In Bordeaux, Muslims fight radical Islam

Fouad Saanadi is preaching to the converted, but not the mainstream Muslim community he belongs to. In a discreet building near city hall, the Bordeaux imam meets with bewildered parents and fragile youngsters, some of whom have never set foot inside a mosque.

Many come from troubled families and neighborhoods. Some are mentally unstable. He and a small group of experts are fighting a powerful adversary: militant Islam.

“My role is not to tell people the ‘good’ or ‘true’ Islam, but to help awaken a critical approach,” Saanadi says of Bordeaux’s year-old CAPRI program aimed at preventing radicalization. “We are not here to confront but rather to awaken a critical awareness.”

Bordeaux counts among a growing number of communities across Europe searching for ways to counter extremism, following a wave of largely home-grown terrorist attacks. The question is all the more important for France, the target of three terror strikes in two years, and western Europe’s biggest exporter of extremist fighters.

Unlike countries like Germany and Britain, France is a relative newcomer to approaches beyond law-and-order ones, and new efforts to branch out have not always proved successful. Indeed, a recent Senate report characterized the state’s approach in tackling radicalization a failure.

 

Today, there is a new sense of urgency to finding answers. Hundreds of foreign fighters are beginning to return to Europe, authorities say, posing risks as potential terrorists and recruiters. Some end up in French prisons, already considered jihadist breeding grounds.

“The European system is not experienced with dealing with so many radicalized people,” Khosrokhavar says. “We need to invent a new way of dealing with this sort of problem.”

A partnership between Bordeaux’s city hall and the regional Muslim federation, the year-old CAPRI program may be one sign of changing times. While the initiative is local, it offers a religious dimension to fighting radicalization – one that is drawing interest from other municipalities.

“For the youngsters and the families, the fact we’re doing this program with the Muslim community is positive,” says Bordeaux’s Deputy Mayor Marik Fetouh, who is also CAPRI’s spokesman. “It shows we’re not confounding Islam and radicalization, and often the theologians will create links between the families and CAPRI.”

Imam Saanadi gathers with half-a-dozen therapists, psychiatrists and legal experts to evaluate each new case. Of the 36 youngsters now enrolled, roughly 40 percent are women. A number are converts, or “born again” Muslims from largely secular backgrounds. The average age is 22. “It’s a puzzle,” Saanadi tells DW. “When we put together the different pieces, we can see whether to intervene or not.”

As secretary-general of Bordeaux’s Muslim federation, Saanadi himself ascribes to a moderate, government-sanctioned brand of Islam that respects French secularism but is not always considered legitimate among more fundamentalist believers.

Perhaps not surprisingly, he does not personally know anyone who has joined a jihadi movement. “Terrorism is a question for national education,” he says. “We see children at the mosque two hours a week. The rest of their time is at school.”

Whatever the cause, most agree that France has a serious problem. Roughly 700 French jihadists are still fighting in Iraq and Syria, according to recent government figures; another 1,350 suspected radicals are in French prisons, including nearly 300 with direct ties to terrorist networks.

Nationwide, authorities classify another 15,000 as extremists and potential security threats, including an estimated 200 or more in the southwestern Gironde department that includes Bordeaux. The state’s traditional law-and-order response has not proved effective, critics say.

“The state took too much time and now it’s searching for miracle solutions,” sociologist Ouisa Kies, an expert on radicalization in prisons, told DW.

Last year, the center-left government adopted a softer approach with uncertain results so far. It earmarked more than $300 million (284 million euros) for de-radicalization programs over three years, and rolled out the first of a dozen voluntary centers planned across the country.

But in February, a French senate report deemed the de-radicalization center, in the Loire Valley, a “fiasco.” Only nine youngsters had been treated there, it said, and it was currently empty.

The new government funding windfall has also helped fuel some 80 local initiatives, some with dubious credentials. “It’s becoming a market,” says Bordeaux’s main imam, Tareq Oubrou, who provides theological advice to CAPRI. “Everyone is becoming a de-radicalization specialist in two seconds.”

