How Europe should fight violent Islamist extremism

Instead of making ostentatious but damaging declarations about “Islamic separatism” or state-controlled religious education, European leaders need to replicate the good practice that they have tested locally

Je suis Charlie
Image by Dean Terasaki

For the last two months, a public furore about Islamist extremism has swept across Europe. First, French President Emmanuel Macron presented his five-point plan to fight “Islamic separatism”. Then, terrorist attacks hit Paris, Dresden, Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, Nice, and Vienna – among them a particularly brutal and horrifying one on Samuel Paty. This prompted a joint statement from EU interior ministers and officials on fighting terrorism. The public debate on terrorism is now full of risky and potentially counterproductive ideas, but shuns safe and productive ones.

Why controlling religion radicalises both people and the state

Among the proposed initiatives is the establishment of a European institute for training imams, an idea promoted by European Council President Charles Michel. The project is implicitly disrespectful of existing Islamic institutions in Europe, as Hisham Hellyer has laid out. Just as importantly, the idea is impractical because state-controlled religion breeds extremism – as can be seen in several Muslim-majority countries. For instance, the Egyptian state has cracked down on religion since the 1950s: it has rigorously trained and licensed imams, and dictated Friday sermons. The result has been an almost constant struggle between the state and extremists – which leads to greater authoritarianism and, in turn, produces a more intense extremist response as part of a vicious cycle.

Only credible local religious leaders and institutions can be the influencers the European Union seeks.

This has happened because state-controlled religion lacks credibility and authenticity – it pushes believers into what seem more genuine avenues of religious inspiration, such as those provided by celebrity televangelists. Rather than look for religious answers in official state-controlled fatwa (religious decisions) houses, many Muslims look for answers on the internet, now the world’s biggest fatwa house. That house is hardly controllable. Therefore, only credible local religious leaders and institutions can be the influencers the European Union seeks. And these institutions cannot be socially engineered through counter-terrorism funds (even if they can rely more on European state educational funding than on charity).

The impact of religion on European politics

European leaders still seem to understand little about religion, Islam in particular. Paul Tillich, a German-American philosopher and theologian, famously described religiosity as an issue of “ultimate concern”. What he meant is that religious attitudes are extremely difficult to negotiate or control, but they strongly influence decisions and politics. Shortly before leaving office as high representative for foreign and security policy, Federica Mogherini made a last-ditch attempt help the EU understand religious attitudes, including those of Islam, by creating a platform called the Global Exchange on Religion in Society – but it has not taken off. Politically, it is of consequence that Islam is “the most protestant of the great monotheisms, it is ever Reformation-prone (Islam could indeed be described as Permanent Reformation)”, as Ernest Gellner put it. It constantly morphs and escapes dogma – it is, in essence, mouldable. Its plasticity can have positive social and political implications: a European Islam has already developed, one suitable to democratic systems that have total freedom of religion and belief.

The need to avoid stigmatisation and generalisations

Nothing is as conducive to radicalisation as a sense of a hostile political environment. Yet the narrative promoted by Macron, Michel, and EU interior ministers creates just that. Picking on Islam leads to what Zygmunt Bauman called the “adiaphorization” of Muslims: treatment of them as the odd ones out, who do not understand “our values” or secularism, cannot integrate into society, and are prone to radicalisation and violence. It is enough to read Vincent Geisser’s research to see how different the reality is. For example, in France, the majority of Muslims are well integrated culturally and socially, while 70 per cent feel that they can freely practice Islam.

How to embrace local and decentralised solutions

Macron is correct in much of his diagnosis of the causes of violent radicalisation: external financial influence, ghettoisation, and weak state support in poor areas. But the primary solution lies in the kinds of initiatives that are already in motion in Europe. In Denmark, the Aarhus anti-radicalisation and deradicalisation model seems to perform well (for example, the number of outgoing foreign fighters has significantly decreased each year since the programme began). Building on local structures, it involves an extensive network of parents, social workers, teachers, youth club workers, outreach workers, and police officers – who are trained to respond upon encountering a person who may have been radicalised. The project is co-organised by the Department of Psychology and Behavioural Sciences at Aarhus University. Its goal is to redirect potentially harmful activism away from radicalisation and towards other avenues by embracing inclusion: meaningful participation in common cultural, social, and societal life. The Aarhus team is in regular contact with various Muslim communities, organisations, and mosques. The model’s deradicalisation initiatives include a special exit programme for returning foreign fighters.

Most interestingly, perhaps, the Arhus model rests on a scholarly presumption that all human beings – regardless of gender, religion, cultural background, life history, or social situation – confront the exact same fundamental tasks in life. Feelings of inclusion and equality allow them to carry out these tasks when their lives are disrupted. The least European leaders can do is not add to many Muslims’ feelings of exclusion, lest this endanger social cohesion. The most they can do is apply smart solutions such as the Aarhus one locally. Such solutions require time, effort, and research – but they are well worth it.

Patrycja Sasnal is head of research and senior fellow (Middle East) at the Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM), and an ECFR Council Member.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

We will store your email address and gather analytics on how you interact with our mailings. You can unsubscribe or opt-out at any time. Find out more in our privacy notice.