Bart Somers: Cities and local authorities best placed to tackle forces of radicalisation
Unlike many of its neighbouring cities, none of Mechelen's youths have fled to Syria or Iraq. Here, Mayor Bart Somers explains the secrets of the city's successful anti-radicalisation strategy.
Bart Somers has been the Mayor of Mechelen since 2001 | Credit: Press Association
The past few years have seen a new breed of terrorists emerge: home-grown, young and supposedly belonging to well-integrated families. Belgium, thrust into the terror spotlight and labelled as 'the jihadi capital of Europe', has faced accusations that it didn't do enough to stop young people from its major cities fleeing to Syria and Iraq to train alongside Islamic State (IS). Yet Mechelen, a city located exactly between Brussels and Antwerp, counts no foreign fighters among its population.
This doesn't mean, however, that the city doesn't have an incredibly diverse population. Its Mayor, Bart Somers, points out that more than 120 nationalities live there, with 50 per cent of the city's young people from a foreign background, and out of a population of 85,000, 15,000 are Muslim.
So how has he managed to avoid some of the problems experienced in the Belgian capital? The solution, he says, has to do with a policy that has been in place for 15 years - from when he was elected - and is two-fold, "a mix of right, and left-wing solutions."
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"We regard diversity as a positive asset to the city and we try to embrace it. We see everyone as a citizen of Mechelen - all equal and all sharing the same city. We have a very active policy of preventing the creation of ghettos, through mixed schools and mixed sports clubs.
"On the ground, we strive to create a climate where people trust each other, so that if they do notice someone being radicalised, they will alert local government or the police, and together we can find solutions."
Mechelen also has the largest police force and high levels of security cameras for a city of its size, in order, says Somers, "to prevent the creation of neighbourhoods without the rule of law. In areas such as these, where public authorities fail to invest, the police are seen as an outside, unfamiliar force and people feel isolated and forgotten. This can lead to a parallel economy, where drug dealers end up running pubs and coffee shops, and where people live in houses illegally.
"This creates a sense of alienation. People don't feel like they are part of society, making it easy for extremists to recruit them. Criminality and extremism are interlinked."
Somers, who this week will present a report in the Committee of the Regions on preventing radicalisation, says that Mechelen has, "embraced the concept of a 'big brother' approach: we listen, we care, but we tell you to change your behaviour if needed. We try to understand each other, but we also want to get along and move forward together. It's important to provide young people with a different perspective and to show them that they have a future."
One way the city fosters dialogue with its youths is through sports associations such as the 'Salaam' football club, where, says Somers, "young men are encouraged to participate, but at the end of the month, they have to show their report cards, and if their marks aren't good enough, they cannot play for 14 days".
The mayor adds that authorities go from house to house in Mechelen, "to see who lives there, to check that their house is constructed according to permits, if they own a shop we check that they have all the necessary documentation. I'm a liberal, so I don't believe in a lot of rules, but the rules that do exist must be respected."
This is also a way of staying close to the people who live in Mechelen, which is the easiest way of implementing an effective anti-radicalisation strategy. Somers explains that extremists tend to, "present a very black and white vision, a simple life - like a video game. There are enemies and allies: enemies, you can kill. Allies will be your friends for life."
Next, extremists start convincing them to, "distance themselves from their non-Muslim friends, and then from their Muslim friends because they aren't good Muslims, and then from their siblings, and then from their parents. And once they're completely isolated, they can do what they want."
The key, says Somers, is to intervene as early as possible, and to bring in people who are close to these youths - family members, teachers, sports coaches, someone they will listen to and want to talk with, so we can bring them back into the complexity of life and society."
For this reason, he remains convinced that local government is best placed to deal with radicalisation, and that cities could learn a lot from each other. "A successful approach to anti-radicalisation starts locally."
So what went wrong in Brussels and its surrounding neighbourhoods? Somers believes it's partly down to a lack of political will, but also says that, "the Brussels authorities need to face the reality as it is and do something about it, to think outside the box. The authorities have closed their eyes to too many things in some parts of the capital, so people no longer feel the government has any real impact on their lives. They feel alienated and alone and are therefore more exposed to radical ideas."
"Belgium isn't great at tackling and coping with diversity. It can be too soft on immigration, on police deployment, on parents and individuals. Being too soft is unhelpful. However, on the other hand, so is being too conservative and not accepting diversity."
He feels that the criticism Belgium faced before and after the 22 March terrorist attacks - the 'Belgium bashing' - was "too harsh and unfair. Belgium isn't a country that doesn't work. There were attacks in Paris and London too. If I go to some neighbourhoods in Paris and London, I see the same problems we have here in Belgium. It's not a Belgian problem - it's a problem in many European cities."
"We have a complex country, but that has to do with the complexity of the population and different languages. But even in complex countries, you can manage problems. It's true that the idea of one big city - Brussels - having six different police forces is indefensible and that this needs to change, a lot of things need to change. But this is true for a lot of countries."
Somers views the fight against radicalisation as a political "fight for the hearts and minds" of people. "It's a fight against a totalitarian ideology. Democrats must fight. The last time this happened was in the 1930's, when the extreme right seduced millions of people with their alternative to democracy.
Once again we are being challenged."
"Our children, born in Europe, who go to our schools and live in our neighbourhoods, are embracing totalitarian thinking. It's not the Middle East sending them to Europe, it's Europe sending more than 5000 terrorists to the Middle East. This is a domestic problem; it's also a fight for our values and the foundation of our societies."
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