Prevention Work: Showing Alternatives to Salafism

The aim of preventive work is to create alternative offers that counteract the appeal of Salafist discourse and show real prospects in society. Participation in society needs to be more attractive than total withdrawal into an exclusive umma, argues Götz Nordbruch (ufuq.de) in this article. The article was originally published in the edited volume “‘They Have No Plan B.’ Radicalization, Departure, Return – Between Prevention and Intervention” (edited by Jana Kärgel, Bonn 2019) that is available as a free e-publication.

Until recently the Facebook page “Die wahre Religion” (The True Religion) was attracting a steadily growing number of users. By November 2016, when the page was taken down after the organization was banned by the Federal Minister of the Interior, it was reaching well over 200,000 people. As at July 2018, the page of preacher Pierre Vogel had nearly 300,000 likes. These two pages are among the best-known German-language Salafist social media platforms. They exemplify the growing visibility of Salafist offers in the public sphere. The membership of Salafist scenes in Germany is now estimated at 11,000.353

The appeal of Salafist narratives

Only some of the users of these Facebook pages support Salafist positions in everyday life, and very few are likely to be active in the numerous Salafist groups that have emerged throughout Germany in recent years. Among the “fans” of Pierre Vogel’s Facebook page or “Die wahre Religion”, a fascination for jihadist violence could be observed only in isolated cases. Nonetheless, the figures illustrate the attractiveness of Salafist offers and their apparent relevance to people’s real lives. They address topics, interests and needs of relevance to many young people and young adults in general. Along with religious content, everyday topics play a central role, such as questions about a good and moral life, the reasons for social inequality, international conflicts, and experiences of racism and marginalization. That is why the offers of Salafist groups can be attractive to non-Muslim youths as well.

Prevention work in the field of Salafism is targeted at youths and young adults who come into contact with the scene on different occasions and are interested in what it has to offer.354 That distinguishes this type of prevention work clearly from distancing and deradicalization work with individuals who are already active in Salafist groups and have internalized the corresponding world views and patterns of behaviour. It is important to draw this distinction because this type of primary or universal prevention does not begin only when individuals are willing to use violence, but is intended to prevent positions that are hostile to democracy and freedom, as well as the use of religious or political social pressure.

The starting point for initial contact with the Salafist scene is the searching and exploration that is typical of adolescence and ultimately affects all young people on the threshold of adulthood: Who am I? How do I want to live? Who do I want to become? Why is the world so unjust? Family conflicts, biographical crises, or experiences of violence and exclusion can further intensify the search for meaning, identity and orientation.

Lectures and videos disseminated by Salafists address these questions, quite often with reference to conflicts across the world and current social policy issues, the intention being to prove the existence of immorality, hedonism and individualism – negatively judged – in society. The suffering of people in Syria and everyday racism here in Germany, gambling, candid treatment of sexuality, or the power of the banks – are all controversial topics many view in German society with unease regardless of religious affiliation.

Salafist discourse is centred on the offer of clear rules and maxims supposedly derived from religious sources of Islam. Unlike most Islamic theologians, who recognize that these religious sources require interpretation and put religious norms into context, Salafist preachers insist on a literal reading of sources. They lay claim to the only true and definitive understanding of the Quran and stories from the life of Mohammed. Accordingly, a life lived in obedience to the rules of Islam as propagated by Salafists offers, for example, protection from moral temptation, but also from the pressures and responsibility associated with an independent and self-determined life. For adolescents and young adults in search of orientation and answers to everyday questions of how to live their lives, this understanding of Islam promises quick and easy access to a religious world view that, along with orientation and support, promises a sense of belonging in a clearly defined community.

Prevention work target groups, aims and areas of activity

The aim of preventive work is to deconstruct the narrative and the simple answers offered by Salafists. At the same time, prevention work should create alternative offers that counteract the appeal of Salafist discourse and show real prospects in society. Participation in society needs to be more attractive than total withdrawal into the umma, the global community of Muslims, as propagated by Salafists.

Expert debates on approaches to prevention work highlight the diverse areas of activity in which relevant offers are conceivable.355 They differ in terms of the context and/or place in which the target groups are addressed and range from school and extracurricular education; child, youth and family welfare; child guidance; psychological counselling; work in clubs and associations; to offers from youth welfare and social welfare agencies and the police. One possible main focus could be on discussion and analysis of religious topics, but general approaches to education in democracy and human rights can also play an important role. Religious and non-religious approaches are not mutually exclusive, but can be complementary in prevention work.

