After the terrible attacks two weeks ago in Paris, the media spotlight switched to a newly discovered source of jihadi radicalism: Belgium. Who knew? Known mainly for its Eurocrats, chocolate and moules frites, little Belgium is also the jihadi capital of Europe. It has contributed more foreign fighters to jihad – 500, and counting – than any other European state, on a per capita basis. Belgian-born terrorists were instrumental in the Paris attacks. As authorities in Belgium launched a massive manhunt, Brussels was locked down for days over fears that the terrorists would strike again.
How did Belgium become a hotbed of radicalism? Unlike France, Belgium has no unhealed wounds from colonial wars waged against Muslims. (Most Belgian Muslims come from Morocco.) Unlike France, its immigrants are not trapped in remote suburbs (they live right downtown, a few blocks from the parliament buildings). Unlike France, Belgium has no rigid national sense of identity that excludes outsiders. Many of its leaders are tolerant, benign socialists.
After the attacks, the world's media descended on the Muslim neighbourhood of Molenbeek in order to probe the causes of the problem. They found that Belgium is a mess – a tangle of overlapping and warring political factions that are completely unable to manage the country's security issues. This fragmentation is also cited as a major barrier to Muslim integration. Disaffected young people can't develop a Belgian identity, because there isn't one.
In Belgium – as in France, Sweden and other European nations – the widespread failure of Muslim integration is invariably blamed on the host country. What Muslims need are more tolerance, less discrimination, more neighbourhood investment, better schools, better transit, more job training, more labour flexibility, and more encouragement for small businesses.
Much of this is no doubt true. But it's also misleading. The belief that the modern progressive state can socially engineer its way to harmony – if only it tries hard enough – is a dangerous delusion.
Another view of Belgium is offered by Teun Voeten, a photographer who witnessed the aftermath of the Paris massacre. He lived in Molenbeek for nine years, but was eventually driven out by crime, disorder and intolerance. Places to buy alcohol disappeared, and Islamic bookshops spread. "Nowhere was there a bar or café where white, black and brown people would mingle," he wrote on Politico. "Instead, I witnessed petty crime, aggression, and frustrated youths who spat at our girlfriends and called them 'filthy whores.' " The Jewish shops, which were terrorized by young kids, moved away. So did openly gay people, who were harassed in the streets.
Mr. Voeten agrees that the messy state is a problem. But the more important factor is Belgium's culture of denial. "The country's political debate has been dominated by a complacent progressive elite who firmly believes society can be designed and planned. ... The debate is paralyzed by a paternalistic discourse in which radical Muslim youths are seen, above all, as victims of social and economic exclusion. Most people in Molenbeek are decent people who want the best for their families. But we should not close our eyes to the fact that it is also home to a very deep and very dangerous undercurrent of radical Islamism."
The facts bear him out. Prof. Ruud Koopmans, an expert on migration and integration with the Berlin Social Science Center, conducted a study of Muslim attitudes in several European countries in 2013. Most of the people he surveyed were of Turkish and Moroccan descent. He found that Islamic fundamentalism is widespread. Two-thirds of the Muslims interviewed said that religious rules are more important to them than the laws of the country in which they live. Three quarters said that there is only one legitimate interpretation of the Koran.
"Religious fundamentalism is moreover not an innocent form of strict religiosity," Prof. Koopmans commented. He found that almost 60 per cent of the Muslim respondents reject homosexuals as friends; 45 per cent think that Jews can't be trusted; and an equally large group believes that the West is out to destroy Islam. He also concluded that Europe's multicultural policies – regardless of the country – are largely useless.
Why are so many home-grown young Muslims (as well as a few converts) attracted to such a virulent form of faith? The common liberal answer is because they feel excluded. That answer strikes me as pathetically inadequate. A better answer would include a quest for meaning and purpose in a secular, postmodern world, and the attraction of an absolutist faith that offers certainty, structure and a chance for martyrdom and glory.
Job training and better transit aren't going to fix that problem.
The attacks in Paris were a watershed. This time the terrorists' targets were not cartoonists, Jews, or people openly critical of Islam, but anyone who happened to be in range. The target was secular society itself. And in its aftermath, many more people are daring to openly question whether some values simply cannot be reconciled with Western values. For all its faults and flaws, Europe is not the problem.