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How one town helps residents balance being Belgian and Muslim

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Part 13 of Who is 'Europe'?, a weekly series on how European natives and residents are responding to pressures from terrorism, migration, nationalism, and the 'European project.'

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    Anass El Lamzi, a Belgian of Moroccan descent, stands in Mechelen city center. He says people look at him differently since the Brussels attack in March.
    Colette Davidson
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Along the train line that connects Brussels and Antwerp, young men, often the children of Muslim immigrants, have been swayed by radicalism. Belgium became notorious as the European nation with the most foreign jihadis per capita joining the so-called Islamic State and other terrorist groups in Syria and Iraq.

They’ve hailed from Molenbeek, the Brussels neighborhood where both the Paris cafe attacks and Brussels bombings were hatched; the Flemish city of Antwerp that gave rise to the Islamist group Sharia4Belgium, which saw 45 members convicted of terror-related offenses; and the small town of Vilvoorde, where 28 youngsters out of a town of 40,000 left their European homes to wage jihad in the Middle East.

But in the quaint town of Mechelen – which sits smack in the middle of the rail line and whose population is 20 percent Muslim and includes 120 nationalities – recruiters have had no such luck.

It doesn’t mean that radical thought hasn’t taken root here. And the city is on constant guard, as Europe continues to be victimized by terrorism, in Nice and southern Germany in the last week alone. It has dispatched social workers, developed community programs, and brought schools and police officers to the same table to watch for warning signs.

But what it considers its winning strategy is making youths here feel that they belong, that they are Europeans – and more specifically in the case of Mechelen, Flemish Belgians. Instead of singling this out as a “Muslim” issue, in fact, they look at radicalization through the lens of marginalization, so put most of their emphasis on making sure youths aren’t vulnerable in the first place.

“I don’t see this as a religious problem but as a totalitarian problem.... Regular Muslims are victims ... they always have to apologize for being Muslims,” says Mechelen Mayor Bart Somers. “When parents come in to talk about their children, if they’re worried about them, we try to create a climate of inclusion because Islamists are trying to tell them that their kids are not included, to mislead them.”

'I feel in between'

Mechelen, with a population of 84,000, is a diverse city, but most of its immigrant community traces back to Morocco. And while second and third generations were born here, they still struggle with belonging – something that’s gotten harder since the spate of terrorist attacks across Europe.

Suspicions threaten to create new wedges between communities, and ultimately push some kids away, says Anass El Lamzi, a son of Moroccan immigrants who is the captain of one of the soccer teams at Salaam Mechelen, a youth club. Considered one of the city's premier tools for integration – the mayor often attends the games and makes the first kick – the players, ages 6 to 25, only get play time if they keep their grades up.

Dressed in a fitted sweater and jeans, Mr. El Lamzi looks like any European youth. But when asked whether he feels like one, he replies “not all the time.” Or at least not by others, since the March terrorist attack not 20 miles away in Brussels killed 32 people in the airport lobby and on the metro.

He says from then on, he felt people looking at him “with anger in their eyes.”

"In those moments, I don’t feel Belgian. I don’t necessarily feel Moroccan either – I feel in between,” he says. “It’s strange. I have always been a good guy. I’m always polite to people. But when the attacks happened, everyone – the public, the media – even my colleagues generalized Muslims.”

He says that some discrimination predates terror. The veil, for example, is constantly misunderstood as a symbol of oppression by non-Muslims, he says.

“[Some youngsters] start pushing themselves away from all the negativity they experience and the Belgian public in general,” he adds. After the Brussels attack his cousin, who works in a Brussels public school, told him some of those pupils hailed it. “’They said, ‘we hate Belgians.’”

Social work, not police work

That’s where the city comes in. Salaam Mechelen is just one of many social programs, from soccer teams to boxing clubs to after-school mentoring, that were set up to help foster integration between 2013 and 2014, as the problem of Belgium’s jihadis came to light. And the city sees a new urgency in them due to the sustained security issues facing Europe. The city's efforts have also been bolstered by the region of Flanders, which has earmarked an additional 120 million euros ($132 million) towards deradicalization in the region.

Mechelen's radicalization officer, Alexander Van Leuven, says that even if no one has left Mechelen for Syria or Iraq, they have active cases of Islamic radicalization they are currently monitoring. If someone spots warning signs – a sudden withdrawal from school or old friends, for example – he gets notified, sometimes by social workers, or those in the legal system, schools, or youth centers. The mayor, police, and Mr. Van Leuven meet every two weeks to assess their progress. “We try to go in as soon as possible so these youth don’t get pulled into a criminal network,” Van Leuven says.

Social workers, who are often closest to families, play a major role in catching what might seem off. Nordin Echahbouni, a social worker at the Jeugdwerk Mechelen (J@M) center, says he is always on guard. “If there’s a kid here with radicalized thoughts, they’re going to get a lot of attention from me,” says the youth worker, as a group of local youths ride bikes and call out hello to him. “I will make contact with the family and follow up with them at school.”

But they also see this as a last resort, preferring to put most of the attention toward the longer-term goal of identity building and belonging.