In practice, it is clear that different actors need to be networked in order to address typical adolescent insecurities and adjustment crises and to jointly promote and strengthen resilience and coping skills in the interest of real opportunities to participate. For example, processes of exclusion of individual young people in the context of school can hardly be counteracted by teachers alone. External organizations can provide effective support, for instance by involving parents and offering assistance in the form of psychological counselling, careers advice or youth work. Thus family therapy or the involvement of trusted individuals from a soccer club or local mosque can help to defuse potential family conflicts or strengthen self-confidence and a sense of recognition. This again can facilitate reconnection with society and make it easier to demonstrate prospects, including in the context of school. There follows a brief description of different approaches.

Islamic religious education

One possibility is to introduce Islamic religious education, which is offered in some state schools in Germany in cooperation with the major Islamic organizations. Here, the starting point is not only the specific tenets of religious faith and religious practices, but also the reality of students’ lives in a religiously and culturally heterogeneous society where people live according to different values and norms. This education offers young Muslims a space to discuss questions of religion in the German language and with reference to their everyday lives while simultaneously developing an awareness of diversity within Islam.

Even apart from faith-oriented religious education, it can be helpful to discuss and analyse religious doctrines and practices so as to pick up on interest in religious topics and stimulate reflection processes. Given the growing significance of religion in many young Muslims’ self-image, these topics can also, in terms of civic education, help to promote communication, judgment forming and coping skills.

Dialogue projects

One example is the Violence Prevention Network356 project “Maxime Berlin”, which offers ethics and civic education events where inter-religious and intercultural approaches to religious topics are discussed. Workshops led by practising Muslims, Christians and Jews deal with topics including the fundamental beliefs and religious principles of the monotheistic religions and show “emphatically what is common to and connects all human beings”. In addition, conflicts and religion-based prejudices are explicitly addressed, with trainer tandems from different religious backgrounds serving as “authentic role models” for understanding between religions.

Especially in the case of conflicts in school classes or youth groups in connection with religious or denominational differences – that are reinforced, for instance, by the Israel-Palestine conflict or civil war in Syria and Iraq –, this type of approach makes it possible to highlight the normality of religious diversity and to show constructive ways of dealing with religious differences.

Religious questions are also the starting point for workshops run by Ufuq.de in schools, either in regular classes or on project days.357 They are organized in response to tensions that often exist between young people in connection with religious topics, or to a general interest expressed by young people in Islam and the role of religion in everyday life. In contrast to inter-religious or faith-oriented approaches, the aim here is not to teach the fundamental tenets of faith. Religious questions and the experience of Muslim students merely facilitate entry, in a way relevant to everyday lives, into conversations centred on the relationship between Islam and democracy, Islam and violence, diversity in Islam, and also experience of anti-Muslim prejudice and everyday racism.

The aim of these workshops, which are moderated by two (as a rule Muslim) team members, is not to provide theological answers in the sense of an allegedly “correct” or ”good” understanding of religion. Rather, religious questions serve as a stimulus for conversations on the background to values, rituals and norms in the course of which expressly non-religious perspectives (for example on the subject of justice, equality or freedom) emerge. Asking the key question “How do we want to live?” helps to “translate” religious topics into general ethical and societal issues that are ultimately significant for all students regardless of origin or religion. They may relate to democratic values or equally to the problem of exclusion and denigration of others. The goal is to promote awareness of different religious and non-religious approaches to values, beliefs and identity and to strengthen coping skills in dealing with societal differences.

The “Dialog macht Schule” project also follows a dialogue-oriented, civic education approach to counteract attitudes hostile to democracy and freedom. It aims to combine “personality development, civic education and integration work” and explicitly not to be a prevention project that takes real or alleged shortcomings and threats as its starting point. Instead, its goal is to heighten awareness of democratic principles. It contacts schools with a predominance of socially disadvantaged students, organizes moderated dialogue groups in school classes and supports them for a period of two years within the framework of regular ethics or civic education classes. As a rule, the starting point is not young people’s current interests or conflicts linked to religious issues, but general issues that arise out of living together in a migration society. Religion may come up, but the main emphasis is on discussing and analysing “identity, home, belonging, gender roles, justice, racism, and fundamental and human rights”.358

These long-term dialogue groups provide an opportunity to initiate projects that extend beyond the teaching groups themselves and involve other students and teaching staff. The project offers are also aimed at embedding migration biographies and aspects of societal diversity in the daily life of the school beyond the project period.

