THE bloody attacks on Paris have led investigators and European intelligence agencies into a former factory district near the heart of Belgium, now an immigrant enclave (40 percent Muslims) called Molenbeek. It is barely 25 minutes by foot from the city proper, Brussels, the thriving capital that is host to multilateral institutions with the all-too-familiar acronyms.
Many Filipinos working for the multilateral institutions, doing work for the WTO or doing attaché work, are based in Brussels and are quite familiar with this gritty immigrant district.
Newspaper accounts have tagged Molenbeek as “Jihad Central” and jihadists with connections to the area had participated, directly or indirectly, in some of the most infamous terror attacks on the two sides of the Atlantic, from the 9/11 World Trade center assault to the latest ones in Paris. The attack on a kosher supermarket in Paris right after the mass shooting of Charlie Hebdo journalists was another of the terror crimes tied to jihadists from Molenbeek. Belgium itself has not been spared from the acts of these homegrown jihadists, according to newspaper accounts.
Now, Belgium has sealed itself from the rest of the world, fearing a terror attack from young men and women it once called its own.
Why is Molenbeek and its immigrant-related configuration, an ideal training ground for those engaged in jihad? Why does it raise the likes of Abdelhamid Abaaoud? These are some of the questions that investigators are trying to unravel.
If areas such as Molenbeek get our attention despite the distance and the distinctly European setting, there are obvious reasons for that. In the heart of Metro Manila, we have urban areas with the same economic conditions and demographics as Molenbeek. Heavily populated with Muslims. Thriving and lively lower-class communities sandwiched by relatively affluent gated villages. Do you have an image of a commerce-oriented slice of urban Muslim Mindanao suddenly transplanted into the heart of Quezon City?
We have such areas, but with a caveat. Our version of Molenbeek are interested in commerce and trade, not in incubating future terrorists and in sending their young men into overseas jihad wars. One such area can be found in Culiat district in Quezon City, an area I am thoroughly familiar with.
Commuters along the Tandang Sora road covered by the Culiat district, whether bound for Commonwealth Avenue or the other side where the upper-class Tierra villages developed by the Kalaws are located, have identified the busiest jeepney stop of the route. This is a passageway in front of a small police outpost, too small to be called a real street.
Here, women in hijab (tied loose and with the faces fully exposed) embark or disembark non-stop, along with men dressed like imams, in flowing white robes. But the religiosity is somewhat obscured by their preoccupation with commerce. The women always carry merchandise, from fake pearls to Chinese made tablets and cell phones.
From where the narrow passageway starts, to where it snakes and ends, is almost alien, non-Tagalog country. It is an explosion of the Muslim tongues and women in headgears. It is as if one were transplanted on one busy trading day in Zamboanga City or Marawi City.
But one thing spills out and gets immediate attention. This is a commerce-only area and not much else. Any talk of caliphate-building or dying in overseas jihads will not get any traction here. You have to wonder why. Or just thank the heavens that Islamic fundamentalism has failed to get an audience here.
The Muslim enclave in Culiat, in many ways, features social and economic forces that are eerily similar to those at Molenbeek and other European communities that breed fundamentalist urges.
Yet, the Muslim community in Culiat defies the angst that predominates in these low-income, resentment-breeding European Muslim communities. That defiance gets more impressive if you know the geographical make-up of Culiat.
The Muslim community in Culiat, definitely low-income and much of it squatted on, is literally a stone throw from gated, upper-class communities developed on lands owned by the Kalaws. The “ Tierra “ developments are here – Bella, Pura, Evelina etc – and they provide a stark contrast to the blighted Muslim community.
You cannot say that there is no religiosity here. The central headquarters of the INC and its largest church are in the Culiat area and so are its major media and educational institutions. There is a Claretian minor seminary nearby.
Unlike in the Taguig City Muslim settlement, where descendants of the Sultanate of Sulu reside and where they exercise some sort of authority over the place, the Culiat settlement has no royal house presence and no recognized figure of authority.
To say that jihadist recruiters from the fringe, extremist groups in Mindanao have made recruitment attempts in the Culiat community is entirely plausible. The Culiat community, in theory, is an ideal breeding ground for youth alienation and discontent. The recruiters, fortunately for a metropolis with giant issues to confront, have largely gotten nowhere.
The culture in Culiat is not about suicide-bombing. It is either a deep-seated secularism or the unabashed ways of commerce.