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

Last updated:
19/05/2024
Publication Date:
13/09/2023
Content Type:

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Chapter 1: Preparation

Upon entering office, a new mayor faces countless competing and overlapping responsibilities. Particularly for those who have been elected, these often include many ‘quality of life’ commitments that have been made to voters throughout the election period. In this inaugural flurry, the need to tackle hate and extremism can easily be eclipsed by seemingly more urgent priorities. This is especially true in places that do not feel or perceive the threat as acutely. Unfortunately, as recent history demonstrates with incidents such as the school shootings in Kasese District, Uganda, and Belgrade, Serbia, no city is immune to a threat that has become increasingly mainstreamed and has far-reaching consequences.  

Aided by advances in technology, hate and extremism have become globalised, spreading easily beyond the borders of specific regions, countries, cities or communities, and defying traditional profiling. In addition to dangers from terrorist organisations, the threats from hate, extremism and polarisation are mounting in the face of global crises. The COVID-19 pandemic profoundly impacted disinformation, conspiracy narratives, social polarisation and governance, far outlasting the public health emergency.

At the same time, tensions surrounding refugee crises continue to fan xenophobic and nationalistic rhetoric, and identity-based hate crimes are on the rise. While offline interactions continue to be a successful path for recruitment, extremist ideologies and narratives have spread globally through social and other online media, ultimately decentralising the threat and providing new opportunities for terrorist groups to modernise their recruitment tactics. Individuals that have no clear ties to established groups can access harmful content more readily

In some cases, they can become radicalised and commit violence with no apparent ties to established groups. Local leaders face a growing and increasingly complex challenge in keeping their cities safe from hate, polarisation and extremism.

No matter where a mayor is, they will need to contend with the potential that their city could be next. A plan to prevent the spread of these threats and prepare should they result in violence should therefore be among a mayor’s priorities; every mayor needs to determine what steps they should take to help keep
their city safe.

It is essential to establish a prevention system at the local level. Mayors should recognise that their mandate extends beyond infrastructure and core municipal services; prioritising prevention is crucial as it is the bedrock of social cohesion and the prosperity of a community.

Mayor Maksim Dimitrievski, Municipality of Kumanovo, North Macedonia

This chapter outlines important factors that a mayor should consider as they prepare to address threats of hate and extremism in their city, including:

  • Understanding their mandate as a local leader.
  • Enhancing their – and the local government’s – understanding of hate and extremism-related threats.
  • Setting priorities and crafting strategies. 
  • Mapping relevant stakeholders across the city and enhancing their preparedness
  • Building trust-based relationships with relevant parts of the local government and community-based leaders and organisations. 

A mayor’s mandate

What is a mayor’s mandate in preventing and responding to hate and extremism?

The breadth and depth of a mayor’s role in prevention and response depend largely on the extent of their authority to act. This includes their scope to enact and implement policies and programmes, whether directed by or independent from the central government, propose a city budget, create and fill positions in the city administration and coordinate across different offices and sectors in the local government. A mayor’s authority will vary depending on the country, the topic and sometimes the public’s prevailing priorities at a given moment.

A mayor’s mandate on issues related to traditional local service delivery, such as housing, sanitation and even public safety, is often straightforward. However, a mayor rarely has explicit authority to engage in the prevention of and response to hate and extremism. There are several reasons for this. For example, hate- and extremism-motivated violence have historically been framed as national security issues, in which central governments (particularly the security sector) have the primary responsibility to act. Even as the need for whole-of-society approaches to address these threats is gaining acceptance globally, many countries have been slow to recognise the role that mayors and the local governments they lead can play and to include them in discussions about how best to address these threats. 

Although the number of examples of mayoral leadership in this area continues to grow, this has typically stemmed from an individual mayor’s personality and drive rather than an explicit mandate to address hate and extremism. 

In short, upon entering office, a mayor will need to understand the extent of their mandate – for example, through their responsibility for public safety or social well-being – and how they can work within it to maximise their impact as a local leader against hate and extremism.