The approaches described reflect the different starting situations and needs in the respective institutions. In learning groups where religious topics play only a marginal role, discussion and analysis of questions of identity and belonging are helpful in casting light on different biographical backgrounds and experiences and promoting identity and cohesion. In contrast, in youth groups and school classes where religious topics are introduced by young people themselves these questions can be addressed in order to sensitize young people to societal diversity and to stimulate debate on different value concepts.

Counter-narratives

The growing significance of the Internet in adolescents’ and young adults’ everyday lives leads one to ask whether the described approaches are transferable to preventive work on and with social media.359 Experience to date is largely limited to projects in Britain and the United States. The British project “Abdullah-X”, for instance, uses short animated films about the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, racism or the concept of jihad to provide counter narratives to Salafist and violence-promoting interpretations of Islam. The “Against Violent Extremism”360 project, likewise developed in Britain, also uses counter-narratives. It relies on direct contact with adolescents and young adults via messaging services such as WhatsApp or Messenger to generate discussions about religious beliefs and personal motivations for turning to extremist ideologies, and to encourage alternative viewpoints.361

In Germany, too, various initiatives are now experimenting with corresponding approaches. The “Extreme Dialogue”362 project uses videos about the personal stories of people affected by extremist violence (former jihadists, victims or family members) as a means of raising awareness of extremist messages.

Along with the “Datteltäter”,363 who respond to extremist messages with satire, or the “Begriffswelten Islam” YouTube channel of the Federal Agency for Civic Education (Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung),364 individual Facebook pages run by Muslims such as “News zur muslimischen Welt”365 or “Hessische Muslime für Demokratie und Vielfalt”366 specifically address a Muslim audience and use religion-related content to present a wider spectrum of views on Islam and the Middle East. This is less about refuting Islamic content than about casting light on alternative perspectives that otherwise often only play a marginal role.

Facebook group conversations about questions of identity, religion and belonging helped the Ufuq.de project “Was postest Du? Politische Bildung mit jungen Muslim_innen online”367 to gain some initial experience of using social media for civic education. Here too the use of videos and images to trigger relevant debate proved particularly effective.

One especially important finding of these projects was that the impact of so-called counter-narratives depends to a significant extent on the authenticity and credibility of the speakers, as well as on a sense of „ownership“ regarding the proposed messages.

Community offers and empowerment

The appeal of Salafist discourse is also based on the promise of belonging to a community in which the individual is accepted as a “brother” or “sister” regardless of his or her migration history and social origin. By professing faith in the Salafist version of Islam, young people are given access to a community that they see as resembling a family. It offers them empathy and strong emotional ties and is simultaneously the basis for joint action and individual self-efficacy. The numerous activities initiated by Salafists in the name of dawa (missionary work) enable collective action that – unlike, for instance, the information stands of political parties or environmental organizations – generally arouses great public interest. Belonging to the Salafist scene promises attention at the individual level, too. A long beard, commitment to a prominent Salafist preacher or wearing a niqab provoke reactions unlikely to be achieved with tattoos or hot pants.

In this respect, offers in youth facilities and sports clubs play an important role in prevention. They can strengthen resilience among young people against Salafist discourse while simultaneously opening up the opportunity to develop alternative community and leisure offers and show new perspectives for action. Here the primary focus is not on civic education. Rather, youth and leisure work provides a framework for strengthening social and communication skills and a positive sense of community, and experiencing self-efficacy.

For young people who are particularly affected by exclusion and inequality of opportunity due to educational disadvantage or experience of discrimination and prejudice, the most obvious offers are those that combine leisure-time management with forms of empowerment in the sense of promoting self-efficacy and opportunities to participate. They could include a range of projects, from involving young people in developing mission statements for the respective institutions to encouraging civic engagement in the social space, or media projects that in addition to teaching critical media skills encourage the active use of media to represent one’s own point of view. The “JUMA – jung, muslimisch, aktiv” project, for example, organizes working groups and campaigns on media images of Islam, participation in society, and environmental issues, with the aim of “giving young Muslims a voice” and increasing interest in participation and experience of democracy.368

In this connection, it is essential for open youth work to show an interest in young Muslims’ particular interests and needs. That is because Salafist initiatives take advantage of gaps in public services created by established priorities and organizational processes, and exacerbated by cuts in public spending. It is no coincidence that events organized by Salafist actors often take place on Christian holidays such as Easter or Christmas when non-religious bodies generally offer no activities. Equally, Salafists deliberately choose topics for which there is otherwise little scope in youth work, such as events during Ramadan, on racism or the conflict in Syria (for example in the form of benefit events).

