The Belgian citizen who managed to prevent jihadist radicalization

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The city of Malines, in Belgium, is considered an example in Europe and in the world of prevention against the jihadist radicalization of its younger citizens. The city is one of the most integrated in the European Union, and it was an exception a few years ago, when hundreds of people from all over Europe, mainly second generation immigrants, joined the Islamic State terrorist group in Syria and Iraq, which between 2014 and 2017 dominated much of the territory of those countries.

Belgium was and still is one of the countries most affected by jihadist radicalization. But in the years of the Islamic State, while many young people left from nearby cities to become terrorists, no one ever left Malines, as the American journalist Carla Power told in her book just out, Home, Land and Security, of which theAtlantic has published an excerpt. The success of Malines against jihadist radicalization was made possible thanks to the work of a mayor, still in office, who managed the city in such a way as to amalgamate different groups of people and promote human exchange, thus preventing the social exclusion that , among other things, it is one of the causes of terrorist radicalization.

Malines, also known by the Flemish name Mechelen, is located in the north of Belgium. It is about the same size as Pavia and has more or less the same inhabitants as Lucca: it is, in short, a town not too big, and not too well known outside the country, even if it played an important role in the history of Flanders: in the sixteenth century it was in fact the capital of the Netherlands, and in the twentieth century it was sadly known for being a sorting place during the Nazi deportations to Auschwitz.

The story of Malines is closely linked to the figure of Bart Somers, the mayor of the city who, in the early years of the 2000s, managed to transform it from a closed place, hostile to the different, and with a third of far-right voters into a model citizen, in Europe, for social integration.

Bart Somers, il sindaco di Malines (AP Photo/Geert Vanden Wijngaert)

The mayor is part of the Flemish Open Liberals and Democrats Party (Open VLD), and was elected in 2001. In previous years, and as in other cities, there had been a lot of immigration from Muslim countries in Malines. As in other cities, there were many stereotypes and prejudices about immigrant people: they were seen mainly as drug dealers, or as thieves. It was the immigrants’ fault, the residents of Malines thought, that the town was dirty and, as Power writes, had obtained the nickname “Chicago on the Dyle,” the river that passes through Malines.

All this had contributed to the success of the historic Flemish far-right party Vlaams Belang, which in 2000 had been voted for by 32 percent of the voters.

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Today, Malines is one of the most virtuous cities, in terms of integration, in the European Union, and Somers won the World Mayor Prize in 2016, an award sponsored by the City Mayors Foundation, an international study center dedicated to urban affairs, for those who he is considered the best mayor in the world. Among the finalists of that edition there was also the mayor of Lampedusa Giusi Nicolini, appreciated and recognized for her attention to integration.

Somers managed to foster integration in Malines by making people meet and get to know each other, while making them feel safe. The idea that guided his actions is that when you meet and know someone, see them or frequent them daily, it becomes much more difficult to bring them back to a simplified and constructed image, as is very often that of the enemy.

Giving people a single identity, Somers said, “creates a caricature of each of us,” and this reduction “allows people to gain power,” to “define what we need to do to be considered good Muslims, or good Belgians.”

Somers has managed to create more integration and security by working at different levels.

The most important concerned housing solutions. Somers has encouraged the relocation of younger people and people at the beginning of their career to more peripheral areas of the city, traditionally inhabited by immigrants, while ensuring that so-called “gentrification” does not occur. The migration, that is, of the original inhabitants of the area to other areas, due to the increase in property prices in the neighborhoods that are being redeveloped and progressively inhabited by richer people.

With a series of measures, in fact, it was made so that foreigners who lived in those areas could buy a house more easily, rather than stay in rent: these people, therefore, were also much less incentivized to leave, and remained where they were. they were.

In short, in the more peripheral districts of the city, the mixing of immigrant and indigenous populations was somehow forced: in the supermarket, in the playgrounds and in many other public places, Belgian and Arab citizens got used to meeting, to familiarize themselves with different appearances and customs, considering this diversity part of their daily life rather than a threat.

