I have lived in Brussels for 21 years but never considered this city as my home -- until Donald Trump insulted it.
By describing Brussels as a “hellhole” because of its sizeable Muslim population, Trump was attacking my friends and neighbors. Trump was attacking people like the cheerful Syrian I see almost every day; his daughter is in the same class as mine.
As it happens, my Syrian acquaintance was the last person I saw as I left the school on Tuesday morning. A short while later, I received a text message from my wife, telling me about the explosions. She had made it safely to work, thank God. On the way, she had traveled through Maalbeek metro station, just minutes before a bomb went off there.
We don’t yet know the identities of all the people killed. We do know, however, that they belonged to a mixture of ethnicities and nationalities. They spoke different languages. Some were probably religious, others not.
In short, they represented the thing that I like most about my adopted home: its multiculturalism.
Donald Trump’s first reaction to the attacks was to claim vindication for his “hellhole” comments. Once again, he was displaying his bigotry. The wannabe president will use any opportunity to whip up fear.
It shouldn’t be necessary to spell this out but I will. Muslims in Brussels contribute massively to the city’s multicultural spirit. They help to make Brussels vibrant and convivial, the very antithesis of a hellhole. The men who carried out this week’s attacks did not enjoy any mandate from their community. Insisting, as bigots do, that Muslims prove their abhorrence for these crimes is profoundly ignorant.
Unfortunately, the Muslim community is suffering because of that ignorance. When it emerged that the Paris attacks last November had been planned in Brussels, large numbers of police and soldiers were deployed on the streets of this city. I have witnessed incidents where young men have been harassed by the police in recent months. There was no indication that the young men were doing anything illegal. As far as I could see, they were hassled solely for being Muslim.
The usual response to these kind of atrocities is that think tanks publish pamphlets about how to deal with “radicalization.” The think tank analysts rarely grapple with the causes of terror or seek to understand it (and, as Frank Barat writes in a new essay, understanding is never the same as condoning). Accepting that imperialism might be at fault is something of a taboo for such analysts, many of whom have their “research” funded by corporations and Western governments.
Right to anger
The residents of Brussels have every right to be angry about what has happened this week. We should certainly demand that the authorities do everything they can to apprehend the suspects. But we should not accept that Muslims may be bullied and stigmatized.
Let’s direct our anger at the small number of people who have set the Middle East ablaze. The terror of Islamic State is a direct consequence of war declared against Iraq in 2003. If it wasn’t for that illegal invasion, there would not have been an attack on Brussels on Tuesday, or Istanbul on Saturday or Baghdad last month.
Two men were ultimately responsible for the invasion and destruction of Iraq: George W. Bush, then the US president, and Tony Blair, then the British prime minister. Why are they still at large?
Most of the messages sent to the people of Brussels this week were heartfelt and appreciated. A few, however, were cynical. One was contemptible; it came from Israel.
The Israeli government claimed it “stands with Brussels.” As a resident of Brussels, I refuse that solidarity.
Ofir Akunis, the Israeli science minister, tried to play politics. He suggested the attacks occurred because, rather than fighting terrorism, Europe was too busy placing labels on goods from Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank.
His comments are too inane to merit a detailed rebuttal. And besides, the labeling idea is an initiative taken by the political elite. Many ordinary Europeans have gone beyond demanding labels: they are too busy boycotting all Israeli goods and campaigning against companies who seek to profit from the occupation.
We shall remain busy. The most fitting tribute to victims of violence is to tackle its root causes. That means fighting imperialism, bigotry and inequality. It means defending multiculturalism, a beautiful idea that Israel has rejected.
·First published by The Electronic Intifada, 23 March 2016.