A couple of weekends ago I joined my flatmate and some friends on a guided tour of a neighborhood here in Brussels that has become notorious following the November attacks in Paris: Molenbeek.
Molenbeek is a densely populated commune on the outskirts of the city that became a working-class neighborhood during the Industrial Revolution and is known in our time as an immigrant ghetto - mostly Turks and Moroccans. Seven people from this area were arrested in connection with the recent Paris attacks. The Guardian referred to it as "Europe's jihadi central."
Brukselbinnenstebuiten (Brussels Turned Inside Out) is a Flemish non-profit that organizes guided tours of Brussels with local guides who know the city intimately because it's been their home for many years or their entire lives. A walk through Molenbeek is one they offer and I sincerely recommend it to you if you happen to be visiting.
Wear your sturdiest walking shoes and bring an umbrella because this tour is over 6 hours and the guide, Eric, will take you through every nook and cranny of this district with a commentary that ranges from the historical - why are there clocks on the buildings at many intersections? - to the sociological: What's going on with identity in this neighborhood? Who lives here and why do they stay? How do the old working-class residents, the immigrants, and the Trojan Horses, the upwardly mobile middle-class residents responsible for gentrification, all rub along with each other?
I once heard that to criticize without love is to do great violence to a person or a community. Eric spoke so eloquently about this neighborhood pointing out the things past and present that were beautiful, interesting or inspiring without hiding or glossing over the massive social problems like poverty and unemployment, This was his place and truly he knew it inside and out.
Erik was a resident of Molenbeek and his personal history said a lot about the neighborhood and about Brussels. The son of a Flemish native and a Spanish immigrant parent, he was educated in French schools. He speaks all those languages plus English. What I found most interesting about him was his way of looking at his own identity - how he resolves all the different elements that come together to make him what he is and how he is able to affirm everything and deny nothing.
Software, he said. I just think of it as software. Depending on the context, he's able to run whatever programs are appropriate. That day in Molenbeek he was running his English software. In another context he might run his French, Flemish or Spanish software. Occasionally, he admits, some of these things need upgrades. But they are saved in his brain ready to go and all he has to do is fire them up and run them when he needs them.
That's an interesting way to look at it. For one thing, he's saying that these things, these multiple, identifiable identities aren't his core identity. His identity as an individual - the true self - is one thing that sits at the center, and all the other identities are attached to that. Some of his programs were loaded by others (family and school) and some were ones he chose for himself.
What I loved about this is how it allows for a kind of personal neutrality toward some identities that arouse great passions and become the sources of contention within an individual and within communities. Forget the language wars or the autochtone versus the migrant and just say, "Today I am running French software because that's what is most useful in the context. But tomorrow I may load my Spanish or immigrant or native son software because that would be the most appropriate in this or that situation."
However, I think we can all agree that some identities, once loaded, are deadly. There is, Eric says, jihadi software that has spread like a virus through Molenbeek. And how exactly are we and this community to deal with that?
If this is software then what is the solution? An anti-jihadi program? An "uninstall" button? And how can anyone prevent deadly upgrades - the ones that say time to take up arms and passer à l'acte?
I don't know but it seems to me that it is imperative that we try. The merit of the "identity as software" approach is that it might keep us from falling into an equally dangerous frame of mind - one that confuses the people with the program.