Religious extremism? Countering radicalisation and religiously motivated extremism

From the early 2000s, the misleading term religious extremism began to be widely used as press and media coverage responded to the phenomenon of Islamist radicalisation. Alongside other forms of political extremism (right- and left-wing extremism/militantism), this form of radicalisation has since come to pose a significant challenge to society.

The National Committee on Religously Motivated Extremism or BAG RelEx (abbreviation of the German term “Bundesarbeitsgemeinschaft religiös begründeter Extremismus”) was set up as a joint initiative of 25 different civil society organisations (CSO) in November 2016, and has since grown to encompass over thirty member organisations from across Germany. The founding principle behind this national association was and still is to work together to counter religiously motivated extremism.

Via projects and services in primary, secondary and tertiary prevention, our member organisations cover the full spectrum of radicalisation prevention. Some of those projects focus on political education, aiming to promote tolerance, democracy and participation, while others run counselling centres for individuals and their families who have been involved with extremism and are seeking help in distancing themselves from those influences. Our member organisations’ practical work focuses on supporting individuals, professionals or institutions that are active in extremist prevention and deradicalisation.

BAG RelEx is funded by Germany’s Federal Ministry for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth as part of its “Live Democracy!” scheme. In addition, we receive funding from Berlin’s State Commission against Violence and Hessen’s “Active for Democracy and against Extremism” scheme.

Extremism prevention: knowledge, awareness and integration

Via their primary, secondary and tertiary prevention strategies and activities, our member organisations work to support democracy, boost social participation and enhance integration. Accordingly, their work expresses and strengthens important basic principles of our society.

The services they provide in the field of extremism prevention are aimed at the following individuals and institutions:

  • those seeking information about religiously motivated extremism, Islamism or Salafism and about extremism prevention
  • those who reject constitutional, democratic and human rights-related norms
  • those who ultimately see violence against individuals and institutions as a legitimate tool to reach their goals

Depending on the project, the target groups for these services can be children, adolescents and/or (young) adults, though parents and other family members can also receive advice and support. In addition, our member organisations offer a wide range of services aimed at schools and social workers as well as professionals from other institutions and professional fields. Some also offer online services or provide training on how to deal with and guard against extremist content online.

In our prevention work, we perform important societal functions, such as supporting democracy, providing political education and encouraging social participation, while also facilitating the exchange of expertise via symposia, panel discussions and (online) workshops. Our member organisations provide services at a local, municipal and national level.

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Strengthening social commitment against radicalisation and extremism

As a national umbrella organisation, we aim to bring together the various civil society actors who are working to achieve sustainable results in the prevention of faith based extremism and the deradicalisation of individuals. By “civil society”, we mean all citizens of a country who are active in initiatives or organisations outside of state institutions or commercial entities.

We offer a platform for debate and knowledge sharing. We also support the development and refinement of quality standards and good practices, drawing on the expertise of our member organisations.

The key pillars of our work are:

  • networking
  • knowledge sharing
  • advancement

We represent the interests of civil-society organisations working in prevention of radicalisation and extremism. We support these organisations in dealings with political bodies, research institutions and public administrations, ensuring their experiences and views can inform academic and political debates. In addition, we provide information for those with an interest in the field, specify local experts and are contact persons for press questions concerning faith based extremism and prevention. Are you doing research on extremism for an article or a paper, conducting a study or otherwise interested in our work or that of our member organisations? Please do not hesitate to get in touch with us. We are available for interviews and background discussions. You can reach us in different ways – by email, phone, Twitter or via our contact form.

Preventing religiously motivated extremism by supporting democracy

Religiously motivated extremism encompasses a range of movements and ideologies, and our work reflects this broad spectrum. It is a global phenomenon, with almost every major religion being subject to instrumentalisation by extremist groups. One thing these groups all have in common is their disdain for and rejection of basic democratic values.

Religiously motivated extremism is defined by a group or movement’s desire to abolish constitutional democracy, its intention to install a political system that tolerates only one interpretation of a certain religion. Members of such extremist groups or movements wish to impose conformity and homogeneity across every area of society, from government and politics to communities and culture. To achieve these ends, they are even prepared to embrace violent action and an actively confrontational approach, seeking to thereby bring down the liberal democratic order along with the protection of fundamental freedoms and basic human rights.

There are multiple factors that might explain why some people get attracted by extremist groups and ideologies (i. e., psychological, or psychosocial factors such as search for identity). However, there is not one type of person who falls prey to radicalisation, and it is important not to jump to conclusions as these are always individual and personal developments.

From a civil society perspective, actions and measures in the field of prevention should not be limited to reducing the (terrorist) threat that extremist actors may pose. Instead, the focus should be on promoting and empowering people to contribute to democratic coexistence.

Countering Islamism and Salafism

One type of religiously motivated extremism, often wrongly called religious extremism, is Islamism. Islamism is an umbrella term for the various groups and movements that only recognise one specific reading of Islam and do not tolerate other interpretations. All these groups instrumentalise the Islamic religion and religious scriptures for extremist ends. The phenomenon is not restricted to a specific region or to specific countries.

Anti-imperialism, anti-colonialism, anti-Semitism and anti-feminism are some of the relevant traits of Islamist ideologies. Islamist extremists are not necessarily violent, and attitudes to terrorism and the use of violence vary between groups and individuals. Salafism is the largest movement within Islamism and the one most commonly associated with it, which is why the prevention of Salafism forms part of many of our member organisations’ diverse services and approaches.

Given its importance to society and to national security, the prevention of Islamist forms of extremism is currently the key focus of our work. Hence, in early 2020, we teamed up with and Violence Prevention Network to form the Competence Network “Islamist Extremism” (KN:IX).

Unlike Germany’s Federal Ministry of the Interior and Community (BMI), Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) or Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, we neither classify extremists nor publish lists of extremists or potentially dangerous individuals. Unlike security agencies, our primary role is not crime prevention and detention but promoting exchange of best practices and bringing together civil society experts.

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Why we use the term religiously motivated extremism

We refer exclusively to religiously motivated extremism and avoid using the term “religious extremism”. It is, after all, not religion itself that’s extremist. Rather, religion is used to legitimise extremist ideologies, views and ideas and is instrumentalised for extremist ends.

Although we use the term “Islamism” here, we do so with the proviso that, in contemporary discourse, it is understood to refer to developments since 11 September 2001 (9/11). The terms religiously motivated extremism and Islamist extremism, on the other hand, both cover a much broader spectrum.

Extremism: religion as legitimation for radicalisation

We should never confuse faith with fundamentalism. Some extremists may cite religion in order to justify their ideologies and sometimes even their use of violence, but this narrative propagated by radicalised groups is one we must not lend credence to in media coverage or societal debates.

If we do not make this distinction and educate the public, conversations around Islamism and Salafism can easily inflame anti-Muslim racism and discriminative narratives, as they confuse religion (Islam) with the type of religiously motivated extremism (Islamism). Also, to only view the various forms of extremism in isolation would be a missed opportunity. Religiously motivated forms of extremism are, after all, political ideologies. Research has shown, for instance, that religiously motivated extremism and right-wing extremism share similarities regarding patterns of reasoning, radicalisation tendencies and factors motivating individuals to join a radical group. Therefore, certain projects are already focussing different phenomena, i. e. study multiple forms of extremism at the same time.

Bringing together specialists from academia, politics and public administration contribute to significantly enhance extremism prevention. For more information please visit our media centre and turn to our publications, although the latter are mostly in German.