Countering Radicalization – A Discussion with Bart Somers, Mayor of Mechelen
Many thanks to 1989 Generation Initiative for organizing this discussion in EU-Logos office.
Purpose: How can local authorities play a crucial role in combating radicalization, and how can the national level and the EU support these initiatives ?
Belgium is an important area when it comes to people leaving and fighting for the Caliphate, and to potential returns of radicalized adults and children. As a multicultural city, Mechelen includes around 20% of Muslims, mainly from Morocco.
The Mayor of this town, Bart Somers, seeks to prevent radicalization and departures of a part of the Muslim population, but also of the other inhabitants. Despite the analysis explaining that a large part of departures for Middle-East relates to Muslims, radicalization affects people independently of their religion or their origins. Mr. Somers explained that the size of a city and its suburbs does not directly affect the process of radicalization. In fact, taking Mechelen as an example, a town as small as Vilvoorde, it is possible to notice that the first has fewer Islamic fighters than the second. This is related to the approach taken to fight against radicalization from the bottom. According to him, the most relevant way to avoid this process is to prevent it at a local level.
Bart Somers explained that the radicalization process in the EU is influenced by another model spread by criminals and drug dealers in rough neighborhoods, which is opposed to the Western society based on school and a so-called meritocratic process. This opposition is a fertile ground instrumentalized by Daesh: Bart Somers explained in his intervention how, as a Mayor, he is handling this issue through social policies. Mr. Somers insisted on two notions, which are, according to him, inherent basis of the Western society, and therefore opposite of Daesh discourses: « Freedom and diversity are two sides of the same coin ».
Diversity in identity
Diversity is a notion that Mr. Somers emphasizes in his speech. He also insisted on the phenomena of ghettoization. The main policy to promote rough neighborhoods and support their development is to invest in good quality infrastructures and equipment, which make streets comfortable and clean. It is, according to Mr. Somers, the best way to encourage respect for politicians and their actions, and to stimulate diversity through increased social mobility. This mix will endorse a virtuous and inclusive circle: new inhabitants will choose their own neighbourhood, and this will trigger a greater involvement in local life. Hence, Mr. Somers insisted on the notion of social-mix in schools, which required a deal with the parents to support this very important criteria. As a practical example, Mr. Somers develops sports initiatives taken through schools and individual decisions. This process needs time and unbroken efforts.
Mr. Somers then put in light a part of Daesh’s strategy to deeply divide the society between who is with the truth and who is wrong according of their own interpretation. Daesh plays with this issue and creates a unique identity: us the true Muslims, and the others who do not believe in the same way. Starting from this process, plurality of identity is denied, each person is black or white, good or bad. Daesh created a deeply simple Manichean ideology, like totalitarian regimes such as Communism or Nazism did in the last century. They are destroying plural identities, which severs links between individuals. Islam is distorted to be a force of exclusion. According to Mr. Somers, Daesh’s ideology has nothing in common with Islam as a religion, and they use Islamic dogmas to manipulate isolated and/or looking for new members.
According to the mayor, Daesh’s approach is not based on a religious issue, but rather on an elaborated political process. The practical example is related to the fact that not all Muslims have embraced the doctrine imposed by the Caliphate. The war carried on by the ISIL does not aim to destroy a particular religion. They fight against democracy, open societies, and humanity in general. This is politics, not religion. Moreover, like every totalitarian ideology, the others, people who do not share the same opinion, are not seen as humans anymore. Using violence is legitimatized.
Liberty: a vector of adaptation and cultural wealth
Thus, Daesh is acting like a totalitarian regime and denies liberties and identities. Therefore, terrorist attacks serve this totalitarian ideology and create break- ups across populations, especially on Islam as a peaceful religion. This fear of the other drives to a legitimization of violence, which hurts both camps The link between ideology and propaganda in this case is very narrow. The propagandist approach adopted by ISIS touches all levels of society : poor people, middle classes and even highly- educated people. The target of Daesh is the individual with strong integration problems: the misfit. Through its propaganda, ISIL hits victims of the Western society, and makes them believe that embracing their doctrine will give them an opportunity to become heroes. Their propaganda especially involves a lack of responsibility: the cause of all failures is the other (in this case the Western society).
