My Jihad: Confronting Extremism in Belgium

February 2, 2016

By May Bulman

Belgian journalist Rudi Vranckx joined an audience at the Frontline Club on Monday 1 February 2016 to discuss his documentary My Jihad, in which he explores how a small Belgian community is confronting extremism.

Following a screening of the powerful film, which reveals how a town in a country that saw 400 young people travel to Syria last year is tackling the problem, Vranckx admitted that Belgian society – and the rest of Europe – has a lot of work to do.

“This film was made before the attacks in Paris and I’m afraid the situation is getting worse,” Vranckx said. “Even today a popular paper had the headline that read: ‘Our people are tired of foreigners’.”

Vranckx went on to explain that it is currently the symptoms of the issue – rather than the root causes – that are being dealt with. In My Jihad he meets Imad, a local youth councillor who has responded to cases of radicalisation by engaging with young Muslims on the subject of extremism.

“The issue is fear,” said Vranckx. “Fear of losing identity, fear of being isolated by one’s religion. The basic fight is a fight within Islam.”

This divide manifests itself in the film through Vranckx’s interviews with the mothers of the young Belgians who have fled to Syria.

“I spoke to one woman whose son was declared dead several times after fleeing. The news was on the front page of two newspapers, but it was not him,” Vranckx said.

“In the end he was one of the Paris killers. Before returning to Europe to commit the attack he didn’t even say hello to his mother. He didn’t say anything before blowing himself up.”

Vranckx commented on his respect for Saliah, who featured significantly in the film, and spoke in depth about her son leaving for Syria unannounced and his subsequent death.

“Saliah is very brave to have spoken about it,” said Vranckx. “She opened the door to other mothers in a similar situation.”

When questioned by a member of the audience on why there were no fathers interviewed in the film, Vranckx responded that the women tended to be more open.

“I spoke to some men whose sons had gone to Syria, but in the end they decided against being interviewed on film. They were too ashamed.

“The women were more willing to speak about the issue. Plus, in many cases the fathers were absent from the household.”

He said he has “never come across a parent who justified the fighting.”

Another audience member questioned the relationship between the young people who leave Europe to fight in Syria and the local fighters in the country, to which Vranckx responded that they had little in common.

“The locals often view Muslims who travel from Europe in a negative light,” he said. “Many local fighters believe they are not helping.

“They do not speak the language; they do not know the country. They come with a ‘Visit Syria’ travel book in their pocket. They rarely connect with the local people.”

Despite receiving threats over My Jihad from both sides of the debate on Islamic extremism, Vranckx explained that it is crucial to broach the subject, describing it as a “blind spot.”

“I don’t make the programme for an elitist group who know their own views,” he said. “I want to reach ordinary people, the people at risk.”