Dealing with the Brussels attacks’ – the quality of institutions vs cultural arguments

As an academic I am interested in questions regarding the quality of institutions, the quality of government and ultimately in the quality of politicians and policy-makers that govern our societies. The big question mark following events in Brussels was how could this happen exactly in the heart of Europe? Many words have been said of Belgium being a “failed state” but without any concrete evidence this is to my mind nothing more than a fallacy.

One potential answer for what is happening in Brussels has to do with with the overall environment in which young people can become radicalized.This is an alternative explanation to the abused, and extremely poor quality, “clash of civilisations” explanation.* Which extremists from the Islamic State would definitely want you to agree with. Simply because it empowers them.

Brussels is a fascinating city because it brings together people of different social, economic and religious backgrounds. For two years, I lived 5 minutes from the Maalbeek metro station that was attacked last week, in Saint Josse Ten Noode.

I always used to get out from the station under the big bridge and walk to my house through the Marie-Louise or Ambiorix park. However, these parks separate an extremely wealthy area of the city by one of its poorest. You can find luxurious restaurants very close to extremely poor shops and bars. What I am trying to say is that instead of looking at external factors, the people of Brussels have to question whether or not the partly segregated areas and the differences between rich and poor create an environment rife for extremism.

To find another plausible answer to these questions, we can also examine differences in intervention. For instance, in the link below you can find a testimony from the mayor of Mechelen, a Flemish city only one hour away from Brussels.** He argues that the secret for a lack of problems with Muslim youth in his city has to do with the following:

“You create a climate of people living together and not left behind and that’s the first step in preventing people to get frustrated, isolated and radicalized. Compared to other cities we give more money to prevention. We have youth workers, we have subsidized youth clubs and people who work in neighborhoods very closely to one another.”***

In other words, the city tries to create the right environment for people of all backgrounds and not allowing those with problems to drift away.

The question then is then who should create this environment? Firstly, politicians have the duty to do so. It has long been argued that the quality of politicians has to do with the poor development of some Brussels neighborhoods (that may be the case although concrete evidence needs to be seen on this). However, it is clear that political agents like the mayor of Mechelen would play an essential role in implementing the right mix of policies to address this issue.

Secondly, and probably most importantly, I think it is the overall community that has to organise itself and act together in a spirit of cooperation and solidarity. In this respect, the nouveau European Brussels middle class has to mobilize itself and address these problems by providing innovative social and economic solutions, and above all by trying to create an environment that doesn’t emphasize on socioeconomic status.

Finally, dialogue is a simple but effective solution. The different parts need to communicate with each other. The Brussels Communes need to organise public debates in which people will open up and find solutions to these collective problems. This is not anymore an isolated incident. It is a societal problem that all of us need to address.

*The clash of civilisations and the advocates of intervention only encourages a confrontational perspective that does nothing to alleviate the core problem, namely how communities themselves assume responsibility for these issues.

**Some would say that Flanders is obviously more developed and more likely to have inclusive policies as compared to the Brussels region or Wallonie. I think this cultural argument is a false. More and more academics point to the quality of institutions as one of the most important factor. For instance, in a research based on experimental methods, Zhang et al 2016**** found that if you give Italians the right fiscal institutions they will be inclined to pay their taxes much more than the British. Such an argument can also be tested for the differences between Flanders and Wallonie.




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