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A Guide for Mayors: Preventing and Responding to Hate, Extremism & Polarisation

Last updated:
01/02/2024
Publication Date:
13/09/2023
Content Type:

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Last updated: 12/09/2023

Overview: What is the role of a mayor in prevention and response?

Proactive prevention

A mayor’s proximity to the people in their city enables them to understand residents’
concerns. At the same time, their access and accountability as a locally-elected official gives them unique influence and insight, and perhaps even an implicit mandate, to proactively shape and lead prevention efforts and help their city to become more resilient, including to the threats that hate, extremism and polarisation pose.  

For the purposes of this Guide, prevention has three primary features:

Identifying the underlying conditions, such as a lack of belonging or feelings of marginalisation, exclusion or injustice, that can make individuals susceptible to hate and extremist narratives and exacerbate existing or generate new intercommunal tensions that can result
in violence.

Addressing these underlying conditions, including by designing and implementing programmes aimed at targeting relevant individual needs and vulnerabilities and promoting inclusive, transparent and accountable governance, digital literacy, civility, respect for the ‘other’, and intercommunal dialogue.  

Protecting ‘soft’ targets such as public spaces and religious, cultural or sports venues, thus making it more difficult for those who want to terrorise civilians to do so. 

Gledian Llatja, Elbasan, Albania

Mayors have a role to play in each of these prevention-related areas and more – including by championing appropriate strategies, policies and programmes, directing relevant local government components, engaging directly with local communities and mobilising resources and political will across their cities, as they work to make them more resilient and cohesive.  

Engaging their city’s communities in prevention efforts

A mayor’s position gives them a unique opportunity to build strong, trusting relationships with the residents of their city, including historically marginalised or ‘hard to reach’ groups, which may include religious and/or ethnic and other minorities. 

By making a concerted effort to engage with different communities personally, a mayor can enhance trust and – where necessary – repair relationships between a city’s government and its residents. 

This can also enable their city to pursue more inclusive and participatory approaches to prevention in which communities can help define their challenges and take ownership of the solutions. 

To make this engagement sustainable, mayors should work to establish productive, mutually-beneficial relationships that empower different communities and give them ownership to strive toward a more peaceful and inclusive city.

Everything is based on mutual trust; we cannot fight extremism, hatred, violence and polarisation without building trust between leaders and citizens on the one hand and between the population itself on the other.

Mayor Sindayihebura Rénovat, Mukaza Commune of Bujumbura Province, Burundi

By empowering the community, [mayors] can create the critical mass for change.

Representative, City of
Prishtina, Kosovo 
Shelly Oberoi, Delhi, Municipal Corporation, India

Directing local frameworks and activities for prevention

A mayor is uniquely placed to devise, shape and drive local strategies that serve the needs of their city while supporting national strategies for prevention and response. In developing local strategies, a mayor should ensure the city has a local action plan that represents the city’s diverse needs and challenges and reflects the existing threat environment. This could require creating a new strategy or updating an existing one. Either way, the strategy should be inclusive and sustainable, both in the process of its development and in its delivery.  

A mayor should utilise their position within the city to mobilise community and religious leaders, frontline service providers, civil society, the private sector and other actors in pursuit of a whole-of-society approach to prevention. 

Being a mayor means knowing the state, needs and behaviour of the local community. By being involved in all areas of citizens’ lives, space is created for good relations, friendly treatment and thus influence and proof that you are one of them.

Representative, City of Sremska Mitrovica, Serbia

Coordinating with national prevention actors

Mayors are a critical node for national-local cooperation (NLC). They are well-placed to identify and understand how global, regional and national extremism trends manifest locally and impact their communities. This, along with a detailed understanding of their city, can both inform national approaches to help ensure they serve their city better and inform and then interpret national policies to enable localised implementation. Advocating for the needs of their city and citizens to national policy-makers also presents opportunities for a mayor to demonstrate to their constituents their commitment to promoting inclusivity and civility, including by prioritising efforts to prevent hate, extremism and, more broadly, intolerance from taking root in their city. This, in turn, can generate greater trust in the mayor and support from the city’s residents.

Mayor Wilson Sanya, City of Koboko, Uganda

Communicating clearly about the city’s policies and wider efforts to address hate and extremism

Ensuring access to unbiased information and mitigating against misinformation and disinformation that can be used to radicalise to violence is vital. Communication is crucial for coordination between different prevention actors, both at the local and national levels, and for enhancing trust, engagement and buy-in from a city’s residents for prevention efforts. A mayor is well placed to oversee and coordinate internal and external communication that supports a shared understanding across the city, which emphasises the importance of prevention to solidify support and resourcing and counteracts potentially harmful disinformation. A mayor should also clearly communicate their priorities and the positive values they – and the local government – stand for.


