Brussels, Belgium_Now that the initial shock of the attacks on my new hometown has subsided, I’m trying to make sense of it all.
The move with my family from Istanbul to Brussels last September was long planned, but as tensions rose rapidly in Turkey, my husband and I told ourselves that in hindsight our timing was right.
Having worked as a correspondent in Turkey and the Middle East for more than two decades, I witnessed many violent situations and harsh actions by governments. So I shook my head in disbelief when Brussels was locked down after the Paris attacks in November. The Belgians must be over-reacting, I thought. After all, nothing happened here.
Things normalised and we thought ourselves lucky for being in a country where the worst thing that did happen was the closure of the public transport which forced us to stay home. I couldn’t understand why people felt afraid, why soldiers in the street were perceived to be intimidating. Seeing heavy weaponry all around had become quite normal to me.
When I recently heard that my daughter’s former school in Istanbul was closed for a day because of a terror threat, it seemed much more serious than the four days her school here in Brussels was closed in November. And indeed, two days later a man blew himself up practically on the doorstep of our old house on Istiklal Street. I worried about my friends and old neighbors, and felt anxious until I realised we were not in danger, because we were in safe Brussels.
I didn’t feel threatened by the fact that safe-houses and more recently the man who failed to blow himself up in Paris, Salah Abdeslam himself were found in the quarter of Molenbeek only a few hundred yards from a place I go once a week – a circus school, one of my daughter’s and my new indulgences in Brussels. Nor did I feel concerned that one of the bomb factories for the Paris bombs was only a few hundred yards from our new house in Schaerbeek.
But it finally hit home when the news came of the attacks on Zaventem airport and Maelbeek metro station, which I pass through regularly. My daughter had taken the metro to school only an hour earlier.
Tears welled from my eyes. I turned to social media to get more information. As I swiped down the postings a random tweet from Al-Jazeera English caught my eye: ‘More than 2,100 children wounded since fresh Israel-Palestine conflict erupted in October.’ I paused.
All of a sudden it struck me how I was from a different world. In the first months here I could not relate to Brussels’ reality. I didn’t know what was normal or not, so I could not take seriously people’s anxiety about soldiers on the streets since November. I couldn’t feel it.
I understood that the same mechanism, the same lack of empathy is at work the other way around. People here in the West cannot relate to their fellow humans in the Middle East. With your mind you can understand that it must be horrible to live under threat all the time, to have your house bombed. But as long as your limbic brain, the generator of our strongest emotions, is not involved, it doesn’t sink in.
It can be traumatising just to watch real-life violence on television, but when you relate to the victims, the impact is amplified. Test yourself by turning inward for a moment and think, or rather, feel: were you moved most by the attacks in Brussels, in Paris, in Gaza, or Aleppo? Which victims were closest to your heart? The deaths of which innocent people made you feel most outraged?
This is linked with your sense of belonging. If your roots are under threat, you feel it in your core.
Now, I’m a bit of an odd bird: I was born in the Netherlands (to which I feel culturally loyal), grew up in deepest rural Belgium (where I never felt I belonged), lived in Turkey for a quarter of a century (where I felt quite at home), and now live in international Brussels (a mix of all of the above). My limbic brain has trouble deciding whom to feel for. And I guess for some of the other migrants here the same is true.
My Belgian-Turkish grocer wraps his lettuce in a Turkish newspaper full of rants against those whom the Turkish president calls “traitors”. The waitress in the Bulgarian cafe has to tear herself away from the Bulgarian soap on her TV when I ask for a coffee. The Tunisian supermarket has Al-Jazeera Arabic on all the time, so I pay my bill with the cries of grieving Palestinian mothers in my ears. For whom, I wonder, does the heart of the man behind the till beat hardest?
When I bought a sandwich the day after the terrorist attacks the Moroccan salesman told me he lives next door to the house where the suicide bombers hid before they left for the airport. “They were right next to us with all those explosives, but nobody knew. It scared the hell out of me.” He took his wife and children out of the neighbourhood, but admitted he’s still scared. “I worry that when people see I’m Moroccan they will attack me. Or my little girls. We are the victim of both sides.”
Teun Voeten, a Belgian anthropologist who lived in Molenbeek, calls this the self-victimisation of the Arab-speaking community, and wrote -just before the attacks- in the Flemish newspaper ‘de Morgen’ that “the Moroccan community has to stop taking the comfortable position of underdog”. But believe me, when you are raised on the violence of the Middle East pouring into your house through the TV, through telephone calls of relatives in the region, through the harrowing stories of your parents or grand-parents, there is no way you won’t share their grief, you feel victimised and powerless.
The young adults who become terrorists may, as has been suggested, be egged on by a feeling that they have failed to share the riches of the European society they were born into. They want to be winners, not losers. Sure, but these are not ordinary suicides.
In the latest case in Brussels, formerly small-time criminals may have felt they had no other way out of the downward spiral their lives had become. In order to give their life significance they had joined a cause originating in the Middle East. In comparison to the Middle Eastern perpetrators they were relatively well-educated people with opportunities ahead, if they had only taken them. So why are they sacrificing their lives and that of as many innocent people as possible?
It’s empathy. Those who organize or take part in such attacks want to make this society just as angry and outraged as they are. They want to inflict just as much injustice as they perceive the people they empathise with to have suffered because of either Western action, as in invasion and bombs, or inaction, as in closing its eyes for outrages done by its allies. The suicide attackers must believe that they can stop injustice by shock therapy.
On the colonnaded steps of the Bourse building in central Brussels, surrounded by people lighting candles or singing for the victims, a young woman was holding up a paper. “I’m a Muslim. I’m Syrian. I’m not a terrorist,” it said. I sat down with her. Her name was Zekiyah, she was 20 years old and traveled here three years ago from Aleppo. She’s on her own, because her mother died on the way. “I was going to school here,” she said, in remarkably good Flemish. “But I had to stop. I’m a bit broken.”
I put to her the idea that the terrorists may have wanted to make the people here feel what it is like to be living in the Middle East.
“Impossible!” she exclaimed. “They are not human! I wish they were all dead!”
“Me too,” the Flemish student next to her nods.
“So you’re saying more people should die for the world to be a better place,” I asked.
“Well, sometimes it is legitimate to kill for a greater purpose,” the student replied.
That is exactly how terrorists justify their horrific deeds, according to terrorism specialist Scott Atran. He interviewed hundreds of them, from the not-so-far-away days when they weren’t rallying under banner of Islam, but communism, until now. Recruiters invest countless hours in showing young people how the problems they see in the world and in their own lives are connected to the larger problems ISIS is fighting, Atran claims.
Now that wounds are still fresh, it may be hard to even consider, but the greater goal of suicide-bombers is a better world. This, and not vengeance, should be a common ground on which to find a solution to stop the escalating violence since 9/11, so that all my fellow Bruxellois did not die in vain.