Speaking in the European Parliament yesterday (21 March), Hans Bonte, the mayor of Vilvoorde, a municipality sometimes called “the city of Jihadists”, shared his experience on how to avoid the radicalisation of young people.
Bonte, who is a member of the Flemish Social-democratic party (SP.A) and has been mayor of Vilvoorde since 2013, spoke in a conference on the role of education for preventing violent extremism, hosted by Bulgarian MEP Ilhan Kyuchyk, with the participation of UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova.
Vilvoorde, with a population of 43,000 inhabitants, is a Belgian municipality in the Flemish province of Flemish Brabant, neighbouring Brussels. It is home to a large Moroccan community. Bonte, who was a youth worker in the late 1980s in the Brussels commune of Molenbeek, before becoming a politician, has substantial experience working with Moroccan youths.
Belgium does not keep statistics on religion or race, but an estimated seven percent of the population is Muslim – rising to 45% in Molenbeek, independent researchers say.
As Bonte said, Vilvoorde is known as the home city of a very high number of “foreign fighters”: 29 young people have left to fight in the surroundings of Aleppo, and afterwards in Iraq. 75% of the school pupils of Vilvoorde originate from countries other than Belgium, he said.
At least 422 Belgians have left Brussels to fight in Syria and Iraq, according to researcher Pieter Van Ostaeyen.
Bonte said he could not agree more with the UNESCO director-general, who spoke about the importance of education to prevent youth radicalisation.
Bonte said that he had been “traveling the world” lately, because Vilvoorde’s experience has been sought abroad, thanks to the recent good results from investment in youth, education and the way the police works with local young people. “We are seen as a laboratory for how to deal with this,” he said.
According to Bonte, youth in general was under “enormous” social pressure to get the kind of consumer goods that create a status, such as the latest iPhone, or expensive clothes.
Many of those who became foreign fighters were very talented young people, he said, speaking several languages, IT-savvy, capable of organising networks, but nearly all of them did not succeed in school when they were 14-15 years old.
Bonte said that schools too had to think about how to deal with such young people, who are not culturally and socially integrated to the way schools function today. As an example, he said that teachers were teaching pupils when Belgium got its independence, or when the EU was founded, but had no knowledge of the key issues their families were talking about.
The role of teachers should be much broader than giving class – they have to go and see the families of pupils who need to be better integrated, and “build bridges”, Bonte argued.
He also said that a “bridge” should be built between the population and the official authorities. Formerly, the police in Vilvoorde never had a colleague of Moroccan origin. In any community, the police force must be representative of the group of people it serves, he argued.
“But the most important thing to prevent radicalism in youth groups is opening your doors and windows and your hearts, to the offer that is there from the Muslim community itself, to help secure society, because they are the real victims,” Bonte said. He pointed out that Mohammad Abrini, widely known as the “Man in the Hat” from video footage of the Brussels airport attack one year ago, was identified thanks to a Moroccan taxi driver.
He said he had been successful not only in finding policemen with Moroccan roots, but also in a programme organising discussions around the table with the participation of Salafist youths and policemen.
“I was there as a kind of referee. Some years later everyone is convinced this was very useful,” he said.
As Reuters reported recently, nearly half of the residents of Belgium’s second largest city Antwerp have an immigrant background, but only 7% of the 2,600-strong police do.
Antwerp police received over 1,000 applications. Out of 30 selected, six had immigrant roots, a proportion more than twice that of the current Antwerp police force.