“As soon as there’s an initiative by a Muslim leader or members of the community there’s always suspicion,” says Kies, who believes the Muslim leadership nonetheless has a narrow but necessary role to play in countering radicalization.

In Bordeaux, Saanadi is the first to acknowledge the limits of his intervention. “There are no miracle solutions,” he says. “It’s very easy to destroy, but very difficult to reconstruct.”

Finland: Islam in schools should contribute to anti-radicalization

Finnish pupils in elementary education have started their school year of 2016 with a new national curriculum. In Finland, every school is obliged to offer subject education in Islam for Muslim children, when at least three students would select it instead of the majority Evangelic Lutheran religious education or alternatively Ethics. Whereas until now the contents of teaching and learning for minority religion subjects (i.e. not Evangelic Lutheran) such as Islam, Baha’i, Mormonism etc. were determined in a separate document, the curriculum for Islam has been revised so that it is now for the first time included in the new national curriculum.

The change means that Islam as a school subject is now treated with the same degree of attention as all the other subjects are. As for each religious subject the curriculum is categorized into three different content areas; “Relationship to one’s own religion”, “Religious diversity in the world” and lastly “Good life principles”, the contents of Islam are hence comparable also with other religious subjects such as Catholicism and Judaism, ensuring equal literacy in their respective religions for students of these subjects.

The new curriculum aims at empowering the pupils of today to be able to deal with issues concerning the Finnish society in the early 21st century. The content areas outlined for the subject of Islam throughout the class levels 1-9 include for example reflections on religion as part of one’s cultural identity, the historical influence of Islam in the European culture, political Islam, inter-religious dialogue and religion in media and popular culture. Moreover, alongside with the traditional content-based learning the new curriculum emphasizes phenomenon-based learning in all subjects. Hence, for example in Islamic education children are encouraged to research and learn about current trends and phenomena in the society and analyze and critically think about them from the standpoint of their religion. The curriculum gives as well more space to co-operation across subjects, while for example visits to local worship places (e.g. churches or mosques) can be done together with Muslim and Christian student groups.

The importance of religious school education has been lately discussed in the Finnish media in terms of how it prevents radicalization and enhances social cohesion. The sociologist Karin Creutz commented in an interview that when Islam is taught in the schools, it will give tools and skills for the Muslim children and youth to understand and know their religion and hence avoid being drawn into radicalism and the dark-side of the violent Islamism, like the Islamic State. Also the Islam school teacher Suaad Onniselkä confirmed on a radio program what Creutz was as well had argued for, that Islam as a school subject will contribute positively to the construction of the Self-identity among Muslim children in Finland. Hence, according to Onniselkä, religion functions as an empowering element.

When Islam is now taught in schools on a comparable level with other religious subjects, it will support holistically the understanding of differences in religious structures and culture as such. Such a school education shall help to raise generations who will be enabled to build world peace. Yet, education in religious literacy should not merely be restricted to school children but should be expanded to the communal level, Creutz again argues. Thus, the general knowledge on religions and the discourse at the societal level should be more inclusive of aspects of religion as part of people’s lives in a world in which religions are falsely stigmatized in a pseudo-secularized society.

Dutch academics contemplate what to do with IS Returnees

An ISIS fighter in Iraq. The Netherlands joins the rest of Europe pondering the question: what to do with returning fighters? (Photo: AP)
An ISIS fighter in Iraq. The Netherlands joins the rest of Europe pondering the question: what to do with returning fighters? (Photo: Reuters)

Manuele Kalsky and Wim van Vlastuin about the question: ‘what to do with returnees from Syria?’ According to Kalsky it is ‘not done’ to question WHY youth from the Netherlands leave for Syria; condemning them is all you seem allowed to do. To her this a moral failure from society. The possible solutions that are being mentioned are harsh: punish them and maybe take their nationality. But: a violence response only leads to more violence. Kalsky says that a violence response is a sign of weakness that has characterized the society since 9/11.

