The deadly terrorist attacks in Brussels on 22 March were profoundly shocking, especially for those of us in the vicinity. I was at work in my parliamentary office when the suicide bombers detonated their bombs at Maalbeek Metro station in the European quarter. We did not hear anything but the atmosphere in the Parliament had already changed as reports of the Zaventem Airport attacks were circulating. When something like this happens we all realise it could have been us.
Like the recent attacks at the Bataclan in Paris, the beach in Tunisia, the Jewish Museum in Brussels or the café in Copenhagen, we know that 21st century warfare is not confined to faraway countries but can visit the very heart of our modern Western civilisation. Our European colonial histories, recent errors of judgement, heavy-handed foreign policy, the collective global punishment of the poor for the mistakes of the rich, the marginalisation of minorities, xenophobia, the scapegoating of refugees and impoverished migrants – all these things have brought us to where we are today.
I use my elected position as a platform to advance social justice, challenging the neo-liberal austerity narrative that has failed not only the people of Europe but visited untold misery on other countries, especially those in the developing world.
The Brussels attacks, although devastating for the victims and their families, were not entirely unexpected. With mass unemployment and cuts in public services, thousands of young people across Europe, particularly males, have found themselves disconnected from the society in which they have grown up. The empty space in a young person’s life can provide a breeding ground for extremism, not only in migrant communities but also indigenous populations. Young disaffected Muslims might be wooed by radical Islam while their white counterparts are prey to racist forces such as the EDL. Our youth service and community and voluntary sector should be supported by the government, not decimated by cuts.
What is there for young people today with time on their hands but no money or responsibility, no place to hang out, bored at school and demonised in the press for being young and unemployed? Well, there are a surprising number of civic-minded local youth programmes in our communities, many of them rooted in our Muslim population. Last year I successfully nominated one of them, Blackburn-based SLYNCS, for a European Citizens Award. The day after the Brussels attacks, I was back in the region to give out awards organised by another, the Myriad Foundation, and in May I will be meeting with another group of engaged Muslim youths from Community on Solid Ground at the European Youth Forum in Strasbourg.
Unless we tackle the root cause of marginalisation we will never win this war. It requires us to see young people of all ethnicities and faiths as potential assets to our diverse modern communities, not as empty vessels waiting to be filled with dangerous anti-social ideologies.
This positive view of youth permeates my report for the European Parliament on Intercultural Dialogue, Cultural Diversity and Education. It provides a framework for action that could stem the rush to radicalisation the West is so fearful of, and in doing so provide all our young people, regardless of ethnicity, with the ability to accept others.