Words By: Naseem Tarawnah
Between the persistent rain and grey skies, Brussels is a gloomy place to be this week. Belgian military roams the streets in pairs, their camouflaged uniforms contrasting the tidy blue of the Capital’s police. On Friday night, the streets are filled with fervent conversations. The smell of Belgian beer permeates through cobblestone alleyways where cigarette smoke coalesces with the raw, biting cold. Young crowds gather sporadically, singing Les Miserable in the rain, waving black flags that read “No Fear!” in painted white. It’s much past midnight when the city’s threat level moves from yellow to red, and security forces shut down the metro stations.
This morning, the streets feel relatively vacant of people aside from random tourists snapping photos. Their backdrop is one of armored military vehicles and a palpable swell of uniforms, standing guard outside shopping centers, some with their metallic security facades half-open, unsure of whether to remain open or not. Tourists walk by unsure of whether to enter or not.
Four policemen stop a random black man; his hands placed firmly on a wall – legs spread, as they search him in the pouring rain before letting him go on his way. People shuffle past, avoiding eye contact and the heavy gaze of suspicion that seems to gravitate towards those of darker complexions. The metro is closed, and plastic wheels of suitcases rattle across wet cobblestone, as travelers walk towards the Gare Centraal station to catch a train out of the city.
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The scene is a stark contrast to when I arrived earlier this week, a few short days after the Paris attacks. Despite a scattering of military, the security presence was surprisingly underwhelming in Europe’s Capital. But about 5km beyond its tourist traps home to bustling crowds of Christmas shoppers that roamed freely all week long, lies the neighborhood of Molenbeek-Saint-Jean – a poverty pocket home to a significant Muslim and refugee community. It is from there – and beyond – that a massive manhunt continues as I write these words.
“These are madmen,” a Moroccan cook tells me at a Donner restaurant. “I’ve been here for 13 years and they’re going to ruin it for all of us,” he says, making a circular gesture with his finger to include his fellow workers – all Moroccan. One of them, apparently a resident of Molenbeek chimes in. “What they say about that place is – exagération.” Two soldiers stroll past the storefront, and everyone grows silent.
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Earlier this week, at the buildings of the European Commission and European Parliament that call Brussels home, security was just pronounced – metal detectors and x-ray machines in full effect amidst a swarm of G4S security guards. A badge must be worn at all times as you move through the labyrinth of glass, metal and ambiguous art that hangs from the walls. And between those walls, all anyone can seem to talk about is Daesh.
Representing 28 nations, the European Parliament is a body with no standing military, so instead, it stands idly by as one of its key members sends its military to bomb Daesh in Raqaa. While back home, digital conversations have centered on comparing body counts and media biases, the Europeans are scrambling to formulate a strategy. Some members are incredibly aware that France’s knee-jerk reaction will have ramifications, but feel an obligation to stand by her as she defends “European values.”
Javier Nart, a Spanish member of the committee on Foreign Affairs, and subcommittee on Security and Defense, is ardent in his rhetoric. Having spent years on the frontlines of the region’s numerous conflicts, Nart says there’s an overwhelming atmosphere of confusion.
“The main problem with the EU parliament is that it’s an ocean of words, but a small river of facts,” he tells a small room of journalists from the region. He believes that an effective military strike could wipe out Daesh within five years or so, but like many European officials, he defines security and stability in broader terms, recognizing the need to look beyond warfare and into the root causes that kindle the twisted ideology.
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“We haven’t been dealing with ISIS, we’ve been ‘managing’ them,” says Nart about Europe’s handling of Daesh in the past two years. He’s fought for legislation that criminalizes anyone trading with the terrorist organization, but when it comes to its implementation he tells us no country has been held accountable. There’s been an absence of political will, he tells us. But now, French citizens have been killed, and that has made all the difference.
“We needed European people to be killed,” he says with a glum face. The sense that this was Europe’s 9/11 isn’t just evident – it’s unmistakable.
“The truth is, in the Muslim world, there’s a ‘Paris’ everyday,” said representative Afzal Khan, Vice-Chair of the subcommittee on Security and Defense. “They suffer the most, and they need to stand up, stiffen their backs and fight this.”
I’ve heard this rhetoric so many times since long before Daesh, but for the life of me, I can’t seem to envision what it means for a population to ‘fight’ the fanatics amongst them; what that looks like. For sure, there is a responsibility and burden on our shoulders, but the fight seems to be entrenched in the values of our crumbling education systems or overcrowded prisons. How does a community that lives in fear ‘stiffen their backs’ to fight this?
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In a series of marathon meetings, most of the Parliament members I meet in Brussels this past week are not particularly conservatives or even hawkish, but see an immediate need to deal with Daesh using military might before tackling the other dimensions and layers that need addressing. For some, the question of Palestinian statehood needs to be resolved, as do the wide variety of injustices that dominate the region need to be addressed – corruption, poverty, education, political representation.
But for others, Daesh isn’t at the top of the hit list. That prominent spot is reserved for Bashar Al-Assad.
“Assad’s threat is seen [in the EU] as ‘contained’ – affecting only Syrians – while ISIS is spreading out, globally. Removing them [Daesh] will just create room for another entity to move in,” Khan says. Another official sums up the current European political attitude towards Assad with that famous Roosevelt quote about Nicaraguan dictator, Somoza Garcia.
“I know he’s a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.”
In all these meetings and interviews (most of which are adamantly off-the-record) European officials are scrambling to understand what comes next. This is the general mood. Overwhelmed with security threats, an ongoing refugee influx, and the eruption of anxious questions from an equally confused, and relatively frightened public, it’s been an uncompromising week for a body struggling to put its 28 members on the same page.
For the European Commission counter-terrorism division, the strategy feels tepid. The definition of terrorism seems centered around a vague “we know it when we see it” policy, rather than a clear understanding of its characteristics and root causes. This knowledge gap is particularly worrisome in the midst of France’s military operations – a sense that a geographical location is being bombed with no clear comprehension what that will mean, what the long game is, and whether that will even solve the problem. To their credit, it’s a shortcoming they’re well aware of given their investments in researching the topic.
But for now, the continent is torn between the political necessity of French retribution in the Middle East, and security at home. The former is reactionary, while the latter feels all too real today.