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Defocusing religion in the deradicalisation process

A leading academic has criticised a religious-focused approach to deradicalisation programs in the wake of an international research paper that concluded religion plays an “ambivalent” role in the radicalisation process.

Dr Clarke Jones, of Australian National University, believes psycho-social factors should be more emphasised when examining radicalised youth.

An Iranian-born Australian academic, Professor Shahram Akbarzadeh of Deakin University, has also warned that while misinterpretations of Islam can be a factor in radicalisation, political motivations, feelings of social isolation and low income and employment levels can lead young people to believe in extremist causes.

A 2014 study, ‘Religion, Security and Global Uncertainties’, released by European-based academics after interviewing 22 experts, concluded that although extremism is often associated with religious violence, religion can also facilitate peaceful outcomes.

“We can’t always blame it on religion... If we’re going to make it a religious problem, we’re not going to get very far.”

– Dr Clarke Jones, of Australian National University

Laying the blame outside religion

Dr Jones believes programs should “keep the focus away from religion.”

He said some at-risk young people are “religiously doctrinated”, but we should look into other motivations for youth radicalisation such as “inferiority within their own social network and their attempt to lift their status and hierarchy.”

“We can’t always blame it on religion... If we’re going to make it a religious problem, we’re not going to get very far,” he said.

“If ISIS hadn’t come to the fore, most (radicalised young people) would’ve gone on to join crime gangs.”

He said community-based programs had to ask, “How do we remove someone from negative influences – social media, the internet, bad networks of friends, a radical proselytiser, or from their family?”

Dr Jones, who has studied prisoners in the Philippines, said deradicalisation is working with someone to change their psychological and belief systems and suggested programs should focus on behavioural outcomes and introduce activities such as sport or art. Each person should be treated on a case-by-case basis and programs would involve social workers and psychologists, he said.

The Federal Attorney-General’s Department is establishing a Directory of Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) Intervention Services covering a wide range of services, such as mentoring, coaching and counselling, education and employment support, specialised mental health services and other services, that could help individuals to de-radicalise and turn away from ideologies of violence and hate. 

The factors that lead young people to fight for ISIS

Professor Akbarzadeh, who authored the 2014 paper ‘Investing in Mentoring and Educational Initiatives: The Limits of De-Radicalisation Programmes in Australia’,  argues that “some of these young men have had very little education in Islam and (acquire education) from untrained and self-appointed Imams and take it at face-value.”

But he argues there is a political motivation in radicalisation. “They feel they want to do something for their brothers in Syria or Muslims suffering overseas – they want to take action.”

Another factor, he said, was that they “feel alienated in Australia, and this has much to do with socio-economic factors. In terms of education, the Muslim community do quite well, but look at the levels of income (and) it doesn’t look so good... It’s worse in some (urban) pockets where there is low income and employment prospects and that creates further reason for Muslim youth to feel out of place in society.”

“All of this ties together – it results in a group of Muslims who think the answer is going to Syria to wage jihad.”

The Muslim community “doesn’t know how to manage” its radicalised youth and a “heavy-handed approach” merely fuels resentment among young people, Professor Akabarzadeh said.

They can then attach themselves to a cause. “It’s easy to believe in something that’s black and white and (the terrorist organsiation ISIS) offers that black and white perspective.”

He said deradicalisation programs have to be proactive and “build up trust and engage with communities before the crisis happens.”

Sheikh Shady Absuleiman, of the United Muslims Association (UMA), said that in talks with young Muslims who are considering becoming foreign fighters, he explains what a peaceful ‘jihad’ is as a Muslim, and relates his personal ‘jihad’ of teaching Islam in Australia.

International report identifies political motivations in radicalisation

In their 2014 paper ‘Religion, Security and Global Uncertainties’, Professor John Wolffe and Dr Gavin Moorhead advised journalists, academics and policy-makers to look beyond religion when investigating radicalisation.

But they also recommended using religious leaders to reach marginalised groups in society.

The report warned that “problems arise when religion operates in tandem with other factors, especially political ones.”

Religion plays an “ambivalent” role and “in certain situations it can be a threat, in other situations it promotes security,” the report said.

The Point

Academics are recommending that approaches to deradicalisation defocus religion


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