As details emerge about the tragic terrorist attacks in Brussels, media should take great care to accurately report on the attacks without making sweeping generalizations about the Belgian Muslim community. Media in the past have blamed European Muslim communities as a whole for terrorist attacks and parroted debunked myths about purported “no-go zones” that are supposedly off limits to non-Muslims.
On March 22, a series of explosions rocked Brussels' main international airport and part of its subway system, killing dozens of people and wounding hundreds more. Reuters reported that ISIS had claimed responsibility for the attacks. Media commented that “Tuesday's explosions at Brussels airport and on the subway network will turn the spotlight on the Belgian capital's Molenbeek suburb,” where one of the November Paris terrorist attackers, Salah Abdelsalam, was captured just days before.
In the aftermath of the Paris attacks, media noted that terrorist organizations, including ISIS and Sharia4Belgium, have “shifted [their] focus in recent years from promoting Islamic law in Belgium to recruiting for the war in Syria.” Terrorist organizations have exploited Belgium's large Muslim population to draw “more jihadists to the conflicts in Syria and Iraq per capita” than have come from “any other Western European nation,” according to CNN.
But to cast Brussels as a fraught city mired in inescapable terrorism not only is a mischaracterization, but also it inevitably leads to guilt by association for the entire Muslim community in the area.
Commentators should avoid conflating and blaming Molenbeek's Muslim community for the terrorist attack and its previous associations with terrorism. Media have previously reported that Molenbeek “is not a place that seems especially threatening,” a key distinction after “the so-called Belgian connection in the Paris attacks ... revived the district's reputation as the 'jihadi capital of Europe.'” Los Angeles Times reporter Patrick J. McDonnell noted that the residents of Molenbeek “decry” the “jihadi capital” “characterization ... as more media hype than reality.” The Atlantic similarly noted that Molenbeek “has a strong middle class, bustling commercial districts, and a gentrifying artist class,” and that “journalists seem to [have] little trouble reporting” from the neighborhood, which looks “in many ways like a typical, somewhat run-down district.”
Bilal Benyaich, an author of two books on radicalism, extremism, and terrorism, told Al Jazeera it is a mistake to conflate the reality of Brussels as the “European capital of political Islam” with the “exaggerated” claims that it is the “capital of jihad.” Similarly, The Guardian notes, “the concentration of violent militants in Molenbeek ... may not be about places, but people,” underscoring how although ISIS and other terrorist organizations have attempted to exploit Brussels' Muslim population, terrorism and violence are not inherent to the community.
Often when focus turns toward European-based terrorist attacks, media revive the debunked myth of so-called Muslim “no-go zones,” or supposedly Muslim-only enclaves where media allege that outside police forces are prevented from entering and Sharia flourishes. As has been documented, no such “no-go zones” exist. Instead, as Richard Engel explained on MSNBC's Morning Joe, these areas are fraught with socioeconomic distress, and residents there “will tell you that it's about racism, that they're blocked from jobs, that they're blocked from government employment, that they don't get the same kind of social services.”
Purveyors of misinformation in the past have spun these socioeconomic problems to allege that state governments “no longer [have] full control over [their] territory” and thus that these neighborhoods are off-limits to law enforcement, as U.S. historian Daniel Pipes mistakenly asserted in 2006.
In 2015, frequent Fox guest Steve Emerson -- part of the network's stable of extremists who lead its conversation about Islam -- seized on the “no-go zone” myth and provoked international outrage with the false claim that the city of Birmingham, England, is “totally Muslim” and a place “where non-Muslims just simply don't go.” As the Emerson controversy raged on, another Fox News guest argued that governments should “put razor wire around” the mythical “no-go zones” and catalog the residents. Days later, Fox News host Jeanine Pirro apologized for Emerson's “incorrect” comments, telling viewers, “We deeply regret these errors and apologize to the people of Birmingham, our viewers and all who have been offended.”
Already, media are beginning to inch toward the false assertion that “no-go zones” are both the cause and consequence of extremism and the Brussels terrorist attacks. The conditions of this tragedy seem to be similar to previous incidents, where pundits blamed a specific Muslim community or Muslim-majority city for the attacks.
Accordingly, media should take great care to undertake responsible, sensitive, and factually accurate reporting that avoids smearing Brussels' Muslim community and steers clear of the “no-go zone” myth.
This post has been updated for clarity.