In parallel, to make things work, Somers worked hard on the safety of the city.

He handled the police with methods that in other countries would be equivalent to those of a conservative politician. American journalist Carla Power, for example, compared them to those of former New York Republican mayor Rudolph Giuliani, known for his “zero tolerance” strategy. Somers has invested a lot of money in police, hiring more policemen, and in surveillance, and Malines is now the city in Belgium with the highest density of CCTV cameras.

But the strengthening of security-related policies went hand in hand with – and above all in support of – profound and reasoned policies of inclusion and integration, also guided by the idea that the population more easily accepts changes and transformations within the their society if they feel safe and have less reason to fear for their own safety.

The strategy also worked thanks to how the police themselves were managed and trained. To give a concrete example, when after the terrorist attacks in Brussels in 2016 the Belgian government sent 1,800 police officers to the cities to search the streets, it was handled differently in Malines than in other cities. Somers asked police officers, where possible, not to show up on the street armed or in body armor, thus fueling people’s fear, or anger. In general, Somers’ approach to security has accompanied the strengthening of the police with an attempt to integrate it into the civil and social fabric of the city, rather than deploy it with a security-type approach.

In Malines, the street crime rate dropped by 84 percent, and the city went from being one of the dirtiest cities in Flanders to being one of the cleanest.

All this was possible also because, due to the way the Belgian system is structured, the individual municipalities have a lot of autonomy over integration policies: in cities comparable to Malines in size or per capita income, things went very differently.

While no one has ever left Malines, in Vilvoorde, which is less than half an hour away by car, 29 people left for Syria to join ISIS, including many students. In total, the inhabitants of Vilvoorde are 42 thousand, so it is less than one percent, but it is not a little: proportionally, it would be as if, in a municipality like Alghero, almost 30 people left to join ISIS.

Somers then combined inclusion and safety policies with other minor programs, which were nevertheless very important to obtain the results achieved.

For example, in Malines there is a program whereby each immigrant person in the city is joined by a local resident (chosen from a list of volunteers who are willing to do so): by signing a contract, the two people undertake to meet once a week for six months, so that the newly arrived person has the opportunity to practice the language, to experience the local lifestyle with a local person, or to receive help for more practical matters such as opening a bank account or going to the supermarket. Of course, these occasions also become moments of human exchange, in which one tells each other, one shares one’s story, one’s tastes, one’s customs or difficulties. In short, it is a meeting that makes it much more difficult to talk about “Muslims” or “Westerners” in a single way, or to share the thoughts of a politician who decides to do so by voting for him.

Other measures instead ensured that there was a certain heterogeneity within schools, thus accustoming boys and girls to coexistence with different customs and appearances. Somers’ idea, in short, was that tolerance arises from a social mixture thought and reasoned with attention and criterion.

The choice of cautious and intelligent political communication also played an important role: after the 2016 attacks in Brussels, for example, Somers publicly condemned the attackers without generalizing about Islam, but rather saying that Muslim people were victims twice. : as Belgian citizens and as believers whose religion was used to justify the attacks.

Alexander Van Leuven, an anthropologist and an official of the municipality of Malines who deals with programs to prevent radicalization, said that according to a recent study done on second-generation immigrants in Malines, the children defined themselves as citizens of Malines, unlike other cities in Belgium. , in which they called themselves Muslims, Turks or Moroccans.

The policies adopted in the town of Malines are, of course, a particularly successful example, and similar policies may not necessarily have the same effects in other places, which for many reasons may react differently.

In addition, that of social exclusion is only one of the reasons at the origin of jihadist radicalization, which is the subject of many and in-depth studies, and on which there are therefore no univocal interpretations.

The French political scientist Oliver Roy, for example, thinks that reasons of a personal nature carry greater weight than those of a social nature. According to Roy and other experts, reasons much more rooted in spheres less reachable by reform, such as the need for rebellion, the desire to participate in a conflict, to become heroes, and even to being responsible for acts of violence.

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