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Key Lessons in How to Prevent Extremism. It’s Not About Ideology

How do you prevent extremism?

Humanosity says….We have been following the how the far right is becoming more organised and expanding it’s reach globally. For instance the radicalisation of the perpetrator of the Christchurch massacre seems to have occurred during a trip to Europe alongside the online material he was consuming. However in this piece we take a look at extremism in general and more particular what are some of the hey steps that can be taken to prevent extremism.

Before far right extremism had come to for the world had experienced two decades of trying to deal with Islamic extremism from groups such as Al Qaeda and it’s many off shoots. Currently the fight against ISIS has provided the chance to test many of the preventative strategies developed earlier and it seems many of those strategies are equally applicable to the issue of far right extremism.

An article on the excellent BBC Future website took a look at this subject and features the work of a group called Exit Norway. They have been working on preventing far-right extremism in Norway since 1997 and as a result, have had time to work out what works and what doesn’t.

Organisations Who are Working On The Ground

Insight was founded by a couple of researchers from the Norwegian Police Academy.

The project had three primary objectives: “To establish local networks to support the parents of children embedded in racist or violent groups; to enable young people to disengage from these groups, and to develop and disseminate methodological knowledge to professionals working with youths associated with violent groups”.

They focus on social causes of why far-right groups are appealing to individuals and use these insights to try and help people break out of these groups. Their work has proved so successful that the organisation has now spread across Europe.

Although they only work with people who have approached them, their findings of what works are slightly counter-intuitive. All their volunteers are reformed members of far-right organisations and they don’t focus on the ideology.

Practical Solutions

Author Michael Kimmel studied Exit Sweden and Exit Germany and found that contrary to his presumptions ideology was not a key factor for members of various far-right groups.

He struggled to get participants to be able to even explain the ideology of the organisations they were part of, with participants instead talking about the importance of being “part of something, part of a group”.

Whilst not focusing on ideology has some critics the key point must be that if the prime goal is to get people out of extremist and violent organisations then dealing with an individual’s experiences to find ways to increase their motivation to get out is the most practical approach.

As evidence of the efficacy of this approach takes the case of Robert Orell. Once a member of a far-right gang in Sweden, Orell is now a volunteer for Exit Sweden. He states that the sense of belonging that they offered him was far more important than the ideology they espoused. In his talk “The Extremist Mindset”, he states the purpose of the ideology was to create a strong sense of belonging.

“In these groups, you have a very strong sense of purpose and cause. I think this goes for a range of groups, whether it’s white power groups or violent Islamic extremist groups, or gangs. What I see for a lot of people, essentially, is having been part of a group where you have this very strong commitment, you feel you have the brothers who are prepared to sacrifice their lives for you, you have a cause that’s so important you are prepared to risk your life for it. These mechanisms are quite unusual and build together a very strong sense of ‘us’.” 

Eventually, Orell joined the military and whilst there he discovered the sense of belonging he had been craving but this time without the toxic ideology to go with it. What’s more his experiences and insights complement what academics have found.

Writing in the journal Behavioral Sciences of Terrorism and Political Aggression, John Horgan, Mary Beth Altier and colleagues have also come to similar conclusions. They argue that there is a trajectory – or arc – that most people go through in their involvement in violent extremism. This arc comprises three phases – involvement, engagement, and disengagement. It is impossible to understand how to disengage people without first understanding the factors that led them to become involved and engaged in the first place.


Those who work with radical Islamists see many similarities with Orell’s findings. The appeal of ISIS to young European Muslims comes from a combination of factors:

a sense of nihilism: a malaise formed from social isolation, fantasy and rebellion. Young European Muslims who are drawn to IS are attracted to the organisation’s violent means more so than dreams of a caliphate. We are not, therefore, facing a radicalisation of Islam, but instead the Islamization of radicalism.

What all this is pointing to is that tackling extremism is less about challenging the ideology, although this can’t be ignored, more about identifying the social factors at play in why someone is drawn to extremism and this often means looking at issues like alienation, self-esteem and isolation.

As we grapple with the reality of extremist and violent right-wing organisations, one thing we can learn is the necessity of actually trying to understand the motivations for joining. That is not to undermine the abhorrence of their beliefs, but to recognise the complex underlying factors behind their behaviours appears to be the best way to prevent more people following the same path.

Click here to read Orell’s full story and more at www.bbc.com

Click here for a comprehensive analysis of what works to prevent gang involvement

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