From heavy policing to gentrification: How journalists, politicians, the police and developers work alongside in Molenbeek

One of the most recurrent questions asked by French main media in their current campaign — the animosity they manifest allows the use of this term — against any form of manifestation of Islamic public signs, consists in asking “How many Molenbeeks are there in France?” to which the usual televisual “experts” answer without blinking that France has been doing a better work than Belgium when it comes to constraining “Salafists” — a word that they evidently just learned — to the Republic’s order. Beyond the traditional French condescension towards the northern neighbors (jokes about Belgium people is an entire genre of humor in France), we observe the dubious labelization of one of Brussels’ 19 municipalities (Sint Jans Molenbeek) into a synonym of crawling “jihadism” neighborhood; a labelization never questioned by any of these “experts”. This article will attempt to shortly introduce the process that such a stigmatization of a neighborhood inevitably triggers. Whether this process is understood and deliberated engaged by its concerned actors is irrelevant here. In this regard, my arguments will not be that news anchor, politicians, police officers and developers are meeting once a week in order to discuss about how they will engage the strategy described throughout this text but, rather, that these four actors play a crucial role in this process according to a specific chronology.

Molenbeek

Molenbeek is a West-Brussels neighborhood where 94,000 people live, many of which are persons and families of Moroccan Rif descent. Among these thousands residents, 10 were part of a group of 20 people responsible for the coordinated attacks that killed 130 people in Paris on November 13, 2015 and 32 people in Brussels on March 22, 2016. What allows the media and politicians to demagogically ignore the proportion that 10 people out of 94,000 represents, is the fact that Molenbeek is a piece of urbanity that Arab residents, a certain amount of whom carries signs of their faith, have appropriated, in the same way than any population residing in towns where the notion of public space actually means something. Even reasonable journalists seem to believe that they would not be writing a credible article if they were not acknowledging the visible manifestation of political forms of Islam in Molenbeek, as well as a supposed high rate of delinquency and criminality in the neighborhood, usually described through hearsay. However, when one looks at the actual statistic of reported illegal acts (see graphics below), one can only notice that the ones accounted for Molenbeek are significantly lower (often twice less) than the ones for the municipality of Brussels or some other municipalities of the capital. Although statistics can only reveal so much, the fact that they are not reported in the numerous articles written about Molenbeek is deplorable.

Criminality StatisticsWe should not differentiate the journalists and politicians who actually know these figures and nonetheless decide to participate to fearful narratives from those who have simply not done their job by not researching these numbers. The consequences of such discourse stigmatizing a specific neighborhood consist in an increased societal antagonism against its population and a subsequent simulacrum of legitimacy for police and/or military forces to repress it. In November 2015, I had already written an article for Warscapes entitled “Deadly Rhetoric of Strongholds and Bastions,” in which I was comparing this antagonizing discoursing process at work in Burj Al-Barajneh (South Beirut, described as a “Hezbollah stronghold” by Western media after a ISIS-led suicide attack killed 43 people on November 12, 2015), Gaza (the process to “de-civilianize” Palestinians by the Israeli army is not to be presented here anymore), the French banlieues, and Molenbeek. Although it might appear inappropriate to compare a territory like Gaza with a relatively central neighborhood of the European capital city — the call by French right wing intellectual Eric Zemmour to bomb Molenbeek rather than Raqqa after the November attacks notwithstanding — one has to realize that the logic through which racist discourses and police/military interventions work together are comparable, despite the significant difference of degree of violence that they respectively trigger in these two examples.

Police interventions are however not the end of this process. Once the various forms of resistance to the dominant order (i.e. what participates to an imaginary of “danger” to the average white person) are no longer visible in this neighborhood, a radical transformation of its urbanity could be implemented. In her contribution to the first Ila Souria colloquium at the Institut du Monde Arabe (Paris) in October 2013, architect Irène Labeyrie affirmed that parts of the bombing of rebellious neighborhoods of Damascus by the Assad regime has been done with future urban projects in mind, in order to accelerate the demolition of these areas. The visualization of a satellite photograph in the neighborhood of Yalda, in the precise and systematic destruction that it introduces certainly renders credible such affirmation. Here again the comparison between Damascus and Molenbeek can only make sense if we think in terms of logic at work, rather than in a supposed similitude of violence. The advantageous location Molenbeek  in the core of Brussels — on the contrary of French banlieues — associated to the low price of its real estate (encouraged by the rhetoric examined here) makes it a significant asset to developers whose projects are currently being built in its vicinity. Molenbeek residents and people standing in solidarity with them should therefore be cautious of corporations buying land in their municipality, if not currently, in the months to come. Real estate projects take a few years to be built and developers are likely to know that the few years of heavy policing and public work that will necessarily follow the current situation will drastically increase the value of property in the neighborhood. The logic of this process is precisely what this text attempts to put in evidence. The process to which Molenbeek is currently subjected is a known one, we can recognize certain patterns, and its violence can only be delegitimized if the imaginary in which this piece of urbanity is depicted changes radically.

The problem that we should be addressing here is the generalized form of discrimination that allows, in one hand, the conscious or (even more perverse) the unconscious equation of Muslim bodies related with criminality -if not terrorism- and on the other hand, the stigmatization of a predominantly Arab neighborhood with a sense of insecurity from the white part of the population (amplified by the media, politicians, the police and developers). City makers, professionals and the civil society in general should be able to read the signs and take position against a potential process of increased segregation. Architects have a strong responsibility in the violence of the process described in this article since their authorship brings value to and enables the real estate projects that would end in the chronology of displacement of the antagonized population. Architects, along with journalists, should be very cautious; they must be at the forefront of the construction of an anti-racist imaginary linked to the city and its diversity of neighborhoods.

(Text: Léopold Lambert // Photos: Diego Luna Quintanilla // This article was originally written for The Funambulist in April 2016 and re-edited for the Brussels Newsroom in December 2016)