Prevention of Radicalisation: Pointing out Alternatives to Salafist Narratives

Orientation, purpose and community – a growing number of young people are receptive to the ideas and the propaganda of Salafist groups. While it is rare to observe an explicit fascination for violence among them, prevention of radicalisation does not just begin once a readiness to use violence has already developed. It is also geared at preventing attitudes that are hostile to democracy and freedom from evolving. Dr. Götz Nordbruch describes approaches and when preventive measures should be taken.

Bildschirmfoto 2015-12-01 um 21.11.37

Die wahre Religion‘ (‘The True Religion’) and Salafist preacher Pierre Vogel’s page reach over 120,000 followers and have registered 100,000 ‘likes’ from Facebook users as of July 2015. These two addresses rank among the best-known Salafist websites in social networks in Germany. Their popularity attests to the growing visibility of the Salafist program in the public space and exposes the interest with which especially young adults follow their appeals. Both initiatives are part of the political/missionary spheres of the Salafist scene, which boasts an estimated 7.000 followers in Germany. [1]

Target audiences, goals and areas of activity for prevention

Only some of the visitors to these Facebook sites support Salafist positions in everyday life, and exceedingly few of them are active in the innumerable Salafist groups that have sprung up in recent years across the country. And it is only in isolated cases that one can observe a fascination for jihadist-motivated violence among the followers of these two Facebook sites. Nevertheless, the numbers illustrate the attractiveness and the proximity to young people’s everyday lives of these Salafist projects. Topics, interests and (unmet) needs that are important to many young people – often independent of either religion or background – are addressed here. Next to religious considerations, perfectly commonplace topics also play a big role and this is why Salafist groups can be attractive to non-Muslim youths, too.

Our prevention work is tailored to adolescents and young adults who have come into contact with the Salafist scene and are interested in their program. [2] It is thus completely different from de-radicalization work, which is designed for individuals who have already been active in Salafist groups and have adopted their worldviews and patterns of behavior. This differentiation is important because ‘primary’ (or ‘universal’) prevention isn’t the right way to address youths once they show readiness to use violence. It needs to be introduced much earlier i.e. when attitudes that are hostile to democracy and freedom begin to be formulated. It is also meant to counteract political or socially-motivated pressure.

First contact with Salafist propositions is often made in conjunction with the youth-typical search for orientation: ‘Who am I?’, ‘How do I want to be?’, ‘Where do I want to go?’, ‘Why is the world so unjust?’. Questions concerning identity, orientation and the meaning of life are taken up in the videos propagated by Salafists. Often they are related to current issues that supposedly illustrate the immorality, hedonism and individualism of society. Racism, gambling, Youporn or the power of the banks – this selection is not random; it covers all the topics that have proved controversial to a wider public as well. Regardless of their religious affiliation, these topics upset many.

Outreach efforts by Salafist across the spectrum promise answers here; they offer community, they point out possibilities for participation and formulate a clear goal that gives life meaning and purpose. Thus, for instance, a life lived in accordance with Islam, as the Salafists propagate it, offers not only protection from the immoral temptations of society but also from the responsibilities connected with an independent and self-determined life.

The objective of preventive work is to deconstruct the Salafist narrative and the simple ‘answers’ they offer. The task of prevention work is to create an alternative program that counteracts the attractiveness of Salafist proposals and proposes real perspectives in society. Participation in society must be more attractive than retreating to ummah, the Muslim community as propagated by the Salafists.

Expert panel discussions on prevention approaches show the broad range of action areas in which such programs are conceivable. [3] They span educational and extracurricular work at schools and beyond; child support measures involving youth and family counseling; educational counseling, social psychological support, clubs and social work all the way to the programs that are offered by youth and social welfare services and the police. One can hardly overstate the importance of networking of the various players. This is critical when addressing youth-typical feelings of insecurity and adjustment crises but also for promoting and reinforcing the kind of capacity building that opens up real chances for participation. Thus, for instance, it’s not really possible to counteract marginalization processes by individual pupils in a classroom setting alone. External facilities should step in to offer support, for instance, by involving parents and offering social psychological assistance or extracurricular/recreational support. This can facilitate a reconnection to society and help provide not only a fresh perspective but also a new approach to life.

Clear-cut and unambiguous guidelines and maxims derived from Islamic religious sources are at the main focus of the Salafist discourse. Unlike most Islamic theologians who recognize the need to interpret the religious sources and put religious norms into context, Salafist preachers insist upon a purely literal reading. They claim to have the only true and binding understanding of the Quran and stories on the life of Mohammed. For adolescents and young adults who are searching for orientation and answers to everyday questions about life, this interpretation of Islam offers an easy entry into a religious worldview that, along with offering orientation and support, also promises membership to a very tight community.

