A new approach to understanding violent extremism

A new approach is needed to understand what attracts some young people to violent extremist groups such as those supporting radical Islam or far-right nationalism.

So say experts from 13 countries who have come together to find out how and why young people become radicalised and what society can do to effectively counter violent extremism.

The €5 million (US$5.7 million) Dialogue About Radicalisation and Equality, or DARE, research project is funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 framework programme and involves academics and civil society organisations specialising in youth studies and political extremism from Norway, France, Turkey, Poland, Russia, Tunisia, the United Kingdom, Germany, Netherlands, Greece, Malta, Belgium and Croatia.

Professor Hilary Pilkington, a sociologist from the University of Manchester in the UK, is coordinating the work of the DARE consortium.

‘Traditional terrorist research is failing’

She told University World News: “The traditional approach to terrorist research is failing because it tends to start by focusing on acts and agents of terrorism, such as the mass shooting at the Bataclan Theatre rock concert in Paris or the suicide bombing at the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester and recent terrorist incidents in London.

“After such incidents the imperative is to start with the perpetrators – those who have crossed the threshold of violent extremism – and work backwards to try to understand why,” said Pilkington.

“The DARE project will take a much wider focus and talk to the 99.9% of people who hear the same messages of hate and extremism – and maybe flirt with them, but drop them or consciously counter them – and give us a control group to help our understanding of why a tiny minority take the path to violence.”

This, say the researchers, could have important lessons in creating a more effective prevention strategy and provides an opportunity to take a deeper and longer look at the root causes of violent extremism than is possible for policy-makers and journalists responding to terrorist attacks.

Pilkington told University World News she recognises the concerns of some social scientists who are reluctant to engage with “radicalisation discourse”, believing it to be “another stick to beat an already stigmatised and suspect community”. But she argues it is only by rethinking how we study and understand radicalisation that we can unpick that discourse.

Young people in the ‘grey’ zone

Among those leading the four-year European Union-funded research is Viggo Vestel, a social anthropologist and researcher with Norwegian Social Research, or NOVA, based at Oslo and Akershus University College of Applied Sciences. He has published extensively on young people and political extremism in the ‘grey zone’ – young people who have been close to extremist groups and are able to reflect about extremist positions.

Vestel told University World News: “When we responded to the call from the Horizon 2020 programme, we insisted that we look at both the right-wing anti-Islamists – the Islam critical groups – as well as those supporting radical Islam.

“Our emphasis in DARE will be on dialogue. We want to hear young people’s own reflections, thoughts and emotions about these issues.

“Our research is about radicalisation, of course; but it is not just about attitudes that lead to violent behaviour or attitudes that support violence. It might be how they have become important societal critics.”

Vestel’s earlier research with NOVA included a survey of 8,500 Norwegian 16- to 19-years-olds in Oslo.

“We were surprised to find that 60% of the young people surveyed agreed with the statement that Islam and the West were at war and that a majority of both Muslim and non-Muslim youth agreed with the statement,” said Vestel.

“Many of those in the survey attracted towards extremism say they bullied while growing up and had been involved in crime and presented a pessimistic view of the future.

“If they had immigrant backgrounds, they had been harassed because of their religion, ethnicity or their colour. One young Muslim told me some of his Muslim friends feel that they are the garbage bins of society.”

Norwegian attitude change towards immigrants

Vestel said young Muslims also felt the political climate had changed and that Norwegian politicians were no longer so hospitable and friendly towards young immigrants and that Norwegian government support for US-led action in various conflict areas left a lasting impression on both moderate and radical young Muslims.

“Whether moderate or radical, young Muslims said that world politics, the big politics, were very important to them. What happened in Chechnya, Iraq, Afghanistan and more recently in Syria and the treatment of Muslims in Burma (Myanmar) and prisoners in Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay had a big influence on them.”

Vestel told University World News: “The young Muslims also complained that the security police were more concerned about Islamic extremists than right-wing fanatics despite the biggest terrorist incident in Norway being committed by a white right-wing extremist, Anders Behring Breivik, who massacred 69 young people attending the summer camp of the Workers’ Youth League on the island of Utøya and killed eight people in a bomb explosion outside a government building in Oslo.”

Speaking to Islamophobic group supporters, Vestel said one interviewee complained that an asylum centre was placed in the middle of his small village in Norway and that “the asylum seekers were fighting and using drugs and made bad comments to the local girls leading to the asylum centre being set on fire”.

Many of the young right-wingers he interviewed found Islam “very threatening” and not just because of terrorist acts by supporters of so-called Islamic State, or IS.

Pilkington told University World News of similar findings in the UK for her recently published ethnographic study of young activists in the English Defence League, or EDL. This showed that it was not only Islamist terrorism, such as that perpetrated by so-called IS that was of concern but often Islam itself, which they viewed as an “ideology rather than a religion”.

Vestel’s research in Oslo found young supporters of the Norwegian Defence League also worried about extreme fundamentalism and the rise of conservatism among young Muslims: women wearing the full veil and the very conservative views towards gender roles.

“They said they were alarmed by the grotesque ways of punishing people in radical Islam – cutting off hands and that kind of thing.”

“These things are very provoking for the right-wing Islam critics and also for much of the general public.

“So, each side has some very good arguments for being afraid, for being frustrated, and for being angry.

“All this, we are trying to address in a very concentrated way in our DARE project about radicalisation and equality,” said Vestel.

“We are trying to find out what motivates these people towards extremist positions and to understand how inequalities and perceived injustices have a major impact on radicalisation.”

The DARE project aims to use its research findings to develop, pilot and evaluate educational toolkits and a de-radicalisation programme evaluation tool to enhance the effectiveness of counter-radicalisation interventions. It will target both ‘religious fundamentalism’ and ‘violence and hate crime’.

* For more information about DARE consortium partners and objectives, see this link.

Nic Mitchell is a British-based freelance journalist and PR consultant who runs De la Cour Communications and blogs about higher education for the European Universities Public Relations and Information Officers’ Association, EUPRIO, and on his website. He currently provides English-language communication support for Norwegian and Czech universities.