“It’s not just waiting until something bad happens and reacting. It’s really trying to put the focus on the proactive work, creating spaces where people can develop into resilient citizens, whatever their background is, so they retain trust in society,” says Van Leuven. “When youngsters aren’t able to deal with their frustrations and nobody can help them, they go and look for alternative help, and it’s by coincidence they are quickly resocialized into a specific criminal network, be it Islamicized radicalism or leftist radicalism or Animal Liberation Front or Hell’s Angels or whatever. We’re not discriminating in any case. We’re working with people who are disappointed in our society to such an extent that they have experienced a broken social contract.”

Feeling included

Many experts have agreed with this assessment, seeing the radicalization problem as a generational break and form of protest that’s taken a deadly turn. Olivier Roy, a French expert on political Islam at the European University in Florence, told a group of journalists from the Anglo-American Press Association in Paris at a meeting in March that what Europe is witnessing is not “the radicalization of Islam, but the Islamization of radicalism,” he said.

For the participants of the program, the notion of fighting jihad may seem a far-off fantasy, but the reality of terror in Europe strikes close to home. And the city is bracing for the fallout, trying to keep the community cohesive. Right after the attack in Brussels, Salaam Mechelen workers recorded a video that communicated the message of inter-religious tolerance, that no matter their religion – Catholic, Muslim, or atheist – those in Mechelen are friends. Within three days, it garnered 35,000 views on YouTube.

Earlier the group had brought in a classical Arabic teacher so that children could speak with families in Morocco, since many talk in a mix of Flemish or Berber dialect at home. But a rumor quickly spread in town that the center was teaching radical ideas. Van Leuven in fact was invited to observe the group, says Vanessa Coppens, the group’s events coordinator, and concluded that “everything was fine.”

“We have people in town who will always have different beliefs about Moroccans from us, who won’t accept them,” she says. “We try to teach that that we’re all the same and that if we’re standing together, we can change things.”

Mr. Echahbouni also took the youths he works with to a local imam so that they could learn about the word they hear so frequently, and often directed at them: radicalization.

“There needs to be a partnership, they need to feel included in society,” he says. "These kids come from vulnerable families and their thoughts are vulnerable. I try to show them there is a different side of the story when they start going down the wrong road, to teach them to think positively and do things to better society."

Lessons from Vilvoorde

Mechelen says it has dedicated its resources to prevention because it sees deradicalization as a much harder challenge to address. In Vilvoorde, a town half the size of Mechelen that sits south, the more than two dozen who left to become foreign fighters in Syria by May 2014 represented a veritable wave when taking into account the size of the population, forcing Vilvoorde to respond.

At first, says social worker Moad El Boudaati, whose best friend was among those who left and is now a key player in the program, the town took a hard approach. “Police would go to the houses of youngsters, trying to get them not to leave,” he says. “But the youngsters said they felt stigmatized. So instead of police the city sent social workers.”

Their approach, like the one in Mechelen, includes a team of workers from employment officers, to leaders of the mosque, to social workers and school employees to assess, and address, each individual’s needs. “It changed the dynamic in the city,” Mr. El Boudaati says. And in two years, no one else has left.

Though some who have survived have come home, most have gone to jail. But one is living today in Vilvoorde. This presents another unique challenge, as authorities balance reintegration with security, while a weary public calls for tougher responses after the attacks in France and Brussels. 

Authorities have also been under fire, particularly in Belgium and France, for their failure to prevent attacks. The police in Mechelen are under investigation, the mayor says, for their handling of information that could have led to the capture of Salah Abdeslam, the Paris terror suspect who fled to Brussels and was arrested just prior to the March attack in Brussels.

Sensitivities are high. The workers at the Rojm youth center in Mechelen, in fact, eschew the word “radicalization” altogether, because that’s where stigmas start, says Sahd Jaballah, the group’s coordinator. The group sometimes runs into problems with the police, who he says profile Muslim youths. For instance, they know youths stay out at night during Ramadan but still harass them about their whereabouts. "We are trying to work on a positive identity for these youth, that they can be something positive in the community and that they would be missed if they weren't here,” he says.

Straddling two worlds

But youths here are already straddling two worlds, without the complications that terrorism has brought Muslim youths in Europe.

Lamyae, a 16-year-old at the J@M center in Mechelen who didn’t want to share her last name, was wearing a djellaba, a Moroccan robe, in honor of Ramadan. Born here and grateful for parents who understand her desire to participate at the youth center with both boys and girls as is the norm across Europe, Lamyae still feels conflicted at times about where she fits in. "I feel Moroccan when I'm in Belgium, and Belgian when I'm in Morocco."

For Mechelen Mayor Somers, his aim is that they all feel Belgian, no matter where they are, and don't get stuck in a gray area. He says that the Muslim community in his town continues to grow and they have many identities – Muslim, Belgian, and European – and they’re angry at people who make a caricature of their religion.

“You have to give people the feeling that they are a real citizen of our society, that it’s not something related to birthright,” he says. At the end of the day, he says, the goal, and path forward, is simple: “That the identity of our city is not based on the past, but on the future.”

This was part 13 of Who is 'Europe'?, a weekly series on how European natives and residents are responding to pressures from terrorism, migration, nationalism, and the 'European project.' See all of the stories on the series homepage.

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