Initiating reflective processes, promoting decision-making and responsibility

Various approaches are pursued in educational work to point out the alternatives to the Salafist program. They differ somewhat depending on the setting or location in which the target groups are addressed. Prevention work can take place in a school environment or elsewhere. Discussing religious topics is only one of the possible approaches, general civic and human rights education might be another. In this context religious and non-religious approaches don’t necessarily exclude each other. They can be complementary in prevention work.

Islamic religious education organized by the religious communities is also a promising path. They should not just convey beliefs and practices but also deal with the realities of life for students who live in a society that is heterogeneous in terms of both religion and culture. The differing values and norms must be lived and discussed. These lessons offer young Muslims a space in which they can freely discuss their everyday lives and develop a consciousness for inner-Islamic diversity in the process.

But critical engagement with religious doctrine and practices outside the scope of religious education might also be helpful; it addresses the interest of the participants in religious topics and stimulates a reflective process. Taking into account the growing meaning of religion in the self-perception of many young Muslims, the introduction of religious topics can be used to boost communication, enhance their judgment and decision-making skills as well as to encourage them to accept responsibility; even political responsibility.

The ‘Maxime Wedding’ project launched by the Violence Prevention Network, offers ethics or social studies lessons in which interreligious and intercultural gateways to religious topics are developed. Current conflicts or prejudices are specifically addressed in the process. The workshops, conducted by practicing Muslims, Christians and Jews, cover the basic beliefs systems and religious rituals of the monotheist religions and show ‘in an emphatic way their commonalities and uniting aspects’. [4] In doing so, conflicts and religion-motivated resentment are also explicitly addressed. The tandem trainer teams, with their different religious backgrounds, serve as ‘authentic role models’ as they promote interreligious understanding.

Especially with regard to conflicts in classrooms or youth groups that are based on religious differences – and are reinforced by the Israel-Palestine conflict or the civil war in Syria and Iraq – this kind of approach makes it possible to highlight the normalcy of religious variety and to show constructive behavior when it comes to religious differences.

Religious questions are also the point of departure for the workshops offered in schools and youth facilities by [5] Often enough, the workshops are occasioned by religion-based tension among young people. But there is often also a general interest in Islam and the way young people practice their religion in everyday life. Religious issues and the experiences of Muslim students enable lifeworld-pertinent discussions that draw on the relationships between Islam and democracy, Islam and violence as well as inner-Islamic diversity and experiences made with anti-Muslim resentment and day-to-day racism.

Moderated by two teamers (usually Muslims), the workshops are nevertheless not about furnishing theological answers in terms of what is ‘correct’ or ‘what is proper’ when it comes to religion. Instead, the questions on religion serve much more as an impetus to open a dialog on what is behind the values, rituals and norms where they expressly refer to non-religious aspects (for example, justice, equality or freedom). With the help of the question ‘How do we want to live?’ religious topics are ‘translated’ into general ethical and social questions that have meaning for all students, regardless of their ancestry or religious affiliation. Discussions can thus center on democratic values or the problem of exclusion/marginalization and the debasement of others. The goal of this process is to promote a consciousness for various religious and non-religious paths to values, faith and identity and to boost skills in dealing with social differences.

The extent to which civic educational approaches dovetail with preventive objectives is brought to light also by the program offered by the ‘Dialog macht Schule‘ project (Dialogue Sets a Precedence). This project, which combines ‘personal development, civic education and integration work, expressly doesn’t see itself as a prevention project but has defined ‘the strengthening of consciousness for democratic principles’ as its goal. It approaches schools with predominantly socially-disadvantaged students and offers group discussion that can be integrated into the curriculum over a period of two years as part of ethics and social studies lessons.

The focus here is not current issues, conflicts or students’ religious questions but rather general topics that arise when living in a migrant society. While religion can indeed be addressed in the process, debates on ‘identity, homeland, belonging, gender roles, justice, racism, fundamental rights and human rights are in the center of the discussion’. [6] These long-term discussion groups thus also offer the possibility of initiating further projects that go beyond the actual learning groups and involve other students and educators.

The approaches taken reflect the various situations and the particular needs of the facilities/institutions. In groups where religious topics only play a marginal role, discussions on questions concerning identity and belonging are helpful to raise awareness for varying biographical backgrounds and experiences as well as to boost fragile identities and solidarity. On the other hand, in youth groups and classrooms where religious topics are initiated by the young people themselves, this can be a good starting point and then touch on social diversity or encourage discussions among those with differing moral concepts.

