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Zurich hears recipes for ending jihadi recruitment

Young people in the country have vanished from their homes and gone to join jihadi movements. And a Winterthur mosque has been pinpointed as a potential source of extremist ideologies. But what’s really at the root of the problem? 

That was the key question examined at a Zurich Salon debate between Adam Deen, a former member of the jihadist group Al-Muhajiroun who now works at Britain’s Quilliam Foundation, terror group researcher Prem Mahadevan of Zurich’s Center for Security Studies and sociologist and author Frank Furedi. Here’s what they had to say. 

What’s attractive about joining radical terror groups for a young person from a country like Switzerland?

One of the few elements of the debate the panelists agreed on was that there are no easy answers. Furedi argued that despite their best efforts at solving the radicalisation issue, European governments haven’t figured out how to relate to their Muslim populations. 

“After 9/11, everyone was saying that the [radicalisation] situation in European countries like Britain and France would be totally different because France has an assimilationist philosophy and Britain has a multiculturalist philosophy,” he pointed out. But, in reality, the dynamic in those places today is “very similar”. 

That’s because even while attempting to be inclusive and accommodating, Western societies – largely inadvertently – pigeonhole young Muslims and make them feel victimised, thereby creating an environment ripe for jihadist propaganda. 

However, Mahadevan argues that home-grown jihadism is “definitely less of a problem in Switzerland than in other Western European countries,” which he attributes in part to Switzerland being “much more practical and utilitarian” about its immigration policies. Here, he says being attracted to jihad is about “independent life experiences” such as a marriage gone wrong or a failed business acting as a catalyst to become attracted to extremist narratives and lash out against society. 

That may be, says Deen, and Switzerland may be “30 years behind” other European countries when it comes to the prevalence of extremism.  But the particular danger he sees in countries like Switzerland is a vacuum – a lack of Muslim leadership which means a lot of knowledge is obtained through the internet. 

“My concern for this part of the world is that it is virgin territory for extremists and that the radicalisation process will be accelerated,” he says.

So he has no doubt that “it’s coming” – and much faster than when he was a young man because the leaflets he was handed have been replaced by a massive social media onslaught from extremist groups. 

What effects do moves like banning headscarves and minarets – heated political topics in Switzerland – have on young Muslims?

“People who make these policies see them in isolation,” Deen says. “But extremists take those events and operate with a background of an ‘us versus them’ scenario.” 

That’s why he argues such bans can have “a tremendous impact on the psyche of the young Muslim.”

“When these kinds of laws come up, this exacerbates the situation and almost confirms this simplistic outlook of the world of Islam versus the West,” he says. 

Are mosques or particular imams to blame?

No, argues Deen, saying that “radicalisation doesn’t happen in the mosque”. As a young man in London, he was uninspired by and uninterested in the “dry” brand of Islam being taught at his local mosque and was searching for something else. That came in the form of a leaflet handed to him on the street, calling for the formation of an Islamic state and a new caliphate.

“Suddenly Islam came alive for me,” Deen said. 

Mahadevan has observed that in certain countries – including Switzerland – the Islamic community based around mosques can come out so strongly against radicalisation that jihadi recruitment activities are driven underground. That has both benefits and drawbacks. 

“The radicals don’t gather in mosques so they go really under the radar and it’s harder to track them,” he says. “Personally I still prefer this system, because if you start mainstreaming radicalism and providing a platform, at some point each listener who is emotionally vulnerable enough can start to find the logic seductive.”  

So what’s the solution?

The world urgently needs a strong counter-narrative to the reading of Islam that encourages radicalisation, argues Deen.

“To really strike at the heart of extremism, what really needs to happen is a reform of Islamic scripture and the reading, an enlightenment movement. The way in which we understand and interpret Islam has to change.”

He adds that these reformed readings must be taught at an early age, since prime recruiting age for some terror groups is as young as 14. It amounts to using new ideas to “inoculate” young people against the effects extremist readings of Islamic scripture could have on them.

What’s unclear, however, is where this Islamic enlightenment movement should come from. Deen and the Quilliam Foundation are working on their version of a counter-narrative in Britain and plan to expand their efforts to countries like France, Belgium, the United States and Australia.

Participants at the Zurich Salon agreed that a new, humanistic reading of Islamic scripture has to, of course, come from Muslims. But should they be Muslims living in Western societies, or those from primarily Islamic cultures? Deen calls for the former. 

“We need to develop a kind of Euro-centric Islam that is relevant to our society and doesn’t cast Muslims as somehow alien to our society. Once we understand that Islam is not some kind of war-monger entity that eats up everything around it, that it’s something that complements society, then things are going to get a lot better.” 

Terror recruitment – dilemmas facing governments

Mahadevan sees three main problems:

1) Radicalist leaders don’t care how the public – including other Muslims – views what they are doing. For every ten sympathisers lost because of their extreme and brutal tactics, they gain one very militant fighter. That leads to a “parallel reality” where violence and brutality are celebrated.

2) There is no clear answer to the integration question, which governments often view as an antidote to radicalisation. But Mahadevan thinks it can have the opposite effect. That’s because radical jihadi groups are made up of four “types”, he says: entrepreneurs, protégés, misfits and drifters. The former two groups, the most ideologically committed, are generally very well integrated into European society, whereas the latter two groups of recruits tend not to be and often join because of some personal crisis. That means integration measures won’t always pay off. 

3) Does repression work? Security forces often threaten militants with jail or harassment, which can work on misfits and drifters because they are not ideologically motivated. But against protégés and entrepreneurs, those tactics backfire because they only cement the narrative that the West is indeed at war with Islam. 

“We are facing a multi-faceted threat,” Mahadevan points out. “No one approach or tactic is going to work.”

Contact the author on Twitter: @vdevore


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