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Hug a Jihadi

Can extremists be rehabilitated? In Denmark, a controversial new program is trying to change the minds of radicalised young people, by supporting rather than outcasting them – but does it work?

Via: Evan Williams & Joel Tozer               

Can you stop terrorism with empathy?

Under a program run by police in Denmark’s second largest city, Aarhus, a unique approach is being tested – offering assistance to radicalised youths and adults, rather than treating them as criminals.

The police running the program believe helping young extremists is the best way to keep the peace. Treating them harshly and with suspicion only isolates them further – making them more of a danger to society.

The program has been referred by some in the media as the ‘hug a terrorist’ model of deradicalisation. So far, it’s been remarkably effective.

In this week’s Dateline, reporter Evan Williams meets Jamal*, who several years ago says he was so angry with society he almost became a terrorist.

Jamal* with reporter Evan Williams.

Jamal’s extremist views started developing after a high school debate on Islam. Jamal vehemently defended his religion against his classmates.  But the teacher interpreted something he said as a threat and the school referred Jamal to the police.

The ordeal resulted in Jamal getting suspended from school, and his home raided by police.  He told Dateline that he was made to feel like a criminal, when he hadn’t broken the law. As a result he surrounded himself with other young Muslims who shared his feelings of isolation. They watched radical sermons online and talked of jihad. Before long, they were planning to leave Denmark for Pakistan.

“In my mind I was like, ‘they treated me as a terrorist. If they want a terrorist, they will get a terrorist’,” he says.

But a phone call from one police officer changed everything for Jamal.

The officer apologised, telling Jamal his case was handled poorly, and asked if he would meet with a Muslim mentor.  At first Jamal was suspicious of the offer, but agreed to meet the mentor.

After several meetings and long conversations about the unique difficulties of being Muslim in Denmark, Jamal began reconsider his views. All it took was someone to reach out and offer empathy and understanding. In Jamal’s case, a punitive, disciplinary response from authorities to suspicions he was becoming radicalised, only further radicalised him. What turned him away from extremism was the offer of an open hand.

The genesis of the program known as the ‘Aarhus Model’ was a stream of calls to police from parents whose children had fled to Syria. Superintendent Allan Aarslev and his team considered how they would respond.

“We had a number of options,” he told Dateline. “We could prosecute them all if we can find evidence, however those we couldn’t prosecute, what should we do about them?”

Their answer was to reach out to men like Jamal and give them another chance.

In Denmark, many Muslims whose parents were born overseas feel they are outcast from the rest of the population. Police in Aarhus recognised this may be the main source of discontent driving young Muslims to extremism.

Faisal Mohamed works with young Muslims in Aarhus – many who live in Gellerup, a neighbourhood on the outskirts of the city – and says the feeling of isolation they experience can be dangerous.

“A lot of immigrants face difficulties maybe with the language, or the lack of networks, the lack of connections with the broader society,” he says.

“Growing up as a young person you feel alone actually, and trapped between two worlds.”

These are the feelings that caused Jamal and his peers to develop extremist views.

Three of the young men Jamal was radicalised with ended up in Syria – two were killed while the other is still there. Jamal believes if it wasn’t for the Aarhus Model program he would be there as well.

According to Jamal’s mentor, patience is the key to de-radicalisation; “It takes a long time to be radicalised, but it also takes a long time to be deradicalised. It’s because they don’t feel like, ‘I’m a part of this society’.”

But this approach focused on nurturing reformed extremists has drawn criticism. Danish politician Naser Khader, a Muslim born in Syria, says it sends the wrong message. He believes the ‘hug a terrorist’ models tells young Muslims; “Go out and do something criminal, be jihadis, you will get a lot of privilege from the society. That’s wrong in my opinion.”

This view is more common in other western countries. The conventional government response to threats of extremism is generally harsh and firm – confiscate passports, issue jail terms and publicly attack anyone considered a threat.

But can a softer approach change the minds of potential radicals and stop them before they act on their thoughts?

*Name has been changed.

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