The Brussels attacks. An analysis of grief

In the light of the tragic events that occurred on the 22th of March in our beloved capital, many questions are raised regarding responsibility, hypocrisy and Islam. The following article is an attempt at a refreshing reflection on these topics.

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Cycle of innocence

The discussion as to the deeper roots of such evil will doubtlessly be sparked the coming weeks. Conducting an analysis on a macro-societal level may lead us to the conclusion that the underlying cause of radicalization, and eventually homeland terrorism, are the social conditions of poverty and denial of opportunities as a breeding ground for jihadi recruitment. Therefore, investing in education and social facilities will eventually prove to be the only feasible solution to a larger societal problem. So let us indeed, in the words of the Belgian Minister Jambon, “clean up” the suburbs of Brussels -only not in the way he intended this (and, quite cynically, failed). If this is the goal that will be set in the aftermath of March 22nd then at least something positive has come out of this tragedy.

Nevertheless, pointing to such reasons can also be quite unsatisfying, especially for people closely involved or the victims’ relatives. Can we really reduce this problem to socio-economic factors? To which extent can we find a fully rational explanation for a deed so irrational? And if we reduce this problem to socio-economic factors, doesn’t that diminish the responsibility of the wrongdoers? Isn’t there the risk of an endless cycle of finger-pointing with no one taking the blame? “Underprivileged”, “radicalized”, “brainwashed”: how about bad people doing bad things?

Looking ahead, no one in their right mind will deny that everything must be done in order to prevent radicalisation of the Islamic youth. But we at the same time we must keep in mind that no set of circumstances will ever justify acts that are so horrendous.

Selective grief

Let us not be the umpteenth alternativo yelling that people who are saddened about Paris or Brussels are hypocrites because they didn’t light candles for, let’s say, Beirut. Isn’t it a natural, human reflex to emotionally differentiate between dramas that happen very close to us, and events that occur on another continent in a completely different context?

Nevertheless, there is a certain degree of honesty that needs to be observed. Merely ten days ago, 37 persons were killed in bombings in Ankara. That’s three more than in Brussels. Why wasn’t there a minute of silence in the American House of Representatives? Why didn’t the BurjKhalifa, the Brandenburger Tor, the Eiffel Tower light up in the red and white of the Turkish flag? At least we were informed of these bombings by the mainstream media, but what about the recent attacks in Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Tunisia, Somalia? They all occurred in the past weeks and months, but as they take place in Africa they seem to be of little importance.

In other words, we should be aware of the fact that context is of paramount importance. Suddenly we realise that our Fortress Europe isn’t actually as sacrosanct and inviolable as we thought. When Trump referred to Brussels as a “hell hole” some time ago, this was yet another fogey statement of an unhinged populist speaking with an obvious political agenda. Now, it has become a reality.

The wrong debate

Among every population group, there are extremists. There is no reason to believe that this is any different for the current refugee population, even more so because the refugees mainly flee from countries that are torn apart by sectarian conflict. It is not impossible that some of the people we accept into our country now, or, perhaps more likely their children, will attempt to terrorize our state.

Why is it considered taboo to suggest that the refugee crisis will spark future homeland terrorism, even though it is a fairly logical conclusion? It seems that in the current debate there is only room for two possible positions: either refugees pose no threat, ergo we let them in (‘leftist’), or refugees aren’t desirable, ergo we shouldn’t let them in. Isn’t it possible that from a purely economic or nationalist point of view they are not desirable, but we should help them nonetheless? In the sense that there is a desirability on an ethical level. People seem to avoid the dilemma: refuse innocent people shelter or decrease national security.

12900226_989353784446720_2133535456_nThe current discussion on the refugee crisis is being held on an entirely wrong level. People should accept the fact that stopping migration for one is not possible, and even if it were, not desirable from an ethical point of view. That’s not the same as saying that it is always a blessing for the host country. There is nothing noble about willingness to accept refugees while denying it has a negative impact on our society. It is accepting refugees in spite of the negative consequences, that makes us humane. Humanity is the realization that someone whose moral views are incompatible with ours doesn’t deserve to die in a war that isn’t theirs. It is knowing that someone who was raised to believe that women are inferior is not automatically stripped of their right to physical integrity. The current left-right debate isn’t a debate on solidarity, it is a debate on opportunism. And that doesn’t fare the refugees all too well either.

Is IS Islam?

Another false dilemma seems to exist regarding the questions whether “IS is Islam(ic)”. Once again, it appears that there are only two possible standpoints: “IS is bad, IS is Islam, thus Islam is bad” versus “IS is bad, but IS isn’t Islam, so Islam isn’t necessarily bad.” Being no expert on any religion, we need to argue carefully here, but it seems delusional to deny that IS is a radical Islamic terrorist organization. Bernard Haykel, professor Near Eastern studies at Princeton and described by journalist G. Wood as “the foremost secular authority on the Islamic State’s ideology”, said:

“[…]Koranic quotations are ubiquitous. Even the foot soldiers spout this stuff constantly,[…]. They mug for their cameras and repeat their basic doctrines in formulaic fashion, and they do it all the time. The claim that the Islamic State has distorted the texts of Islam is preposterous, sustainable only through willful ignorance. People want to absolve Islam […] As if there is such a thing as “Islam”! It’s what Muslims do, and how they interpret their texts … And [IS] have just as much legitimacy as anyone else. “[1]

Even a coherent, comprehensive, modern code of law – let’s say, German style– doesn’t always allow a judge to assess decisively whether a certain act is legal or not. And the Qur’an is not exactly modern or coherent, for that matter. It is but a symbol, and questioning whether IS follows the Qur’an is equally senseless as asking whether the Christian church acted according to the Bible when they incited thousands of people to conquer Jerusalem. No, IS does not represent Islam, but that is no more than the conclusion of a quantitative analysis: there are exponentially more moderate Muslims than extremists. Founding the same conclusion on a qualitative research, namely evaluating whether the acts of IS are compatible with the letter of the Qur’an, is a pointless project. For instance, the respective positions of Hafid Bouazza and Dyab Abou Jahjah clearly show that a consensus on this will never be reached, not even within the small community of intellectual, integrated, Belgian Muslims. The simple reason is that is the discussion as such is completely senseless.


This contribution was written by Arthur Goemans & Victor-Jan Goemans, both law students at the KU Leuven, with a special interest for international law.  Arthur Goemans earlier wrote a text concerning the Paris attacks.


[1]  Wood, G. (2015). What ISIS really wants. The Atlantic, 315(2), 78.