Jihadism and the (de-)radicalisation of adolescents and young adults

Aug 2016
Checkpoint Jabhat al-Nusra Azaz

It is not easy to talk or write about such things. Here, Thomas looks at his experience in co-founding a network addressing the issues.

Jihadism became an interesting ideology for adolescents and young adults in Europe already before the onset of the success of the so-called Islamic state in summer 2014. Jihadist positions have already developed into a rebellious youth culture in Europe, which attracts not only young adults from Muslim families. The shift to this form of political extremism is not only related to global political developments, but has also to do with our own society.

The thesis falls too short in assuming that this concerns only socially marginalised groups and those from underprivileged educational backgrounds. Among European Jihadists, one can find also educated graduates, students and children from middle class families. What the different biographies of jihadist adolescents and young adults have in common is that they all have experienced various forms of alienation from this society and were then picked up by jihadist groups. Social problems constitute here only one of several concrete possibilities which might lead to such alienation. The high proportion of socially marginalised groups such as the Chechen diaspora in Austria or the Moroccan diaspora in Belgium, however, shows that this factor is definitely playing a role.

Anyone who intends to work with adolescents who have turned to Jihadism, or who wants to counter this movement in a preventative and de-radicalising way, has to reach the young people above all where they are still within reach of society’s institutions. For this purpose, institutions for leisure education, youth clubs as well as schools are ideally suited.

Vienna from the vineyard -Moritz Taylor

Challenges to educators

In many major European cities with strong social segregation schools have also become focal points of social and political problems. In recent years, often already overburdened teachers see themselves confronted with a growing range of tasks, which do not any longer correspond to the conventional job description of a teacher, but rather falls into the field of social work or psychological support.

Educators are initially therefore above all afraid of such new challenges, as they do not have the experience to deal with them. My experience in regards to teacher training courses in different types of schools in particular demonstrate that a great deal of helplessness and fear dominate teaching staff since the expansion of the so-called Islamic state in Summer 2014 and the growing attraction of Jihadism among adolescents. While at least some teachers can rely on a broad wealth of experience with other forms of political extremism, the feeling of helplessness prevails as regards Jihadist extremism.

Even though the specific causes of radicalising many young people towards Jihadism – or better fanaticizing them – are not different to the causes of becoming obsessed with right-wing extremism or drifting into psycho-sects. Most young people moving towards Jihadism do not come from religious Islamic families; some had before their orientation towards Jihadism not even contact with religious Muslims, but converted directly to Jihadism. The biographies of adolescents turning towards Jihadism vary considerably in detail. In my experience, there is no typical pattern in the biography of a radicalized young person. The lowest common denominator these highly diverse biographies share is a severe experience of alienation in this society, whatever its concrete nature. The young people concerned are then picked up by the wrong groups, which offer them exactly what they are looking for: a sense of belonging, purpose, social warmth and a simple explanation for the injustices of this world. Jihadism today offers the maximum possibility for provocation and for challenging society.

Those who adopt Jihadist positions are regarded as especially dangerous by society. This provides the chance for socially marginalised young people to exaggerate narcissistically their own importance. The concrete reasons for their experiences of alienation - which increase their vulnerability for Jihadist groups - vary considerably in each respective case. They can be triggered by dysfunctional family relations, experiences of discrimination, failures in school or profession, bullying, and sexual or psychological problems.

Creating a network

The NGO Netzwerk Sozialer Zusammenhalt (Social Cohesion Network), which was founded by Moussa al-Hassan Diaw and myself in 2014, undertook concrete work with concerned adolescents and young adults until its dissolution in January 2016. It showed on the one hand the importance of cooperation between individuals with different expertise in this area, as our NGO advisory board consisted of youth workers, political scientists, Islamic religion pedagogues and psychotherapists. On the other hand, the cooperation among groups of people with highly different approaches turned out to be much more difficult than expected. At the same time, it became clear that such work does not receive financial support easily from public authorities despite great demand and our NGO receiving the European Citizen Award 2015.

Amongst others, differences of opinion in our NGO concerned the significance of social and religious factors in the radicalisation of young people. In the whole de-radicalisation scene, differing views about that are present: the initiative Derad - run by Moussa al-Hassan Diaw since the dissolution of our joint NGO - focuses entirely on a kind of religious education in jails, while the state-financed Beratungsstelle Extremismus (Extremism Counselling Centre) launched in December 2014 almost exclusively relied on social workers, who from the beginning used conventional social work with the people affected. Efforts by the majority of the Social Cohesion Network failed in this specific case, as it worked between 2014 and 2015 on reuniting these approaches into a multi-perspective concept, which included both psycho-social as well as religious-ideological aspects of radicalisation. Nevertheless, I consider it still to be in principle the right approach: it is just more complex than simple answers and mono-causal explanations and requires therefore more in terms of discussions which go beyond disciplinary boundaries.

The fact is that also those who act as experts in this field are frequently divided over which strategies of de-radicalisation lead to desired results. So far we have few valid studies which critically evaluate the existing approaches. While some European states such as Germany have already many years of experience with de-radicalisation work, many other European states have only just started.