How does a mayor address hate and extremism without an explicit or limited mandate?

A mayor can engage in the prevention of hate and extremism even if they lack a clear mandate. In fact, most of what a mayor (and, by extension, a local government) can contribute to prevention can be done within their traditional responsibilities. It does not require a dedicated local – or national – hate or extremism prevention framework to articulate a specific role for them. 

Instead, mayors should examine how the bodies, structures and resources that do fall within their mandate – including those related to public safety, education, sports, culture and/or social well-being – can be utilised to advance prevention objectives and enhance the resilience of their city to these threats.

In India, many agencies dealing with extremism issues are based at the provincial and national levels, leaving the local government with very little say in how they are conducted. But, as Tikender Singh Panwar, former deputy mayor of Shimla, India, told Strong Cities, there are structures under his authority that he could utilise, such as the Social Justice Committee. Through this committee, he found he had a mandate to engage with the social welfare and law enforcement agencies at the provincial level to discuss and advocate for the issues facing his city. So, Deputy Mayor Panwar increased the frequency with which this body met and utilised it to address segregation and social disharmony.  

As the leader of the local government, a mayor can explore ways to support prevention by prioritising diversity, equity and inclusion across all city policies and programmes and developing a city identity to which all communities can relate. Emphasising the concept of city connectedness and demonstrating that its leader is personally committed to ensuring that both long-time residents and new arrivals feel welcome and included can serve as a foundation for mayoral action against hate and extremism. 

A mayor could also consider spearheading more targeted initiatives. For example, depending on a mayor’s authority over and relationship with local schools, they could call for in-school and/or extra-curricular programmes that promote active citizenship, digital and media literacy and critical thinking. They could work with teachers to provide additional training to teach tolerance and respect for the ‘other’ to enhance young people’s resilience to ‘black and white’ thinking and prepare them to be productive members of their communities. Such programmes can also be run outside of formal education through youth and community centres.  

A mayor should also remember that they, and their city, are not alone. Where a mayor has a limited mandate or is facing a challenge they cannot manage alone, they may draw strength from cooperating with their counterparts in other cities to amplify their voice, presence and impact.


Priorities and strategies

Where do I start?

Hate and extremism are complex issues; they are impacted by a wide range of political, economic and other factors that vary from city to city and can manifest in countless ways. Moreover, one of the lessons learned from previous prevention work is the need to ensure that policies, programmes and activities are based on the actual threat (i.e., evidence/data-based) rather than politically-motivated or driven by assumptions. Overly broad approaches or ones that unjustly target specific groups or communities can backfire, including by exacerbating the very tensions that need to be reduced.

This is why local leaders must ensure the approach they take is informed by the realities of their city and tailored to address not only the threats as they exist but also consider the existing policies, programmes, expertise and resources available across the local government and the city more broadly. 

How do I know which threats are facing my city?

To be effective in prevention, a mayor should be acutely aware of the primary threats and vulnerabilities that affect their city and its protective factors and remain vigilant to how these elements may change over time. Before delving into the specific policies, programmes, initiatives and resources that might be required, a mayor should begin by building their own understanding – and that of those in their government – on a range of topics, including:

  • The nature of the hate and extremist threats – both online and offline – facing their city and the connection, if any, between these threats and those manifesting at the national, regional or international levels. This should include information about specific vulnerabilities, grievances and dynamics, how they affect different groups and individuals within them and their relationship with governmental actors. 
  • The actors, mechanisms, infrastructure and resources that could support prevention and response: many of these may be found in other sectors, including public safety, education, housing, culture, sports and youth engagement.
  • The barriers and gaps that hinder efforts to address these threats, which commonly include capacity limitations within the government or among local stakeholders and engagement challenges, which often stem from low levels of trust between communities and/or between communities and law enforcement and local government. 
  • Past and present programmes in the city that serve prevention objectives and their impact. This list should include those delivered by governmental and non-governmental actors, for example, local and national government, civil society, community-based organisations, charities and foundations, and, where relevant, international organisations. It should take stock of both successes and failures to learn lessons and scale relevant initiatives where possible.  

