Effective techniques for preventing extremism call for intervening early, making sure disenfranchised groups are included in society and disrupting stereotypes by making people work together. Deradicalisation programmes fail when they ignore this
15 March 2019
By Laura Spinney
Deradicalisation programmes are the bedrock of counter-terrorism strategies in many countries. They aim to combat extremism by identifying individuals who have become radicalised, or are in danger of becoming so, and reintegrating them to the mainstream using psychological and religious counselling as well as vocational training.
In the UK, the most recent figures show that in 2015, 4000 people were reported to the government’s anti-terror programme. The majority – 70 per cent – are suspected Islamic extremists, but about a quarter are far-right radicals, and that number is growing.
Critics fear that these programmes criminalise and stigmatise communities, families and individuals. In addition, there are questions about who governments collaborate with for information and whether public servants should be obliged to report potential radicals.
There is also very little evidence that the programmes work. Most fail to assess the progress of participants, and rates of recidivism are rarely studied. In a report in 2016, the UK parliament’s human rights committee warned that the government’s counter-extremism strategy was based on unproven theories and risks making the situation worse.
In the wake of the Manchester terror attack in May 2017, the government set up an independent commission for countering extremism which will seek to understand the scale of the problem and advise the government on the best response. The organisation’s leader, Sara Khan, said that extremists have become “increasingly professional” and are “thriving” in some areas of the UK.
The key to combating extremism lies in addressing its social roots, and intervening early, before anyone becomes a “devoted actor” willing to lay down their lives for a cause, says Scott Atran at the University of Oxford’s Centre for Resolution of Intractable Conflicts. “Until then, there are all sorts of things you can do.” One of the most effective counter measures, he says, is community engagement. High-school football and the scouts movement have been effective responses to antisocial behaviour among the disenfranchised children of US immigrants, for example.
Another promising avenue is to break down stereotypes, says social psychologist Susan Fiske at Princeton University. These are not necessarily religious or racial stereotypes, but generalised stereotypes we all hold about people around us. When we categorise one another, we are particularly concerned with social status and competition, viewing people of low status as incompetent, and competitors as untrustworthy. Throughout history, violent acts and genocides have tended to be perpetrated against high-status individuals with whom we compete for resources, and who therefore elicit our envy, says Fiske.
Fiske’s group has found ways to disrupt stereotypes by making people work together to achieve a common goal, for example. Trivial contact involving “food, festivals and flags” won’t cut it, she says. It has to be a goal people care about and are prepared to invest in, such as a work project or community build. Here, success depends on understanding the minds of your collaborators – “rehumanising” them.
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