We need diverse counter narratives to deal with diverse personalities
A report published today by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) looks at the phenomenon of Western females travelling to Iraq and Syria to join ISIS, and assesses the effectiveness of various counter-extremism programmes in rehabilitating them.
Last year, David Cameron announced that British jihadists returning from ISIS territory would be forced to attend deradicalisation programmes. This proposal demonstrates the problem with the government’s approach to extremism; it wants one size to fit all. The ISD report proves emphatically that it simply cannot.
When working with human beings we cannot repeatedly perform the same process and hope to get the same result. Nor can we use one method to address all types of radical behaviour (which is why there was such alarm when the government gave itself new powers to silence ‘extremism’.)
Erin Marie Saltman and Melanie Smith, who wrote the report, describe how:
“The broadest contention within, and between, de-radicalisation strategies is the question of whether or not the extremist ideology leading to violent extremism needs to be challenged, or if the focus should remain on social and emotional issues that serve to make an individual ‘at risk’.”
The prominent examples of radicalisation that they analyse in the report show that we need to combine these approaches. The factors leading to radicalisation are incredibly diverse and so must be met with equally diverse counter-narratives.
In the case of Zahra and Salma Halane, for example, there was the influence of an older brother who had gone to fight in Syria, combined with online pressure, but the girls were by all accounts well adapted and successful in British society. This is different to the experience of someone like Khaled Sharrouf, the Australian jihadi who had a history of drug abuse, petty theft and mental illness.
What analysts call ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors are present in each radicalisation process to varying degrees. A previous ISD report into the issue identified three primary reasons given by women for travelling to Syria and Iraq; grievances, solutions and personal motivations. Then there are the women who travel with a male partner, or with the intention of meeting a husband on arrival, where there may be direct coercion or important relationships that pre-date radicalisation.
Indeed, the fact that women are involved in this question at all has proved confounding for counter-extremism programmes. Until the last year, talk of jihadism has focused almost exclusively on men, with the ‘social and emotional’ approach looking at the lure of violence and the pressures of masculinity – a similar conversation to an older one about gang violence.
The sensational reaction in the press to the teenage girls who have joined ISIS belies a real sense of being wrong-footed. It is much more difficult to understand why women would want to join ISIS, given the group’s brutal treatment of women, and the phenomenon also suggests that the government needs to design much more nuanced prevention and rehabilitation programmes. Women and men play very different roles within ISIS, so their motives for joining are very different.
The government often lumps together Islamism and the far-right when speaking of ‘deradicalisation’ and ‘extremism’; the framework for the ailing Prevent strategy did so too. But the reality is that the recruitment of Westerners by ISIS is a unique phenomenon, partly because of the technologically sophisticated way in which it is conducted, and mainly because the ‘extremism’ goes beyond purely political ideology and requires a belief in martyrdom and an afterlife.
ISD describes how a Swedish deradicalisation programme employs staff trained in dealing with far right extremism and neo-Nazism, and how it works on the premise that individuals are attracted to extremist groups more ‘as a product of social and emotional conditions rather than being lured directly by the ideology’. This may be true in many cases – but not all.
This is why the most successful deradicalisation model examined in the report is one built on the idea of tailoring the approach to the individual. The Danish ‘Aarhus model’ uses an intensive mentoring system to engage with people in a meaningful and personal way. Saltman and Smith describe how:
“A mentor is selected for a case on the basis of the suitability of their experience with extremism. This mentor is expected to cater for the needs of their client and particularly in the early stages of the de-radicalisation process, provide support and guidance whenever needed.
“A Danish mentor who has been working with the programme since 2010, says that this guidance often comes in the form of ‘serious, philosophical, intellectual conversations, twice a week for two, three hours’.
“The Danish government requires in-depth knowledge of these violent extremist ideologies from its mentor, in order for them to effectively engage with their clients. Mentors place emphasis on making this religious and political conviction more nuanced. In theory, this encouragement of a more balanced viewpoint allows the individual to feel that their beliefs are compatible with existing as a Dane, within Danish society”.
Statistically, the Aarhus model has been a success, with the rate of men aged 18 to 25 leaving Aarhus for Syria decreasing from 31 in 2013 to just one in 2014. Its strength lies in the fact that it addresses both the underlying ‘social’ problems – feelings of alienation, frustration, exclusion – whilst also providing intensive exposure to a counter-narrative to the extremism narrative.
And unlike Prevent, which has been accused of making the Muslim community feel spied on, it is designed to improve trust between the authorities and the social circles in which extremists move.
Rather than devising blanket laws and mandatory programmes, the UK government must show that it understands the diversity of extremism by producing a diverse set of preventative measures.
Ruby Stockham is a staff writer at Left Foot Forward. Follow her on TwitterLike this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.