Robbing the jihadists of their advantage
When the bearded man wanted to preach the Sharia in the Flemish city of Mechelen, he was not permitted. He was turned away. Even in the city's youth club, where the preacher anticipated easy success, his call to arms in the name of Allah fell on deaf ears. The young people made it immediately clear what they thought of his extreme views, as can be seen on YouTube. Over and again, each of them can be seen repeating this phase to the camera: "I am extreme . . .," – cut – "extreme in diversity." A good five years have since past.
A couple of weeks ago saw the first anniversary of the attacks by Islamic terrorists on the Brussels airport and a city metro station, resulting in 35 deaths. At the time, the memory was still fresh throughout Europe of the events in Paris just a few months before, when terrorists perpetrated a massacre at the Bataclan concert hall and murdered scores of people sitting in street cafes. Since then, the catchphrase is that Belgium has a terrorism problem. Terrorists belonging to the so-called Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility for the attacks. The trail of the terrorists led to Belgium's capital, specifically to the borough of Molenbeek.
Yet, the drift towards radical Islamism has not only been experienced in Brussels alone. According to the country's interior ministry, close to 500 individuals from across Belgium have attempted to join the ranks of IS in Iraq and Syria. In comparison, this is more than any other EU country. Germany, which is seven times the size, saw 900 of its residents travel to the Middle East with the intention of fighting.
Almost every Belgian city has lost dozens of residents to the terrorist militia: 76 from Antwerp, 27 from Vilvoorde, which is only half the size of Mechelen and located just 20 kilometres to the south of the city, 31 from Molenbeek, with its notorious reputation as a "terrorist nest" and 117 from Brussels as a whole. In Mechelen, however, no one wants to hear about the Sharia. Only three of its residents are said to have left to fight. The "Pearl of Flanders," as the city of 85,000 has been extolled, has managed to keep all of its citizens together for quite some time. How has Mechelen been able to restrain the terrorists' call to arms, which elsewhere has been met with open ears?
Nipping radicalism in the bud
At the turn of the millennium, Mechelen had the reputation of being the "filthiest city in Flanders." The crime rate was high, with soaring levels of burglary, theft and hundreds of vehicles broken into each year. Today, the streets are clean and even cigarette butts are rarely seen littering the pavements. The crime rate has dropped, supposedly the result of a tight network of surveillance cameras.
The City Mayors Foundation in London, however, holds the view that the changes can be attributed to Mechelen's mayor, whom the foundation regards as the best in the world. It goes on to claim that Bart Somers has turned a "run-down" community into one of the "most attractive" cities in Belgium. And, at the same time, he has clearly made radical Islamism unattractive to city residents.
"Every day the struggle begins anew," said Somers on a Saturday morning. We have to move in the instant someone flirts with radical ideas, says the mayor, who has governed Mechelen for more than 15 years.
He has been so successful that even the EU interior ministers would like to know how he has prevented residents of his city from becoming violent Islamists. Francoise Schepmans, the mayor of the supposed "terrorist nest" of Molenbeek, has occasionally cast an inquisitive glance at Mechelen. Whereas something has gone wrong in her community, Mechelen has succeeded in preventing individuals from falling into the trap of radicalisation.
Nonetheless, Mechelen and Molenbeek are remarkably similar – they are about equal in size and have the same cultural mix. Somers knows the figures: 128 nationalities live in Mechelen and 20 percent of the city's residents are Muslim. Every third child has Muslim parents. So what is the difference between the two communities? "Communal coexistence here has created a higher protective wall than in other places," says the 52-year-old mayor. "Extremists have not been able to establish a stronghold here, from where they can begin to recruit new adherents."
There is one single youth club – for everybody
The city also lacks the kind of criminal milieu that has given Molenbeek its bad reputation. In Mechelen's inner-city, one does not see groups of young people loitering about on the streets and who are only just a thought away from committing a foolish act. Instead, young people get together in the "Rojm" youth club, from where the Salafist preacher was sent packing.
It is the only youth club in Mechelen. There is no Moroccan, Armenian or Tunisian club, just ″Rojm″. Something Mayor Somers is proud of. Were he to open a youth club for each of the town′s 128 nationalities, they would fill a street – an absurd idea.
The mayor attributes the fact that young people here rarely get into trouble to a sense of trust and the feeling of "being a citizen." Whoever feels part of society is ready to take on responsibility. By contrast, those who live in a ghetto, whether real or felt, do not feel this sense of trust and therefore assume no responsibilities.
″Security begins with prevention″
The mayor tries to stay close to the people of Mechelen and listen to their concerns. His policies are neither right or left-wing. He focuses on key conservative issues like local security, while at the same time promoting diversity in society, usually a concern of the left. The liberal Somers is a pragmatic thinker. "We try out a lot of things here in Mechelen," he says.
He has attempted, for instance, to convince parents without a migration background to send their children to schools where a majority of children do have a migration background. In four out of six schools, this has worked. Maybe it is only a partial success, but one has to remain persistent on such issues. Somers has pushed for investments in formerly run-down districts, street improvement and the construction of residential housing, hospitals and sports facilities. Although this has been a burden to the city budget, it has resulted in a huge sense of overall well-being in Mechelen.
The police can be seen making their rounds on bicycle – on the orders of the mayor. This improves direct contact with citizens and establishes trust between them and the police. "Security begins with prevention," says Somers. This is why he encourages police to work intensively with habitual young offenders. They should be held responsible for every minor infraction, even for failing to have a fire extinguisher in their car or it being equipped with an out-of-date first-aid kit.
In less than two weeks, the young offenders promise to improve themselves. In the meantime, the city provides them with jobs and housing. There are no longer any perpetrators of bigger problems. Although the approach has been expensive, the results have been worth it.
Integrating the old guard into modern multicultural reality
Also proven to be worthwhile has been the engagement of "big brothers." These are students hired by Somers so that young people are provided with examples as to how to maintain rules at sports facilities. Members of one sports club now pick up the garbage around their sporting grounds to keep the surroundings clean.
The head of the sports club has demanded that its members must also strive to do well in school at the risk of losing their place in the club. The club is called "Salaam," which means peace. In accordance with the Arabic greeting, every nationality is welcome in the club.
This is Somers' approach with new citizens. Racism and discrimination are unacceptable. He demands that everyone integrate, even older residents into "this reality," in which different cultures come together in Mechelen.
According to the mayor, there is only one society in this city. Everyone who lives here is a citizen, regardless of their origins. His family, for instance, has lived in Mechelen for fourteen generations. "But I am the first Somers to live in a multicultural Mechelen."
© Suddeutsche Zeitung 2017
Translated from the German by John Bergeron