It was Muslims.
That was the first worry of Melek Dogan, a 21-year-old Belgian woman, when she heard of the blasts at the airport and a subway station in Brussels.
In a country where wearing a headscarf or having an Arab-sounding name can often spell joblessness and suspicion, many Belgian Muslims are doubling down on national spirit even as they fear renewed discrimination from their fellow citizens. The pain is especially biting for the young, most of whom have never known a home other than Belgium and are facing down attackers with common backgrounds. The brothers in the attacks were 29 and 27. A suspected Islamic State bombmaker was just 24. All grew up in Belgium.
With Muslims among the dead and injured, many in Belgium’s Muslim communities say that they are fed up with being tarred by the actions of men whose attacks hit them as badly as the other residents of this nation. And in an only-in-Belgium inversion, many are reaffirming their patriotism even though some of the country’s most powerful leaders are ethnic nationalists who want to split the country into pieces.
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“To me, origins don’t really matter,” said Dogan, who was born in Belgium of Turkish immigrant parents. “I’m Belgian.”
Since Tuesday’s attacks, the square in front of Brussels’s grand 19th-century stock exchange building has become a gathering place for grieving residents of this city, and immigrants and the children of immigrants are powerfully represented.
The flags of Morocco, Tunisia, Turkey and Syria are displayed proudly. But none overshadows Belgium’s black-gold-and-red banner, which on Wednesday was borne by all shades in Brussels’s ethnic stew.
Dogan visited the stock exchange square, the Place de la Bourse, with a friend Thursday, spurred by a desire to be with others after a co-worker was slightly injured in the subway blast. The three work at a pastry shop in Molenbeek, the Muslim-majority area of Brussels that has earned a grim reputation as a hotbed of jihadist radicalization, although it is just a 10-minute walk from the city center.
“Here you can see everyone coming together,” said Dogan, looking around at the square, where hundreds of people had laid a thick carpet of flowers and candles to memorialize the dead. A minute of silence on Thursday stretched to two minutes, then five, then eight as hundreds of people quietly mourned together in the ordinarily bustling heart of the city.
The stillness was ended by a man who played taps on a pennywhistle.
Dogan said she did not know how long the spirit of solidarity would last – and she feared that the entire Muslim community would be vilified for the actions of a disaffected few.
“Terrorism is the problem,” she said. “It’s a shame for Belgium, because we’re going to pay for something we didn’t do.”
If Thursday’s mood outside the stock exchange was somber, a day earlier it had been an exuberant show of national pride, with people from various faiths and ethnic backgrounds chanting in a melange of French, English and Arabic.
“We love Brussels!” they declared. “Unity, not hate!”
Other chants cursed the Islamic State, a group that members of the crowd said is antithetical to their sense of religious and national identity.
“They say the attackers were Muslim, but Islam isn’t like that. This is not human behavior,” said Ines Aabajda, 16, who attended the vigil with a friend. “This isn’t our religion.”
Aabajda, the daughter of Moroccan immigrants, said she felt completely at home in Belgium and identified as Belgian. “I like my country, just like anyone from Belgium does,” she said. “It’s a small country, but the people are enthusiastic and kind.”
In Molenbeek, where joblessness runs several times the rate of Brussels as a whole, some residents are working to shift perceptions so that they are seen as the ordinary Belgians they say they are.
“How long do we have to wait?” said Ibrahim Ouassari, 37, who was born in Molenbeek to Moroccan parents. He said a teacher at his 12-year-old daughter’s school recently asked him to mark down his daughter’s “origin” next to her nationality in her registration papers, even though the family has lived in Belgium for three generations.
“Maybe my daughter’s children won’t be asked,” he said as he sipped coffee at a cafe in Molenbeek filled with trendy hand-hewn wooden tables and people typing on Apple computers.
Ouassari recently started a business incubator, Molengeek, that he hopes will bring fresh opportunities to the neighborhood. Young men and women will be less susceptible to the siren whisperings of radical imams if they have jobs to go to every morning. And if they have good products to sell, suddenly it won’t matter to customers that their names sound Moroccan, he said.
“In my mind, I think like a Belgian person, but you look at my face and you see an Arab,” he said. “But when we go to Morocco to visit family, they say, ‘Oh, you’re Belgian.’ It’s very difficult when you don’t have an identity. When you feel every time you need to give a justification when there is terrorism and bad things. And you have nothing to do with it.”
Given Belgium’s unusual ethnic and linguistic divisions – Dutch-speaking Flanders and French-speaking Wallonia have different school systems, parliaments and even health regulations – Ouassari joked that he and others with immigrant origins are better Belgians than those whose families have lived on this territory for centuries.
“Belgium is very fragmented. You have people who are Walloon, Flemish,” he said. “We don’t have this problem in our minds – we’re Belgian.”
Tuesday’s attacks targeted parts of the transit system at the peak of rush hour, so they were equal-opportunity in spreading terror.
Hanane el-Amrani, a cook at a refugee support center, said Thursday that she was worried about a friend who had been out of touch since the bombings.
“She took the metro to work, and we’ve had no news of her for two days,” Amrani said as she stood at the top of the stock exchange’s sweeping steps and surveyed the tapestry of people in front of her. Her friend Loubna Lafkiri is a mother of three and a gym teacher at a Muslim school in Brussels. “We’ve been contacting all the hospitals and checking all the ID lists,” said Amrani, 29, who wore a tight black headscarf.
Despite the discrimination that she said she faces for being Muslim, Brussels is her city, and Belgium her country, Amrani said.
“I’m a third-generation,” and her 4-year-old son is the fourth, she said. “We’re capable of succeeding here, no matter what.”
“There were so many people crying in the metro, it was chaos, and it could happen to any of us,” Amrani said. “I hope they find my friend. She still has love to give to her children.”