Brussels Lockdown

alarm-959592_1920  Thirteenth of  November 2015. This date is still on the minds of many people around the globe as the dreadful day when a series of coordinated terrorist acts occurred in Paris and its northern suburb, Saint-Denis. Three suicide bombers struck near the Stade de France, followed by suicide bombings and mass shootings at cafés, restaurants and a music venue, the Bataclan theatre. The attackers killed 130 persons and injured 368. Seven of the perpetrators of the attacks also died. The attacks were the deadliest in France since World War II and the most fatal in the European Union since the Madrid train bombings in 2004.  They led French president François Hollande to declare a 3-month state of emergency and launch Opération Chammal, the most extensive French airstrike operation against ISIS to date. Counter-terrorism measures were also taken by other states in Europe and North America. In addition to triggering political reactions, the event resonated with people across the globe, especially on social media where the Twitter hashtag PrayForParis and the Facebook profile filter French Flag were launched so that people could show their support for France and the families of the victims of the attacks.

Many things can be said about the consequences of the attacks in France and elsewhere, but today I want to focus on some of the effects it has had on my home country, Belgium, and more specifically on Brussels, my hometown.

Some of the men that participated in the attacks lived in Brussels and one of the main perpetrators, Salah Abdesalam, who survived the attacks, is suspected to have crossed the French-Belgian border after the attacks. This prompted Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel to announce a lockdown on Brussels by declaring a level 4 security alert, which is defined by the National Security Council as an imminent and serious threat. As a result, subway lines, schools, universities and many shops were closed down for several days. The Winter Market, one of the biggest annual attractions held in December in the center of Brussels risked being canceled and attracted substantially fewer people than previous years. Military personnel patrolled the city, police presence was increased, streets were empty, and the overriding message was to “avoid all crowded places and stay at home if you can”.

In addition to implementation of these security measures, a total of 20 arrests were made in Molenbeek, a neighbourhood in Brussels where some of the Paris attackers lived and where they may have been radicalized. The arrests were coordinated by Belgium’s Minister of Internal Affairs, Jan Jambon, who stated that he would “clean up Molenbeek”.  Molenbeek was scrutinized by foreign media for several weeks after the raids and many European politicians criticized Belgium for its lack of security and anti-terrorism intelligence.  A headline in the famous French newspaper, le Monde, read: “For Belgians, the Abdesalam brothers did not constitute a threat” and the British daily, The Guardian, stated that “Molenbeek was becoming known as Europe’s Jihadi central”.  Donald Trump, one of the Republican Party candidates for the US presidential elections, claimed that “the capital of Belgium had been adversely affected by its lack of assimilation from their Muslim residents”.

As a Belgian living abroad, I was often asked about the state of alert in Brussels and many individuals who were eager to discuss the issue with me had narratives similar to those proposed by the media. This prompted me to read news articles on the subject and talk to my parents and relatives living in Brussels. It brought me to the following conclusion: while these allegations may have some truth to them, it is important for people to carefully analyze the context of the situation before making assumptions about the gravity of the situation in Brussels, and particularly Molenbeek.

First, with the population increasingly feeling frustrated by the lack of public transport, closed shops and closed schools, the level of alert was decreased to 3 on the 27th of November, only 6 days after imposing security level 4. The decision was made without pointing out any real change in the situation, suggesting that the threat may not have been as prominent as had been claimed in the first place.

Concerning Molenbeek, of the 20 arrests made, 16 people were interrogated and 15 were released. This suggests that the majority of those  arrested did not constitute a direct threat to security and that the intervention was carried out as a show of power. Jan Jambon’s solution was to clean up Molenbeek. This is a simplistic solution that is overused by politicians when referring to the perceived threat that neighbourhoods of lower socio-economic standing pose to the general population. It is a dangerous term because it separates the inhabitants of the said neighbourhood from the rest of the population and treats them as the “problem”. It implies that  if something had to be “cleaned up”,  it must have been “dirty” in the first place. Further alienation of a stigmatized group of people can only increase resentment and lead to more violence.

My suggestion is to urge people around the world to carefully analyze the information they are exposed to by the media and political interests when they address the problem of terrorism. They should consult multiple sources of information with differing perspectives in order to have a more informed opinion on the matter.  Increased knowledge and awareness of the factors contributing to terrorism are essential for the initial steps that will hopefully lead to its eradication.


 About the author:

Fiorella pic newFiorella (19) attended our Brussels Workshop as a student of Collège Saint Michel. She is currently an undergraduate student in biological science at the University of Guelph, Ontario, Canada. Fiorella is interested in politics, arts & literature, sports (climbing), guitar and travel. Her dream job is being a veterinarian for wild animals in a national park. More…


My Name Is Lectrr

Lectrr, Spotlight Europe
De Standaard’s cartoonist Lectrr for Spotlight Europe. (Lectrr Official Page)

My name is Lectrr. I’m a professional cartoonist from Belgium, working for ‘De Standaard’, a newspaper with a strong tradition in quality journalism. I’ve been working as a cartoonist for over a decade now and I’ve seen the business change a lot. For better or for worse is something only the future will tell.

