to say that the terrorists “are but a pimple. Beneath that we find a cancer that’s much more difficult to treat,” using dog-whistle vocabulary to appeal to and inflame xenophobic Belgians.
Jambon’s fantasy that Belgian Muslims applauded the attacks sparked a wave of scandalized reactions from antiracist groups and among the parliamentary opposition. But the social-democratic authorities have otherwise fallen in line with the right-wing government’s repressive behavior.
On March 27 — just a few days after the Brussels attacks — the mayor and interior minister banned a march “against fear and for living together” that was set to take place outside the Bourse. Although the organizers — who were not left-wing militants — agreed to postpone the rally, many people nonetheless assembled that day. They found themselves nose-to-nose with hooligans and far-right militants whose march proceeded under police escort, without having had to seek authorization.
The same police who protected the fascists violently repressed those who came to stand against Islamophobia and in homage to the attack’s victims. The president of the Ligue des Droits de l’Homme [Human Rights League] was even arrested “to set an example,” as police commissioner Pierre Vandersmissen put it.
The political goal of this maneuver was to change the symbolic meaning of the Bourse, replacing solidarity and earnest mourning with racism and jingoistic Islamophobia. And the parliamentary parties — even those nominally in opposition to the nationalist-liberal government — all fell in line. The social democrats in Brussels and Vilvorde followed the course set by Jambon and Vandersmissen — whose authoritarian sympathies and violent tactics against left-wing demonstrators are well-known.
The N-VA, which is slowly but continually losing ground to the neo-fascist Vlaams Belang party in Flanders, took this opportunity to shore up its right flank, refusing to join the other parliamentary parties in condemning the hooligans’ assault on the pro-tolerance march.
Within the week, the “strong state” had again cast its shadow over Brussels, just as it had during November’s “level 4 alert” and lockdown. The metro in the capital ran only half-service; the government authorized police searches at all hours; and an additional two hundred soldiers were deployed on the streets of Brussels. Demonstrations across the whole of Bruxelles-Capitale’s territory were banned over the weekend, but shopping on its main commercial arteries, naturally, went on unhindered.
The message was clear: the authorities wanted to suffocate any chance the Left had of politicizing the attacks, opening space for the far right to control the narrative.
While the far right is heavily divided and marginal in the south of the country, its various formations total over 10 percent of the vote there. It also has a strong presence in Flanders. There racism has so contaminated political and social life that the far right has become almost hegemonic.
As it makes electoral headway, the N-VA has poached dozens of local elected representatives and militants from the Vlaams Belang. But that far-right party doesn’t seem content to govern by proxy. After a year and a half of wear and tear for the N-VA in government, the Vlaams Belang is gaining in the polls.
It also runs the Islamophobic movement “Pegida Flanders,” inspired by the German movement and in collaboration with other small fascist groups. The jingoistic attempt hasn’t enjoyed much success: its rallies brought together at most several hundred people and there were always three or four times more counter-demonstrators.
The far right’s prospects thus depend on neutering the left social movements’ reaction to the attacks, continuing structural discrimination, and — their real breakthrough — maintaining the army’s presence in the streets.
The Government Response
The government has been roundly criticized for its actions leading up to and following the attacks. Certainly, the fact that the November lockdown and the massive military presence could not stop the massacre was met with incomprehension. Justice Minister Koen Geens (a member of the Flemish Christian-Democrats) and Interior Minister Jambon have both been attacked for how they handled investigations, their failure to close the metro after the explosion at the airport, and their unresponsiveness to important intelligence about one of the suicide bombers.
Michel rejected their resignations in a staged drama designed to give cover to his government. But he didn’t spare liberal transport minister Jacqueline Galant, who resigned for her failure to take airport security warnings seriously and who was already facing strong opposition thanks to her proposed railway budget cuts.
A commission of inquiry was launched, but the only radical left force parliamentary party — the Workers’ Party of Belgium (PTB) — was excluded.
Less than a month later, the Michel government had to resume its budget control measures in the middle of the Panama Papers affair, unleashing a series of far-reaching labor deregulation measures, including the end of the thirty-eight-hour work week and the eight-hour day by way of a shift to defining work hours on an annual basis.
Kris Peeters, the Christian Democrat minister of employment, also wants to allow a hundred overtime hours a year without additional compensation, and to reduce the time limit for notifying workers of their next shift to twenty-four hours. Many also predict that the government will attack state employees’ pensions and long-term sick pay.
A Labor Movement in Disarray
In fall 2014, the two main union confederations — the socialist General Federation of Belgian Labor (FGTB) and the Confederation of Christian Trade Unions (CSC) — developed a credible plan of action to fight the first austerity measures and counter-reforms made by the current coalition government.
A wave of demonstrations and strikes culminated in a tremendously successful cross-sectoral national strike day in December 2014. But leadership stopped the movement in the name of “social concertation,” a system that relies on negotiations between unions and bosses — rather than direct action — to determine labor rights and social security.
In 2015, it became obvious that this so-called concertation would allow the government to go ahead with its plans, and the trade union movement lost momentum. Narrower and more dispersed actions without any overall perspective took over from the previous year’s escalation campaign.
