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Countering radicalisation: 'Tell people if you work hard, you can have a better future'

For real success, we must prevent the radicalisation of individuals, writes Bart Somers.

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HOW CAN WE prevent terrorist attacks? This is a question that is uppermost in the minds of an increasing number of political leaders around the world.

First of all, every honest politician must recognise that there is no silver bullet. No short-term solution. But that doesn’t mean that we cannot make a difference.

One of the things we politicians can do is to avoid making things worse, such as polarising by blaming the innocent on the basis of their origin or belief. This approach does the work of the extremists, because it creates a context where recruiting becomes easier for them. To be really effective in our fight against terrorism we must understand that the answer we are giving is often not sufficient.

We can’t destroy our values

Today, we invest in more police capacity and in new legislation that gives authorities more instruments to investigate and act against extremists. We organise stronger international intelligence cooperation. We implement new techniques and patrol the internet intensively. All of this is necessary and can help to find networks of terrorists.

But in the search for safety we have to be careful not to destroy the values we intend to protect: privacy, personal freedom, and freedom of speech. If we do that, then we look like the puppets of the extremists, doing their work for them.

Important as they are, these measures are not enough. They will not stop lone wolves who decide to throw away their lives by slaughtering innocent people with the simplest things like cars and knives.

Preventing radicalisation

For real success, we must prevent the radicalisation of individuals. It is already difficult, if not impossible to monitor all those who have shown signs of drifting towards violent extremism. So what is needed is an early warning mechanism to detect the drift and reverse it before it is too late.

It is easier, less costly, and more effective to prevent radicalisation than it is to try to de-radicalise an individual.

The key to success is rather counter-intuitive. Too often, the approach taken in the fight against terrorism is too mechanical and one-dimensional, focusing only on the security side.

I believe a more in-depth strategy lies in creating an inclusive society, where more people see themselves as citizens, identifying themselves with the society they live in. Simply put: if we can “recruit” people for our country or our city first and foremost, then others will have more difficulties to do the same for their totalitarian alternative.

And even if some are still attracted by that extremist ideology, they will have more people in their direct environment who will come forward and warn police or social workers. This will only happen if people see society as their own.

This is the approach we took in Mechelen after I was elected mayor in 2001

1 Fight crime and create safe and clean neighbourhoods. If people grow up on dirty streets, where police are the enemy and drug dealers are the role model, if they live under the rule of the jungle and not the rule of law, if there is no respect in the public domain, how can they embrace the values of our society? Where criminals rule the streets, extremists will follow.

2 Avoid groupthink. A city cannot be reduced to a sum of “ethnic or cultural communities”, but rather it is first and foremost place of individuals: unique people with not one but several different identities. That kind of groupthink can be found on the left and the right side of the political spectrum. Classical left groupthink has the tendency to see victims and deprived people in all migrants, while the classical right often sees only criminals or people who abuse the social system. They are both blind to a growing middle class who have a migrant background. The success stories don’t fit in their rhetoric. And it is exactly these role models which help social mobility, motivate new generations and destroy prejudices.

3 Counter segregation. This is undoubtedly the most important policy to pursue. Cities are too often archipelagos of monocultural islands. The risk in such cities is that people end up locked in what often are caricatures of one identity. Moreover, the other city-dwellers remain as strangers instead of becoming co-citizens. Mixed schools and sports clubs, and mixed neighbourhoods strengthen the possibilities of building a common identity. Local politics can make a difference here.

4 A society has to build on common values, fundamental principles like equality of man and woman, rule of law, freedom of expression. These values guarantee the freedom of everyone of us and we have to defend them in a coherent way and we cannot allow that they are undermined or weakened. But today too often these principles and universal human rights are transformed by some as a weapon to exclude or stigmatise people.

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5 Accept that in a time of globalisation and migration we all have to make an effort to make super-diverse cities a success. This requires having the courage to say that we all have to integrate in the new reality.

6 Understand that a diverse city can be attractive for everybody if it can offer the following promise to all: “if you work hard, use your talents and do your best then you can have a better future for yourself and your family.” This promise is the core of a meritocratic society: “it is not your background that is important, but your future”. This approach can create cohesion, a profound feeling of citizenship and positive pride in belonging to a society.

7 Invest in a counter-narrative. Support those who believe in a rational Islam, those who see no fundamental conflict between human rights, democracy, the rule of law and a Muslim identity and those who want to stand up and counter the manner in which barbaric extremists abuse their religious identity. Stop internationally funded propaganda of those who transform Islam into a totalitarian ideology.

8 Build structures of dialogue and a climate of trust. Organise trust between social, prevention, youth and neighbourhood workers, school boards and teachers and police to talk with each other in a structured manner. Create a clear code that respects the specific place and responsibilities of everybody in society. But organise also crucial channels of communication through which necessary information is given to the security and police forces.

A robust programme that implements such a policy can create one community, while remaining super diverse. I believe it is the most efficient barrier to the recruitment of terrorists. It requires conviction, endurance and a lot of courage. But it is possible. And cities are the most important level for implementing such a policy. In cities we can win this fight. A fight for the hearts and souls of our citizens.

Bart Somers is Mayor of Mechelen, one of the most diverse cities in Belgium which has countered Muslim extremism very well. He won World Mayor of the Year in 2016 for his work. He is the author of the European Committee of the Regions report on Combating Radicalisation and Violent Extremism – Prevention mechanisms at local and regional level. Mayor Somers is President of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe Committee of the Regions ( Group, and is in Dublin at the invitation of Fianna Fáil Councillor, Kate Keeney. He will address the meeting on the topic of integration. 

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