Fighting Brussels Muslim Radicalization With Art On al-Bakrauoi Brothers' Turf : Parallels Belgian playwright Ismael Saidi is taking his anti-radicalization message to schools in heavily Muslim neighborhoods. He finds extremism still has appeal, even after last week's terrorist attacks.
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In Tough Brussels District, School Urges Students To Fight Intolerance

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In Tough Brussels District, School Urges Students To Fight Intolerance

In Tough Brussels District, School Urges Students To Fight Intolerance

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Authorities in Belgium are continuing their investigation into last week's suicide attacks in Brussels. Those attacks were carried out by brothers who grew up in a Muslim district of the city called Laeken. Now a school there is teaching students not to hate and not to stay silent in the face of hatred. Teri Schultz visited the school after last Tuesday's attacks and filed this report.

(CHEERING)

TERI SCHULTZ, BYLINE: There was a long-awaited celebration last Friday at the Maris Stella school in Laeken. They'd been planning it for a year - activities honoring diversity and tolerance. Eighty percent of the student population is Muslim. Several of the roughly 700 students were wrapped in flags - Belgian, Turkish, Palestinian. Despite the buoyant atmosphere, no one could forget what had just happened - deadly suicide bombings committed by two men who grew up right here in Laeken.

It was terrorist attacks in Paris in January 2014 that led this school to plan this event. Director Nicole Lewahert had been shocked to hear students praising the killings of the French magazine Charlie Hebdo, which had published cartoons mocking the Prophet Mohammed. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The audio version of this story incorrectly states that the attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo was in January 2014. The attack was in January 2015.]

NICOLE LEWAHERT: Most of the pupils were telling that it was a good job and it was normal to kill people who made such cartoons. And we didn't know how to react about it.

SCHULTZ: Educators knew they had to do something. So for their tolerance and diversity event, they invited a renowned Muslim playwright, Ismael Saidi. Saidi's been making the rounds in schools, urging youth not to fall for radical Islamist ideology. His street cred comes from having grown up in a rough neighborhood himself.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ISMAEL SAIDI: (Foreign language spoken).

SCHULTZ: That's Saidi talking to students at the Maris Stella school last Friday. He later told me he didn't hear students expressly endorse the Brussels bombings, but he said there were intense moments.

SAIDI: I had a lot of kids who were talking about us and the others. They don't like us. They don't love us. And I was asking, who is this they? And then we had this kid - she looks at me, and she said, I don't know.

SCHULTZ: Saidi gets in their faces. He tells them the others they're constantly complaining about are a figment of extremist imaginations and manipulative Islamic State recruitment techniques. He reminds them they were born here. They are Belgians, and they have to stop believing anyone who tells them they're victims.

SAIDI: You have to say the words and not be politically correct. You can't, not with teenagers.

SCHULTZ: Only by saying the words, Saidi says, by speaking with complete honesty will it be possible to end the culture of silence that has allowed so many terror suspects to plot here, protected by their community.

At this very school, during a very tragic week, a crack appeared in that wall of silence. A girl came forward and reported something chilling to Nicole Lewahert, the school director. The girl had heard another student expressed disappointment about the Brussels attacks.

LEWAHERT: He told, oh, only 30 person died. Oh...

SCHULTZ: Lewahert called his parents and barred the boy from school. She says that was a difficult decision. When he was in class, he was at least under control. Now she says she doesn't know what he's up to. Hearing about this incident with the students, playwright Ismael Saidi sees an upside.

SAIDI: They have been to this director. Even if their friend is from the same religion, the rest of the school - they didn't protect him.

SCHULTZ: Saidi says he hopes this is how Belgian Muslims will start defining solidarity, a hope underscored by a personal near miss in Tuesday's tragedy. His own son left the metro train that got bombed just one stop earlier. For NPR News, I'm Teri Schultz in Brussels.

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