In Molenbeek, just hours before the raid and Brussels lockdown

Brussels – It was a 20-minute metro ride from the Schuman station under the European Quarter to what seemed like somewhere in North Africa or Middle East, if not for the names of the streets that suggest the place is still very much part of Brussels.

One of the 19 communes in the Belgian capital of Brussels, Molenbeek-Saint-Jean, also known as Molenbeek, has been described by some as the hotbed of Europe’s Islamic radicalism. It was thrown into the international media spotlight after Belgian authorities arrested seven people there over the weekend after the Paris attacks on Friday, 13 November.

Shops selling Muslim fashion lined a street near Molenbeek's town square. Photo: The Parrot/Ismira Lutfia Tisnadibrata
Shops selling Muslim fashion lined a street near Molenbeek’s town square. Photo: The Parrot/Ismira Lutfia Tisnadibrata

The spotlight was still evident on the following Friday, 20 November, with the presence of satellite news gathering trucks, camera tripods on standby and groups of journalists taking footage or interviewing people at Molenbeek’s town square, just a few metres away from the metro station exit.

Molenbeek is a 5.9-square-kilometre area with about 95,000 inhabitants as of January, according to Brussels Institute for Statistics and Analysis (BISA). Muslims make up 25 percent of Brussels’ roughly one million population and parts of Molenbeek have a Muslim population of 80 percent, mostly of Moroccan origin.

The shops have Arabic signage and names. Many of them were closed, probably because it was almost noon and the obligatory Friday prayer for Muslim men was approaching. The streets were quiet during the 15-minute walk from the town square to one of Brussels’ biggest mosques, Al Khalil.

It wasn’t easy to find it without a minaret or a wide, arched front entrance usually seen in a mosque, but a butcher from a nearby halal meat shop told The Parrot that the mosque was right across a white van that was parked on Rue Delaunoy.

A signane of Molenbeek and the peace symbol posted on the window of a building in Molenbeek, Belgium on 20 Nov 2015. Photo: The Parrot/Ismira Lutfia Tisnadibrata
A signane of Molenbeek and the peace symbol posted on the window of a building in Molenbeek, Belgium on 20 Nov 2015. Photo: The Parrot/Ismira Lutfia Tisnadibrata

Even with such a clear direction the mosque seemed nowhere to be seen. The building across the white van looks more like a garage workshop and the only readable sign shows that the adjacent open space is a parking lot. But a notice posted on the building’s sliding doors confirmed that it was Al Khalil Mosque.

The notice was a press release from the biggest Muslim institution in Belgium Ligue d’Entraide Islamique or Islamic Mutual Aid League that runs the mosque, condemning the Paris attacks.

“Our humanity and our religious beliefs require us to firmly and absolutely disapprove these practices that have disturbed public order and prevailing peace in our societies,” the league said in the statement.

A quick look inside the building showed that Friday prayer preparation was underway and soon a man, seemed on alert that two strangers were curiously peeking into the building, came out to ask us what we wanted.

“If you want to meet and interview the Imam, please come back in one and a half hour when the Friday prayer begins,” he told The Parrot and a fellow Indonesian journalist.

But we were not the only journalists seeking to meet the Imam. Journalists from a Hungarian news outlet and Belgium’s French-language broadcaster RTBF were also there to interview him, to whom the man told the same thing.

There were also more journalists, whom we saw at the town square earlier, at a local deli where we had lunch.

Congregration listened to sermon before Friday prayer at the Al Khalil mosque in Molenbeek, Belgium on Friday, 20 Nov 2015. Photo: The Parrot/Ismira Lutfia Tisnadibrata
Congregration listened to sermon before Friday prayer at the Al Khalil mosque in Molenbeek, Belgium on Friday, 20 Nov 2015. Photo: The Parrot/Ismira Lutfia Tisnadibrata

When we returned to the mosque, the man greeted us again at the door and invited my male colleague into the mosque.

“But you, madame, please go to the ladies’ prayer room through that door over there,” he told The Parrot.

He went inside the building with my colleague but quickly reappeared and approached me.

“Alright, you can go inside but you have to cover your hair first,” he said.

The mosque management seemed prepared that the media circus was coming as the man handed out the press release that was posted on the door and told us to go to a designated corner behind the hundreds of worshippers. At least 20 male journalists had already gathered in the corner on standby with their tripods and cameras.

“After the prayer, the Imam will meet you here. He will give a statement and you can ask him questions,” the man told journalists in the mosque.

The Friday prayer started with the Imam, Mustafa Kastit, reading out the press release.

“No reason nor devotion can justify those cruel acts,” he said of the Paris attacks that happened a month ago.

“Islam is a religion which advocates a society of coexistence based on respect and dignity for each and everyone,” he said and proceeded to deliver his sermon in Arab first and then French.

Mustafa said in his sermon that he addressed it to his friends, fellow Muslims and society in general. He also spoke about the need to have equal employment opportunity for local Muslims.

Moleenbeek had 53.2 percent female unemployment rate was while male unemployment was 28.6 percent, according to BISA.

The town square of Brussels' Molenbeek. Photo: The Parrot/Ismira Lutfia Tisnadibrata
The town square of Brussels’ Molenbeek. Photo: The Parrot/Ismira Lutfia Tisnadibrata

Mustafa also condemned the terror attacks in Paris, saying “terrorists don’t have nationalities, [skin] colors and don’t have religions.”

After the prayer, another preacher delivered another sermon and by the time we got to meet Mustafa, after his interview with RTBF, the mosque’s muezzin was calling for Asr prayer. Mustafa said he would see us after the prayer but due to time constraint, we could not wait that long and had to leave Molenbeek.

Media reports said on that Friday evening, Belgian police raided an apartment building in Molenbeek’s Rue Jean-Baptiste Decock, which is about 400 meters from Rue Delaunoy where the mosque is located, in search of one of the Paris attackers Salah Abdeslam. They didn’t find him but found weapons in one of the apartments. A few hours laters, authorities raised security alert to a maximum level in the Belgian capital, which prompted the Brussels lockdown for several days.

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