How to Deradicalize Your Town

While hundreds of men in surrounding towns were leaving Belgium to fight for ISIS in Syria, this town didn’t lose one young person. Here’s why.

A black-and-white photo of a street in Mechelen, Belgium
Heikal Asona / EyeEm / Getty

About the author: Carla Power is the author of If The Oceans Were Ink, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, and Home, Land, Security: Deradicalization and the Journey Back from Extremism.

When I first went to Mechelen, Belgium, the summer was hot and angry. Leaders everywhere in 2018 seemed to be building ever-higher walls and declaring new definitions of us and them. In the United States, the Supreme Court upheld President Donald Trump’s Muslim ban. In Israel, the Knesset passed a law rendering the right to self-determination in the State of Israel a privilege “unique to the Jewish people.” In Hungary, Viktor Orbán’s far-right government criminalized anyone who assisted asylum-seeking migrants.

In such a season, Mechelen felt like a refuge. Its cobbled streets, gabled houses, and cathedral tower recalled a chocolate-box version of Old Europe, that mythical place that the far-right claims it must defend. Yet the word that kept coming to mind on my visits there was cosmopolitan. Mechelen reminded me of something I had once read by the British Ghanaian philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah. “Cosmopolitanism is an expansive act of the moral imagination,” he wrote. “It sees human beings as shaping their lives within nesting memberships: a family, a neighborhood, a plurality of overlapping identity groups, spiraling out to encompass all humanity. It asks us to be many things, because we are many things.”

Historically, Mechelen savagely rejected such a vision. During World War II, the Nazis used the city’s barracks to transport Belgian Jews and Roma to Auschwitz. At the turn of the 21st century, nearly a third of Mechelaars supported Belgium’s extreme-right party. That started to change when, in 2001, the town elected a new mayor, someone determined to lead Mechelen away from extremist intolerance. Bart Somers’s strategy, which so far has been a success, was to try to make everyone in the city feel that they belonged, a lesson for all countries now dealing with extremism. Cultivating a sense of belonging robs the extremists of a major grievance: social exclusion.

The Mechelen train tracks sit on what was once the richest seam for Islamic State recruits in the Western world. Belgium had Europe’s highest number of foreign fighters per capita in Syria, thanks in part to groups such as Sharia4Belgium, whose volunteers would travel along the Brussels-Antwerp train line to find fresh recruits. Brussels had some 200 residents leave for Syria. Antwerp lost 100 young people. And in Vilvoorde, a town of only 42,000, 29 residents departed for Syria. Nearly every Vilvoorde high school lost students to the Islamic State.

Not a single person left from Mechelen. Like Vilvoorde, the city has a hyper-diverse population. Like Vilvoorde, it’s undergone rapid demographic and economic changes over the past generation. Both Vilvoorde and Mechelen watched their economic fortunes plummet in the 1980s and ’90s. In the 1990s, Mechelaars had little sense of a common world. Tales of Moroccan immigrants dealing hash, a high rate of petty thefts, and many empty shops earned it the nickname “Chicago on the river Dijle.” “Migration, in many people’s minds, was something negative,” Somers told me. By 2001, a third of Mechelen’s shops were vacant, it had the highest crime rate in Belgium, and a consumer-magazine poll rated it the dirtiest city in Flanders. Fear among its white residents helped boost the fortunes of the far-right Flemish-nationalist party Vlaams Belang: In 2000, 32 percent of Mechelaars voted for its candidates.

Somers fought back by trying to make the city green, clean, and safe. Landmark projects, including transforming an old brewery into a heritage center, wooed first private investment and, later, middle-class residents. Young professionals moved into heavily migrant areas in the 19th-century houses on the edges of town. In England or the United States, this might have been the start of gentrification, in which rising rents hit migrants and poor people hard and force them to move out to make way for fancy condos. But in Mechelen, this didn’t happen much. Most people in Belgium are homeowners, as the government promotes buying, so most Mechelaars from foreign backgrounds own their homes. When Somers started putting money into the parks and streets in poorer neighborhoods, housing values went up. But when middle-class professionals started buying in areas with lots of migrants, the original residents didn’t move. Residents became more actively involved in their common life, complaining to city hall when the playground swings or streetlights broke, and holding street parties and barbecues. Minor stuff, one might imagine, but Somers sees these micro events as muscular challenges to polarization, which can serve as an incubator for extremism.