In view of the growing importance of the Internet in the everyday lives of adolescents and young adults, the question of whether the described approaches can be transferred to preventive work in the social media needs to be examined. Prior experience has mostly been limited to projects in Great Britain and the USA. The British project “Abdullah-X”, for example, attempts to use animated short films to offer alternative interpretations (‘counter narratives’) on the conflicts in Syria and Iraq and to counter racism or the notion of jihad as interpreted by Salafists and jihadists. These approaches are not primarily about creating ‘new’ platforms with other content. Rather, alternative opinions and content are introduced into existing forums and ongoing discussions (in online out-reach educational work, for example). This includes the “Against Violent Extremism” [7] project, likewise developed in Great Britain. It also entails making direct contact with youngsters and young adults using chat services like WhatsApp or Messenger to address postings that are derogatory or glorify violence. [8]

Community services and empowerment

Community services and empowerment are important aspects of preventive work in the area of youth work. It is not civic education that is needed most but the strengthening of positive community spirit and social skills. After all, the attractiveness of Salafist appeals is based upon the promise of community in which the individual is accepted as a ‘brother’ or ‘sister’ regardless of his or her migration history or origin. By declaring their faith in Islam – as propounded by the Salafists – young people gain access to a community that they perceive as family-like. The community offers them empathy and strong emotional ties.

This community forms the basis both for common action and for individual self-efficacy. The innumerable activities initiated by Salafists under the catchword ‘dawah’ (mission work) enable collective action that is – unlike information booths run by political parties or conservation organizations, for instance, – usually received with great public interest. This is especially true when it comes to acts of violence that are carried out and exploited medially by jihadists. But belonging to the Salafist scene also guarantees personal attention. A long beard, professing allegiance to Pierre Vogel or wearing a full body veil provoke reactions that would hardly be attainable with tattoos, flesh tunnels or hot pants.

Youth work offers the opportunity to develop alternative community services and to demonstrate opportunities for taking action. It can offer a framework within which social skills are strengthened and self-efficacy can be experienced.

It can, in this respect, play a role in prevention by ‘immunizing’ youths against Salafist appeals or in showing their propositions in a less attractive light.

For young people who have suffered from educational disadvantages, discrimination and resentment, and who are particularly affected by exclusion and unequal opportunity, programs that combine recreational activities with forms of empowerment are especially helpful. These can be projects that involve young people in drawing up the guidelines for the relevant institutes/facilities, for example. Or projects that encourage civil engagement in the social sphere all the way to media projects in which, next to critical media competence, the active use of media is learned and practiced so that youths can articulate and enforce their own interests.

With campaigns focused on the portrayal of Islam in the media, the project “JUMA – jung, muslimisch, aktiv” (‘JUMA – Young, Muslim, Active’), offered by the »Regionale Arbeitsstelle für Bildung, Integration und Demokratie« (regional department for education, integration and democracy) in Berlin, aims to strengthen participation in society or in environmental protection, for example. In general, its goal is to ‘give Muslims youths a voice’ by encouraging them to participate in democracy. [9]

Since Salafist appeals to girls and women are on the rise, gender-specific, girl-oriented approaches in youth work must also be considered. Based on experience gathered during ongoing projects, ‘cultures interactive’ recommends a partisan approach to youth work. This focusses on self-determined gender roles and helps young people to raise their tolerance vis-à-via those with an ambivalent sexual orientation and gender. [10].

There are also numerous such initiatives embedded into Islamic organization. These are found in youth departments of the Islamic associations but there are also independent initiatives that have been established by the youths themselves. Initiatives such as the Muslimische Jugendcommunity Osnabrück (Muslim Youth Community Osnabruck or ‘MUJOS’), which was initiated by adolescents and young adults, bank on a strong connection between offline and online activities. They offer recreational activities but also discussion rounds covering topics such as racism or interreligious dialogue. Non-Muslim cooperation partners including Catholic student groups and the police are also involved. MUJOS also operates an online platform that addresses prevention topics. [11]

Involvement in a religious community and opening up the space for reflective debates on Islamic traditions can also be helpful for young people who come from families where religion was not a topic. They may in certain phases get interested in Islam and in exchanging experiences with resentment and discrimination. This applies also to converts who make a relatively strong showing within the Salafist spectrum. Salafist groups also make it easy for those who don’t have extensive knowledge on religion, beliefs or practices to join their religious community. This explains why even individuals who can be described as ‘religious illiterates’ can be found in these radical movements. Typically, their worldview has been reduced to just a few norms, doctrines and rituals that they have acquired in a relatively short time. In contact with Islamic institutions or other religious players they discover the enormous complexity of the Islamic doctrines and practices. And at the same time, it might become evident that there is no contradiction between one’s Muslim faith and one’s German identity. What is important here is that the religious communities involved also explicitly subscribe to this dual self-image of being both German and Muslim and that they reflect on the inner-Islamic differences themselves as well.

