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No silver bullet for violent extremism, say experts

A shift is happening in the way police forces in Australia and Canada are tackling violent extremism. Approaching violent extremism as a social problem rather than a law enforcement issue in the first step, experts say, and community engagement is the key.

Addressing a  symposium at Griffith University hosted by the Canadian Government this month, Dr Angela Workman-Stark, from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, said police need to listen to the communities they serve to protect.

“We (police) in this area need to listen to communities because if police try and figure this out on their own we’ll be heading in a crazy direction.”

The two day symposium in Brisbane brought together police, academic experts, and community members to debate different approaches to countering violent extremism. The role of police was the ‘hot topic’ of the conference, with many delegates pointing to the community backlash generated by high profile counter terrorism operations.

Workman-Stark said there is a space for police to operate more in the social aspect of countering violent extremism.

“The reactive part is the easy part. It’s the front end, it’s the prevention and community engagement that we need to be good at”, she said.

Inspector Michael Crowley, from the Queensland Police Security and Counter-Terrorism Group, echoed the Canadian approach.

Crowley told the symposium it was imperative for police to understand the communities they are serving.

“In our command, we organised training for our frontline officers so they better understand the communities, the cultural and religious sensitivities in order for us to better understand them and improve our relationship with them”, he said. 

“We (police) in this area need to listen to communities because if police try and figure this out on their own we’ll be heading in a crazy direction.”

– Dr Angela Workman-Stark, from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police

Crowley acknowledged that police have faced backlash from communities and the broader public on the issue of countering violent extremism.

“We are scrutinised by the media and by communities. Media messaging, misinformation, and misrepresentation further attributes to community tensions,” he said.

Keynote speaker Phil Gurski worked as a strategic analyst in the Canadian intelligence community for over 30 years before joining the private sector. He told The Point Magazine the aim of countering violent extremism is to reduce the need for police responses.

“Radicalisation and violence (are) not going to end in my lifetime or your lifetime, I’m sorry to say. So what we have to do is deal with the problems that pose a threat to national security, using the full force of the law. I have no problem with that whatsoever. But, if we want to create fewer problems that reach the full force of the law, we must have adequate countering violent extremism intervention strategies. So let’s deal with that so then that results in fewer arrests and less deaths.”

Gurski said open dialogue between government and communities is key.

“Be open to learning and be open to dialogue. We all have preconceived notions in general, we all have preconceived assumptions, but to the best of your ability check those at the door and simply listen. Listen first and take action second. Let’s share more and let’s keep the dialogue going. There’s a lot we can learn from each other’s experiences.” 

Negative media coverage of Muslim communities is a part of the problem, and Muslim communities push for better representation, according to Gurski.

“Get your own stories up. Not stories about people who join Daesh (ISIS), but stories who help with food banks, Muslims who help inter-cultural and inter-religious dialogue. Those are the stories that have to be told. Those are the stories that mainstream media have to pick up on.”

Dr Clarke Jones, from the Australian National University’s Intervention Support Hub, said there was no silver bullet solution to violent extremism.

“It’s all about true and genuine relationships and partnerships that empower people and communities. In countering violent extremism it should always be healthy to question, test and re-test our intervention strategies,” he said.

Workman-Stark said police are learning from past mistakes.

“Our initial response was about violence, and now that we consult with the community we understand how we need to improve our strategy and how we can better listen to communities’ concerns.”

Jones was critical of some police tactics. “Our focus is all about risk and it appears to be done to the detriment of a young person and this has to change,” he said.

He told the symposium that part of the solution was to understand violent extremism in terms of a broader range of social issues facing communities today. 

“Our policies are often criticised, there seems to be a lack of connection to actual problems experienced by young people, their families and communities. We need to build those relationships to continue to develop better strategies.” 

The Point

A shift is happening in the way police forces in Australia and Canada are tackling violent extremism.


Image: Wikimedia commons Royal Canadian Mounted Police.


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