Most of the changes have happened slowly and over the years. Budgets for quality journalism and cartoons have been sinking since the day I’ve started working in this field. Media companies have become multi-media brands, and so forth. But the most abrupt change for me happened on January 7th this year. The attacks on Charlie Hebdo.

“Before Charlie Hebdo, cartoonist were not to be taken seriously.”

Before Charlie Hebdo, cartoonist were not to be taken seriously. We were men and women that drew comic book like figurines with silly noses. Things that made people laugh, sometimes think, but mostly help to put things in perspective. Funny, sometimes a bit more than that, but always somewhere on the edge of what newspapers were about. Cartoonists were outsiders, nobody knew how we looked like. We hardly got interviews, never appeared on TV.

But then the attacks took place. In one blink of an eye, the entire world turned to the cartoonists and instead of seeing men drawing silly figurines with big noses, they saw freedom fighters. Something we never intended to be, something most of us aren’t.

We were interviewed on worldwide news channels, invited for debates on live TV, VIP guests at media conferences. When a cartoon exposition opened a prime ministers would even attend, while before we hardly got normal visitors. The outsiders were at the center of attention. But our message never changed, it was only the perception of what we did that changed.

I found that to be dangerous. It is our task, as cartoonists, not to be celebrities. It is our task to be annoying, out of the context, out of the spotlight. As eternal opposition for the ones in power, asking difficult questions. But politicians embraced us! They were all Charlie. Suddenly everybody was supportive of the freedom of speech-idea, even the ones who make the laws or machinations that diminish this freedom of speech.

“My place is behind the drawing desk, not in the spotlights.”

Personally, I backed out. I refused television interviews and media appearances. I found it to be more powerful when I spoke on these current events by making cartoons, not comments on TV. I’m a lousy TV guest but a great cartoonist. My place is behind the drawing desk, not in the spotlights. While a lot of cartoonists worldwide, all Charlie and pro-freedom of speech, became more careful in their cartoons I never found the necessity to give in. I didn’t see the need to draw Muhammad and still be critical about religion and violence, and found my urge to make cartoons very strong the weeks after the attacks. I felt that my pen did become as sharp and powerful as a sword. And a lot of readers found so too: the cartoons I made in response went global. And got the attention of Islamic extremists.

The number of hate mail a critical cartoonist receives is getting more and more substantial over the years. Back in the seventies it was difficult to send a hate letter to a cartoonist: you had to write a letter manually and mail it by post. You had hours to change your mind before the bad letter would leave. But nowadays, with the internet one can literally get mad and reach the person you’re mad at within seconds.

“One morning I received a death threat from an extremist.”

No time to think or to change your mind about something. Just instant hate. By getting a lot of those over the years, cartoonist tend to get numbed. I never respond to or even read hate mail. Sometimes we joke among cartoonists about the bad spelling in hate mail. One morning I received a death threat from an extremist. Didn’t give much attention to it, really. Completely numbed by hate mail.

I can’t go into detail but the threat was serious enough and my family and I lived in fear for weeks. But even fear wears out. I think that’s exactly what happened to Charlie Hebdo: after a while you grow used to the threat. Next time a death threat comes along, and I’m sure it’s not a matter of ‘if’ but ‘when’, it’ll have less impact on my life and that of my peers. That’s the big danger in things: we grow indifferent of the danger, in the same way we grow indifferent of freedom of speech.

That’s the biggest point I would like to make. Islamic terrorism isn’t the biggest threat to freedom of speech, we are. We’ve been taking our freedom for granted. The danger no longer lies in the idea that someone would want to take it away from us, someone like a dictator or a terrorist mastermind, but within our own behavior.

“Indifference is worse than being forced out of your freedom of speech.”

Nowadays we’re all the media. Information is no longer dominated by newspapers or TV channels. Everybody with a smartphone or tablet or computer has become a media producer. We produce content at an enormous rate: cat videos, instagram pictures of our cappuccinos, selfies with new sneakers, yay! But what we don’t realize is that we have a responsibility as a medium. By producing these enormous amounts of meaningless content, we’re creating an enormous internet diarrhea of images and ideas hardly worth our concentration. True, interesting messages of social importance get swamped in that internet diarrhea: good investigational journalism no longer weighs up to cat videos. Newspapers start to adopt the ’10 ways to’-journalism. Cartoons no longer find their readership to make people laugh and think. Everybody has a responsibility to be critical, but it’s more fun to get a lot of likes. Jihadists don’t need to kill advocates of freedom of speech, we’re burying them ourselves in cat videos and endless lists on how to improve your sex life. Just because we are growing indifferent. Indifference is worse than being forced out of your freedom of speech. When you’re forced out, you at least still have an opinion of your own. A thought. When you’ve grown indifferent, you don’t. Not. Even. A. Thought.

