By Paul F. State
The horrific attacks in Brussels on March 22 constitute an assault on the core values – open borders, free movement of people and goods, democratic consensus-building – that have shaped the drive for European unity. Because they targeted Brussels, the terrorists struck at the very heart of these European ideals, as Brussels is the capital of the European Union, the institutional embodiment of European integration.
A city no bigger in size than Buffalo, Brussels is at once cosmopolitan and parochial. The host city of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, it houses a bewildering array of regional and nongovernmental organizations, think tanks and multinational entities.
At the same time, as the capital of a country riven by language divisions, it serves as the focal point, and sometimes the flash point, of contentious, often trivial, linguistic issues. Belgium is a small nation of 11 million inhabitants. About 60 percent speak Flemish, a variant of Dutch, and 40 percent speak French. By necessity, compromise is a way of life in Belgium, and the Belgians have refined the concept into a fine art.
Despite their differences, however, the Flemish and French speakers share a common cultural heritage rooted in the Judeo-Christian values of Western civilization. Not so the many thousands of Muslims who live in Belgium today. Beginning in the 1960s, immigrants from Turkey and North Africa began to arrive, eager to work at menial jobs unwanted by the native residents caught up in a booming post-World War II economy. They formed distinct ethnic enclaves, separate from and largely alien to the wider society. And so they have remained. Visitors from abroad who walk the streets of Molenbeek, the district of Brussels from which many of the terrorists have come, can feel somewhat discomfited by the sights and sounds of a place where the inhabitants dress and speak differently from what one expects to see and hear in Europe.
Unlike in the United States, where ethnic markers can thrive at the same time that assimilation proceeds within the broader society, modern Europe has no such history of accommodating newcomers. Isolated, feeling unwelcome and perceiving little hope of social acceptance, the young, in particular, are ripe for radicalization. It will take time and a willingness on the part of both minority and majority communities to break down the barriers between them for progress to be made.
European political and economic integration has proved easier to achieve than social and cultural integration. Until – or unless – Belgians and, by extension, Europeans in general are able to more fully integrate those who, living among them, remain apart, the efforts to eradicate terrorism will prove immensely more challenging.
Paul F. State of Buffalo has lived in Brussels. A translator of French and Dutch, he is the author of “Historical Dictionary of Brussels.”