„I want to write a book to prevent other young people from joining the IS“ said a former IS sympathiser while being visited in prison in February 2016. This was the beginning of the project „Jamal al-Khatib – My Path!“. The project is build on the experiences of Viennese youth and social workers and young people who have sympathised with the so called „Islamic State“. Academics from the Islamic studies of the University of Vienna also became part of this interdisciplinary team.
Youth is a phase of „extremes“, a time of „experimenting“ and „searching“. In order to shape their own identity, it is necessary for adolescents to distinguish themselves from „adult culture“. Among other things this can include the transgression of boundaries while taking up extreme positions, but the world view of young people is not stable as it develops during the transition to adulthood.
I want to write a book to prevent other young people from joining the IS
But how do extremist conceptions of the world develop? In 2012 Andrea Kleeberg-Niepage published the findings of a qualitative study on the development of political thinking among extremist offenders. She found that for the socialization of extremists the social framework is as relevant as for all other people, including school, family, peer group and the media. The influence of these factors on the political socialization of young people is however more or less indirect. In the context of schools for example, a democratic school culture, including regular student meetings and structures for participation has more influence on the political socialization of pupils than a workshop on democracy held in class once a year.
What makes the difference is a democratic framework and the real opportunity to participate. Andrea Kleeberg-Niepage also criticises projects which aim at the prevention of extremism. Many of them would promote an understanding of democratic principles and critically question extremist attitudes. However, they do not question problematic structures of the so called mainstream society, while in fact, authoritarian, racist and depreciative attitudes are firmly rooted in the middle of society.
An example: For the second part of the video series a cover of a fictional „subway paper“ (complimentary newspaper) was used. The cover as a whole is fictional, but the headlines on it are real, and have been taken from the Austrian newspaper that has the highest circulation in the country. One of the headlines was found on the 21st of June 2017 on the cover of the „Kronen Zeitung“ and reads „Borders closed for Muslims“. What do young people learn if they are again and again confronted with headlines like this, in the subway, in school, in Viennese coffee houses or on their smart phones? They learn that it is legitimate to depreciate collectively certain parts of society, in this case Muslims, and that some people are worth more than others. This idea of inequality is one of the main pillars of most extremist groups and ideologies. Hardly anyone though would refer to the editors of Kronen Zeitung as extremists.
Despite the diversity of individual pathways into radicalisation, there still are some similarities: Experiences of powerlessness and alienation from society as such. For such experiences it is not relevant whether discrimination or exclusion really happened. What counts is the feeling of not belonging, being an outcast, powerless and not self-determined.
This anger is enhanced by anger about injustice, which is experienced individually, but also by anger about the state of the world as a whole. A lot of young people ask themselves similar questions. How come, that so many people are affected by war and injustice and apparently nobody cares, while human rights should supposedly be equally valid for everyone.
Shape their own Muslim identity
Answers to those questions from representatives of extremist positions are prevalent, especially on the internet. The anger of young people is taken up by those propagandists, emotionalized and ideologized further. Estrangement is actively fostered, fantasies of violence and revenge are generated and exploited.
As a pedagogue it is important to take a stance against misanthropic content. The anger behind it though, does not have to be taken away from the youngsters, because their reasons for it – war, racism, injustice – are unfortunately valid. And it is not enough to just talk about injustice. Following Paolo Freire´s pedagogical paradigm of „Action and Reflection“ it is essential to provide young people with a frame that supports them in getting actively involved in society themselves. Only by empowering them in such a way, it is possible to counteract on powerlessness and alienation.
This is the starting point of the project „Jamal al-Khatib – My Path!“. From the initial idea to write a book to explain processes of radicalisation, a series of four videos was produced. The content of those videos is based on texts, autobiographical narratives and thoughts that were created together with nine young people (four of which are dropouts of Jihadist milieus). They have in common that they wanted to take a stance against Islamist extremism. Another shared motive is also that they do not want to let Islamists, right-wing extremists or the so called „subway papers“ define their Muslim identity. They want to shape their own Muslim identity and develop it in a positive way.
Their messages are disseminated online through the fictional character of Jamal al-Khatib to a target group that is made up of young people who sympathize with jihadist positions. Jamal al-Khatib adresses juvenile realities and provides alternative answers to Islamist propaganda. Besides religious topics, also socio-critical perspectives and experiences of marginalisation are debated.
The aim was to stimulate (self-)reflection and discussion, to strengthen young people in dealing with conflict, contradictions, the need for compromise and to foster their tolerance to ambiguity. In reference to traditional methods, one could call the “Jamal al-Khatib” project “online street work”. The target group is addressed within their Social Media bubble, through different online channels and alternative positions to Jihadist propaganda are put forward for debate. In this setting they can interact and discuss among themselves and with the project team. This interaction can be public in the comments of social media platforms, while the team communication can also occur through personal messages and using encrypted ways of communication.
The four videos were published on the social media platforms Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, were watched over 180.000 times during a couple of weeks, and produced over 800 comments. But of course, it is also an intention of the project that the videos are discussed offline, especially in places, where work with young people is happening. Religious content plays an important role in the videos, but above all, the project aims at political education in the broadest sense. The videos deal with questions, young Muslims are confronted with in their everyday life, but which are also of importance to all non-Muslim young people and can be connected to general topics of society and politics.
by Florian Neuburg and Fabian Reicher (2018)
Florian Neuburg is a sociologist/political scientist, active in open youth work for many years. He is also a trainer in the field of violence prevention and the co-founder of “turn”, association established in 2017.
Fabian Reicher is a social worker who currently works for the Austrian Extremism Information Centre, in the field of exit work. Before that he was a street worker in mobile youth work for six years.
Photos & Video © turn – Verein für Gewalt- und Extremismusprävention