Photo: Léopold Lambert.

Brussels After the Attacks

Another kind of violence.


On March 22, 2016, I was on a train to Brussels when I learned that a bomb had exploded at the airport and, a few minutes before arriving, that another one had detonated in the subway. Outside the train station Bruxelles Midi, soldiers and police officers were starting to deploy. I spent the rest of the day with some students and professors of La Cambre School of Architecture in Ixelles, where, like many other Brussels residents, we feigned normality in the sun of what should have been a beautiful day. It was only in the evening, on my way back to the train station, that I witnessed the massive deployment of armed forces, reminding me that this was the capital of the European Union. Concrete blocks were set up to prevent cars from accessing the station’s vicinity, and the long line of people outside it was punctuated by a number of (occasionally masked) soldiers and police officers, armed with a variety of assault rifles. Inside the station, the same atmosphere of security-paranoia prevailed, and yet, as if we needed further proof that such a deployment has more to do with spectacle than actual safety, no suitcases were being scanned before being loaded onto the trains.


Concrete blocks and military/police vehicles in the train station vicinity on March 22, 2016.

The police and military presence in the station, however disturbing it was for us — seeing masked and fully armed police officers, you start to wonder who to fear the most! — was just a byproduct of the travelers’ privilege. A few hundreds meters further, the residents of Molenbeek (one of Brussels’ nineteen municipalities), experienced a different, a ubiquitous police presence, in the days after the police raided the neighborhood to arrest Salah Abdeslam, one of the persons responsible for the November 13, 2015 attacks. The press has painted an antagonizing image of Molenbeek. The French press went as far as to transform its name into a shorthand for radical Islam. The question “How many Molenbeeks do we have in France?” was uttered numerous times on TV and in newspapers, with complete indifference for the discursive violence of such a question.

This vision of the neighborhood, based on 10 of its 94,000 residents, responsible for an attack that killed 130 persons in Paris and 32 other in Brussels, is only possible because the majority of Molenbeek’s residents are other. Originating mostly from the Rif in the North of Morocco, the numerous Muslim residents of Molenbeek are, once again, the victims of a generalized image, which conflates a devout practice of Islam with murderous attacks. Even reasonable media outlets seem to believe that their account of the municipality would not be credible if they did not begin by acknowledging the delinquency and criminality that supposedly reign in it. A look at the Belgian police statistics however debunks these prejudices: whether it’s weapon possession, drug trafficking, assaults or theft, Molenbeek’s figures are almost always half as much as those of Brussels’ city center. Comparing it to other municipalities of the Belgian capital, again, Molenbeek does not stand out as particularly dangerous.


New development project a few dozens of meters away from Molenbeek (2014).

The rhetoric that presents it as such is a deadly one. Although the degree of violence is hardly comparable, we can find equivalent of it in the recent depiction of Burj Al-Barajneh (South Beirut municipality, described as a “Hezbollah stronghold” by Western media after a ISIS-led suicide attack killed 43 people on November 12, 2015), or, in a much more deliberate manner, the imaginary Gaza constructed by the Israeli army in order to justify its dreadful bombardments.

Such military action may appear far from Molenbeek, even though French right wing intellectual Eric Zemmour provocatively suggested bombing the Brussels neighborhood after the November 2015 attacks. Yet, we can already foresee the next phases of this antagonizing process. Because of its advantageous position in the city (only a few hundreds of meters away from the old center), what the 19th and 20th century colonial strategists used to call “pacification” through heavy police control will almost inevitably be followed by real estate operations developing and gentrifying the area, as is currently happening along the canal that separates the city center from Molenbeek. Architects bear responsibility for the violence of this process, since their authorship adds value to, and enables, the real estate projects that antagonize the population. They should therefore be at the forefront of the construction of a radically anti-racist imagery in relation to the city and its various neighborhoods.


Photos by the Léopold Lambert.