Radicalisation prevention: strategies for countering extremism
Preventing religiously motivated extremism lies at the heart of BAG RelEx’s work and that of our member organisations. The term “prevention” comes from the Latin word praevenire, meaning to anticipate or forestall. Radicalisation prevention thus encompasses activities intended to forestall and avert undesirable situations or incidents. We do not merely strive to prevent undesirable outcomes, however, we focus on promoting and reinforcing democratic values.
When it comes to radicalisation prevention, three different levels of prevention are commonly identified:
- primary or universal prevention
- secondary or targeted prevention
- tertiary or indicated prevention
Each of these levels features a variety of different well-developed approaches, practices and programmes, while the contexts in which prevention work is conducted are similarly diverse, including schools, child and youth support work, penal/criminal justice systems such as correctional facilities, prisons, probation, and open-access services.
Religiously motivated extremism is a form of political extremism in which groups instrumentalise religion and misuse it and its related scriptures for their own ideological ends. Therefore we prefer to use the term religiously motivated extremism, rather than simply referring to it as “religious extremism”.
In Germany, the different forms of political extremism are referred to as phenomena or “phenomenon areas”. Alongside religiously motivated extremism, these areas also include right-wing extremism. Compared to other types of extremism within the European region, religiously motivated extremism is a relatively new occurence. Given the structural similarities between different forms of extremism, however, researchers and practitioners have been able to draw on experience gained in the field of right-wing extremism for their academic and front-line work.
Extremism prevention: how to stop radicalisation
Extremism prevention revolves around hindering, curtailing or positively influencing radicalisation processes and its forms. The main aspect is about understanding how to prevent radicalisation and therefore avoid it in the first place. Our holistic approach to radicalisation, however, does not focus on deficiencies but on individuals’ resources instead. Preventing extremism also means contributing to democracy. The prevention measures of our member organisations are addressing a variety of target groups. Unlike security agencies, our primary role and the one of our member organisations is not crime prevention.
What is radicalisation?
The term radicalisation denotes a process in which individuals become drawn to an extremist ideology, though this process does not necessarily involve the use of violence. Often people want to know how to stop radicalisation. In research and academia, the issue of how radicalisation can be explained, and its processes described remains contentious. It is, however self-evident that there are no simple explanations and that radicalization should always be viewed as a process in which various factors are combined. As a result, there are limits as to how far blanket statements can be made about the reasons and motives that drive radicalisation. Though it is widely accepted among researchers and practitioners that radicalisation generally does not thrive in isolation but is instead connected to group dynamics.
A strong democracy prevents radicalisation and extremism
Extremist groups mostly target adolescents and young adults. When adolescents and young adults get drawn into radicalisation processes, they are often seeking an identity, social recognition and group attachment. Experience of discrimination or marginalisation or feelings of social injustice, or rather a desire to combat such injustice based on social obedience, can also play an important role.
For prevention work and its practice, this means that providing long-term support for adolescents and young adults requires us to operate at various levels, considering political as well as individual and social risk factors. We need to ask ourselves what attracts adolescents and young adults to extremist groups and what do these groups offer to individuals. With this knowledge we might be able to understand radicalisation processes and counter them effectively.
As previously mentioned, various factors can influence radicalisation processes. With the world becoming increasingly digital, online activity and practices also need to be taken into account; here, researchers and practitioners have developed a range of holistic approaches and projects.
Working together against extremism and radicalisation: primary, secondary and tertiary prevention
Concerning radicalisation prevention, there are three different types of prevention work reflecting in the different projects. These are commonly known as primary, secondary and tertiary prevention, though they are also referred to as universal, targeted and indicated prevention.
To meet the wide-ranging challenges associated with radicalisation, a variety of preventative intervention strategies, including programmes and practices, have been developed. BAG RelEx’s member organisations thus apply these individual types of prevention work via an array of different projects. In extremism prevention, civil society actors have a level of direct access to the relevant target groups that state actors often lack. In addition, such actors can draw on local connections and therefore benefit from close ties to the specific communities and can respond particularly effectively to specific local an regional circumstances in their trainings.