The world isn’t better off with 10 million people saying ‘je suis Charlie’, we need the few that will think for themselves. Now more than ever.

Since 7/1 I’m not afraid of Islamic terrorism, but I’m scared shitless about indifference.

About the author:
Lectrr, Spotlight Europe
Lectrr – Author at Spotlight Europe

Lectrr is a Belgian cartoonist, currently working for De Standaard-newspaper.

Talk to Them

 Marche Hommage Charlie hebdo Paris, Spotlight Europe
Solidarity march for the victims of the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris. Solidarity and empathy is spread among all citizens – regardless of their origin. (Flickr: sébastien amiet;l Nikleitz 2015/licensed under CC BY 2.0)

What shocked me the most was the coldness with which he murdered the policeman. Spanish news programs didn’t hesitate in showing the scene. We could all see how the terrorist ruthlessly shot to death the police officer who was lying in the street, unarmed and wounded.

The Charlie Hebdo attack is a challenge to European values. It not only is the cruel murder of innocent people. It is an attack to our freedom.

Now that the nightmare is over, questions arise. How is Europe as a society going to respond to this problem?

Let’s think for a moment. The two brothers that committed the attack to the satirical magazine were born in France. They grew up in an orphanage. The eldest one was a sports coach.

“My worry is that we simplify things.”

His younger sibling worked delivering pizzas. What could possibly make them embrace a terrorist group, leave their country to fight for Al Qaeda and then return to kill twelve people in such a brutal way?

My worry is that we simplify things. Many people in Europe are already talking of an “islamization” of our continent. Some parties will want to use this attack politically. But we must bear something in mind. Jihadists are a small minority inside of Islam. A vast majority of the European Muslims respect and cherish our values and liberties.

The policeman whose brutal murder we could watch on TV was, in fact, a Muslim. His name was Ahmed. He died defending one of the core French republican values, the freedom of expression. And let us not forget that most of the victims of jihadist terrorism around the world are Muslims.

Therefore, we as young Europeans have a responsibility. We must promote and defend our values and system of liberties. And we must have a critical and tolerant point of view. Many young Muslims in Europe feel excluded, unwanted and rejected. Some of them may see “martyrdom” and fanaticism as a way out to their situation. What course of action should we take? My answer is simple: talk to them.

About the author:
Nicolás - Author at Spotlight Europe
Nicolás – Author at Spotlight Europe

Nicolás (18) is a Member of the Youth Council of the Future. He participated in the “My Europe” workshop in Madrid in 2013.

About Charlie Hebdo

Nous sommes Charlie, Spotlight Europe
New and old questions arise since the attack on the Parisian satire magazin Charlie Hebdo. (Flickr: ActuaLitté /licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0)

I cling to no religion in particular and all of them at the same time. In the end, don´t they all advocate the things we are striving for? Happiness, justice and clairvoyance. However, I do have some beliefs: I believe in believing, in freedom and in humour. I believe in humour to the point of being rude. If an action is assured to make someone laugh later on that day, it is almost completely justified. (Take notice: almost! Because some things are just not acceptable.) I guess it´s Stuart Mill´s utilitarianism applied to laughter.

Now it gets tricky. Everyone should believe in something. It is a human right and need. I not only respect but also cherish it, because it is a sign that there´s still freedom and diversity in this world. But how can I respect someone who justifies murder with ideas like “unbearable disrespect for the prophet should be severely punished”?

“I aim to be tolerant and understanding but incidents like Charlie Hebdo´s in France outrage me”

I aim to be tolerant and understanding but incidents like Charlie Hebdo´s in France outrage me and I am afraid I might develop a biased opinion on muslims. And I am certainly not the only one because, whereas I am writing and pondering about what concerns me, there are people who forgot not all muslims are terrorists and decided to make justice with their own hands.

I´m afraid a violent comeback is to be expected: ignorance generates hate, which will develop into rage that will spread and produce terror. It´s how it is but it doesn´t make it less frightening. And I feel very ignorant: I don´t understand a lot of muslim beliefs and they don´t understand mine. Yet it could be the case that a muslim kid is thinking the same thing, the other way round.

So this is a call for those who are feeling concerned and confused: enough with the killing, enough with the bias. All I want is to read my Garfield strips tomorrow without having to worry if Jim Davis is about to be attacked by a bunch of angry persian cats who are tired of being fed lasagne.

About the author

The author once participated in one of My Europe´s workshops but wishes to stay anonym. In the light of the horrible attack in Paris on Wednesday, 7. January 2015, it was felt to express an opinion.