From a Racist Imaginary to Gentrification: TV News, Politicians, Police and Developers in Molenbeek

Molenbeek (photo by Leopold Lambert 2014)2

One of the most recurrent questions asked by French main media in their current campaign against — the animosity they manifest allows this term to be used here — any form of manifestation of Islamic public signs consists in asking “How many Molenbeeks is there in France?” to which the usual televisual “experts” answer without blinking that France has been doing a better work than Belgium when it comes to constraining “Salafists” — a word that they evidently just learned — to the Republic’s order. Beyond the traditional French condescension towards the northern neighbors (jokes about Belgium people is an entire genre of humor in France), there is this dubious labelization of one of Brussels’ 19 municipalities (Sint Jans Molenbeek) into a synonym of crawling “jihadism” neighborhood; a labelization never questioned by any of these “experts.” This article will attempt to shortly introduce the process that such a stigmatization of a neighborhood inevitably triggers. Whether this process is understood and deliberated engaged by its concerned actors is irrelevant here. My arguments won’t be that news anchor, politicians, police officers and developers are meeting every Tuesday night to discuss about how they will engage the strategy described here, but that these four actors all play a crucial role in this process according to a specific chronology.

Molenbeek is a West-Brussels neighborhood where 94,000 people live, many of which are persons and families of Moroccan Rif descent. Among these residents, 10 were part of a group of 20 people responsible for the coordinated attacks that killed 130 people in Paris on November 13, 2015 and 32 people in Brussels on March 22, 2016. What allows the media and politicians to demagogically ignore the proportion that 10 people out of 94,000 represents, is the fact that Molenbeek is a piece of urbanity that Arab residents, a certain amount of whom carries signs of their faith, have appropriated, in the same way than any population residing in towns where the notion of public space actually means something. Even reasonable journalists seem to believe that they would not be writing a credible article if they were not acknowledging the visible manifestation of political forms of Islam in Molenbeek, as well as a supposed high rate of delinquency and criminality in the neighborhood (usually described through hearsay). However, when one looks at the actual statistic of reported illegal acts, one can only notice that the ones accounted for Molenbeek are significantly lower (often twice less) than the ones for the municipality of Brussels or other municipalities of the capital. We could expect serious journalists to find a way to generate the following graphs but that is apparently too much to ask for:

Molenbeek crime comparison 1Molenbeek crime comparison 3Police statistics of criminality between 2000 and 2014: blue is for Brussels municipality, yellow is for Sint Jans Molenbeek. (1) Weapons and explosives, (2) Drugs, (3) Physical assaults, (4) Burglary, theft, carjacking, homejacking, etc. Source: (comparison with other municipalities can be made in case those are not revealing enough)

Once again, I won’t differentiate the journalists and politicians who actually know these figures and nonetheless decide to participate to what I called in a past article “fearful discursive contamination” and those who have simply not done their job by not knowing these numbers. The consequences of such discourse stigmatizing a specific neighborhood consists in an increased societal antagonism against its population and a subsequent simulacrum of legitimacy for police and/or military forces to repress it. In November 2015, I had already written an article for Warscapes entitled “Deadly Rhetoric of Strongholds and Bastions,” in which I was comparing this antagonizing discoursing process at work in Burj Al-Barajneh (South Beirut, described as a “Hezbollah stronghold” by Western media after a ISIS-led suicide attack killed 43 people on November 12, 2015), Gaza (the process to “decivilianize” Palestinians by the Israeli army is not to be presented here anymore), the French banlieues, and Molenbeek. Although it might appear innapropriate to compare a territory like Gaza with a relatively central neighborhood of the European capital city — the call by French right wing intellectual Eric Zemmour to bomb Molenbeek rather than Raqqa after the November attacks notwithstanding — one has to realize that the logic through which racist discourses and police/military interventions work together are comparable, despite the significant difference of degree of violence that they respectively trigger in these two examples.

Police interventions are however not the end of this process. Once the various forms of resistance to the dominant order (i.e. what participates to an imaginary of dangerosity to the average white person) are no longer visible in this neighborhood, a radical transformation of its urbanity can be implemented. A small walk along on the canal or in the adjacent districts North and East of Molenbeek already provides a vision of the municipality’s future. Its location in the city — on the contrary of French banlieues — associated to the low price of its real estate (encouraged by the rhetoric examined here) makes it a significant asset to developers whose projects are currently being built in its vicinity (see photos below). Molenbeek residents and people standing in solidarity with them should therefore be cautious of corporations buying land in their municipality, if not currently, in the months to come. Real estate projects take a few years to be built and developers are very likely to know that the few years of heavy policing and public work that will necessarily follow the current situation will drastically increase the value of property in the neighborhood.

Molenbeek gentrification (The Funambulist) New real estate residential projects in the “Canal District” (left, photo in 2014 / right, screenshot from

In her contribution to the first Ila Souria colloquium at the Institut du Monde Arabe (Paris) in October 2013, architect Irène Labeyrie affirmed that parts of the bombing of rebellious neighborhoods of Damascus by the Assad regime has been done with future urban projects in mind, in order to accelerate the demolition of these areas (see text and video of her presentation). The visualization of a satellite photograph in the neighborhood of Yalda, in the precise and systematic destruction it introduces certainly renders credible such affirmation. Here again the comparison between Damascus and Molenbeek can only make sense if we think in terms of logic at work, rather than in similitude of violence. The logic of this process is however precisely what this text attempts to demonstrate. The process to which Molenbeek is currently subjected is a known one and its violence can only be delegitimized if the imaginary in which this piece of urbanity is depicted changes radically. The generalized racism that allows the conscious or (even more perverse) the unconscious equation of Muslim bodies with criminality, if not terrorism and of a predominantly Arab neighborhood with a sense of insecurity from the white part of the population (overwhelmingly represented in the media, politicians, the police and developers/architects) is the problem that we should be addressing here. As always, architects have a strong responsibility in the violence of the process described in this article since their authorship brings value to and enables the real estate projects that will end the chronology of displacement of the antagonized population. Along with journalists, they should therefore be at the forefront of the construction of an anti-racist imaginary linked to the city and its various neighborhoods.

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