Based on our experiences, which refer to the period between 2014 and January 2016, the reasons for the turn towards Jihadism are contradictory and highly individual. A high proportion of Chechen adolescents and young adults among Jihadists from Austria suggest that one of the factors are war-related traumas from the countries of origin, which the young people take with them. As adolescents, now in a position of strength, they “treat” the traumas through wanting to re-enact the lost war of their fathers. However, this is a specific Austrian experience with its relatively large Chechen community. Belgium, French and German experiences might differ from that.

It is thereby also important to note gender-specific differences. Among young men, a certain fascination with violence clearly plays an important role. Many are impressed by so-called Islamic State not despite, but precisely because of its display of brutal violence. In on-line debates among jihadist young men, also the possibility of sexual violence, the rape of women and girl prisoners of war, plays an important role. A striking fact is that almost all the young men missed a father figure and were looking for one in the form of jihadist preachers. On the other hand, young women are often exaggeratedly altruistic, they want to ‘help poor children’ persecuted by the Assad regime, and they are specifically recruited through “flirtfishing” on the Internet in order to then marry their jihadist fighter in Syria. Religious questions in the strict sense play only a minor role for both sexes. Their concerns were rather about a sense of security and meaning, sexuality, adventure, misguided idealism and altruism. Today, in my view, there is no longer a progressive democratic ideology available as a fundamental challenge to the current liberal-capitalist world. This makes young people who are suffering for various reasons from this world receptive to the supposedly biggest challenge to the real existing world.

Akcake - Tal Abyad 2015

What can we learn from experience?

For educators and youth workers, this means that measures for working against right-wing extremism can also be effective against jihadist extremism. The most important prevention measures schools and institutions for leisure education can provide would be to offer a good social environment for young people, also in the classroom, and the possibility to learn and discuss without fear. Consistent intervention against and permanent dialogue about bullying and especially the demonstration of democracy and human rights will remove from both right-wing as well as jihadist agitators their raison d’être. This requires also the willingness to adopt a more universalist civic type of education, though still dealing with the Austrian political system and the Austrian past. This also embraces the political and social developments in the different countries of origin of migrants and thus allows a broader cosmopolitan view on the world. Especially young people with a migration background do not feel addressed personally by a curriculum which deals merely with Austrian, German or French history: for example they do not associate the anti-Semitism nourished by centuries of authoritarian regimes in the Middle East with the history of extermination of the European Jews. Which schools cover in their lessons the massacre of Muslims in Bosnia in the 90ties, against Armenians and Assyrians in the Ottoman Empire in 1915 or against Circassians and Chechens in North Caucasus in order to discuss human rights issues? Do French schools teach about the war crimes of France in Algeria and the resistance of the FLN? Do schools in Belgium teach about the colonial crimes in Congo? Do Austrian and German schools teach about Turkish history of the 20th century? Concerning the preventive effect of schools against jihadist radicalisation, the more difficult question is here how far schools can have a de-radicalising effect for already partially radicalised young people? Teachers and school administrations have made repeated mistakes in this area in the past. In some Austrian regions, rather dubious superficial training courses run by the school authorities have in certain cases contributed to increase uncertainty rather than to support a rational dealing with the problem. 

This is especially problematic when adolescents experience repeated forms of exclusion when they were already on their way to being radicalised and were vulnerable to jihadist agitators due to previous experiences of exclusion. School students with a problematic attraction to Jihadism need to be closely accompanied and not marginalised. 

For example, a school in Vienna expelled a girl because she had scribbled a heart and ‘al-Qaida’ on the wall. After that, the director asked the girl to be removed from the school. Soon after the girl disappeared in Syria in the so-called ‘Islamic State’. I do not want to blame the overburdened director for this. He might have intended primarily to protect the girl’s classmates. Still, this procedure confirmed once again the Jihadist propaganda, according to which a ‘true Muslim’ cannot live in Europe and only find refuge in the so-called ‘Islamic State’.

With the exclusion from school this young woman was finally lost. Maybe she would have gone to Syria anyway. Trying to closely accompany her and offer her another social environment, an alternative to her new Jihadist circle of friends, may have been more successful.

Looking forward

Both, schools and extracurricular youth work, could counter these processes of alienation. If the democratic and pluralistic societies of Europe can offer belonging to young people of different background, less of them will search for such a belonging in totalitarian movements like jihadist or extreme right-wing groups. The feeling of belonging is multidimensional. It depends on economic and social chances but also on psychological and social moments. Youth work can offer a space to practice future society and include outsiders in a pluralistic society where young people can get a sense of belonging. This can help to prevent extremist alternatives against our societies. However, therefore it must also offer opportunities for young Europeans of different backgrounds to change the societies they live in. Thus such a youth work must be part of a re-democratization of our societies. If young people can participate in social and political change, democracy and human rights become more attractive than extremist and totalitarian ideologies.


Image Credits: 
Thomas Schmidinger, Moritz Taylor. Translation by Claudia Berger-Schachinger

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