The attraction that Salafist discourse holds for girls and women increasingly gives rise to the question of gender-specific youth work paying special attention to young women. The recommendations drawn up by Cultures Interactive e.V. on the basis of experience with ongoing projects stress the necessity for committed youth work that supports gender self-determination and promotes tolerance in respect of sexual orientation and gender.369

The establishment of numerous Islamic initiatives and clubs active in the area of youth work opens up possibilities of preventive work in this area, too. This applies equally to the youth sections of large Islamic associations and to independent initiatives that are often started by young people themselves. A close connection between offline and online activities is characteristic of the latter in particular. One such project initiated by young adults is “Muslimische Jugendcommunity Osnabrück” (MUJOS). Along with leisure activities, MUJOS organizes discussion groups, for example on the subject of racism or inter-religious dialogue, in which non-Muslim cooperation partners such as the Katholische Hochschulgruppe (Catholic University Group) or the police are involved. In addition, MUJOS creates online opportunities for discussions in which topics relevant to prevention are raised.370

The opportunity for thoughtful study and analysis of Islamic tradition can likewise be helpful for youths and young adults who were not religiously socialized in their families, but who are interested in Islam because they have typical adolescent questions, or experience of prejudice and discrimination. Experience of youth work shows that even young people for whom Islam plays hardly any role in everyday life are repeatedly treated as “experts” on Islam or are discriminated as Muslims. In this respect, interest in religious subjects is not necessarily self-motivated, but is not infrequently triggered by external attributions and discourse.

For converts, who are relatively numerous among the Salafist spectrum, the search for (religious) community plays an important role. Salafist groups offer them easy entry to a group that often resembles a family, entry that is not tied to extensive religious knowledge or to content and practice of the faith. Thus persons described as “religious illiterates” are particularly likely to be found in radicalized scenes. Characteristic of such individuals is a religiously influenced world view reduced to a few norms, doctrines and rituals adopted in a relatively short time.

Youth work by Islamic actors can make it possible to demonstrate the multidimensional nature of Islamic doctrines and practices and simultaneously the compatibility of Muslim and German identity. In doing so it is important for the participating associations themselves to declare explicitly that they see themselves as German Muslims, and to reflect differences within Islam.

As in civic education–oriented prevention, peer approaches whereby youths and young adults themselves act as moderators or “guides” prove especially helpful in the areas of youth work discussed here. Reference to similarities in everyday life and biographical experiences makes it easier for adolescents and young adults to accept thought-provoking stimuli and to question their own patterns of orientation. As role models, peers also symbolize realistic chances of participation.

Individual help in crisis situations

The actions of the self-styled Sharia Police in Wuppertal, which attracted nationwide attention in autumn 2014, highlight a further dimension of Salafist discourse of significance in prevention. On evening patrols of the city, activists deliberately approached adolescents and young adults hanging around in gambling halls and shisha cafés and appealed to them as “good Muslims” to stay away from gambling, alcohol and drugs. Gambling addiction is indeed relatively common among young migrants. 371 Nonetheless, until now only a few offers have been designed for precisely this target group.

Campaigns such as that of the Sharia Police highlight the need for individual help targeted specifically at adolescents with a migration background: addiction prevention, family support, careers advice, and crisis services and pastoral care accessible to young people in crisis (caused, for example, by addiction, family conflicts, experience of violence, or involvement in crime). The opening up of youth welfare services in these areas by local authorities and voluntary organizations in order to cater for the special needs of young people with a migration background is overdue to fill voids often  exploited by extremist actors.

In recent years promising initiatives were launched by individual Islamic organizations specifically addressing adolescents and young adults who have been socialized as Muslims (such as the Muslim pastoral care telephone).372 Moreover, projects such as “180°-Wende” in North Rhine–Westphalia represent initial attempts at networking corresponding measures run by different actors and supporting them with Muslim coaches and mentors.373 They not only advise young people on religious questions but also offer help with finding jobs, with training problems, and in cases of delinquency and conflicts with the police.

