For Hassan Rahali and Hassan Beqqada, it’s the looks they get on the street or subway.
Both men are councilors in Muslim neighborhoods of Brussels – and both are feeling the effects of the March bombing of the airport and a metro station in the Belgian capital, carried out by home-grown jihadists. Men with Arab roots like them are glanced at with suspicion and some mosques now limit opening times to prayers because of concerns about revenge attacks, they said.
“People look at you as if you’re the same” as the terrorists, said Beqqada, 49, sipping Moroccan tea at a cafe across from the apartment in the Schaerbeek district that was used as a weapons cache.
The danger is that the mutual mistrust now festering in areas of some European cities will fuel the kind of violence and radicalization that governments and security forces are struggling to contain. The districts in Brussels provide a lesson for other capitals as the next generation of migrants from the Arab world arrive.
Rahali, 49, is a member of the council of Molenbeek, home to some of the March bombers who killed 32 people and the attackers who left 130 dead in Paris in November. "If there’s any separation between the communities in Belgium, Da’esh will win,” he said using the Arabic acronym of the Islamic State group. “That’s what they want.”
The risk is that people withdraw into their own narrow community, meaning divisions within cities become more entrenched.
Some in the Muslim community are trying to prevent that. Rahali organized cultural evenings at a local café, marched in an anti-terror protest and is helping plan a concert of classical Arabic songs that he hopes will attract Belgians from different backgrounds.
Ibrahim Abdou, a Palestinian who moved to Brussels five years ago, has made videos in Arabic urging Muslims to integrate and lashing out at extremist clerics, with one showing him visiting a church with the Koran, Islam’s holy book. The 37-year-old, who works with Syrian refugees at Catholic charity Caritas, urges the newcomers to assimilate instead of focusing on whether the food they’re eating is halal or whether the men should shake hands with Belgian women.
“I tell them: ‘If you cannot co-exist and will live in an atmosphere of halal or haram or such matters, then leave. Go back home,’” Abdou said.
Those interviewed in the Brussels districts said they were stunned the attackers came from their community. But they also couldn’t comprehend why Muslims should be blamed for what many said were criminal actions by a few.
High-school teacher Najib Almessbahi, 55, teaches Moroccan-Belgian children Arabic and Islamic studies on weekends. “It took us years to make the few gains that we now have and then these things happen and shake the whole structure,” he said in a make-shift classroom at a municipality building in Schaerbeek.
Belgium-born Karim Bazah, whose father came to the country 55 years ago, opened Le Palais de Balkis organic restaurant in Molenbeek in August to bring all communities together. He didn’t put a halal sticker on the window, but he also doesn’t serve alcohol in his modern, sleek restaurant.
Today, Bazah, 37, is upset that the focus is not on those in his community who have done well for themselves and the country but on the "criminals" and on issues like whether Muslims can integrate into European societies.
"Integration for me is the Kalashnikov of modern times," said Bazah at his restaurant, which serves cold cuts, salads and soups. "What does integration mean? I am Belgian. I was born here, so why should it be an issue?"
—With assistance from Jones Hayden