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Rehabilitating perpetrators of violent extremism and hate crime: the importance of gender-based approaches and the limits of online interventions

Counter-messaging and counter-arguing is invaluable for the resilience of our societies, but often does not have the intended impact on the target group, since arguing only strengthens their radicalisation. So what should we do?

Harald Weilnböck
2 September 2014

Leaving behind one attitudes and lifestyles of violent extremism and group-oriented hatred is a very complicated long-term process of personal change. It may well be compared to extensive psychotherapy.

Facilitating such a process is a challenging kind of interpersonal work which requires particular skills on the part of practitioners. It also needs certain conditions in the work setting, as well as a basic awareness within society and the political environment about what violent extremism is, where it comes from and how one should go about managing it.

Throughout the activities of the Radicalisation Awareness Network (RAN), an EU-wide network initiated by the European Commission, hundreds of field experts and practitioners from numerous European member states have exchanged the knowledge gained from decades of work experience and from some concomitant intervention research. Building on this exchange, a first description of what may constitute good practice has been published, which will be followed by a revised second edition soon.

Throughout this work two observations have stood out. First, it appears that the aspect of gender – i.e. self-conceptions of manliness and femininity – has thus far been overlooked and underrated. Secondly, prevention and counter-radicalisation interventions by way of internet and social media have been overrated. There has been a misunderstanding about what they may achieve.

Principles of good practice in interventions

There are several basic guidelines for facilitating rehabilitation from violent extremism and hate crime. Good practice includes:

  • *  ‘Open-process’ interventions that do not follow a fixed curriculum or session plan. This means the intervention maximises participation, and is exploratory and largely self-directed by the clients. Interventions are highly interactive and methodologically flexible. Voluntary interventions where clients are motivated to leave the far right scene through motivational interviews (rather than by incentives). Allowing the space for incremental buy-in is important (hence, there must not be any consequences for the client’s record if they decide to drop out).
  • *   Narrative interventions, which facilitate individual narration of the person’s lived experiences and perceived actions. Narrative approaches must steer clear of any counter-arguments, discussions and ideological debates. Violent extremism can be questioned but not overcome by means of debating these issues.
  • *   Always based on face-to-face relationship building, and thus predicated on personal commitment, mutual trust, and confidence. Interventions need to be confidential, and not combined with assessment or procedures commissioned by institutional authorities and driven by security concerns. This is also the reason why internet and social media interaction can only have a very limited function in this kind of work.
  • *   Focus on social skills and emotional intelligence, particularly around the emotions and effects of anger, shame, and anxiety, as well as areas of personal conflict.
  • *   Group work is preferred as much as possible; however, it may be accompanied by one-on-one settings if needed.
  • *   Facilitated by external, non-governmental practitioners who have a license to act independently within and across statutory institutions. These practitioners should, however, be part of an inter-agency framework and supported by government staff and state-of-the-art quality-assurance measures. They thus may combine both accepting and confrontational modes of interaction.
  • *   Open-process and narrative group-work generally generates story telling about the person’s actual life-world context, biography, family, peer-group and topics around victimization, power and violence, and experiences of extremist recruitment; it will also look at personal resources and capacities. Eventually this intervention process may include in-depth accounts in which perpetrators speak about the instances in which they have acted out in hatred and violent extremism.
  • *   Touches upon political and religious issues – as well as on personal and social grievances, without however fostering too much argumentative discussion or ideological debate. Intervention may be supported by elements of civic education and include members of the community and civil society, or members of the family invited into the intervention in certain instances.  Media narratives and films, fictional or documentary, can be used if they are carefully embedded in the in-person intervention.

The limits of internet and social media interventions

As has already been alluded to, given the importance of direct, face-to-face and trust-building interventions, front-line practitioners overwhelmingly agree that, “one cannot deradicalize on-line!” Not even second-degree prevent work with young people who are susceptible to or in early stages of radicalisation can be done by internet and social media. In fact, no kind of lasting and profound personal change can be induced by on-line media interventions. However, media products may be part of any face-to-face intervention as long as the media narrative has been carefully devised for this use.

However, before focusing on this, several widely understood misconceptions need to be addressed. These misconceptions stress an urgent demand for so-called “counter-narratives” on the internet.

Some assume that it is quite self-evident how to produce counter-narratives - one need only put together some basic information and interview materials about extremism, and this would do. Others want to learn from the extremists’ online activities and “counter-radicalize” the audience through pushing pro-democracy values – underestimating the fact that counter-manipulation cannot be the solution. A few even attempt to employ humour, even ridicule, ignoring the fact that extremists and vulnerable young people tend not to share in this kind of humour, and that ridicule and mockery can be an explosive strategy with this target group in particular.