Mr. Somers brought up a scheme to free from fear of change and differences. As a true liberal, he claimed that « Liberalism is not a way of life, it is tolerating other ways of life » and makes a parallel with women emancipation and gay rights movements. Society needs to adapt and to change, and it should not decide on the liberty of others, as long as their rights do not impede ours. Claiming that freely veiled women are not free and deserve to be freed is also a totalitarian reasoning, and it means that we do not believe any more in values of our Western society. Change and acceptation of change are deep oppositions of Daesh ideology. In their eyes, nothing has to change since the Prophet walked on the Earth, and each proof of evolution is a treason. That is why the respect of freedom and differences is a basis of deradicalization and of the fight against Daesh.
Countering radicalization: several levels of action
Deradicalization is a hard, costly, and time consuming process with no guaranteed results. Despite these difficulties, acting at the local level to prevent or to stop the process is, according to Mr. Somers, one of the key of the issue. Knowing personally involved individuals increase the strength of the intervention. Initial trust is a large part of the success. Second, understanding how this phenomenon gained ground, seeing the cause and being able to treat her and not only the symptoms, remains crucial to help a radicalized person.
Moreover, local level is the most relevant because the main variable used by Daesh is the isolation of people. They create a feeling of inclusion, of belonging of a group. He compared this strategy to a sect indoctrination, which works like « a drug ». That is why deradicalization is so complicated and unpredictable. An isolated person, who is suddenly assimilated to a hero, will not return to an everyday life he loathes. Deradicalization has to be a part of broader social policies. Safety policies should not be the first response to fight and prevent this process. The first policy should be to pay attention to the local environment, including the respect of local investments and municipality-built infrastructures. It should then ensure of avoiding ghettoization of schools and neighborhoods. Meanwhile, national and the European authorities should put this issue on their respective agenda.
The national government needs to create a real citizenship. Mr. Somers argued that national politicians are only focused on the Right-Left line and safety issues. But putting more cameras and policemen in the streets is to deal with symptoms, not roots. They will not enable an effective prevention or response to radicalization. Social context is key and should be focused on. Our society needs to adapt to these new inputs to include better all the populations, and make them feel as true and whole citizens who belong to a plural community. Mr. Somers repeated that security is not the only issue which should be treated through national and EU level. He insisted on the key-role the Members States could have in sharing data between their intelligence services. Additionally, creating a global European organization in charge of deradicalization policies across the member states which could inspire them more effective policies. The strength of the EU is potential to gather around, and its ability to fight against polarization of the society.
“The EU has to act on three levels higher”, Somers says. The first is based on the concept of security as a top-down practice in order to create a program able to reach and touch the civil society. Security must not lead to an isolation process. After creating a security program, multi-level cooperation between states has to be improved, especially in intelligence, information sharing, collaboration, and police and judicial cooperation. Finally, after establishing a common security program and cooperation among the 28 countries, good practices can be developed. Thanks to the latter, civil society will be able to become a key actor to counter radicalization, and able to accommodate official rules to the feedback from the ground.
Moreover, the EU, along with other Western countries, should pay more attention to the considerable spread of the Wahhabite ideology and propaganda. Mr. Somers indicated that 95% of the online Muslim literature is Wahhabite. In his view, the interpretation of sacred texts has a considerable importance. Every sacred text is full of metaphorical and allegorical contents, and must be read and interpreted at a theoretical level by qualified people. In the case of the Qur’an, one must not read every verse as if we were still living in the time of the Prophet Muhammad. Such a reading of sacred texts could only lead to erroneous interpretations and nefarious life prescriptions. Jihadists and foreign fighters are stuck in this literal interpretation. Until now, financial interests have limited initiatives and efforts in deradicalization. Wahhabite vision plays a crucial role in radicalization.
The EU urgently needs to admit that Islam is a part of its history, and European institutions need to accept and support this feature as a part of their multi-cultural identity.
Maria Elena Argano