In September 2015, Tamimount Essaide, Director of the Maison de Quartier St Antoine in Brussels, met Saliha Ben Ali, a mother whose 19-year-old-son died in Syria after joining ISIL. Mrs. Ben Ali is the founder of Society Against Violent Extremism. Together with MQSA and Women Without Borders they launched the Mother’s School as a tool to understand and combat the reality of young people embracing extremism. “We receive the call of mothers concerned about the future of their children, and mothers can be the first to notice sadness or isolation in a child, so they can play a role of safeguard and early warning” explained Tamimount. During 15 weeks at Mother’s School, the participants acquire a better understanding of their children’s environment, learn how to do intelligent prevention and reinforce the affective ties between parents and children”.
This initiative exemplifies an idea shared by all speakers at the conference: the first battleground to overcome youth marginalisation and prevent violent radicalisation is the local level.
A firm defender of the local approach is the winner of the World Mayor Prize 2016, the mayor of Mechelen-Belgium, Bart Somers who started addressing two inconvenient truths: “first, nearly 4.200 young Europeans have joined ISIL and if the number of violent radicalised joining ISIL keeps going up it will be impossible for security services to follow them. Secondly, de-radicalisation is very difficult, it takes a lot of time and money and success is not guarantee”. That’s why he’s betting on prevention and overcoming marginalisation.
“We don’t need more police or special laws, the first things to do is an inclusive policy at the local level, you need to create security in your city, don’t allow neighbourhoods to be without services, with criminals as a role model” stated Mechelen mayor. He also pointed out that even if we say we live in a multicultural society, “in many cities people don’t live with each other but next to each other, in archipelagos of monoculture societies”. He stressed the importance of having mixed schools, sport and youth clubs. In Mechelen, there’s a Football club, with young players from different cultural backgrounds, but besides playing football they do homework together and if they receive bad marks at school they can’t play the next week. There’s also a Boxing Club, founded by an ex drug dealer, that gathers the most vulnerable youngster. They learn how to box with the condition of keeping a good record at school and if they fight once on the street they are out of the club.
For Caterina Chinnici, Co-Chair of the European Parliament Intergroup on Children’s Rights “the combat against marginalisation and discrimination should be the first priority at European level. Prevention and reintegration has to be done through education”. That’s not a new approach, she remembers how her father Rocco Chinnici, a judge who was assassinated in 1983 by the mafia, “innovated in criminal law as he was the first magistrate to meet and raise awareness among young people, as a tool to prevent radicalisation”.
As Adélaide Vanhove from the International Juvenile Justice Observatory alerted; “prison is the worst place for young people with problems, because there’s a risk that they become radicalised and recruited inside jail”. She remarks that “little consideration has been given to the fact that some of the suspected or alleged terrorist could be children or underage juveniles. There are no children adapted policies in the field of counter terrorism in most EU Member States”. Vanhove believes that “repressive measures are no longer sufficient, they may even have the opposite effect” and she urges the adoption of a new strategy based on prevention. That’s why the Observatory launched the project “The prevention of juvenile radicalisation: Promotion of the use of alternatives to detention through judicial training” (2016-2018). The aim is to share good practices between judges, prosecutors, court officers, lawyers, mediators and policy makers. They will create a manual and e-learning training course that will help judiciary workers tackle the issue of radicalisation in detention and study alternatives to detention, including community and family based approaches to de-radicalisation.
In countering radicalisation volunteering also has a role to play. As the CEV director Gabriella Civico put it, “negative stereotypes fuel hate-filled action and volunteering has the power to break stereotypes and promote understanding and tolerance of differences, thus preventing extremism”. She insisted that volunteering builds community, resilience and it occupies the space where strategies to prevention can be implemented. However, Civico was also critic with the traditional civil society that “is not addressing radicalisation and countering extremism ideology, due to lack of competence and fear from receiving a backlash from society that could see it as a softening crime, and therefore a risk of losing their funding”.
Tamimount has not received specific funding for the Mother’s School, but they are already preparing the next edition for September. Mrs Essaidi stressed the idea that radicalised youngsters had join terrorist groups because “they felt heard”. She acknowledged that de-radicalisation is as difficult as getting someone out a sect. Her face shines when she recalls a case of a 15-year-old that joined a terrorist group in Syria and then because of the work of familiar reconstruction, was able to come back and disengage from violent extremism. As Mrs Essaidi concludes “the mother here played a crucial role, but also the local authorities who gave him a second chance, he’s now in his first year of medicine.”