Key insights from the local authorities’ conference on the prevention of radicalisation leading to violent extremism – November 2015, Aarhus

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Towards an alliance of European cities against violent extremism

Local authorities’ conference on the prevention of radicalisation
leading to violent extremism

18 November 2015, Aarhus

Key insights

The conference in Aarhus on the 18th of November was held in the shadow of the terror attacks a few days earlier in Paris, on Friday 13th of November, where 130 people lost their lives. This put all presentations into a certain perspective, since these events seemed to emphasize more than ever the urgency to prevent and oppress radicalism leading to extreme violence.  This article summaries key insights and conclusions from the conference.  

Ahmed Aboutaleb joined on a video speech. Conference “Towards an alliance of European cities against violent extremism” cohosted by European Forum for Urban Security (Efus) on November 18, 2015.

Preventive work is local

The mayors and local authorities representatives of a large number of European cities, as well as a few guests from outside Europe, all seemed to agree on the fact that preventive work is best done at a local level. The local network of political instances, social services, schools and other frontline workers, together with civil society groups such as associations, mosques, families and relatives, all represent unique possibilities to follow closely the people who either have fallen under extremist influence or are at risk of doing so. Therefore local authorities need to stand together and to work more closely together in order to exchange experiences and best practices.

Several of the presentations clearly showed that numerous measures have already been taken and put in place in various European cities, for example:

  • The Aarhus (DK) Model, based on close collaboration between schools, social services and police forces;
  • The Brent (GB) toolkit, training and enabling frontline workers in engaging dialogue to prevent radical discourse;
  • The Augsburg (DE) model, in which close collaboration with the state authorities has ushered several initiatives encouraging peaceful coexistence in a multicultural society.

Even if it is difficult to evaluate, since preventive work is a long process, these examples, as well as numerous others, create a large pool of practical knowledge that must be shared at a larger level so that more communities can benefit from it.

No standard model seems to exist: Each city has to take its own measures, since various factors as demography, urban planning, economy, political orientation and possible collaboration with regional and national authorities vary. As a matter of fact, in the different presentations it appeared that there is a continuum in the perception of preventive work. Some believe in soft approaches to suspected individuals while others seemed to be more determined on combining prevention with stronger, repressive measures. Therefore much of the debate was centred on the possibility to develop methods helping local authorities to put in place the best possible toolkits and programmes – rather than exact models to copy-paste, which most participants seemed to agree upon.

A common European approach

The conference also pointed towards the necessity to think across borders. The current terror events showed that ‘radicalism knows no borders’, as a participant put it. Therefore, in the process of putting local processes in place, a larger, international perspective should be included – also by local authorities. That Europe has become a multicultural society should not be forgotten, as attested by the testimonials from many mayors of multi-ethnic municipalities.

The need for dialogue

Inclusive dialogue with the communities from which extremists originate seemed to be pointed out as the number one priority to engage in preventive, anti-radicalism initiatives. But many questions arose around this matter. How to initiate dialogue with people who do not wish to talk? How to approach certain population groups, without stigmatising them? And who should take the first step? There seemed to be a constant dilemma for local authorities on how to juggle with local, social cohesion and individual human rights on one hand and resistance to radical behaviour on the other. And there seemed to be a sense of ‘local loneliness’ in this matter, thus emphasising again the need for platforms to exchange with peers experiences on this dilemma.

The term ‘political courage’ was also applied to this debate – some issues seem to be difficult to name, given the risk of involuntarily discriminating some population groups in the public debate.

A declaration for further work

The Aarhus Declaration presented at the end of the conference summarised the entire debate and underpinned the commitment of local authorities to take on the heavy task of preventing radicalisation leading to extreme violence.  Such a task needs national and international recognition, as does the potential lying in the huge network of local, political representatives. Successful preventive work needs this recognition and accordingly, the necessary resources. Therefore the declaration pointed out how local level stakeholders must be empowered, engaged and considered at the highest level for their work in fighting extremism in Europe and beyond.
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