Belgium, a small country of 11 million that likes to refer to itself as the capital of Europe, stands at the intersection of a global struggle against extremism. As Belgian troops mobilize on public streets, and police raids continue against suspected terror sites, the world observes how this European nation deals with the problem of deepening radicalism facing many societies, including our own.

History reminds us that Belgium, with support from the United States, has experience with how to integrate Muslim communities into the fabric of its country. Over a decade ago, extensive U.S financial, intelligence, law enforcement, defense, diplomatic and other initiatives aimed at a growing Islamic extremism in Europe designed a model to mainstream Muslims across Europe to ease Muslim alienation and combat terrorism using public diplomacy — an effective tool for galvanizing citizens in pursuit of a common objective of tolerance. Public diplomacy is not "soft power" but sensible, purposeful engagement through communications, cross-cultural exchanges and education to leverage traditional diplomacy by creating dialogue and positive interaction amongst diverse communities, including Muslims living in Western Europe.


A good Muslim engagement strategy supported by the U.S. proved effective in 2005 in Belgium in creating a model for how to engage 500,000 Muslims largely from Turkey and Morocco. The U.S. Embassy in Brussels, together with nongovernmental organizations and private sponsors from the United States and Belgium, brought together an impressive group of American Muslims to meet with an equally impressive group of Belgian Muslims to discuss everyday practical issues regarding Muslim participation in society. It was a first-ever people-to-people exchange between American and Belgian Muslims, focusing on Muslim identity, civic life, economic opportunity, media portrayal, youth development and women's issues. This was about Muslims talking with other Muslims — a dialogue about shared differences, experiences and frustrations — and best practices and success strategies.

The United States played a strategic role a decade ago in showing Belgium our own positive integration of American Muslim communities. Belgium has a long history of multiculturalism and multilingualism. (In Belgium, religion is valued and supported. Public school students are required to take moral education and can choose from several varieties of Christianity, Judaism, Islam or secular studies, all given by teachers supported by the state.) What a structured, facilitated interaction brought in 2005 was the ability of Muslims from both of our societies to share experiences with American and European leaders about how to fashion a common blueprint for living together.

Most important, it succeeded. Concrete interactions flowed from the dialogue. For example, the mayor of Dearborn, Mich., at the time, Michael Guido, and the mayor of Genk, Belgium, Jef Gabriels, addressed how large Muslim and ethnic communities in their respective cities actively succeeded in participating in society. They agreed to begin a sister city relationship. The Islamic Society of North America, the largest Muslim organization in the United States, announced a package of internships, scholarships and exchanges for Belgian imams and Muslim leaders, teachers and students to come to the United States to engage further with the U.S. Muslim community. KARAMAH, a U.S.-based Muslim women's legal group, invited Belgian Muslim women to the United States for training seminars. The Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California and a Belgian partner teamed up to engage Belgian and American reporters, editors, anchors and producers on the challenges and good practices related to covering Muslims and Islam in the media. In light of the Danish cartoon issue and now the "Je Suis Charlie" campaign, media engagement remains critical.

Moving Muslims from the margins to the mainstream of society is essential. Contacts between European and U.S. Muslims enfranchise Muslims within society, promoting the long-term stability of Western, pluralistic democracy. There are powerful lessons in seeing American Muslims who have found ways to be proud, practicing Muslims — and proud Americans who value freedom, liberty and democracy.

It is time to develop and expand similar exchanges to catalyze and cultivate relationships, networks and initiatives with the Muslim communities around the world. Today, we must, without arrogance and preaching, empower Muslims and counter the alienation that can spur radicalism and even terrorism. This is the task and purpose of effective public diplomacy, which should be a centerpiece of our overall diplomatic effort.

Sonenshine served as under secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs and currently teaches at George Washington University. Korologos served as U.S. ambassador to Belgium from 2004 to 2007 and initiated the U.S.-Belgium outreach program. He chaired the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy and was a charter member of the Broadcasting Board of Governors. He is a strategic advisor at DLA Piper in Washington.