Intelligent approach toward radicalisation: balancing between repressive, preventive and sensitised policies

Marjon Goetinck

In this post-Charlie era we are being flooded by the horror and uprising of the Islamic State, the tragic terror attacks in Brussels, Paris and Copenhagen and the problems regarding the radicalisation of young muslims.

It is without a doubt a complex societal fact that young muslims are willing to turn their backs against their country to join the ranges of the extremely violent IS. Belgium is coping with an estimated 380 Syria- and Iraq fighters, towering high above the European average. The one in a million question in various parlementary hearings as well as the media is: why do youngsters radicalise and what can the government and society do about phenomenon?

There are several opinions regarding the motives and causes of radicalisation among young muslims. Some focus on the political ideologies rooted in Islam and the Quran, others point to geo-political factors. Nadia Fadil, sociologist at the Catholic University of Louvain, as well as Meryem Kenmaz, doctor in the social and political sciences, both of whom perform research regarding muslim societies in Belgium, stress the importance of frustration as a result of exclusion, discrimination and an overall lack of perspective in our society. The Dutch researcher Marion Van San goes against this notion. Radicalisation, according to her, cannot be helped by fighting youth unemployment or discrimination.

In this regard it is important to stress that there is no univocal profile describing your average Syrian fighter. “The radical islam is what binds them,” says political scientist Bilal Benyaich, but “radicalisation has different causes and risk factors that are of political, economic, religious, and psycho-sociological nature. They are internalized differently by every extremist.” In this respect, Benyaich differentiates between 6 categories. “Loser-jihadi’s are the most common” says Benyaich. “They are young people with a problematic upbringing, or young delinquents seeking recognition and a sense of belonging. They are subject to a radical thought process. They constitute the gun flesh for radical organisations. This profile requires much attention from the wellfare industry.”

An extension of this debate accounts for much discussion about radicalisation. Which policy will impact the degree of radicalisation? And, who or what plays a key role: education, youth services, police services, Muslim communities, parents, care workers?

Radicalisation is surely not to be fought by repression only. More attention is required for the curative and preventive treatment. In his analysis Belges partis combattre en Syrie, Mohssin El Ghabri refers to some interesting action domains. He distinguishes three medium- and long-term preventive measures which will have an impact on the degree of radicalisation. According to this political scientist, the fight against school drop-outs and youth unemployment is a crucial one. Noteworthy is that most young fighters from Brussels now in Syria or Iraq come from communities where unemployment reigns (up to 50% in some neighbourhoods). Secondly, we must fight against discrimination in the work place, among other forms of discrimination, racism, and islamophobia. The impact of these abovementioned phenomena is heavy, especially on youngsters searching for an identity and place in society, and should not be underestimated. He goes on to mention that the creation of a strong strategy against online radicalisation is a necessity. The internet is a fertile ground for extremist thoughts. Everyone can easily share his/her vision online. Because of the lack of control on the internet, young people can easily radicalise.

It is essential to recognise the signals of radicalisation, like increasing isolation or indoctrination. It is here when the social safety net of “radicalized” persons comes into play. The city of Vilvoorde, with the largest amount of Syrian- and Iraqi fighters, organizes so-called partner tables. Young people who “radicalize” are brought together at the table with parents, friends, teachers, trustworthy people out of their community or a social worker. This “community engagement” aims to break isolation by creating bonds in society with the youngsters. Important short term measures include information- and sensibilitisation actions. Islamic studies experts, Islam consultants, imams and Middle-East experts can help actively bring about a good anti-thesis and nuances regarding the Quran and the modern meaning of it, as well as the situation in Iraq or Syria.

While there is consensus regarding certain repressive measures in our government – like the prosecution of recruiters and the shutting down of terroristic organisations that are recruiting youngsters on- and offline – other measures are causing more controversy. Think about the withdrawal of the Belgian nationality of returned fighters. This was one of the twelve anti-terror measures undertaken by the federal government to provide an answer to the thwarted terror plot. In this respect, someone who fights in Syria or Iraq while having a double nationality can possibly lose his or her Belgian nationality. Someone who only has the Belgian nationality and combats in Syria or Iraq can never lose his or her nationality. A difference in treatment of people who are born as Belgians is not only juridically impossible; it also caused for great debate with regards to discrimination. We must ask questions regarding the possible counter-productive character of the measures. Where these measures are meant to cause dissuasion, they can have a very different impact and give munition to these radicalizing young people by affirming their perceived feeling of being an inferior citizen. This could then lead to an ideological boost and extra reasons to leave Belgium and join IS or Al-Qaeda.

The motivation, the ideology and the background of the Iraq- and Syria warriors can teach us a lot of things, with which we can develop an approach that could bear fruit. Moreover, a balanced plan of action is up and coming where policymakers and – more than ever – aid workers, education, youth employment, the mosque and the parents are involved. Vigorous action if necessary, while focusing on prevention, sensibilisation and extra research where needed.