The Paris terrorist attacks left Europeans seeking answers to how young people, born and raised in Europe, could be persuaded to strap explosive devices to their bodies and use these to spread death and destruction in the name of their religion. Brussels was identified as a hotbed for Islamic radicalization and in our analysis we asked the question; Why Molenbeek? This was in reference to the Brussels neighborhood where several of the Paris attackers had plotted their assault. Recognizing the need for better answers not only on why Molenbeek, but also why Islamic radicalization, FNF, Tuskon and the EIP invited experts for an interactive discussion on what can be done to counter Islamic radicalization in Europe.
How one young man found (and left) Islamic extremism
Stories of how young men and women join extremist organizations are as diverse as the people who join them. On our panel we were fortunate to have Adam Deen, himself a former radical Islamist who has since turned a new leaf and now spends his time building a counter-narrative to the ideology he himself was first so fascinated by. He told the story of how as a young man he sought answers to questions he had about his own faith. However, coming from a secular Muslim household, he could expect no such answers at home. He tried turning to his local mosque, but soon found that it was run by an older generation, very detached from the reality in Britain as he perceived it. Instead, Deen was first introduced to radical Islam by a young man his own age, handing out leaflets outside his local mosque after Friday prayers. Through gradual socialization Deen became increasingly radical in his viewpoints, espousing a vision of Islam which was both, in his own words, irrational and intolerant. He spent the better part of ten years in a now banned terrorist organization in Britain known as Al-Muhajiroun. Starved for an understanding of his religion, Deen took the bait of the group, because as he said, they were the only ones offering an intellectual, albeit pseudointellectual, narrative for Islam which appealed to him.
In exiting this organization he gradually unders
tood the callousness of the organization. He recounted the anecdote of how he had early on celebrated the terrorist attacks on 9/11, but that two years later his development had gone so far that when confronted by a woman who had lost a relative in the twin towers he saw that fellow Al-Muhajiroun members had no understanding of empathy. Deen was since taken under the wing of other former members and gradually began his odyssey out of the Islamist forceps. He emphasized the importance a counter-narrative to radical Islam played for him to leave extremism behind. At the Quilliam Foundation he is working to ensure that future would-be Islamists are offered a counter-narrative to the radical interpretation of Islam. In his work he is attempting to change the image of British Muslims, even appearing in a video montage of Muslims dancing to the Pharrell Song “Happy”, to the great dismay of Muslim radicals.
Is there a problem with Islam?
Both Muslim panelists, Adam Deen and Serafattin Pektas, made it clear that they see the problem of extremism as tightly interlinked with the religious fundamentals of Islam. They pointed out that most extremist groups use Medieval Islamic scholars and Quran verses to justify their actions and noted therefore that in order for these interpretations to be debunked there needs to be a re-interpretation which emphasizes the Islamic rationalist tradition. Both agreed that this needs to be a Muslim-led renaissance from within the religion, yet Deen pointed out how important it was that non-Muslims are supportive of this effort and should not fall into the trap of support the notion that Islamic radicalism is entirely unrelated to the religion of Islam.
What can be done in Europe?
With a lot of focus on tracking down and neutralizing already existing radical networks in Europe, the efforts around preventing radicalization can often be drowned out. Nevertheless, countless initiatives throughout Europe work to unearth the seeds of Islamic radicalization before it ever matures. Veronique Ketelaer from the European Forum for Urban Security (EFus) explained the importance of several layers of government working together in preventing Islamic radicalization in Europe’s cities. She also emphasized the role civil society can play in offering young people alternatives to those on offer by radical Islamist groups. The diversity of European experiences with preventing the recruitment of young people into the fold of radical Islam, the EU Radicalisation Awareness Network (RAN) Centre of Excellence seeks to share best practices across the European Union. RAN coordinator Maurice van der Velden stressed that there are lessons to be learnt from countries like Sweden and Denmark, where preventative efforts have been successful. Ketelaer also highlighted that in all of Europe we need to look at the financing of religious institutions, in particular coming from Wahhabi groups with their own interpretation of Islam.
The long game: Unearthing the seeds of Islamic radicalization in Europe
The challenges of de-radicalization and of unearthing the seeds which lead to extremism are complex and multidimensional. In Europe there is a wealth of experience in both areas, but greater information exchange is needed. Experience in halting radicalization in other groups, in particular on the extreme right, can provide helpful guidance as Europe struggles to stop radical Islamism from taking root in Europe. Islam needs a rational counter-narrative to radicalism which is founded on theology and this evolution must come from within the European Islamic communities. This is a lengthy and cumbersome process where people such as the civil society representatives on our panel play a crucial role.
Håvard Sandvik, European Affairs Manager FNF