This information may not be readily available, or the information at hand may be outdated. If there are cirtical information gaps, a mayor should consider leading or calling for a listening exercise that incorporates the expertise, perspectives and experiences of a wide range of actors, involving, for example:

  • Local practitioners and experts specialising in hate, extremism or related issues who have conducted relevant research and/or programming locally or nationally.  
  • Frontline actors such as police, social workers, (mental) health professionals, youth workers and teachers who have regular contact with different communities across the city. 
  • Community leaders, including religious leaders, to understand the challenges facing their communities, as well as potential grievances and needs. 
  • A broad and representative selection of city residents.

[As deputy mayor,] I was answerable to the people. That gave me a larger ambit for understanding things, understanding social issues, and the social tensions that exist.

Former Deputy Mayor Tikender Singh Panwar, City of Shimla, India

London’s comprehensive listening exercise

When Mayor Sadiq Khan led the development of London’s local P/CVE action plan, the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime (MOPAC) began with a comprehensive listening exercise with thousands of community members, stakeholders and experts across the city. The exercise sought to “hear the voices of those who, in the past, have not been heard but who are the most important to listen to” and prioritised input from “minority and marginalised communities, women and young people”. 

Under Mayor Khan’s leadership, MOPAC worked closely with local grassroots organisations and organised stakeholder meetings, roundtables and workshops with law enforcement, local authorities, civil society groups, charities, think tanks, regulatory bodies and members of different communities to better understand how to enable a truly whole-of-society approach to addressing hate and extremism in the city. The mapping resulted in a series of recommendations for both the city government and central government, which are captured in a public report available on MOPAC’s website and include, among others, the need for a small grants programme to support hyper-local grassroots responses to the threat and to pursue more opportunities for city-to-city learning and collaboration. 

Rather than a one-off mapping exercise, the mayor should, where their authority allows, direct the local government to conduct this information-gathering on an ongoing basis to maintain a living directory and mapping of needs and vulnerabilities that can help shape priorities, inform programming and allow a city to anticipate tensions and unrest that could lead to violence. 

[Mayors] gather and seek their opinions on important topics concerning the town’s residents because we need the unity of the
entire town, not just the
municipal council.

Mayor Mohamad Khalil, City of Akkar al-Atika, Lebanon

Do I need a dedicated action plan to prevent hate and extremism in my city?

Mayors from several cities have led or otherwise been involved in efforts to develop a dedicated Local Action Plan (LAP) for preventing and responding to hate and extremism.   However, a stand-alone framework dedicated to these specific issues may not always be necessary. In some cases, developing a separate framework may be counterproductive as it can lead to parallel structures and redundancies and complicate efforts to leverage existing city resources. 

Instead, a mayor may find they can pursue their priorities more effectively through an integrated approach incorporating prevention and response into relevant existing frameworks, such as those for public safety or social well-being.

Mayoral leadership will be crucial in determining how a city approaches preventing and responding to hate and extremism. Early in their administration (or during the transition period between their election and taking office), they should lead a process to determine which approach (stand-alone or integrated) is most appropriate for their city. The answer to this question will depend on several factors, inter alia:

  • The nature and extent of the threats facing their city.
  • A mayor’s mandate to explicitly address hate and extremism.
  • The scope of existing, relevant city-led public safety and social well-being policies and programmes. 
  • The structure and resourcing of relevant local government departments and offices, including those related to schools, housing, health, transportation, sanitation, public safety, youth engagement, parks and recreation, and culture.
  • The city’s size and allocation of the city’s budget.

The process should also consider the relative benefits and drawbacks of integrated and stand-alone approaches.

Stand-alone frameworks allow a city to elevate preventing and responding to hate and extremism as a key priority, which may be necessary in cities that face a clear and present danger from extremism and related violence. 