If Mayor Somers’s vision sounds simplistic, it’s worth noting that these neighborhood changes are supported by broader integration policies. In Belgium, parents can choose which school their children attend. For a long time, this created the usual divide: Some Mechelen schools drew students from among middle-class white residents, and others from among recent arrivals. Somers’s team persuaded 250 middle-class parents to send their children to schools with heavily migrant populations. Then the city hall started in on migrant families, persuading parents to send their kids to the middle-class school.

Tolerance, Somers believes, grows from social mixing, carefully tended. A Moroccan community soccer team, for example, was persuaded to throw open its doors to include youth of all backgrounds. Joining the Scouts is a traditional rite of passage for Belgian kids, but city workers, noting that Scout troops were uncannily white, went out to persuade migrant parents to let their children join.

This post is excerpted from Power's recent book.
This post is excerpted from Power’s recent book.

Somers sponsored what he jokes is Mechelen’s “speed dating” program, in which every foreign newcomer is matched with a Mechelen native, choosing a potential friend from a panel of five volunteers. The matched pairs sign a contract to meet weekly for six months, so that the newcomer can practice their Dutch and learn the basics of Belgian life. In the program, Mechelen old-timers tutor newcomers in skills such as opening a bank account and shopping. But sometimes, on a stroll or over a coffee, the migrant will confide to his teacher about the mother he misses or his loneliness, “and it’s a human moment,” said Somers. “And people come together, and there’s change.” Migrants learn about Belgian culture, and Flemish Belgians are taught to embrace Europe’s 21st-century reality.

In the diverse city, residents needed to be allowed to thrive as multifaceted beings rather than simply be defined as Muslim or by their countries of origin. To think of people in terms of a single identity “makes a caricature of each of us,” Somers said. “If I reduce you to an American and I am only a European, then you become Donald Trump in my eyes.” This kind of reductionism “allows people to get control over who you are.” Political opportunists prey on single-faceted identities, and all too soon “you’ve got leaders who are defining what we have to do to be a good American, a good Muslim, a good Belgian. Then, you lose your freedom.”

By one metric, the drive seems to have created a greater sense of belonging among second-generation Muslim immigrants. A recent study asked Flemish children about their identity, says Alexander Van Leuven, an anthropologist and Mechelen’s deradicalization officer. Throughout the region, many children of immigrants said they felt Muslim or Turkish or Moroccan. But in Mechelen, the children overwhelmingly responded they were “Mechelaars”—citizens of Mechelen.

In 2016, the city’s commitment to inclusion was tested when a coordinated terrorist attack on Brussels claimed 35 lives, including the attackers, and wounded 300 more people. Somers publicly condemned the killings and the killers. But his message had a different timbre from that of most politicians. Somers refused to cast the attackers as Others. The country’s Muslims were victims of such an attack twice over, he said: once as Belgium citizens, and once as people whose religion was used to justify the attacks. “The attacks were done by people born in Belgium,” he made sure to tell Mechelen. “They are terrorists, but they are our terrorists. They were born here, grew up here, go to our schools. They’re our problem, and we have to work on it.”

In the days that followed, the Belgian government deployed 1,800 soldiers to patrol cities and carried out searches in heavily Muslim neighborhoods. But not in Mechelen: Somers asked police officers to work longer hours for a couple of months but didn’t feel the need for a show of militarization. Officers rarely brought guns on patrol and never wore bulletproof vests. The city embarked on what theorists call “desecuritization,” or moving from emergency mode to the ordinary rhythms of civic life.

Somers’s reaction after the terrorist attacks represents his broader vision for the police. When conservatives accuse him of being “a lefty,” the mayor points to Mechelen’s streets, clean as dinner plates, and the security cameras watching above them—the most such surveillance in Belgium. He hired more police and embraced the “broken windows” theory made famous by former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, which holds that petty crimes lead to more serious ones. In the United States, this approach has been widely discredited, as it evidently led to excessive targeting of minorities by police. Mechelen largely avoided such an outcome by making conscious attempts to desecuritize the police force.

