Why Britain Isn't Belgium

23/03/2016 10:27 | Updated 23 March 2016

I woke to a text message yesterday that ominously read: Brussels. I knew it wasn't a good sign.

Logging onto the internet, news was breaking about a series of explosions at Brussels' Zavantem airport. Shortly after, further news broke about an explosion at Brussels' Maalbeek metro station.

Having been undertaking research in associated issues for more than sixteen years, while I continue to be shocked by the scale and level of the atrocities committed I'm rarely ever surprised by them. That sounds harsh, sorry. Worse though, I was even less surprised that there had been attacks in Belgium.

A quick look at recent history in Belgium gives credence to this.

For example in May 2014, Mehdi Nemmouche opened fire at the Musée juif de Belgique (Jewish Museum of Belgium) killing four people.

In January 2015 following the Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris, Belgian police carried out a series of raids in Verviers, Schaerbeek, Sint-Jans-Molenbeek, Vilvoorde, and Zaventem. Killing two suspects while seriously wounding another, Belgian authorities later suggested that the two killed had been planning to attack those selling the next edition of the Charlie Hebdo magazine.

On 21 August 2015, a shooting and stabbing took place on board a Thalys train shortly after it crossed the border from Belgium into France. On its way from Amsterdam to Paris, the attack was committed by Ayoub El Khazzani, a 29 year old Moroccan man who had boarded the train in Brussels. Reports suggest that El Khazzani had been profiled by the Belgian authorities.

Fast forward to November 2015 and in the wake of the co-ordinated attacks on Paris, a five day security lockdown was imposed on Brussels by the Belgian government. Closing shops, schools and the public transport system, the lockdown was in response to information acquired by Belgian authorities about a potential imminent terrorist attack by individuals affiliated to Islamic State. Around 20 raids subsequently took place across the city resulting in just fewer than 40 arrests being made. While around 30 were subsequently released without charge, terrorism charges were filed against four men.

Then just a few days ago, the arrest of Salah Abdesalam - a Belgian-born French national who is alleged to be personally involved in last November's terror attacks in Paris - would have surely raised concerns about possible retaliatory attacks.

There is another reason however why I wasn't surprised by yesterday's attacks.

Just over a year ago, I was in Brussels with a Belgian-based colleague to meet with various different stakeholders about a research project we were overseeing that was investigating the experience of Muslim women in five European countries. One of the meetings was held near the Maalbeek metro station.

After the meeting, we left the building and headed into the Metro station. My colleague was a visibly recognisable Muslim woman by wearing a hijab (headscarf). I of course have quite a substantive beard. Somewhat out of the blue, we were suddenly confronted by a visibly agitated and angry man who began shouting at us. Having never experienced anything like this, it took me a while however to realise what was going on.

With him becoming increasingly angry and getting closer to my colleague's face, I eventually hurried us away and out of the station. Visibly shaken, my colleague asked if I had understood what he had been saying. Given that I don't speak French she explained that he'd been shouting about Muslims and Islam not being welcome in Belgium before going on to suggest we go back to the Middle East before rounding off with comments about Israel getting it 'right'.

Having walked down the street with many visible Muslim women in Britain - and indeed working on a university campus where visible Muslim women are part and parcel of everyday life - I had never experienced anything similar to this. Yes, such attacks do indeed occur in Britain - as indeed my own research highlights - but these are thankfully rare and occur in relative isolation.

What made the Brussels incident all the more shocking therefore wasn't just the venom, spontaneity and public nature of it all but the fact that as we walked away, the look on the faces of those either witnessing the incident or merely passing by seemed to suggest that they too felt somewhat similar to how the perpetrator did. Stating that this was a place where there were clear tensions between Muslims and non-Muslims is something of an understatement therefore.

Which is unlike how it is here in Britain.

I say this because I truly believe that in Britain, the looks on the faces of those witnessing a similar incident would be vastly different from how they were in Brussels. I have no doubt about this.

Because of this, I also believe that it is unlikely that a similar attack will happen here in Britain. Not impossible I hasten to add but rather unlikely. And that is because here in Britain, those tensions just do not exist in the public way they clearly do in Brussels. Here in Britain, there is no doubt that the overwhelming majority of Muslims are integrated and part of who 'we' are.

I am not naïve enough to think that we don't have similar tensions here in Britain or that there aren't a mindless handful of individuals willing to commit heinous atrocities in pursuit of their adopted ideology: far from it. I'm also not naïve enough to think that Britain is some multicultural utopia where all is well with the world and we all get along with each other irrespective of our differences. Again, far from it.

However, I do believe in today's Britain more people are beginning to understand that those wanting to divide us are not only a tiny minority but more importantly, are not the same as the vast majority of British Muslims. If you want evidence of this, remind yourself of the uniquely British put down, 'you ain't no Muslim bruv'.

Let's not forget then that Britain isn't Belgium, especially in the next few days and weeks when there will no doubt be more calls for greater security and scrutiny of those for whom mistrust and suspicion is already an integral part of their everyday lives.