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Countering Violent Extremism? - What Happens in Molenbeek Matters in Milwaukee
May 1, 2016

On the day I spoke in Brussels at a conference on “countering violent extremism,” a gun battle broke out in a Brussels suburb between French/Belgian police and individuals apparently associated with the terrorists who planned November’s attack in Paris. Though there was no major news coverage of the more than 300 activists and scholars gathered together from around the world for peace (the proceedings are on and youtube), CNN immediately dispatched a crew to cover the gunfight and ensuing manhunt. After my talk, Shazia Manzoor — a Councilwoman in Molenbeek – invited me to visit her municipality the next day and to meet with the Mayor, Françoise Schepmans. I knew the name. Mayor Schepmans and Molenbeek, a community of roughly 100,000, has been in the news as a “harbor for terrorists,” after it became known that at least one of the Paris attackers had spent time in the neighborhood.  Still, Manzoor seemed kind, and I live in Philadelphia, where murder is a tragic, everyday event – so I accepted her invitation.  She seemed genuinely surprised.  But at dinner that evening, I sat across the table from Mak Chisty – a Muslim police officer from London who directs “community engagement” at Scotland Yard.  “I wouldn’t go,” he recommended.  The conference was sponsored by the Fethullah Gülen Chair at Catholic University in Leuven ( and Dialogue Platform in Brussels – one of countless think-tanks around the world established by Turkish Muslims inspired by Gülen.  Speakers and participants came from 75 different countries.  Most were Muslims, but there were a few secularists, Roman Catholics, and Protestants (like me). Gunnar Staalset, Bishop Emeritus of Norway and Honorary President of Religions for Peace, was among the opening speakers.  He stressed the common challenges of interpretation facing Christians and Muslims, and urged conference participants to forge a counter-narrative to “violent extremism.” As examples of elements in such a counter-narrative, Staalset highlighted the Turkish ideal of hoshgoru—usually translated as “tolerance,” and an important theme in the writings of Gülen, and the recent Marrakesh Declaration on the Rights of Religious Minorities in Muslim Majority Nations.   The morning’s keynoter, Professor Rik Coolsaet of Ghent University, contested Staalset’s emphasis on narrative, a bit.  His point was that all “violent extremism” is local and contextual.  We must acknowledge and address the material and economic drivers of violence in diverse contexts, he argued.    

This tension between theory and practice, theology and social structure, narrative and material reality stretched throughout the two-day event—and of course played out personally in whether or not I accepted my invitation to Molenbeek. A session on “working with Muslim women to counter violent extremism” focused on Moroccan and Egyptian cases, with Prof. Maryam Aid Ahmad of Ibn Tufayl University in Morocco and Prof. Hoda Mahmoud Darwish of Zagazik University in Egypt as presenters.

My own talk highlighted “engaged empathy” and peacebuilding within and across Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions, notably in practices of teshuva, metanoia, and tawba—all usually translated as “repentance” (it was Lent, after all) and in the work of individuals such as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in the UK, Leymah Gbowee in Liberia, and Gülen. Some of the remarkable diversity within Islam—always a bit surprising to Americans bombarded with monolithic stereotypes of the faith, was evident.  The subtopic for the conference was “Mujahada (Jihad) and Muslims’ Responsibility,” and multiple presentations from Asian, Middle Eastern, African, and European scholars differentiated the greater jihad of struggle to obey God and against the ego from the “lesser” jihad of defensive warfare.  There was unequivocal condemnation of terror attacks as contrary to Islam.  But Professor Muhammad Ibrahim al-Saidi of Umm al-Qura University in Saudi Arabia turned the subtopic on its head, so to speak, by offering a “presentation” that quoted largely without comment or context passages from Torah and the Gospels that overtly recommend bloodshed and even genocide.  As Catholic scholar of Islam Scott Alexander put it on Facebook:

