Finbar Anderson| The Daily Star
Mayors and officials from Lebanon and further afield emphasized Thursday the importance of working at the local level to address the root causes of violent extremism. “You have to think globally and act locally,” Hans Bonte, mayor of the Belgian town of Vilvoorde, told local officials from around Lebanon at an event titled, “On the Role of Mayors in Preventing Violent Extremism,” organized by NGO Strong Cities Network at the Grand Serail in Beirut.
“It’s at the local level you can make a difference,” the mayor added. His small Belgian municipality has won praise for its implementation of a strategy to combat violent extremism after 28 of its citizens left to join militant groups in Syria between 2012 and 2014.
Lebanon’s Cabinet approved the country’s own national strategy to combat violent extremism last March, an initiative pushed by Prime Minister Saad Hariri under a United Nations global action plan.
Belgium, Bonte said, developed its own national strategy on the back of the success of local programs such as that in Vilvoorde. Lebanon, on the other hand, has not yet comprehensively rolled out its strategy to reach local communities.
While praising the efforts put into the creation of the national strategy, Bonte emphasized the importance of implementing it at grassroots level. “We have to work on social inclusion and building bridges between groups, and in a country like Lebanon I think it’s a useful thing to build that from the bottom up,” he told The Daily Star.
Jonathan Birdwell, Deputy Director of the Strong Cities Network, echoed the importance of fostering community-led programs.
“The national government has always historically had a role in these issues and will continue to have a role,” he told The Daily Star, but noted that most actors on the ground, including the government and civil society, have been slow to involve municipalities.
“The failure to include municipalities contributes to one of the drivers [of violent extremism], which is a lack of political representation at the local level.”
“Bringing municipalities into the discussion helps to build the role of the municipality and set the strategic direction within the community,” he said.
The Strong Cities Network is made up of mayors and municipal-level policymakers in over 100 cities around the globe, and since 2016 has operated Community Prevention Networks in three cities across Lebanon: Tripoli, Sidon and Majdal Anjar.
“We often find that working in a few cities in an intensive way, and then having those cities stand up and showcase their work to their peers can be a really effective way of motivating their peers who want to do similar things,” said Birdwell, who noted that the method was a cost-effective way to reduce drivers of violent extremism. “This isn’t costing a huge amount of money. This is just people volunteering their time because they care about the safety of their community.”
Local officials lent their support to the proposals. “If we really want to make a difference in decreasing the likelihood of extremism and violence, we should go to the community, not the salons and the fancy halls where the elite talk about stuff,” said Sheikh Saleh Abou Mansour, president of the Jabal al-Sheikh Municipalities Union.
“This is not where things change. We should go to the community level: to the streets, to the poor areas around the cities, in the cities and the rural areas, and to educational institutions.”