More sober approaches seek to communicate governments’ good-will and refute misinformation and propaganda. Yet others produce victims’ testimonials to deter terrorism – but they aren’t always sufficiently aware that radicals and hate crime perpetrators tend to be averse to these messages, as they are generally victimized themselves and in strong psychological denial. While such counter-messaging and counter-arguing is certainly valuable and necessary in view of societal resilience, it often does not have the intended impact on the target group, since arguing often only strengthens their radicalisation.

Most problematic is the general belief that extremists’ communications first of all need to be “countered”, “contested”, “combated”, “dismantled” and replaced by “ideology, logic, fact”–  a belief which disregards the fact that extremists feed on being countered.

Attached to this is the assumption that extremists’ media communications and consumption are ‘narrative’ in the proper sense of the word – which they are not. These communications generally do not engage in first-hand accounts of personally lived experiences and actions, where viewers are freely and actively engaged, questioning, and exploring. Hence, “extremist narrative” is a misnomer. What makes this misconception even more unfortunate: it is precisely the narrativity in the proper sense which is needed to trigger and facilitate processes of distancing from and leaving violent extremism. But achieving this kind of narrative exchange is a challenging undertaking and needs the off-line setting of face-to-face interaction – which will avoid simply countering the other’s statements.

The “Deradicalizing Narratives” project (EDNA) in Berlin is currently attempting to generate media narratives (audio only) which are suited for the very purpose of being employed in off-line interventions. EDNA has thus far concluded:

  • -  that sustainable media approaches need to observe the principles of offline good-practice (i.e. proceed, as much as possible, in narrative, open-process, non-directional, exploratory, voluntary, trust-based, and confidential format). This is a challenge online since “counter narratives” (i.e. testimonials, videos) are generally finished and closed products and limited in their non-directionality and confidentiality.
  • -  that the media narrative must always be systematically embedded in an off-line intervention process. The individual should be thoroughly prepared for the media input (e.g. by prior exchange about the video’s topics or by exercises in story-telling), and clients should be enabled to reflect upon their reactions after viewing it. Generally, a 20%-80% principle is recommended: 80% off-line intervention and 20% engagement with external narratives.
  • -  that it should be designed and communicated as face-to-face intervention, counselling, rehabilitation, or therapy that provides assistance in preventing and personally working-through violent extremism and group focused hatred.
  • -  the media narratives should be designed only for the purpose of being used in offline work with clients. For, media aiming at raising societal awareness or lobbying are hardly feasible in work as sensitive as deradicalisation. 

The necessity of gender focused work

Gender identity issues and gender-related behaviour are of particular importance in intervention and deradicalisation work. The work experiences of European practitioners’ throughout the RAN working group on deradicalisation and the Women in Extremism Network (by Cultures Interactive, Berlin) teach us that:

(i) not only men but also women play a crucial role in violent extremism as perpetrators, ideologues and supporters.

(ii)  there is hardly any violent extremist, terrorist, or hate crime offender who does not also hold sexist and homophobic attitudes.

(iii) these conflictive gender issues do not only coincide with violent extremist behaviours and hate crimes, but are key psychological driving forces behind them – which requires the development and employment of gender-focused intervention methods.

In intervention, it has often proven more effective to focus on a client’s concepts of manliness or femininity and explore attitudes of sexism and homophobia than engage in other, seemingly more pertinent issues of violent extremism. For example, violent extremist young men often compensate for insecurities in their sense of male identity and manliness by acting-out in hateful ways against women, homosexuals, and generally all persons that by appearance or behaviour confuse their restrictive gender role order.

Moreover, women that are active in extremism overwhelmingly agree to and reconfirm the restrictive gender role order that is in effect in their milieus. They share and defend the sexist and homophobic attitudes and draw motivation from them for their activities – as providers of ideological support und internal group cohesion, as helpers in preparing attacks, and also by directly committing physical hate crimes and terrorist attacks themselves.

On a different level, extremist movements take strategic advantage of the conceived gender roles, positioning their female followers in places in society that allow them to propagate extremism in particular ways – attempting to make it look more normal and publicly acceptable. In Germany, for instance, right-wing extremist women enter child day care and parents’ organizations, schools, family welfare and professional social work in order to infiltrate and to support the mainstreaming of rightwing extremist attitudes into the middle classes.

Prevention and deradicalisation practitioners have often concluded that the very basic dichotomy between female and male constitutes, in each individual’s life, the earliest occasion at which thought patterns of polarization and behaviours of exclusion may be adopted. For this reason issues of gender identity have proven to be a key element in various different forms of violent extremism – and a unique and much underrated element of successful intervention work.

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