As 46 members of the radical Islamic group "Sharia4Belgium" went on trial Monday, accused of recruiting Belgian fighters for the Islamic State's war in Syria and Iraq, a simple question was on the world's mind: Since when was Belgium such a hotbed of bellicose Islam?
The nation of 11 million people has a reputation for being small and peaceful, more likely to be invaded than to do serious fighting (as Dave Barry once put it, Belgium is the "screen door of Europe" that Germany and France always slam on the way to fight one another).
Yet as the Wall Street Journal reported Monday, Belgium is the sixth-largest total European contributor of fighters for the Islamic State, with an estimated 300 Belgians having fought in Syria or Iraq.
But Belgium's total population is tiny compared to the other big countries on that list, and when the numbers are adjusted for total population size, the difference between Belgium and the rest becomes stark: While roughly five out of every 1 million people in Germany, Turkey and Russia go to fight for jihad abroad — and nearly 10 out of every 1 million for France and the U.K. — a whopping 27 out of every 1 million Belgian citizens is estimated to have fought in Iraq or Syria.
So why is Belgium such a fertile breeding ground of jihad-ready discontent?
For one, it seems that Muslim immigrants in many cases simply are not integrated with the rest of Belgian society.
Some of the blame could lie with native Belgians shunning newcomers — a poll conducted last year by Belgian newspaper Gazet van Antwerpen revealed that 60 percent of young Muslims believe Flemish (northern Belgian) society will never accept them.
But as the Gatestone Institute, a think tank chaired by former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, noted in a recent report about the rise of Islam in Belgium and the Netherlands, the leaders of Muslim immigrant communities in Europe often work to remain separate from the surrounding population, with Muslim politicians in Belgium even "creating isolated communities and parallel societies" in the country.
In a situation of failed integration, whatever the cause, it's easy to see how jihadist groups like "Sharia4Belgium" could attract hundreds of young men to fight under the banner of Islam.
While the motivations of European Muslims who go to fight for the Islamic State — and the threat level they pose should they return to Europe after waging jihad abroad – remain debatable, one things seems sure: in years to come, the nation that gave us the "sexiest fan at the 2014 World Cup"...
Axelle Despiegelaere during the Group H match of the 2014 World Cup between Belgium and Russia at the Maracana Stadium, June 22, 2014, in Rio de Janeiro. (Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)
…could become better-known for men like "Abdullah the Belgian," jihadist fighter and indoctrinator of small children.
Follow Zach Noble (@thezachnoble) on Twitter