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.