“Every minute, I just imagine him in that solitary confinement, facing 20 years, because I cooperated with the government. It’s a horrible feeling. I can’t get rid of it,” said Sal Shafi, father of Adam, a 22-year-old American suspected of Islamic extremism.
Last year Mr. Shafi phoned the American embassy in Cairo, Egypt while visiting family because Adam had disappeared and flown to Turkey, apparently to witness the plight of the refugees there. After the family’s return to the United States, Mr. Shafi was contacted by the FBI. Against the advice of his attorney, he answered their questions on several occasions. “We don’t have criminal minds,” Mr. Shafi told the New York Times. “Maybe I’m naïve. I’ve never dealt with the authorities before. I wanted to cooperate.” Shortly thereafter, agents showed up in the early morning hours with guns drawn, looking for Adam. Arrest and prison time is the only option in America for suspected radicalised individuals. If Mr. Shafi had known how the situation was to play out with his son, he would have chosen a different path to help Adam. As it stands, he warns “Don’t even think about going to the government.”
In contrast, on the other side of the world, a small European country is “flipping the script” in their approach to radicalised youth. Instead of punishment, they help them to reintegrate successfully into society with a range of services, interventions and support — with astonishing results.
Taking the path less travelled in the war on terrorism
The Danish city of Aarhus has seen its fair share of radicalisation — and subsequent enlistment in ISIS — with local youth. Beginning in 2012, hundreds of potential radicals lived within the city, and 34 are known to have gone to Syria. In the rest of Europe, penalties are severe for those who travel to Syria to join extremist groups. France has closed down mosques suspected of encouraging radicals. The U.K. brands citizens that help ISIS as enemies of the state. And other countries take away passports — a move normally used only for convicted traitors.
But Danish police officers took the path less travelled: They made it clear to citizens of Denmark who had gone to Syria that they could come home, and would receive help to go back to school, find an apartment, meet with a mentor or psychiatrist, or whatever they required to fully integrate back into society. Known as the “Aarhus model,” the police believe they are making a very practical decision designed to keep their city safe.
“As they see it, coming down hard on young, radicalised Muslims will only make them angrier and more of a danger to society. Helping them is the only chance to keep an eye on them and also to keep the peace in their town,” writes Hanna Rosin for NPR.
Interestingly, scientists who study radicalisation have come to a similar conclusion.
The strong link between humiliation and extremist ideology
Christopher Hopwood is an associate professor of psychology at Michigan State University and specialises in the phenomena of non-complementary behaviour. With complementary behaviour, you act warmly and the person you are with reciprocates and acts warmly back. The same with hostility.
Conversely, non-complementary behaviour is where someone does the unexpected — a person acts with hostility, yet you respond warmly. It’s such an unnatural response that non-complementary behaviour has been shown time and again to completely change the dynamic and create a far different outcome than what would normally occur. The non-violent resistance movements of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. are prime examples of non-complementary behaviour, as is the Aarhus model.
This is an important point with regard to curbing extremism. With terrorist acts increasing by the day, it’s become apparent that clamping down on potential radicals in a typical, punishing manner isn’t working.
“The original response was to fight [extremism] through military and policing efforts, and they didn’t fare too well,” says Arie Kruglanski, a social psychologist at the University of Maryland who studies violent extremism. “That kind of response that puts them as suspects and constrains them and promotes discrimination — that is only likely to exacerbate the problem. It’s only likely to inflame the sense there’s discrimination and motivate young people to act against society.”
He continues, “Aarhus is the first, to my knowledge, to grapple with [extremism] based on sound social psychology evidence and principles. They expect to be treated harshly. Instead they got the opposite. That kind of shock opens people’s minds to maybe they were wrong about their society that they perceived as their enemy. It opens a possible window into rethinking and re-evaluating.”
And the program is exceptionally effective. Of the original 34 who left for Syria, 18 came back home — all of whom were successfully integrated back into society through the Aarhus model, along with hundreds more who were potential radicals in the city, around 330 total. More impressive is the fact that since the initial exodus of young people, there has been a sharp decline in those leaving Aarhus for Syria, even when the numbers where climbing elsewhere in Europe. In 2015, just one person left.
With such success, it begs the question whether a similar program could work in the United States, where young people like Adam wouldn’t be locked away for decades with few options once released, but instead supported in becoming productive members of society.