Similar to civic-educational prevention work, peer approaches like the Kreuzberg Initiative against Anti-Semitism, which is pursued in schools, prove to be particularly helpful. It makes it easier for adolescents and young adults to accept thought-provoking impulses and to question their own orientation models when talking to peers with similar experiences. In their capacity as role models, these peers help the students to discover how to participate in German society.

One-to-One Help in Crisis Situations

The so-called ‘sharia police campaign’ in Wuppertal, which got a high level of nationwide attention in the fall of 2014, makes clear a further dimension of the Salafist program that can be meaningful for prevention work. During their evening rounds through the city, the Salafist activists appealed directly to adolescents and young adults in casinos and shisha bars and called on them as ‘good Muslims’ to refrain from gambling, alcohol and drugs. Gambling addiction is in fact a problem that is relatively common among young people with a migration history [12] – nevertheless, as of yet, only very little support has been forthcoming for this target group.

The ‘sharia police campaign’ clearly showed the need for individualized help for young people with a migration history. This applies to such areas as addiction prevention, family assistance as well as educational and vocational issues. It showed the long-overdue need to put into place communal and voluntary crisis management assistance as well as spiritual welfare services to assist young people with immigrant backgrounds who are facing serious problems (caused by substance abuse, family conflicts, exposure to violence or as the consequence of their own criminal offences). In recent years, first initiatives were launched by Islamic bodies. These are geared specifically at Muslim-socialized adolescents and young adults (the Muslim crisis line, for instance). [13] In North Rhine-Westphalia, projects like ‘180° Turn’ endeavor to create a network of volunteers, mentors and Muslim coaches who can be called on whenever necessary. [14] It is crucial for successful prevention work that all players work together. This is especially true when it comes to cooperation in providing assistance and implementing the intervention measures designed to support adolescents and young adults at various levels (school, recreational activities, training opportunities, family assistance). Despite a growing awareness for this need, there are still numerous obstacles when it comes to the practical implementation. These have to do with different understandings of the roles to be played by the participants involved, for instance, the limits of the various institutions’ competencies or even questions of data protection.

In the meantime, growing cooperation at a European level (especially with Great Britain, Denmark and Belgium) offers an opportunity to pool prevention experiences and transfer the gained insights to local contexts. The Radicalization Awareness Network, for example, shares information on the practical approaches used in various European countries so that cities can benefit from this. Indeed, the wheel does not need to be reinvented from location to location. [15]


1. Federal Ministry of the Interior, Report on the Protection of the Constitution 2014, Berlin 2015, pg. 90.

2. For an overview of projects and prevention work on Salafism and violent Islamism see (»«) and the BMFSFJ program website ‘Demokratie leben’ (‘Live Democracy!’): »«.

3. For the current status of the discussion see Wael El-Gayar/Katrin Strunk (publ.), Integration versus Salafism. Identitätsfindung muslimischer Jugendlicher in Deutschland (translation:Muslim youths as they forge their identities in Germany), Schwalbach: Wochenschau Verlag, 2014 and Rauf Ceylan/Michael Kiefer, Salafism. Fundamentalistische Strömungen und Radikalisierungsprävention, Wiesbaden: Springer VS, 2014 and Götz Nordbruch, Überblick zu Präventionsprogrammen im Kontext ‘islamischer Extremismus’ im europäischen Ausland, Halle (Saale): DJI, 2013. Also helpful are the experiences gained in the area of right-wing extremism, see Reiner Becker/Kerstin Palloks (publ.): Jugend an der roten Linie. Analysen von und Erfahrungen mit Interventionsansätzen zur Rechtsextremismusprävention, Schwalbach/Ts.: Wochenschau Publisher, 2013.

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8. Suggestions and insights for preventive work that is not focused on youths who have already become indoctrinated can also be found in social media; especially in respect to right-wing propaganda. or the Amadeo Antonio Foundation are of interest here. First experiences with outreach civic educational work in social networks were made by the project ‘Was postest Du? Politische Bildung mit jungen Muslim_innen online?’ (What are you posting? Online Civic Education with Young Muslims). These experiences are also relevant for prevention work: »«.

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11. »ück-MUJOS/461809603890943?fref=ts«

12. Refer to the interview (in German) with Kazim Erdogan from Aufbruch Neukölln,, 13 Juni 2015. (»«)

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