“I finally know how Muslims feel in the face of Islamophobic proof texting of their sacred texts. I finally know how it feels to have my own sacred scriptures ripped from their textual and interpretative context, frequently misquoted, … and glibly associated with the very real atrocities committed in the name of my faith.”  Professor al-Saidi did end with a passage nodding toward the peace witness in Christianity, but his point was unmistakable:  the problem of religious violence is hardly unique to Muslims. ~ Inspired and encouraged by my fellow speakers, I went to Molenbeek.  No jihadi jumped me.  In fact, I had a lovely lunch at a Thai restaurant in the central plaza of the municipality with Manzoor, who is the first female Pakistani elected official in Brussels, and  Erdem Koç—a former resident of Molenbeek who is now working for Dialogue Platform.  We discussed Manzoor’s experiences with racism, and her vision to organize a “Neighbors Day” for the municipality.  We then we visited the nearby “service restaurant,” which Americans would recognize as a soup kitchen.  As we walked to the mayor’s office, a group of schoolchildren walked past, holding hands and singing.  I snapped a picture.  “Yes, that’s Molenbeek,” Manzoor affirmed.

Over coffee, Mayor Schepmans described a little of Molenbeek’s history and context for me.  As a former Midwesterner, it sounded awfully familiar.  As Turks, Senegalese, and Moroccans moved into the neighborhood for work, beginning in the 1970s, native Belgians moved out.  Industries followed.  Jobs dried up.  Religion replaced ethnic origin as a source of identity.  Mosques blossomed, but crime also grew.  I tried to suggest that similar dynamics, with similar easy associations divorced from actual causes and effects, once marked immigration in America.  The church has been a refuge and way-station for Norwegian Lutherans and Italian Catholics, among many others, on the way to becoming Americans.  Now mosques might be playing similar roles in Europe.  But Schepmans worried that “there is no European identity.”  She may be right.  Time will tell.  And as people search for identity as strangers in strange lands, narratives will no doubt matter. The stories we tell each other can reflect both our worst fears and projections, and the better angels of our nature, as Abraham Lincoln first put it.   

On my last night in Brussels, I shared dinner and caught up with Sevgi Akarcesme, former Editor-in-Chief of Today’s Zaman in Turkey, and now a “journalist-in-exile.” The week before, the government seized her newspaper with a blast of teargas and a phalanx of riot police. It was an effort to silence dissent.  I was glad she was safe.  But her fragile status as a peacebuilder on the “front lines” gave me pause.  Overall, the conference was heartening:  I renewed friendships, gained some new friends and insights, and had reinforced my conviction that the vast majority of people of faith – especially Muslims – around the globe want to draw from the deep wells of our spiritual traditions to foster peace.  But as I walked past the Belgian militia with assault rifles in the airport; and as I read the stories about the rise of right-wing nationalists across Europe; and as I learned that Donald Trump had won more Republican primaries in the U.S., it became crystal clear to me:  what happens in Molenbeek will matter in Milwaukee. ~ Five days after my departure from Brussels, I watched the news with horror as three bombs killed 35 and wounded hundreds in simultaneous terrorist attacks at the Brussels Airport and a metro station.  I tweeted my new friends Shazia and Erdem (who works in security at the airport) and was relieved to hear that they were both unharmed. But we all felt the collective moral injury.  The challenge terrorism poses is the temptation to react to evil by mirroring the fear, ignorance, and hatred that stokes it.  Our great traditions counsel patience for a reason.  As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s teacher, Howard Thurman famously said:  “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”  Those of us gathered at our conference on “Countering Violent Extremism” share a commitment to the long and patient struggle on a nonviolent path toward greater justice and peace.  We don’t draw the attention that a few criminals can attract.  But faith is on our side.  Hope is on our side.  Numbers are on our side.  So even as we continue to grieve for those lost to terrorism and warfare around the planet, we still witness springtime come with all of its fragrant and colorful glory across the northern hemisphere, including in Milwaukee and in Molenbeek.  And I am reminded of the inspiring vision of Fethullah Gülen, of a spiritual and social “springtime [that] will rise on the foundations of love, compassion, mercy, dialogue, acceptance of others, mutual respect, justice and rights….  No matter what happens, the world will come to this path sooner or later.  Nobody can prevent this”  (Toward a Global Civilization of Love and Tolerance, p. 232).