It provides a single place to articulate a shared understanding of threats, delineate and define the roles of each stakeholder, establish coordination and information-sharing mechanisms, and set specific targets. 

  • Across Kenya, cities have developed County Action Plans (CAP) – stand-alone frameworks that articulate the county’s approach to prevention and response, spelling out key objectives, actors, and coordination mechanisms with Kenya’s National Action Plan. Each CAP includes a range of activities organised into thematic pillars and overseen by a pillar head responsible for coordinating with relevant stakeholders and departments. By incorporating specific leads and coordination mechanisms, Kenyan counties can help ensure their stand-alone strategy is still integrated with the rest of the county’s functions.
  • Similarly, with support from the International Organization for Migration (IOM), seven governorates across Iraq have developed local plans for implementing the country’s national strategy for countering violent extremism.
  • Other examples of stand-alone local government prevention frameworks include Copenhagen, Denmark; Brussels, Belgium; and Strasbourg, France

While a dedicated framework enables a city to direct its prevention and response efforts in a focused way, it presents some challenges. Such frameworks are likely to demand dedicated lines of effort and funding. This can limit a strategy’s sustainability and raise barriers to cooperation and engagement, especially where stakeholders and communities are wary of security-focused approaches. Moreover, a stand-alone approach risks creating parallel and potentially redundant structures within the city, which may unnecessarily complicate coordination efforts, sow confusion with the wider public and be difficult to sustain. Some cities have overcome these challenges and created a dedicated framework that serves their needs. Others, however,  have pursued an integrated approach.   

Integrated frameworks incorporate hate and extremism priorities into existing strategies and work plans of relevant city departments. This approach can help mainstream prevention into a city’s other functions and services. This can minimise the risk of stigmatisation that comes with explicit hate and extremism prevention that might be seen as unjustly targeting a particular religious, ethnic or other minority group and enhancing sustainability by providing for prevention and response through established teams and budgets. However, an integrated approach can lead to perceptions that addressing hate and extremism is not a priority for the local leadership. 

One such example of an integrated approach can be found in Norway. Oslo’s SaLTo (“Together We Create a Safe Oslo”) model for crime prevention. The cross-sectoral collaborative model incorporates the prevention of extremist violence and hate into its crime prevention efforts. SaLTo enables the city to coordinate law enforcement functions with other local and national government functions, civil society and the private sector to create a safe city and ease collaboration in sharing information and resources.

Whichever approach a mayor pursues, they should try to utilise existing departments, policies, positions and programmes wherever possible, rather than disregarding the creations of their predecessors. Prevention should be pursued over the long term. Disrupting or ending programmes prematurely can undercut a city’s progress and cause a backlash among those directly affected, potentially undermining future efforts. Instead, a newly elected mayor should find ways to build on what has been done already – when those efforts have proven effective – and minimise disruptions within beneficiary communities.  


Building relationships

On almost any issue on which they engage, a mayor works with a large number and diversity of stakeholders. This includes people within their own team, across different local government agencies, law enforcement and social services, as well as religious, youth and other community leaders and community-based organisations. Among the many functions these relationships will play in a mayor’s tenure, productive, trusting relationships with all these actors will prove critical for both prevention and in response to an attack.

In all cases, a mayor should be mindful of establishing mutually beneficial relationships built on trust and common understanding.

Community actors and civil society

The city’s engagement with community-based actors and civil society should be inclusive and diverse, driven by the makeup and organisation of a city. It can include, inter alia: religious, tribal or other community leaders; community-based organisations; advocates for youth, women and minority groups; educators and coaches; parents’ associations; and more. These actors are often a mayor’s lifeline to the residents of their city and are invaluable partners for engaging different groups. In addition to providing critical lines of communication, their cooperation can make it possible to provide an individualised approach to prevention at scale across the city. A mayor is well-placed to form a personal relationship with these critical actors.

It is critical to establish those roles and develop those relationships during peacetime so everyone can play their part effectively in the event of an incident.

