Purpose: How local authorities can play a crucial role in combatting radicalization and how the national level and the EU can support these initiatives ?

Belgium is an important area concerning people leaving for fighting for the Caliphate, and potentially concerning returns of radicalized adults and children. Mechelen is a multicultural city, including around 20% of Muslims, mainly from Morocco. As Mayor of this town, Bart Somers searches for how to prevent radicalization and departures of a part of the Muslim population, but also of the other inhabitants of Mechelen: despite the analysis explaining that a large part of departures for Middle-East concern Muslims, radicalization affects people independently of their religion and origins. The Mayor explained that the size of a city and its suburbs does not directly affect the process of radicalization. In fact, taking the example of Mechelen, which is a small town just as Vilvoorde, it is possible to notice that the first has less islamic fighters than the second. This is related to the approach taken to fight against radicalization from the bottom. In fact, according to him, the most relevant way to avoid this process is prevention 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 occidental society founded on school, meritocracy (in theory indeed). 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.

M. Somers has insisted on two notions, which are according to him inherent basis of the Occidental 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 M. Somers put in the focus of his speech, and insisted on the phenomena of ghettoization. The main policy to promote rough neighborhoods and support their development is investing in good quality infrastructures and equipping, which make streets comfortable and clean: it is according to M. Somers the best way to encourage respect for politicians and their actions, and stimulate diversity through different social classes’ moves. This mix will endorse a virtuous and inclusive circle, because new inhabitants will choose their neighbourhood, in this way they will take care of it and create a positive neighbourhood social life. Hence, M. Somers insisted on the notion of social-mix in schools, which required the creation of a sort of deal with the parents to support this very important criteria. As a practical example, M. Somers develops sports’ initiatives taken through schools and individual decisions. This process needs time and unbroken efforts. Then, M. Somers puts in light a part of Daesh’s strategy, which is a deep division across the society, between who is in the truth and who is wrong according of their own interpretation. Daesh plays with this issue and create a unique identity: us – the true Muslims and the other who do not believe the same way than them. Starting from this process, plurality of identity is denied, each person is white or black, good or bad: Daesh created a deeply simple manichean (je croix que c’est avec M) ideology, just as totalitarian regimes such as communism or Nazis have already done during the last century. They are destroying traversal identities, which create links between individuals through an instrumentality of religion, Islam in this case. According to M. Somers, Daesh’s ideology has nothing common with Islam as a religion, they use Islamic dogmas to serve their intents to manipulate isolated or/and looking for a membership persons.

According to the mayor, Daesh’s approach is not founded on a religious issue, but 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, humanity in general. This is politics, not religion. Moreover, as each totalitarian ideology, the others, people who have not the same opinion, are not see as humans anymore and using violence is in this case legitimate.

Liberty: a vector of adaptation and cultural wealth:

Thus, Daesh is acting like a totalitarian regime and denies liberties and identities they do not allow. Therefore, terrorist attacks have the purpose to serve this totalitarian ideology and create breakups across populations, especially regarding islam as a peaceful religion. This fear of the other drives to a legitimation of violence, which concerns both camps.

The link between ideology and propaganda in this case is very narrow. The propagandistic approach adopted by ISIS touches all society’s levels: poor people, middle classes and even higheducated people. The target of Daesh is the individual with strong integration problems: the unsuited. Through its propaganda, ISIL hits victims of the Western society, and make them believe that embracing their doctrine will give them an opportunity to become heroes. Their propaganda involves specially a lack of responsibility: the cause of all failures is the other (in this case the Western society).

M. Somers brings forward this process from fear of change and differences. in this way, as a deeply true liberal, he claimed that « Liberalism is not a way of life, it is tolerating other ways of life » and make a parallel with women emancipation and homosexuals supporting movements’: society needs to adapt and change, but it should not decide the liberty of others – with a limit, which does not hurt ours. Decided 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 is a deep opposition of Daesh ideology: according to them, nothing have to change since the Prophet walked on the Earth, and each proof of evolution is a treason. That’s why the respect of freedom and differences is a basis of deradicalization and fighting Daesh.

Countering radicalization: several levels of actions:

Deradicalization is a hard process, requiring important costs and long time with unguaranteed results. Despite these difficulties, acting at the local level to prevent or stop the process is according to M. Somers one of the key of the issue: knowing personally involved individuals increase the strength of the intervention. Trust is at first indeed a large part of the success, and secondly, to help a radicalized person, you need to understand how this phenomenon gained ground to see the cause and being able to treat her and not only the symptoms.

Moreover, local level is the more 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 process, which works like « a drug ». That’s why deradicalization is so complicated and unpredictable: an isolated person, which is suddenly assimilated to a hero, will not return to an everyday life that she does not accept any more.

Deradicalization has to be a part of social policies regarding these elements safety policies should not be the first answer to fight and prevent this process. The first policy is to be careful of neighborhoods’ environment, including the respect of local investments and infrastructures build by the local power. The second one is to ensure of avoiding ghettoization of neighborhoods and schools. Meanwhile, the national and the European levels should put this issue on their respective agenda.

The national government needs to create a real citizenship: M. Somers argued national politicians are only focused on the Right-Left line and safety issues. However, putting more cameras and policeman in the streets are symptoms’ answers and they will not enable an effective prevention or fighting off radicalization. The social context is in this way the key and should be more taken on board: our society needs to adapt to these new inputs to better include all the populations and make them feel as true and whole citizens, whom belong to a plural community.

Regarding the European level, M. Somers repeated that security is not the only issue which should be treated through national and EU-levels, he insisted on the key-role the EU could have in sharing data between its intelligence services, creating a global European organisation in charge of deradicalization policies across the member states which could take their inspiration from more effective implemented policies. The strength of the EU is its gather potential, and its faculties to fight against polarization of the society. So, according to M. Somers, the EU has to act on three levels higher. The first is based on the concept of security, not as an isolation process, but as a top-down practice, in order to create a program able to reach and touch the civil society. After creating a security program, the cooperation between states on several levels has to be improved, specially intelligence, information sharing, collaboration, 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 for countering radicalization process, trying to put in contact the rules coming from the top and the needs coming from the bottom.

Moreover, the EU, but also other Western countries, should more considerate the spread of the wahhabite ideology, because this kind of propaganda is considerable: M. Somers indicated that 95% of the Muslim literature online is wahhabite. According to him, the interpretation of sacred texts has a considerable importance. As full of metaphorical and allegorical contents, whatever sacred text must be read and interpreted in a theoretically level by people able to understand the contents. In the case of the Qur’an, if each verse is read in a literal way in order to apply it in a different society from that of the Prophet Muhammad, the risk is to interpret and applied in an incorrectly way the content: this is also the case of jihadists and foreign fighters.

Until now, financial interests have braked initiatives and efforts in this way, although wahhabite vision plays a main role in radicalization. Especially, the EU has 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.

Emmanuelle Gris

Maria Elena Argano