Burgemeester van Mechelen, Vlaams volksvertegenwoordiger en Fractieleider Vlaams Parlement

My Belgian city has shown we are not defenseless against terror.


Woensdag 14 juni 2017 – vrije tribune over onze vrijheid, democratie en gevecht tegen haat en terrorisme in The Guardian.


There is no silver bullet or short-term solution to the prevention of jihadist terrorism. But that does not mean that we are defenseless. Important as they are, security-focused measures are not enough. They will not stop lone wolves who decide to throw away their lives by slaughtering innocent people. For real success, we must prevent the radicalisation of individuals, which is in fact less difficult than to try to de-radicalise an individual. The key to success is rather counter-intuitive. I believe an in-depth strategy centres around creating an inclusive society, where all citizens identify themselves with the society they live in. The approach we took in Mechelen after I was elected mayor in 2001, can be broken down as follows:


(1) Fight crime and create safe and clean neighbourhoods. Where criminals rule the streets, extremists will follow.


(2)  Avoid group-thinking. A city cannot be reduced to a sum of “ethnic or cultural communities”, but rather it is first and foremost a place of individuals: unique people with not one but several different identities, and often with a growing middle class who have a migrant background. It is exactly these role models which help social mobility, motivate new generations and destroy prejudices.


(3) Counter segregation. Undoubtedly the most important policy to pursue! Cities are too often archipelagos of monocultural islands, where many people end up locked in what often are caricatures of one identity, and for whom other co-citizens are mere strangers. Mixed schools and sportsclubs, and mixed neighbourhoods strengthen the possibilities of building a common identity.


(4)  Accept that in a time of globalisation and migration we all have to make an effort to make superdiverse cities a success. This requires having the courage to say that we all have to integrate in the new reality.


(5) 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 conquer a better future for yourself and your family – it is not your background that is important, but your future”. Racism and discrimination are a threat to that promise, because they undermine talent and block people at the bottom of the social ladder, destroying the attractiveness of our civilisation.


(6) Invest in a counter-narrative. Support those who believe in a rational Islam; who see no fundamental conflict between human rights, democracy, the rule of law and a muslim identity; those who want to counter the manner in which barbaric extremists abuse their religious identity.


(7) Build structures of dialogue and a climate of trust between social, prevention, youth and neighbourhood workers, schoolboards, teachers and police. Create a clear code that respects the specific place and responsibilities of everybody in society and organise crucial channels of communication through which necessary information is given to the security and police forces. Organise the monitoring of persons with radical ideas, of vulnerable people who are not easy to be reached, and try to include them, building bridges to society for them.


My experience shows that a robust programme that implements such a policy can create one community, while remaining superdiverse. 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 necessary. We are in a fight for the hearts and souls of our citizens and it is in cities that we can win this fight.





Bart Somers is Mayor of Mechelen, World Mayor 2016, and author of the European Committee of the Regions report on Combating Radicalisation and Violent Extremism – Prevention mechanisms at local and regional level. He also wrote a book called “Living Together. A hopefull strategy against ISIS.” (2016)