In a bid to help Molenbeek shed an image as a hotbed of Islamist extremism, schoolchildren led a march to central Brussels wearing T-shirts stamped with “jihad for love.”
They were followed by Muslim, Christian and Jewish leaders to show solidarity with the broader Belgian society as it mourns the 32 people killed in the suicide bombings in Brussels exactly a year ago.
“This shows a positive face of Molenbeek,” Fatima Zibouh, one of the march organisers, told AFP after the group reached Place de la Bourse, which has become the focal point of national mourning.
Culminating in a crowd of several hundred people from all religions, they mingled with relatives of the dead as well as those wounded in the attacks who also spread a message of peace and love.
“What we wanted to do above all is to provide space for citizens to express their solidarity and pay tribute to the victims of the attacks,” she added.
The march, she said, was also a way to “turn the page” and allow Molenbeek’s citizens to return to ordinary lives after all the negative media and political attention it received after the November 13, 2015 Paris attacks and the March 22, 2016 Brussels bombings.
Many of the attackers hailed from Molenbeek, a large Muslim community that suffers high crime rates.
Molenbeek has long been linked to radicalism, a fact highlighted in media coverage. But it is a community of around 95,000 people from nearly 100 nationalities that lies just a few metro stops from the gleaming headquarters of the European Union.
In 2001, it was in Molenbeek that the assassins of Afghanistan’s anti-Taliban commander Ahmad Shah Massoud had stayed.
It was also home to one of the 2004 Madrid train bombers and the main suspect in the 2014 Jewish Museum attack in Brussels, while the perpetrator of a foiled attack on an Amsterdam-Paris train in 2015 stayed in Molenbeek with his sister before boarding in Brussels.
‘Children are our future’
Pharred, a Molenbeek shop owner who watched the march gather, hoped for a future where extremism on all sides gives way to a moderate centrism and said the solidarity march would help a little.
“The children are our future,” the Belgian-born man of Moroccan origin said.
However, he added, that the divide between Belgium’s Muslims and non-Muslims “had worsened” since the attacks because of negative media coverage, expressions of support for armed jihadists and provocative statements about Islam from politicians.
Mustafa, a retired school teacher, said it is now more difficult than ever for people with Muslim names to find jobs and expressed fears a growing extreme right could drive immigrants like him away from Europe.
“We the parents are especially afraid for the future of our children,” he told AFP as he marched behind the school children clutching a white rose.
He carried a sign saying “against terror, xenophobia and stigmatisation in order to live together in solidarity.”
Mustafa said a dream came true when he moved to Belgium in 1979 from his native Tangiers under the cloud of a Moroccan police state, becoming a citizen of a democratic country that respects the rights of all.
He said he was optimistic his dream would survive the current crisis.
As if to reinforce the point, worshippers from Attadamoun mosque in Molenbeek carried a banner: “Hand in hand to live together in peace.”
Mohamed el Bachiri, a Belgian-Moroccan from Molenbeek who lost his wife Loubna Lafquiri in the metro attack, broadcast a message of “jihad of love” over a screen set up at Place de la Bourse.
The message “should be the response to those who seek to divide us and spread violence and terrorism.”
Stefaan Plysier, a Dutch-speaking Belgian, said his message and the rally itself were an important starting point in a discussion to dispel the image of Islam and violence.
“We can find some universal values,” he said.