Belgium’s colonialism is still operative in the structures of its present society. Khadija Senhadji tells us about the various political actions that activists organize in Brussels to dismantle the racist and colonial imaginary and policies that the Belgian capital city continues to frame and produce.
Translated from French by Chanelle Adams.
After attacks that rocked France and Belgium in 2015 and 2016, Brussels quickly rose in international media coverage and the capital became branded as the hub of European “jihadism.” A closer look, however, reveals a genealogy of fractures and contradictions across the Brussels Region that date long before the tragic events that made it famous in only the last three years. Brussels is a cosmopolitan world-city, a metropolis in latent tension with its colonial past-present, grappling with ongoing racial, economic, and social challenges.
The central neighborhoods in Brussels are commonly known as the “poor crescent.” Bordering the canal along former industrial zones, these neighborhoods have the highest concentration of socio-economic precarity and significant demographic recomposition due to migratory flows from countries in the South. The city is also marked by a unique architectural feature that firmly anchors Belgium’s history of pillaging and colonial crimes in the present: a number of buildings and major roads bear the imprint of “Builder King” Leopold II, the genocidal king’s equestrian statue still proudly hangs over the Place du Trône at the top end of the city to remind any informed visitor that Belgium, and Brussels in particular, was partially financed by vast spoliation and exploitation punctuated by massacres during “la grande nuit coloniale” (“the great colonial night” described by Frantz Fanon) in the Congo.
On a political level, Brussels is located at the crossroads of Flemings and Walloons community tensions and has been for several decades. Until recently, the coalition that led the federal government since 2014 was run by the Neo-Flemish Alliance (NV-A), the largest Flemish party with nationalist aspirations aligning the party with the far right. During the last Parliament characterized by a national-liberal position, Brussels became a privileged target of Flemish separatists who held key government posts such in the Interior, Asylum, and Migration.
Attacks on the Brussels Region, the seat of institutions and the monarchy, demonstrated hatred of the federal state and also a political move to find fertile ground for racist policies, primarily in the forms of Islamophobia and Negrophobia. The attacks of Paris (2015) and Brussels (2016) initiated new forms of repression against the “poor crescent” and stigmatization of the area took on a new guise when the Canal Plan was adopted.
In addition to Molenbeek, every commune along the canal was targeted; the events rendered possible the search of hundreds of homes and the control of a considerable number of mosques and associations with even hints of Islamic orientations. Concomitantly, a policy of zero-tolerance was promoted at several gatherings of Maghrebi and Afro-descendant communities, and an extremely fierce hunt of migrants and undocumented migrants took place in the heart of the city.
These political events saw the emergence and reinforcement of various forms of anti-racist and decolonial resistance. While in recent years progressive have seen the crystallization of the most spectacular solidarity movement related to the reception and accommodation of migrants through the Citizen Refugee Support Platform (Plateforme citoyenne de soutien aux réfugiés), collectives of undocumented migrants simultaneously continue to tirelessly demand the closure of detention centers and the regularization of all undocumented migrants.
Last September marked the 20th anniversary of the murder of 20-year-old Nigerian refugee Semira Adamu, who was suffocated on a plane by Belgian police during a sixth deportation attempt. Memorials and commemorative events organized visibilized and renewed the political continuum on the question of migration which has existed for over two decades. Whether socialists or nationalists are in power in Belgium, the criminalization of migrants has remained a constant thread over the years: 20 years later, the Kurdish parents of two-year-old Mawda Shawri who was shot in the head by Belgian police continue to be threatened to leave the territory after the tragedy despite the fact that their little daughter is buried on Belgian territory. The Justice and Truth Committee for Mawda, formed in the wake of his death, scrupulously follows the evolution of the investigation and demands for the regularization of his family on a humanitarian basis.
Nonetheless, the question of migration has been drawn into the whirlwind of the battle against terrorism. It is in this vein that one evening in February of 2018, in the shadows of the Canal Plan, undocumented migrants were arrested on the premises of a cultural and artistic association. Belgium is not left out from collateral damages produced by the international fight against terrorism. The latter is being used to justify a factory of indefensible actions on a federal level, such as the extension of the deprivation of nationality and modifications to the consular code — a sub-citizenship status for binationals, full of unclear half-words without any political opposition or citizen perspectives. These abuses are clear in the case of Ali Aarrass, a Belgo-Moroccan accused of terrorism and sentenced to twelve years in prison in Morocco after an unfair trial and on the basis of confessions obtained under torture.
Despite the torture and abuses suffered, Ali Aarrass was ignored by the Belgian state and deprived of all consular assistance. Aarrass has served as a catalyst for a broad reach of causes beyond the fight for his release such as the denunciation of collateral effects of the fight against terrorism and the demand for equal rights and dignity in favor of binational citizens. The Free Ali Committee, formed during the last ten years, calls for the immediate release of Ali Aarrass in accordance with the U.N.’s position and denounces the normalization of two-tiered citizenship in Belgium: a full and unconditional citizenship versus one that is met with caution and the duty to be exemplary. The Ali Aarrass Choir takes on this cause. Aiming to reach a wider audience through artistic, theatrical practice to extend the agora and situate Aarass’ case within the long history of colonial domination from 1492 to the present day.
The city as a space where relations of coloniality are deployed in a privileged way also gives rise to organized forms of resistance and action to decolonize public space. The inauguration of a Lumumba Square in June 2018 in the Matonge district is just one example of a long-standing demand in public space.
Leopold II’s statue, although disputed by supporters of knocking it down, is an opportunity for the overthrow of symbols and signifiers when, during a rally, it is covered with red paint to symbolize the blood of Congolese people massacred during colonization or is lined with portraits of great decolonial figures such as Patrice Lumumba, Malcolm X, and Mumia Abu-Jamal. The Royal Museum of Central Africa, now called AfricaMuseum after a period of restoration, also gives way to debates about the restitution of ill-gotten objects and treasures acquired during the colonial period. These questions are an especially important moment for members of African diasporas asserting themselves as political subjects seeking liberation from all forms of coloniality of power and the knowledge that upholds it.
If commitment to public space remains a mode of public demands, the decolonial struggles in Brussels do not stray from this idea. Whether for its rallies for Gaza, the annual day against police brutality on March 15, or the “Nous sommes la valeur ajoutée” (We are the added value) rally — in response to the Secretary of State who said he did not see the added value of Moroccans and Congolese in Belgium — the street becomes a theatre to rally dignity.
More broadly, being a subject of one’s time is a challenge which cuts across the whole field of decolonial political anti-racism which aims to bring to light the specific historical and political conditions of each context which preceded the advent of racism and continue to produce material effects today. Mechanisms of social, political, and symbolic processes of relegation, disqualification, discrimination and unequal treatment that systematically affect non-white populations, and all other forms of State racism are produced or encouraged implicitly by institutional and state logics.
This was exactly the direction of the march in Brussels on December 1 by the Rosa Parks Belgium Collective, a platform of anti-racist activists. A continuation of previous decolonial gatherings and demonstrations, this action rose up against the many variations of state racism including its imperialist and liberal expressions. The Rosa Parks Collective situates its action in an enduring legacy of activism that combines issues of structural racism with those of neo-liberal capitalism and imperialism.
In a context where anti-racism continues to be partially infiltrated by progressive and institutional fields, the task ahead remains great if we are to truly understand the decolonial forces emerging in Brussels in a structured way, while insisting on articulating the different trends that compose it. Nevertheless, the numerous actions and struggles in Brussels, which this dispatch can only begin to describe, undeniably face state racism and colonial issues on local and transnational levels. ■