She further says that we forget our tradition of openness, tolerance and hospitality – formed by Humanism the Enlightment and Christianity. Is ‘loving your enemies’ a sign of weakness or wisdom? – she questions.

Referring to both returnees from Syria and the Bible she mentions the story of the ‘lost son’, wherein the father celebrate his return, even though other family members don’t comprehend. This is the attitude society should have when someone returns from Syria: don’t outcast such a person, try to understand them.

Everyone deserves a second chance, although everyone is also responsible for his own deeds. If you deserve punishment, you should be punished. But a punishment that changes behavior is most desirable, for example directed at de-radicalization.
According to Wim van Vlastuin forgiveness only makes sense when someone shows repentance. Mercy and forgiveness should be part of a basic attitude towards returnees, but those should not be misunderstood: people might deserve legal punishment for the cruelties they might have committed. A trajectory could end with a ‘statement of repentance’ and someone who truly repents, shall carry his punishment.

Van Vlastuin thinks that a primary reaction towards returnees indeed would be a harsh one, but the problem is a lot more complex. And mercy and justice go ‘hand in hand’. Forgiveness is a central concept in Christianity: it opens the possibility for taking a new stance or position. Without forgiveness and repentance, a negative attitude is all you are left with.

‘Van Aartsen wants compulsory de-radicalization jihadi’s.’

Municipalities experience difficulties dealing with people returning from Syria and them preventing from going. Jozias van Aartsen, mayor in the city of the Hague writes that municipalities lack the knowledge to assess the risk a returnee poses. And they have no access to means to enforce measurements upon people who refuse their ‘support.’

Van Aartsen is pleading for a compulsory screening to check if someone poses a danger. If not so, then he is allowed to live in a municipality and can get support there.

Municipalities are pleading for a more central organization of the support for jihadis. Minister of Justice, Opstelten is considering dealing with the returnees in a prison where recidivists are treated now.

Leader of Christian Democratic Appel (CDA) Van Haersma Buma calls the returnees ‘ticking time-bombs.’ According to him it’s worrying that there is this image of the country having the issue under control, when mayors at the same time have no idea what to do.

Parties like Democrats 66 (D66), People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) and Party of the Labor (PvdA) also plead for support from the state for municipalities. However according PvdA municipalities should be able to provide shelter to the returnees themselves, to make reintegration easier.

Danish government wants to de-radicalize imprisoned terrorists

Danish imams could soon be teaching Muslims convicted of terror-related activities that terror is not acceptable and doesn’t belong in Islam. The Danish government is at the moment considering the method of letting imams help resocializing imprisoned Muslim terrorists – a method which has proved effective in Saudi Arabia. The Danish imam Abdul Wahid Pedersen finds the initiative very positive and says: “The suggestion is on par with the Danish tradition where a penalty is often combined with resocialization”.

At the moment seven Danes are imprisoned for planning terror. At least two of them will soon be released.

Germany to start new de-radicalization programm combatting “home-grown” Islamists

Germany is to set a new focus on persuading radical “home-grown” Islamists who are flirting with terrorism to moderate their views, according to the news magazine Der Spiegel on Saturday. The efforts are to be directed mainly at people who have been raised in Germany, both converts to Islam of German parentage and German-schooled Muslims whose parents were immigrants.

In a report to appear in its issue to appear Monday, Der Spiegel said a “forum” was being set up next month at a national anti-terrorism agency, the Joint Anti-Terrorism Centre (GTAZ), in Berlin to coordinate those efforts. It said the 16 states would also discuss this week how to prevent persons serving jail time for terrorist offenses from recruiting other prisoners to their cause. Der Spiegel said Germany would ask moderate Islamic communities and clergy to speak to them.

Prisons and sports clubs were common places for spreading radical ideas, another news magazine, Focus, reported Saturday. It said police knew of 185 German-raised Islamists who received training in terrorism methods in central Asia, Afghanistan or Pakistan over the past decade, and about 90 men with such military training were currently living in Germany.