Somers pushed for a more visible police presence, in large part to tackle xenophobia. If people don’t feel safe, he said, “they’ll blame two groups: democratic politicians and migrants.” They’ll vote for populists at the polls, and they’ll scapegoat newcomers in the streets. But if everyone, from frail retirees to high-school dropouts, feels safe in the city, “you strengthen trust in democracy, you create more openness for diversity, and you disconnect diversity from decline. We’ve showed that diversity and progress can go hand in hand.”

Street crime fell by 84 percent, and the consumer magazine that had previously found Mechelen to be the dirtiest city in Flanders recently declared it the cleanest. In the early aughts, Mechelaars had ranked at the bottom in polls of civic pride; now they rank among the top three groups of city residents in Belgium.

Not all Mechelaars are convinced by their mayor’s vision. In a prime position on the Great Market square stands the local branch of Vlaams Belang, the far-right Flemish-nationalist party that had won about a third of the city's vote in the 2000 local elections. By 2014, local support for the party had plummeted to 6 percent.

But in the 2019 elections, VB more than doubled its support, garnering 15 percent of the Mechelen vote. VB support was weaker in Mechelen than in the region at large, where the party held 23 percent of seats in Parliament. But VB Mechelen’s social-media sites contain plenty of nativist hatred: “The massive influx of foreigners is causing the Mechelaars to become a minority in their own city,” reads one typical post. “Nothing will remain of our Flemish identity. Action must be taken now to combat this. STOP mass immigration! Protect our identity.” The town’s mayor—“big left guru #Somers”—is a constant target too. Posts sneer at his “woke madness” and his “pamper policy for anyone who doesn’t have or want our nationality.” Trumpian in its crude racism, the message clearly targets white voters, stoking fears that the presence of migrants will cost them their security and their identity. As with so much populist rhetoric, these posts hinge on zero-sum logic: that newcomers—or even third- and fourth-generation Belgians with non-European ancestry—inevitably take something from Belgium.

On my two trips to Mechelen, I visited the Kazerne Dossin, a Holocaust and human-rights museum built beside the barracks where Belgium’s Jews and Roma were held before being deported to Auschwitz. On the wall opposite sepia-tinted portraits of Jewish people deported from the region is a wall-length photo. It’s contemporary—probably taken at some outdoor music festival, the kind my teenagers petition to attend every summer. The image is massive. You can feel the crowd’s electricity, its heave and crush. A euphoric young woman, arms aloft, stands on the shoulders of some Ray-Ban-wearing man. Far from sinister, the photo is immersive, sweeping you into the collective rapture.

It’s a daring choice for the entrance of a Holocaust museum, this photo of innocent, mundane fun. It’s the cornerstone image on the first floor, whose theme is “Mass”—a force, the museum catalog informs me, that can “build up a destructive and deadly power that spares nothing and no one, as the Leader looks on, encouraging and inciting.” The floor above, themed “Fear,” tells the story of the persecution of Jews in Belgium, and the top floor, “Death,” details their extermination in concentration camps. I was most haunted by the photograph of ordinary life. The curators had chosen the photo of a music festival to suggest the possibilities for extremism that lurk within us all, ready to surface given the right conditions.

When I met with Mayor Somers, I asked him whether he thought his carefully curated civic policies might actually backfire. I mentioned George Orwell’s observation, in his prescient 1940 review of Mein Kampf. “Human beings,” Orwell wrote, “don’t only want comfort, safety, short working hours, hygiene, birth-control and, in general, common sense. They also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice, not to mention drums, flags and loyalty-parades.”

The anthropologist Scott Atran cites this Orwell quote to suggest that just providing people with good jobs and access to a ballot box won’t stop young people in the West from being drawn to extremism. So where, I asked Somers, does that leave the clean streets of prosperous Mechelen? If humans do need to struggle for a cause, how does Mechelen’s cozy strategy satisfy it?

“People want to be bigger than life,” Somers agreed. But he sees Mechelen’s integration drive as a cause in itself. The struggle to create a town that reflects Europe’s 21st-century diversity is a glorious one, particularly in an era of discord and division. “We are a beacon of hope,” he said. “That’s the biggest thing that this small city can do: Prove that the populists are wrong!”


This post is excerpted from Carla Power’s book Home, Land, Security: Deradicalization and the Journey Back From Extremism.