In the wake of yet another deadly terrorist attack in Europe, questions abound, particularly about what is at the root of the violence and what can be done to prevent it.
Is there an answer that lies somewhere between retaliatory bombing and seeking to appease Islamist gripes?
If radicalization comes about as a result of young European Muslims going to Syria to support the Islamic State group, a town in Denmark may have hit upon a solution. National Public Radio visited the town of Aarhus to examine authorities’ responses to apparent Islamic radicalization of local youth.
Four years ago, the police in Aarhus began to hear of more and more young people from the town who were leaving for Syria. “They were among the exodus of thousands of European citizens who were drawn to the call put out by ISIS, the Islamist terrorist group, for Muslims worldwide to help build the new Islamic state,” NPR said.
The rest of Europe came down hard on citizens who had traveled to Syria. France shut down mosques it suspected of harboring radicals. The U.K. declared citizens who had gone to help ISIS enemies of the state. Several countries threatened to take away their passports — a move formerly reserved for convicted traitors.
But the Danish police officers took a different approach: They made it clear to citizens of Denmark who had traveled to Syria that they were welcome to come home, and that when they did, they would receive help with going back to school, finding an apartment, meeting with a psychiatrist or a mentor, or whatever they needed to fully integrate back into society.
Their program came to be known as the “Aarhus model.” It’s been called the “hug a terrorist” model in the media, but this description never sits well with the cops. They see themselves as making an entirely practical decision designed to keep their city safe.
As they see it, coming down hard on young, radicalized Muslims will only make them angrier and more of a danger to society. Helping them is the only chance to keep an eye on them and also to keep the peace in their town.
Though they might not have known it, the approach being taken by Aarhus officials would have been supported by experts in extremism and interpersonal relations.
“The original response was to fight [extremism] through military and policing efforts, and they didn’t fare too well,” says Arie Kruglanski, a social psychologist at the University of Maryland who studies violent extremism. “That kind of response that puts them as suspects and constrains them and promotes discrimination — that is only likely to exacerbate the problem. It’s only likely to inflame the sense there’s discrimination and motivate young people to act against society.”…
Christopher Hopwood, an associate professor of psychology at Michigan State University, studies something called noncomplementary behavior. Complementary behavior is the norm. It means when you act warmly, the person you are with is likely to act warm back. The same is true with hostility. But noncomplementary behavior means doing the unexpected. Someone acts with hostility and you respond warmly. It’s an unnatural reaction, and it’s a proven way to shake up the dynamic and produce a different outcome from the usual one.
The report likens the “Aarhus model” to the nonviolent resistance movements of Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi.
As an example of how the model works, NPR traced the story of “Jamal,” a pseudonym for a young man born in Somalia whose family moved to Denmark to escape the Somali civil war. He grew up facing discrimination in a largely white, non-Islamic society, and though he tried to cope with it through humor, he eventually had had enough.
One day in high school, his teacher organized a debate about Islam. Jamal had just been on the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, with his family, and he was infused with a newfound religious identity. And during the debate one of the girls started saying to the class that Muslims “terrorize” the West, and kill people and stone women. Jamal argued with her and eventually lost his temper, saying, “People like you should never exist.”
After that moment, Jamal’s life went off the rails. The teacher told the principal, who told the police, who questioned Jamal about being a terrorist. Jamal had to stay home from school and miss his final exams. The police cleared him, but it was too late for him to redo his exams, so he had to redo some of high school. He was furious about it. Soon after the investigation, his mother died, and he blamed her death on the stress caused by the investigation. He began to feel rejected by the West.
He learned of other Muslims who had experienced discrimination, and the group got together to talk, pray and watch videos of Anwar al-Awlaki. “The friends talked a lot about jihad and making the trip to Syria,” the report said.
But one day, Jamal got a call from Thorleif Link, a policeman who dealt with families whose sons were leaving for Syria. Link took Jamal by surprise by apologizing to him for the ordeal his fellow officers had put him through.
Hearing a policeman take responsibility for his life getting derailed really moved Jamal. He agreed to come into Link’s office.
When Jamal got there, Link introduced him to Erhan Kilic, one of the first official mentors hired by the program. Kilic was a fellow Muslim who had also faced discrimination in Denmark as a child. But he had taken a very different path. He had decided to embrace Denmark as his country. He now had a wife and two daughters and a successful practice as a lawyer. Kilic relayed to Jamal the main message of the Aarhus program: If he chose to, Jamal could also find his place in Denmark.
This is what sets the Aarhus program apart. It didn’t use force to stop people from going to Syria but instead fought the roots of radicalization, Kruglanski says. “There are strong correlations between humiliation and the search for an extremist ideology,” he says. Organizations like ISIS take advantage of people who, because of racism or religious or political discrimination, have been pushed to the margins of society.
Since the initial exodus of young people, very few have left from Aarhus for Syria, though there are still “strong forces” out there tempting young Muslims to leave their lives in the West and join the battle, Link said.