Response

As a growing number of mayors know all too well, it is, unfortunately, more a matter of when rather than if their city will experience a hate- or extremism-motivated incident during their tenure. In addition to having a plan in place to prevent such an occurrence, every mayor should have an emergency response plan that prepares them to manage the fallout of an incident, including for the safety, social and psychosocial well-being of their residents and the city’s economic vitality.

Interview with Nancy Rotering, Mayor of Highland Park, USA

Managing security fallout

A mayor must work closely with the police, whether national and/or local, to secure the city in the immediate aftermath of an attack and address public safety concerns in the medium-to-long-term to help ensure the city is less vulnerable to future attacks. 

A critical part of mitigating the fallout from an incident is setting the narrative about the situation and countering those shaped by misinformation, disinformation and/or conspiracy narratives that maligned groups might use to recruit and radicalise followers to (retaliatory) violence. In the immediate aftermath, false or misleading information about the incident can exacerbate intercommunal tensions and, more broadly, further undermine public safety, including by fuelling panic in an environment where anxiety levels are likely to be heightened due to the incident. 

Further, within hours of an attack or other incident, a city can also experience a rise in hate crimes against the community whose members are suspected of being perpetrators. In the medium- to long-term, misinformation and disinformation can spur conspiracy narratives about the incident that damage trust in the city’s leadership or, if targeted toward a particular religious, ethnic or other group, produce a discriminatory backlash that undermines social cohesion and/or amplify the threat of future violence.

A mayor can help prevent this by communicating clearly and frequently, addressing misinformation and disinformation, emphasising their commitment to safeguarding local communities regardless of their composition and promoting the values of inclusivity, tolerance and civility.

Public safety is one of the top priorities of mayors. Addressing and managing further fall out and security in the immediate aftermath is critical … Once the safety risks are eliminated, and the situation is stabilised, the deep work of uplifting unity and healing is a critical next of medium- and long-term actions.

Joumana Silyan-Saba, Director of Policy and Discrimination Enforcement, City of Los Angeles, California, USA

Managing psychological and social fallout

Public safety is not a mayor’s only concern following a hate- or extremism-motivated incident; they must also help provide for a city’s psychological and social well-being. For example, in the immediate aftermath, a mayor will often become a city’s ‘chief consoler’, providing support and comfort to a city’s residents, including those directly impacted by the incident: survivors and the families and friends of victims. A mayor should consider ways the city can provide psychological care and resources such as trauma counselling for all residents, with dedicated resources available for survivors. 

Depending on a city’s resources, it may be necessary to advocate for such support at the national (or even global) level to ensure survivors get the support they need in the immediate-, medium- and long-term following an attack. 

In addition to its physical impact, a violent incident, particularly one involving terrorist tactics, can also cause significant harm to a city’s social fabric, sewing or exacerbating intercommunal tensions. To help address this, a mayor will need to consider ways to protect and, in some cases, rebuild a city’s inclusive identity to maintain social cohesion.

The mayor is the figurative (and literal) leader of the city, and residents naturally look to him in times of crisis (and joy) to help motivate and heal.

Representative, City of Columbus, Ohio, USA 

[The] local mayor is the mother of the citizens. First comfort and secure, then long-term plans.

Mayor Ishaq Khattak, City of Nowshera, Pakistan

Mayor’s leadership in setting the narrative helps restore calm, fosters solidarity and guides the city towards healing and recovery.

Representative, City of Sarajevo, Bosnia & Herzegovina

One of the many roles of a mayor is a communicator in crisis. Managing information, showing empathy – that leadership will be key in how a community gets through the issue.

Former Mayor Nan Whaley, City of Dayton, Ohio, USA

Common challenges

A mayor’s role in prevention and response is varied and complex, and they will likely face many challenges in trying to fulfil it. These include ones related to coordination, cooperation and capacity.

A mayor needs to cooperate and coordinate with what will inevitably be a wide range of actors across sectors and levels. 

This includes community leaders and grassroots actors, civil society and community-based organisations, the private sector, local service providers and frontline practitioners (such as social workers and educators), law enforcement, local government colleagues, and national government officials. Each of these sectors and the individuals within them bring different perspectives, priorities and capabilities, which may not align with those of the mayor’s office but are necessary for an effective, whole-of-society approach to preventing and responding to hate- and extremism-motivated incidents. 

