Two months after the Paris attacks, Belgium is in the midst of an anguished debate about Islamist radicalisation. There’s anger in Molenbeek – the Brussels district that was home to three of the attackers – at government plans for house-to-house searches. And a former senior police official has warned that Belgium’s failure to integrate its Muslim minority has created a de facto “system of apartheid”.
At a police training academy on the outskirts of Brussels, new recruits are wrestling one another to the ground – practising techniques of unarmed restraint. There are about 40 of them – fresh-faced young people in their 20s, men and women – but what’s immediately noticeable is that with one exception, they’re all white.
Watching them is Paul Jacobs. For 20 years he dealt with discrimination complaints in the Belgian police – and he’s just finished a session teaching this class “inter-cultural communication”.
They discussed why so many Belgian youngsters go to fight in Syria – a higher proportion, relative to the population, than from any other country in Europe. And a heated argument broke out when Suhaila, the only non-white recruit – from a Moroccan background, like many Belgian Muslims – said she could understand why young Muslims might become jihadis.
“The whole class was reacting – over-reacting,” Jacobs says. “It was the first time they had talked with someone of a Moroccan background.”
For a visitor to Brussels, where more than a quarter of the population is Muslim, that’s a surprising thought. But Paul Jacobs is not surprised.
“I am a little bit scared to use this term,” he says. “But I think we live in a system of apartheid. You really have ghettos. And what is more important, and more dangerous, is not that people aren’t living together – it’s the mental ghetto.”