Alongside services targeting adolescents and young adults, BAG RelEx and its member organisations also provide knowledge transfer through educational events and practice-based training opportunities on extremism prevention. Support for democracy and social participation is integral to prevention work, but it is also something for which society as a whole needs to take responsibility, with civil society, researchers and politicians.
What is primary prevention?
Universal or primary extremism prevention is concerned with building capacity around democracy and human rights to prevent individual or group radicalisation from happening.
In some areas, it can bear similarities to political education, intercultural pedagogy, democratic pedagogy or anti-discrimination work; this is partly down to the fact that strengthening democracy is a key objective in each case.
Primary prevention aims to promote and strengthen:
- tolerance of diversity
- social and emotional skills
- resilience towards anti-democratic ways of thinking and acting
- tolerance of ambiguity or uncertainty
The main target group of primary or universal prevention work is adolescents who could be exposed to extremist ideologies (including Islamism), though whether or not they have already had contact with extremist groups is of less relevance. Instead, the focus here is on strengthening democracy.
What is secondary prevention?
Secondary prevention focuses chiefly on the monitoring and early detection of radicalisation and on working with at- risk groups. Here, the target group is thus more specific than in primary prevention work. In practice, however, it’s not always possible or, more important, even desirable to strictly separate these various levels of prevention work. Instead, it is about reacting to the specifics of individual circumstances and situations.
In neighbourhoods where the presence of extremist actors has been noted, for instance, secondary prevention can include trainings or workshops e. g. on knowledge transfer on the implemented strategies by extremists to target and recruit young people.
What is tertiary prevention?
Tertiary prevention is also referred to as indicated prevention, deradicalisation or disengagement, exit work or counselling.
In tertiary prevention projects, the focus is on individuals who have already become involved in radicalisation. The provision of an outreach centre where radicalised individuals can seek direct support is one example of tertiary or indicated prevention. Such a facility can also provide support to any friend, parent or other family member with concerns about an individual.
Deradicalisation, disengagement or exit work is a process that depends on the commitment of the individual themselves. The individual is not deradicalised “externally”. Instead, the outreach work aims to support a mindset shift that leads to a change in the individual’s modes of thinking and behaving. This process can, in the long run, lead to the individual turning their back on the (violent) extremist scene.
The specific services provided within tertiary prevention are wide-ranging and can include online services, telephone hotlines and conventional outreach support (including the ones in penal and criminal justice facilities, such as prisons and correctional facilities or in probation).
As the name of our organisation suggests, our work revolves around the prevention of religiously motivated extremism or radicalisation, and one such form of extremism is the phenomenon known as Islamism.
Islamism is a political ideology, i.e. the actors involved use Islam and related scriptures to justify and legitimise their (political) demands and objectives. The term Islamism is applied to a range of different groups and movements, the most prominent of which is currently Salafism and its various sub-movements.
In public discourse, Islamism is unfortunately often related to topics such as migration and integration. This, however, does not contribute to the cause of effective prevention work and is often factually inaccurate. Nor is it sufficient to focus purely on terrorism and violence as neither are necessarily prerequisites for extremism. Nonetheless, addressing all forms of extremism, including violent extremism and terrorism, is important at the regional, national and international level and involves an array of stakeholders.
Although Islamism is just one of many forms of religiously motivated extremism, radicalisation prevention in the field of Islamism is currently the primary focus of our work. Therefore, in January 2020, we started a cooperation with ufuq.de and Violence Prevention Network (VPN) to form the Competence Network “Islamist Extremism” (KN:IX).
BAG RelEx receives funding for its participation in KN:IX via the “Live Democracy!” scheme of the Federal Ministry for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth. In addition, we receive funding from the Federal Agency for Civic Education, Berlin’s State Commission against Violence and via Hessen’s “Active for Democracy and against Extremism” scheme.