Often, a mayor has many other priorities and limited human and financial resources – and capacities more broadly – to draw on when they do choose to assert leadership in prevention and response. 

Some mayors face harassment as they speak out against hate and extremism.

Standing in defiance of hate and extremism can bring some degree of personal risk, both for a mayor’s (and even sometimes their family’s) physical safety and their psychological well-being. There has been
a surge of extremist threats targeting locally elected officials and other public workers. 

For example, some Polish mayors who have advocated for the country to open its borders to and support migrants and refugees have received fabricated death certificates in the mail, while in the United States, mayors who call for greater LGBTQ+ rights and/or gun control can be subject to online abuse and intimidation. Mayors have lamented

the lack of guidance and other support available to help them navigate these threats and voiced concern about the long-term impact that this continued targeting of local leaders could have on the political landscape, especially given that it may cause good candidates to hesitate to run for elected office and withdraw from politics. 

Mayors also face the reality that speaking out against hate and extremism may not be in their short-term political interests. In fact, in the aftermath of an incident, they may be tempted to capitalise on ingrained fears within the general population – often fuelled by misinformation, disinformation and conspiracy theories – by employing populist narratives; a tactic that can garner short-term approval. Thus, those mayors who have courageously chosen the often more challenging route, working steadfastly towards harmony, understanding and true community well-being, serve as a model for others to follow.

Mayors can also face specific challenges based on aspects of their identity. For example, less than a quarter of mayors worldwide are female. Although female leadership is on the rise, with many large cities seeing their first female leaders within the last two decades or, in some cases ever, women still face particular challenges as they rise to local leadership. 

Strong Cities spoke with two former city leaders – Rosy Senanayake of Columbo, Sri Lanka, and Fozia Khalid Chaudhary of Toba Tek Singh, Pakistan – to discuss their experiences as their cities’ first female leaders and the challenges that women, in particular, face. Both noted they had to work much harder than their male counterparts to be taken seriously at the start of their terms. Mayor Chaudhary noted that among her staff of 300 “the predominant mindset was that I am a woman and won’t be able to do anything … I had to get strict to show them that I can administer as good as any other person. They soon realised that I could deliver.” Women should continue to strive for political leadership within their cities, in no small part because female representation in local government makes cities more inclusive and equitable for both women and men.

Interview with former Mayor Rosy Senanayake, City of Colombo, Sri Lanka

A way forward: 10 steps for mayors 

This Guide includes a range of recommendations for mayors to consider and practical examples from which to draw should  they choose to become (more) involved in prevention and response. These have been distilled into the following 10 steps; each expanded upon in this Guide.

Build your understanding of the hate and extremist threats facing your city: which communities are most vulnerable, and why?

Assess the level of priority you want to attach to addressing these threats and your mandate for doing so.

Identify which existing policies, programmes, resources and partners could be leveraged to address these threats. 

Develop a strategy for preventing and responding to hate, extremism and polarisation that outlines key priorities and sets out roles and responsibilities across the government and non-governmental partners. Decide whether this strategy will be integrated into existing frameworks, such as those related to public safety, violence reduction or community well-being or will be a standalone dedicated framework. 

Meet regularly with relevant actors and partners, including community-based leaders and organisations, to establish shared priorities, enhance understanding about their role and build strong relationships that you can leverage throughout your tenure, not just during crises. 

Pursue proactive, primary prevention through programmes and activities that leverage the city’s traditional service delivery role – reaching all communities across the city, particularly historically marginalised ones – and urban planning approaches that promote an inclusive city identity that celebrates diversity. 

Leverage communications to help the public understand your prevention priorities and strategies, drive engagement with city-sponsored activities and programmes, and respond to trends or incidents as needed to reinforce your and the city’s commitment to inclusion and peace. 

In the case of hate- or extremism-motivated attacks, be prepared to lead from the ground where you can monitor the situation as it evolves, coordinate local and national response efforts, and maintain contact with the city’s residents to provide comfort, reassurance and
strong leadership. 

In the aftermath of an attack, work with survivors and affected communities to ensure they have ongoing support and the
resources they need to heal. Consider what support will be required in the long term. Be mindful of protecting vulnerable communities at risk of backlash. 

In the months following an attack, prioritise opportunities to (re)build social cohesion. Emphasise the city’s commitment to inclusion, re-double your commitment to prevention activities and target interventions where mistrust or anger threatens to undermine social cohesion. 

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Last updated: 12/09/2023

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