From mosques to TV studios to family kitchens, Muslims and non-Muslims alike are trying to stem the tide of young Europeans signing up to fight for the self-declared Islamic State.
Protesters in Madrid, organized by the Arab Culture Foundation with the support of more than 50 mosques, rallied last month against the terrorist attacks in Paris under the slogan ‘against terrorism and radicalism.’
Amsterdam, Paris, and London — On the ground floor of a redbrick walk-up overlooking Amsterdam
’s Amstel River, in his inconspicuous mosque, Muslim cleric Said Akhrif delivers a sermon on tolerance. It is the third in a series of talks that the youthful imam has given to the group of faithful, sitting on a red carpet in front of him, since Islamic extremists slaughtered 12 people at the offices of the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo
.Mr. Akhrif’s message on this Friday afternoon – delivered in Arabic and then translated into Dutch – is that the prophet Muhammad was a man with a cool head. His purpose, the Moroccan
-born cleric explains, is to encourage Muslims “to remain calm” in the face of adversity “and not get frustrated.”That message lies at the heart of a swelling effort across Europe
, in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack, to stop more young Muslims from waging jihad, or holy war. Through sermons and online advertising, from TV studios to family kitchens to psychiatrists’ couches, Muslims and non-Muslims alike are scrambling to stem the tide of young Europeans volunteering to fight with Islamic State (known as both IS and ISIS) in Syria
, or to wreak havoc at home.
“Our task is to make Islamic extremism as unappealing to young Muslims today as communism is now to Western teens,” says Maajid Nawaz, who runs the Quilliam Foundation, a London-based group seeking to counter radicalization.
That is a hydra-headed job. Young European Muslims can be tempted by or trapped into violent extremism in many ways, say those trying to steer them in a different direction. Some are teen rebels. Some feel motivated by what they believe to be a just cause. Some are excited by the promised thrills of “gangster Islam.” Others get carried away by fanatical utopianism.
Most European governments have decided that “prevention is better than cure,” but only after disasters. The Dutch government launched a slew of counterradicalization programs after an Islamist militant shot and stabbed Theo van Gogh to death as the filmmaker rode his bicycle to work in 2004.
The British authorities set up their own preventive scheme in the wake of suicide bombings in July 2005 that killed 52 people. The French government launched an anti-jihad website at the end of January.
Though Europe’s security services clearly have a key role to play in preventing Islamic-inspired terrorism, they are often overwhelmed by the challenge: French Prime Minister Manuel Valls says nearly 3,000 potential French jihadis need constant surveillance but the General Directorate for Internal Security has only 3,800 agents. The government has promised to bolster the security services, adding 1,100 positions over the next three years.
Even that may not be enough. The housing projects where extremist recruiters work “are almost hermetically sealed ghettos for the secret service,” worries Louis Caprioli, a former head of antiterrorism at the French equivalent of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation. “We cannot do discreet surveillance there.”
Across the Channel, Britain’s MI5 is also realistic about the limits to the security services’ reach. “We face a very serious level of threat that is complex to combat and unlikely to abate significantly for some time,” MI5 chief Andrew Parker said in January. “We know we cannot hope to stop everything.”
In the end, security experts acknowledge, identifying potential terrorists, tracking them, waiting until they do something for which they can be convicted, and locking them up is not enough.
“There is a pool of thousands” of potential jihadis in Europe, says Mr. Caprioli.
The key is to reach them before they become radicalized.
• • •
Stemming that spread is Akhrif’s top priority, in and out of his pulpit, at Al Kabir mosque. The mosque’s leaders are seeking municipal funding for Internet outreach, planning a Web forum where moderate imams would weigh in and visitors could post their thoughts whenever an explosive event – such as a US drone strike killing civilians – stirs local emotions.
“Let’s teach the Islam of peace, against the so-called Islamic State,” says Al Kabir chairman Mohamed Echarrouti, who speaks in a soft, raspy voice and seems to wear an almost constant smile.
This is not the first time he has done this kind of work. After Mr. Van Gogh’s murder in 2004, Al Kabir worked with 18 mosques, teaching leaders how to spot radicalization and urging them to welcome young men and women at risk into their houses of worship. That was daring: Many mosques shun such people for fear of their influence and the risk they pose to the mosque’s reputation.
