Per capita, more foreign fighters in Syria come from Belgium than any other country in Western Europe. France, Germany, and the United Kingdom have each produced more fighters in total (1700, 760, and 760, respectively), but plucky little Belgium tops the charts proportionate to its population. According to a 2015 report, Belgians represented nearly 500 fighters in extremist groups fighting in Syria and Iraq.
It’s important to emphasise that we’re talking about a tiny minority of people. Nevertheless, the question is valid: why is Belgium producing so many more militants per capita than other countries? Is the root cause socio-economic inequality among Belgian’s minority Muslim population? A failure of integration policies? Or does the problem lie with Belgium’s (occasionally chaotic) federal system of government and overstretched, under-funded intelligence services?
When we asked for your thoughts on the Brussels attacks, we had a comment sent in from Shah, condemning the attacks but also wanting to know why Belgium is the largest contributor of foreign fighters in Syria proportionate to its population. He argues there must be “something seriously wrong in [Belgium] when it comes to minority treatment.”
To get a reaction, we spoke to Professor Maurits Berger, Chair of Islam and the West at Leiden University Centre for the Study of Religion. How would he respond to Shah?
Yes, this is the thousand-dollar question. Why are there more Syria fighters from one country than another? Even within Belgium, we see that there’s a lot of Syria fighters from one municipality, and actually none from another… What we do know is that there’s a very strong social factor among the youth in certain environments. [But] when it comes to the country at large, I have the impression that in Belgium there are tensions, just like in other countries, but for a long time they have not been discussed, and instead swept under the carpet…
To get another perspective, we put Shah’s question to Martin Conway, Professor of Contemporary European History at the University of Oxford. Professor Conway specialises in the history of Belgium, so can he think of historical reasons for the numbers of foreign fighters?
I think it’s important, Shah, to appreciate that we’re still talking about small minorities. But there must be some peculiar, specific Belgian basis to this, and I think I would emphasise two aspects to that. One is that the transformation of most Belgian urban communities into very diverse, multi-faith environments has been really very recent, and has often been accompanied by real economic difficulties, with a lot of people leading quite marginalised lives. Also, therefore, we have seen problems of social integration, especially in a context where, for a long time, Belgian local government has been rather under-resourced and, in some respects, rather amateurish.
But the other aspect I would also emphasise is that it is, exactly as we see elsewhere in Europe, in those sort of urban, multi-faith environments that the paths to radicalisation have been most explicit. One sees it in London, one sees it in Paris, but one also sees it in Brussels and other Belgian cities, where particular forms of identification with Islam present a counter-ideology to the world that some young people find themselves inhabiting.
Finally, we spoke to Herman Matthijs, Professor in Public Finance at the Universities of Ghent and Brussels. How would he respond to Shah? Would he agree with Professor Conway’s point about problems with local government?
I think that nobody knows the perfect answer to this question. Belgium is indeed the greatest contributor of foreign fighters proportionate to its population size, and within Belgium it’s concentrated on the Brussels area. Certainly, there are 90 communes in Brussels and 6 police zones, and the authorities didn’t really have enough human intelligence concerning the attacks… But there are also problems in the education system, problems with parents not taking enough responsibility for their children, problems with the Schengen system, and problems with the authorities in general. But as to the specific question: “Why Belgium”? Nobody really knows.
Why do so many foreign fighters in Syria come from Belgium? Is socio-economic inequality to blame, or failed integration policies? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below, and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!