The bombs that went off in Brussels on the third day of spring had been expected for a long time. The Belgian capital is a major hub for politics and culture at the heart of the European project—in other words, the perfect target. It is also a major destination for immigrants. Estimates of the Muslim population of Brussels are in the double-digits, often clustered in poorer residential suburbs such as Molenbeek. Immigrants and second-generation Europeans are visible throughout the city, giving Brussels the cosmopolitan flair of a twenty-first century European metropolis.
Throughout the 1960s and 1980s, when a large wave of immigrants arrived from Turkey and Morocco, it seemed like it would be impossible to integrate them. But reflexive racism soon met the reality of daily life. Political parties that peddled xenophobia, such as the Vlaams Blok, were ostracized on moral grounds. And it was clear that the lifestyle of the second generation would align well with that of the average Belgian. They shared language, soccer, and eating (particularly drinking) habits. Young women flocked to jobs and higher education. Young men faced a more difficult journey to employment, but some did well in a structurally tight labor market. And outside of the capital, the Belgian government had limited the density at which immigrants could settle in each neighborhood or village in order to encourage integration.
Against the current of assimilation, a few discovered their Muslim and immigrant origins and claimed them as a badge of difference and victimization. Inspired, incited by violence in the Middle East, the killings began. Islamists struck Paris in 1994–95; Madrid, in 2004; London, in 2005; and Paris again, twice, in 2015. Throughout that period, Germany had a few lucky escapes. And Brussels was bracing itself for what was coming.
To be sure, victims have been few and far between, and the killers’ actions are marginal to the daily interactions between majority and minority populations. But the very randomness of the killings has helped them capture the continent’s attention.
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