Networking of participating actors in all the areas of activity described is crucial for prevention work. This applies especially to the sharing of information and ideas on offers of assistance and interventions that enable affected adolescents and young adults to be reached at different levels (school, leisure activities, training opportunities, support in the family sphere). Despite growing awareness of the need for a holistic approach covering the different areas of life, numerous obstacles to practical implementation of this kind of cooperation still exist (for instance with regard to the different ways in which participating actors see their roles, task-sharing and data protection issues).

Increasing information sharing at the European level (especially with Britain, Denmark, Belgium and the Netherlands) now offers the opportunity to pick up on existing experience of prevention work and to transfer it to local contexts. One example is the Radicalization Awareness Network (RAN), the goal of which is to promote sharing of information and ideas about practical approaches in different European countries and to encourage transfer to other cities. As the results of work in this network show, there is no need to reinvent the wheel everywhere.374

Notes

353 „Zahl der Salafisten in Deutschland hat sich verdoppelt“, in: spiegel.de, 4.4.2018, http://www.spiegel.de/politik/deutschland/zahl-der-salafisten-in-deutschland-hat-sich-verdoppelt-a-1201238.html.
354 For an overview of prevention projects addressing Salafism and militant Islamism, see bpb.de (http://www.bpb.de/veranstaltungen/dokumentation/186660/salafismus-als-herausforderung-fuer-demokratie-und-politische-bildung) and the website: https://www.demokratie-leben.de.
355 On the state of discussion, see Wael El-Gayar/Katrin Strunk (Hrsg.): Integration versus Salafismus. Identitätsfindung muslimischer Jugendlicher in Deutschland, Schwalbach/Ts. 2014; Rauf Ceylan/Michael Kiefer: Salafismus. Fundamentalistische Strömungen und Radikalisierungsprävention, Wiesbaden 2014; Götz Nordbruch: Überblick zu Präventionsprogrammen im Kontext »islamischer Extremismus« im europäischen Ausland, Halle (Saale) 2013. Experience from work with right-wing extremists is also helpful; cp. Reiner Becker/Kerstin Palloks (Hrsg.): Jugend an der roten Linie. Analysen von und Erfahrungen mit Interventionsansätzen zur Rechtsextremismusprävention, Schwalbach/Ts. 2013.
356 The MAXIME Berlin project ended on 31 December 2016. According to VPN, offers developed by MAXIME Berlin remain accessible via the Teach2Reach project. Further information on http://www.violence-prevention-network.de/de/aktuelle-projekte.
357 http://www.ufuq.de.
358 http://www.dialogmachtschule.de/.
359 Sindyan Qasem: Herausforderung 2.0: Ansätze und Erfahrungen der politischen Bildung in Sozialen Netzwerken, in: Dietmar Molthagen/Thilo Schöne (Hrsg.): Lernen in der Einwanderungsgesellschaft. Ein Handbuch für die Bildungsarbeit in Schule, Jugendarbeit und Erwachsenenbildung in einer vielfältigen Gesellschaft, Bonn 2016.
360 http://www.againstviolentextremism.org/about.
361 Cp. Institute for Strategic Dialogue: One to one online interventions. A pilot CVE methodology, London 2016; Henry Tuck/Tanya Silverman: The Counter-narrative Handbook, London 2016.
362 http://extremedialogue.org/de/.
363 https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCF_oOFgq8qwi7HRGTJSsZ-g.
364 http://www.bpb.de/begriffswelten-islam.
365 https://www.facebook.com/newszurmuslimischenwelt/.
366 https://www.facebook.com/Hessische-Muslime-für-Demokratie-und-Vielfalt-HMDV-988523681191105/?fref=ts.
367 Cp. ufuq.de: Was postest Du? Politische Bildung mit jungen Muslim_innen online. Hintergründe, Erfahrungen und Empfehlungen für die Praxis in sozialen Netzwerken und Klassenräumen, Berlin 2016.
368 http://www.juma-ev.de/juma/.
369 http://www.womex.org.
370 https://www.facebook.com/pages/Muslimische-Jugendcommunity-Osnabrück-MUJOS/461809603890943?fref=ts.
371 See interview with Kazim Erdogan of Aufbruch Neukölln, ufuq.de, 13.06.2015, http://www.ufuq.de/interview-erdogan/.
372 http://www.mutes.de/home.html.
373 http://180gradwende.de.
374 http://ec.europa.eu/dgs/home-affairs/what-we-do/networks/radicalisation_awareness_network/index_en.htm.