The police raids in the Molenbeek district of Brussels against key suspects over their alleged connection to the Paris attacks has put the neighborhood under spotlight in terms of radicalism and terror recruitment.
But the locals living in the mainly foreign-populated district say they did not want to be stigmatized because of the Paris attacks, which were followed by a series of arrests in their neighborhood.
"The Arabs are saying ‘sorry’ for the things that happened in Paris," said 21-year-old student and Molenbeek resident, Mohammed Neuven, who is of Algerian origin.
"I feel like we all don’t have [anything] to do with all that; we don’t have to apologize for things we didn’t do," he said.
Molenbeek has been the focus of anti-terror operations after a wave of attacks in Paris on Friday claimed the lives of 129 people. Seven people were arrested in the district on Sunday over their links to the attacks.
But Mohammed is worried that the increased presence of police forces in the neighborhood might spark indiscriminate targeting of the locals.
"Now with all these attacks it’s going worse and worse…. it’s like an everyday struggle," he said. "We’re scared because we don’t know what will happen, maybe they will shoot us."
Mohammed was one of more than a thousand people who gathered in Molenbeek on Thursday to commemorate Friday's terrorist attacks in Paris and to denounce the negative image the neighborhood has received this week.
De Vaartkapoen, a community group that organized the gathering, said in a statement on Thursday: "We, inhabitants and friends of this community, are hurt by the further stigmatization and one-sided image building of Molenbeek and, even more so, by the call for repression."
"Molenbeek is a place where we live our lives, where we work, spend our leisure time and meet up with friends and family. Molenbeek is a diverse and lively community," the group said.
With a dense population and an unemployment rate of about 30 percent, Molenbeek has been described as a haven for radicalization and terror recruitment.
But Ali Javid, a 32-year-old shopkeeper of Pakistani origin in Molenbeek, says he feels safe with the police presence in the neighborhood and that their job is "to protect the people".
"The police and the governments are active here to protect the people," Javid said. "For me, Belgium is calm."
Belgium has the highest number of foreign fighters per capita in Europe, according to a UN report issued a year ago. According to Belgium’s Interior Ministry, there are about 270 Belgian citizens in Syria.
"Some people who are planning something bad…. they will be targeted," Javid said. "But if someone [is] living in a calm way and respects the rules then maybe police will not target these people."
Calls for intelligence sharing
In the wake of the Paris attacks – the worst of its kind targeting France since World War II – Belgium has called on countries to share more intelligence information to tackle terrorism.
"We try to exchange more and more intelligence; it’s the only way to find people with such a high level of radicalization," Belgium's Foreign Minister Didier Reynders said on Monday.
French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve has also called for stricter rules on the EU’s Schengen area and a faster implementation of the Passenger Name Record, which forces airlines to share passenger data with governments within the European Union.
By Ilgin Karlidag
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