A few months into my first year in Brussels, I met for lunch with a young Taiwanese academic who was spending some months in the city to research EU-China relations. His wife who had recently joined him from Taipei had come along as well. As we took a post-lunch stroll in the streets that criss-crossed their largely immigrant neighbourhood, she told me that Brussels was not quite what she had expected. I asked her what she meant. 'Where do Brussels people come from?' she queried in response.
I spent the next ten minutes trying to explain the complex divisions between Dutch-speaking Flanders and French-speaking Wallonia, and Brussels's unique position as a francophone enclave in Flanders. 'So, although historically Brussels folk were Flemish, the city became majority French-speaking under King Leopold II; and although genuine Bruxellois don't identify themselves as either Flemish or Walloon, they are a dying breed,' I concluded my lengthy discourse.
She looked at me clearly dazed. There was a brief pause before she shrugged and said, 'Really? It feels to me they mostly come from Turkey.'
It was a comical moment but her comment highlighted the fact that almost a quarter of Brussels's population, or some 250,000 people,
are immigrants from Muslim countries, primarily Morocco and Turkey. In many schools in certain Brussels municipalities like Anderlecht and Schaerbeek, over 90% of pupils are Muslim.
As an Indian I was used to streets as arenas of extreme, visible eclecticism. Delhi is a city where miniskirts and burqas, camel carts and BMWs, ash-smeared ascetics and multinational executives bob alongside each other ... Almost nothing looks or sounds out of place there.
But Europe is different. The creation of the modern nation state, predicated as it was on the idea of a 'nation' comprising one ethnicity, one religion and one language, had bleached the diversity out of many European countries long ago. The retreat of overt religiosity to the private sphere, coupled with the spread of homogenized, mass-produced goods for consumption, only added to the relative uniformity that Europeans associated with themselves.
To be Belgian meant being white, culturally Catholic, eating speculoos biscuits with afternoon coffee and going to the seaside in the summer, come drizzle or high water. To be Spanish meant being white (defined generously), worshipping the pig by eating it in every possible form, and smoking Fortuna cigarettes under no smoking signs with insouciance.
Neither being Belgian nor Spanish was easily equated with wearing headscarves, moulding your actions to the Koran's diktats, or being called Mohammed. Yet, since 2008, Mohammed has in fact become the most popular name for baby boys born in Brussels.
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Radicalized supporters of global jihad might be a small minority amongst European Muslims, but they are overwhelmingly young men who have been born and brought up in Europe.
The parents of these youngsters had seen themselves as temporary visitors to Europe. Michael Privot (a 38-year-old Belgian convert to Islam and director of the European Network against Racism) recalled how his wife's parents kept a suitcase packed in readiness for departure back to Dagestan, for close to thirty years. As a result, they had little anxiety about maintaining their homeland identity.
But their children faced a very different set of identity-related dilemmas. Unable to share fully in either their parents' or host nation's cultural milieu, many of these youth formed subcultures of their own, based on defiance and victimhood. Their interest in defining their identity increased with the experience of racism and exclusion that they suffered in school.
Michael pointed out that in the not-so-distant past Belgian schools sometimes divided classes up according to the colour of the children attending. This was justified on the grounds of the children being differentially proficient in the language of instruction but it had far-reaching repercussions on the way these kids felt alienated from the majority community. These feelings of exclusion only became more and more ingrained with the passage of time. 'In Muslim areas, the police stop you if you are Arab-looking. I have never been stopped because I am white,' said Michael grimly.
Moreover, many of these children were completely lacking in parental support, and had in fact been forced by circumstances to act as the 'adults' in the family, given their parents' inability to cope with practical and social life in Europe. Through interviews with Moroccan youngsters in the Netherlands, Ian Buruma shows their resentment at having grown up helping their parents deal with all things quotidian, from filling out forms to talking with the postman. The result was mothers and fathers with little parental authority and kids who'd lost trust in their families.Immigrant youth felt anger at their parents' helplessness, and anger at the country that had allowed their parents to come and work but without any thought for how they would manage. 'They let our parents clean the streets, work in factories, fix everything, but it's up to us, the children, to solve their problems,' said Farhane, a young Moroccan actor whom Buruma interviewed
The ability to read Arabic is also something that distinguishes many of Europe's young Muslims from their parents. First generation immigrants tended to speak the language of their home countries and were therefore unable to read the Koran directly, relying instead on traditionalist ulema for interpretations. But the younger generation often learn Arabic, which gives them direct access to the Koranic text. They can therefore interpret the Koran for themselves. While this can occasionally lead to creatively syncretic beliefs, it can also lead to a purist, literal acceptance of the text. An Islam that is purged of local culture is not a taken-for-granted aspect of one's background — as had usually been the case with the first generation — but a self-consciously adopted insignia of commitment, and thus louder and more unbending.
(Edited excerpts from Aiyar's book Punjabi Parmesan courtesy Penguin Books India)