The Paris attacks had effectively shifted focus away from labor struggles, and the events in March only made this situation worse. The FGTB failed to denounce the police’s violent repression of the Left at the Brussels Bourse or its complicity with the far right, even though union activists made up part of the hundred-odd arrests.
Worse still, the Brussels FGTB depoliticized the traditional May Day gathering. The space usually dedicated to left formations outside the social-democratic movement was replaced with a concert stage and beer tent.
But people’s anger over the government’s plans is mounting, even as the right way to struggle — as well as the objectives of that social resistance — is still unclear. Both the reawakening of French social movements and the Panama Papers have raised more combative union militants’ hopes. Indeed, in April, Belgium saw a spontaneous air-traffic controller strike; steelworkers kidnapped their bosses to force wage payment; prison guards started a long and hard stop-work protest against planned cuts and layoffs; and a few Nuit Debout camps appeared across the country.
The union leaderships also relaunched their action plan: some state employees walked off the job at the end of April, an action that culminated in a national demonstration on May 24 with over sixty thousand workers participating. Only two months after the attacks and the violent repression of the tolerance march, the Belgian labor movement should consider this action a success.
The new plan was created both because of the spontaneous strikes and because of the governments’ new provocations. But unlike the 2014 plan, this one is weaker, and its planned disruptions too infrequent to have the slightest chance of defeating the government. Further, it ignores the real dynamics that began in April and reached a new level when the railway workers started a ten-day strike in May.
Another challenge — for both union leadership and militants — is that these strikes enjoy much less support and participation in Flanders than in Brussels and Wallonia. This historical division of the Belgian workers’ movement along linguistic lines now poses a real threat for the future. Unfortunately, the entrenched union bureaucracies only reinforce it.
The Left in Times of Terror
The main force of Belgium’s radical left, the Workers’ Party of Belgium — with ten thousand members and national and regional MPs — found itself well-positioned after the attacks. It has implanted itself in many working-class neighborhoods in Brussels and Antwerp, which have a large Muslim-background population. It also has a strong presence in certain trade unions, and a positive relationship with a number of social movements like Hart Boven Hard and Tout Autre Chose.
Spokesman Raoul Hedebouw is well-liked in the south of the country, particularly on account of his denunciation of austerity and tax injustice, the seriousness of which was underlined by the Panama Papers.
Nonetheless, like other left forces in Europe, the PTB is ill-at-ease when faced with the question of terrorism. Its MPs abstained on the July 2015 bill to strip people of their nationality, although they issued a public apology six months later for their lack of direct opposition to the measure. Their actions when the government devoted an extra €400 million to the anti-terrorism budget also sent mixed messages.
Similarly, its appeals to combat hatred and division have often turned into a discourse of “national unity,” and its public narrative around racism does not go beyond decrying the “division” it creates among workers.
The PTB claims to follow a pragmatic approach and has focused its critiques on how ineffective the government’s anti-terrorism measures are, instead calling for a so-called targeted approach. But social movements and the forces of the radical left have every interest in naming and specifically fighting the dangers that the strong state, national unity, and rampant Islamophobia pose to all democratic and social rights.
The radical left uniformly rejects Belgium’s participation in the coalition airstrikes in Iraq and Syria and its multi-billion-euro purchase of fighter planes. However, the PTB combines this with a worldview that is too uncritical of the Assad regime and the role of Iran and Russia in the region.
This is not without consequence: by supporting Assad as a lesser evil fighting ISIS, the democratic parts of the Syrian opposition are erased. As is the root of the Islamist counterrevolution, which is the product of both imperialism and a brutal local dictatorship.
Above all, the PTB ignores the fact that pro-Assad forces are responsible for the vast majority of civilian deaths in Syria, deploying an array of methods just as abominable as those that have made ISIS so infamous. The mainstream narrative surrounding the Paris and Brussels attacks proclaimed that the few hundred terrible deaths in Europe matter more than those of hundreds of thousands of Syrian (and Iraqi) civilians — most of them Sunni Arabs. By refusing to seriously account for the forces behind those deaths, the Left has acted similarly.
Probably the global left’s worst mistake since the turn of the century has been to refuse any consistent solidarity with the Syrian rebels. During March’s partial truce, the Syrians resumed their daily demonstrations attacking Assad as well as ISIS and Al Nusra. Now the situation has deteriorated even further. Only popular resistance can deny ISIS its popular base and territory in any lasting manner.
Here, just as over there, terrorist attacks serve the mutual interests of the neoliberal police state and reactionary forces, and create the possibility of paralysis that would deny all hope to social struggles.
Perhaps it is still not too late to radically change direction. If popular movements and the forces of the radical left pick up the red thread of internationalism, they can offer sense and perspective to the anger and disorientation mounting in the degenerating capitalist world.
The Left must fight against the state’s repressive forces, take back the streets in resistance to austerity and all forms of racism, and show real solidarity with global popular movements. If we don’t, the combined forces of neoliberalism and terrorism will continue to repress political and social life, not just in Syria or Belgium, but all over the world.