Last November, as bodies lay in Parisian morgues following the worst attack on French soil since WWII, Brussels, the capital of Belgium, was put on security lockdown amid imminent threats of cross-border attacks. A Belgian national, Salah Abdeslam, was on the run from authorities, his image plastered on media outlets for his alleged involvement in the Paris murders.
The lockdown rendered the bustling heart of the European Union into a quiet city, its lively citizens replaced with armed military and police. This sobering moment of isolation for Brussels’ residents revealed a crisis in a country that has contributed the most European fighters per capita to Iraq and Syria. Belgians, meanwhile, shared cat memes, spoofing #BrusselsLockdown and deflecting the uncomfortable severity of the situation with comic relief.
Two weeks ago, we learned that after nearly five months on the run, Abdeslam was found not in distant Syria but rather at an apartment only minutes from his mother’s house in the Muslim neighborhood of Molenbeek. Some residents were actually angry at Abdeslam’s arrest and a number of youth reportedly threw projectiles at police.
“We got him,” Theo Francken, the Belgian secretary of state for asylum and migration, wrote in a tweet. Despite the intensity of the manhunt that lasted months, police from another Belgian city have subsequently admitted they had intelligence about Abdeslam’s address last year but failed to pass it on. Four days after the arrest, Belgium was ripped apart by bombings that killed residents and guests of the city.
Politico released a damning report revealing that authorities only questioned Abdeslam for a mere hour in the days leading up to the attacks. A community’s collective shield can hide even the most notorious fugitive from the prying eyes of the world, and a society’s blinders can further keep us from confronting the most difficult of problems.
The crisis in Brussels underscores our difficulty in honestly confronting the threat of political Islam, or Islamism, to pluralistic societies and the people who live in them. Islamists are people who want a public political order centered on an interpretation of Islam. They seek to achieve this goal either through violent or nonviolent means.
Islamism is a 20th century theo-political movement that draws from interpretations of Islamic tradition and scripture, yet remains distinct from the religion of Islam. In some Muslim-majority societies today, aspects of Islamism are merged in the institutionalized interpretation of Islam. Saudi Arabia and Qatar are prime examples of this, with their ultra-conservative and politicized version of Islam, called Wahhabism or Salafism.
The world’s first Islamic democracy, Pakistan, adopted an Islamist legal framework under the military government of General Zia-ul Haq in the ’80s. Pakistan has some of the most draconian blasphemy laws, used to prosecute dissidents and religious minorities. Civil society groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and its various derivatives around the world also adhere to a similar, albeit milder, ideology.
Brussels is now reeling from multiple explosions that reduced dozens of people, brutally, to chunks of flesh at an airport and metro station. About 300 other people remain in hospital care, their bodies maimed by shrapnel from IEDs detonated by suicide bombers, who shouted in Arabic before blowing themselves up.
With Belgium having a rather minimal record for foreign military involvement, some pundits and politicians are discussing how Muslims have been disadvantaged instead of discussing the Islamist ideology that motivates jihadists. The National Post’s Adam Taylor argues that “those from immigrant backgrounds find themselves at a competitive disadvantage on the job market.” The Abdeslam family reportedly owned several businesses and earned over €100,000 a year.
Missouri Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill opines that radicalization is a product of marginalization. Many of us deal with legitimate grievances stemming from feelings of marginalization. How does that explain the desire to kill innocents or take sex slaves in a foreign land?
It’s difficult to have honest discussions about the Islamist ideology when accusations of “Islamophobia” and bigotry are rife. Well-intentioned people unaware of the nuances of non-Christian religions and political movements are fooled by the “Islamophobia” meme, which often works to actively conflate people and ideas.
As feminist liberal Muslim Asra Nomani said on Real Time with Bill Maher during the Paris attacks, “It’s almost like the world needs so much blood to be spilled to wake up.” At least 60 were killed this Sunday as Pakistani Christian families celebrated Easter at a Lahore park. The Pakistan Taliban outshoot Jamaat-ul-Ahrar claimed responsibility.
Can we wake up? We must.