“Let’s get them into the mosque instead of on the streets, on the Internet, or with hate imams,” Mr. Echarrouti says.
Such clear engagement is uncommon in Europe, where moderate Muslim leaders are often uncomfortable dealing with the terrorist fringe acting in the name of their religion. They complain that they are unfairly blamed for the outrages committed by people over whom they have no control.
British Muslim leaders, for example, reacted with prickly defensiveness when Eric Pickles, the minister for Communities and Local Government, suggested recently that they had “a precious opportunity, and an important responsibility, in explaining and demonstrating how faith in Islam can be part of British identity.”
“We can’t put an imam behind every believer,” says Lhaj Thami Breze, former president of the Union of Islamic Organizations in France, which promotes moderate “French Islam.” “And, anyway, these young radicals don’t listen to us. They say we have sold out” to the authorities.
Nonetheless, argues Rashad Ali, a former Islamic radical who now mentors potential jihadis under a British government counterradicalization program, community leaders “should be making the arguments. Extremists might not listen to them but they might engage with people who are not so hardcore.”
Not that mosques appear to be where it’s at anymore when it comes to radicalization. Today a new generation of disaffected Muslims across Europe are finding their religion on the Web, at the feet of “Sheikh Google,” as some Muslims put it.
“They are not being radicalized by real people, but on the Internet,” says Margaret Gilmore, a specialist in security at the Royal United Services Institute, a British think tank.
It is not hard, if you know where to look, to follow jihadis in Syria and Iraq on Twitter or Facebook and read of their exploits. YouTube is a ready source of fiery sermons by pro-jihadi self-appointed imams. Social media offer like-minded young people a chance to join groups and forums that reinforce any tendency toward violent extremism.
The Internet provides “a virtual substitute community … and the primary means of communication” for radical Islamists, says a report issued recently by the Center for the Prevention of Islamic Sectarianism, which works with parents in France worried that their children might be slipping into jihadism.
Governments have had limited success in persuading Google, Facebook, and Twitter to take down pro-jihadi posts and videos, and as quickly as the authorities block a site it comes back up. So counterradicalization activists are taking the fight to the enemy.
“We need to be better Web marketers than ISIS,” says Ross Frenett, who runs the London-based Against Violent Extremism (AVE) network of former Islamic extremists now trying to deter young people from following in their footsteps.
Mr. Frenett’s group uses Web analytics to identify people at risk by the search terms they have used and their browsing history, and then buys ad space to ensure that they receive a message and a link to a website designed to make them think about their religion and their intentions. On Twitter, Frenett pays to target such ads at all the followers of well-known jihadis.
In an even more direct effort to engage people at risk, AVE is organizing former extremists to contact them personally online.
“If you ‘like’ ISIS on Facebook, two people are watching at the moment,” says Frenett. “Someone from the security services and an ISIS recruiter. We want to reach out to them, too.”
Thousands of people are at risk, Frenett says. His pilot program has so far dealt only with a few dozen, and only about one-third of them have engaged in online discussion. “More needs to be done like this,” he suggests.
• • •
If cyberspace is one front line in the battle against jihadism, it’s in real-life communities like Slotervaart, in Amsterdam, where people face the daily challenge of bridging Muslim and non-Muslim communities.
Slotervaart, where bearded men and veiled women are as much a part of the well-planned cityscape as traditional Dutch men and women riding their bikes, is one of the most diverse places in Amsterdam. It sits in the New West district, which counts both the largest Muslim and largest youth populations in the city, according to its district chairman, Achmed Baadoud, who was born in Morocco. There are 17 mosques, serving 48,000 people of Turkish and Moroccan descent – a third of the local population.
Those demographics could have proved a potent brew amid the passions stirred by the terrorist attack in Paris. Instead, Mr. Baadoud says, he witnessed a more “emancipated” response from his community compared with the mood a decade ago when Slotervaart was at the center of the maelstrom: The Muslim extremist who nearly decapitated Van Gogh in broad daylight hailed from here.
That calm is no accident. “It has to do with knowledge, with investments in contact and networks,” Baadoud says.
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