Former Mayor Allison Silberberg, City of Alexandria, Virginia, USA
Interview: Mayor Amarjeet Sohi, Mayor, City of Edmonton, Canada

In London, the United Kingdom, following the listening exercise described above, Mayor Sadiq Khan and MOPAC engaged directly with CSOs and community groups to develop and deliver prevention activities as part of the Shared Endeavor Fund (SEF). Through this programme, local organisations can apply for funding and receive training and support to deliver community-based activities that support London’s prevention strategy. In 2023, Mayor Khan announced the fourth round of the SEF, committing a further £875,000 of funding to support London’s communities in tackling extremism. Strong Cities is serving as the SEF’s independent evaluator.   

In Durban, South Africa, the Mayor’s Office has several ‘desks’, staffed by team members who are responsible for engaging different parts of the community – including women and youth. These, in turn, relay the needs of community members to the mayor.

Local government and service providers

Effective prevention and response require a coordinated, whole-of-government approach in which each relevant department performs its own role in concert with others. By forming relationships with actors within their government and among frontline actors – including law enforcement where appropriate – a mayor can communicate priorities and help ensure everyone understands and embraces their roles. Building cooperative relationships with frontline actors like law enforcement and educators can be challenging, but it is especially important where the national government centrally controls those functions. Where the mayor lacks a mandate to direct services being provided to city residents, they should nevertheless look to collaborate with the service providers based in their city to establish and meet shared objectives.

It is also advisable to meet with local officials to discuss the city’s readiness for responding to attacks. For example, when Allison Silberberg, former mayor of Alexandria, Virginia, USA, first entered office, she met with the city’s senior staff and leadership from the public safety team to run through response plans through a tabletop exercise. They discussed roles and responsibilities to ensure all key personnel knew what to do and whom to call in case of emergency. This preparation proved critical when the city faced a hate-motivated shooting in 2019. 

Counterparts in other cities

Being mayor – with responsibility for addressing the myriad challenges their city and its residents face – is a unique position best understood by other mayors. 

By forming relationships with counterparts in neighbouring cities, a mayor can develop a network of support that they can call upon for advice, to bolster their position in a national setting, or to come to their aid in times of need, like in the aftermath of a violent incident.  

Nationally, regionally, and internationally, a mayor can learn from other mayors’ experiences and exchange good practices and lessons learned. Mayors can draw strength from other mayors to address
the challenges facing their cities. 

For example, in the US; the US Conference of Mayors and the ADL created a platform through which American mayors can learn from one another and strengthen their commitment to combating hate and extremism in their cities. 

Mayors must cooperate with their neighbours to address common challenges, regardless of conflicts happening at national or international levels.

Mayor Márta Váradiné Naszályi, Budavár, City of Budapest District I, Hungary 
Interview Mayor Jacek Jaśkowiak, City of Poznań, Poland

Governor George Natembeya of Trans Nzoia, Kenya, is leading an effort to unite county assemblies around the North Rift region (comprising eight counties in the Northern Rift Valley in Kenya) to come together around a road map for sustainable peace and development. At a Peace Summit for the North Rift Economic Bloc (NOREB), Governor Natembeya urged his fellow governors to come together as a bloc to confront its challenges together: “I believe that we have a responsibility of calling this insecurity menace to a stop if we unite as NOREB and [have] support from the national government.”   

Mayors in Uganda have found strength in working together to overcome a limited mandate for engaging in prevention. Regina Bakitte is the Mayor of Nansana Municipality, Uganda, and Chairperson of the Alliance of Mayors Initiative for Community Local Action, which convenes regional meetings of Ugandan mayors to discuss their shared challenges and work together to find solutions. “As Chairperson, I am able to mobilise all mayors to share experiences and elevate our common advocacy voice.”

As mayors of strong cities, we need to come together and send a joint message. We need to keep interacting and share challenges as someone can maybe help with their experience.

Mayor Florence Namayanja, Maska City, Uganda

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Last updated: 12/09/2023

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