Session 1: Young people and Islamic radicalisation in Europe


Tufyal Choudhury, Lecturer in international human rights law, Durham University

Pierre Conesa, Former high-ranking civil servant and lecturer at Sciences-Po, Paris
Tehmina Kazi, Director, British Muslims for Secular Democracy
Gilles de Kerchove, EU Counterterrorism Coordinator, Council of the European Union
Luc Tayart de Borms, Managing Director, King Baudouin Foundation

The rise of extremism sits at or near the top of the list of key challenges Europe faces. Moderator Tufyal Choudhury opened the session by saying that radicalisation as an issue has defined a generation.

Pierre Conesa then provided the perhaps surprising information that in France, prior to January of this year, when the Charlie Hebdo attacks occurred, no counter-radicalisation policy had been in place. For Mr Conesa policy is key, and it must go beyond just addressing Muslim communities. A step-by-step process is necessary that addresses the complexity of the situation without acting rashly – a process characterised by cooperation with rather than accusation towards Muslim communities. The Muslim community is taking on radicalisation much more actively than the French government is, and Mr Conesa is at once encouraged and worried by this. He stressed that France as a secular society must work together with imams and existing Muslim networks to prevent radicalisation.

He spoke of the presence of damaging and hateful cultural stereotypes, with films such as American Sniper, fuelling naïve populist conclusions about Islam. He also criticised the generalising rhetoric of politicians when it came to talking about radicalisation, stating we had “failed to design a new language”. He noted that 80% of those returning from Syria had not previously been to jail or to a mosque, and so there is a clear lack of understanding around the channels for radicalisation.

Mr Conesa indicated that French and more broadly European foreign policy needed to have better understanding of the Sunni-Shia conflict. He was critical of what he deemed schizophrenic diplomacy when it came to radical Islam that changes depending on the state in question, pointing in particular to European policy towards Saudi Arabia. Mr Conesa’s critical perception of European failings in addressing radicalisation provided a strong start to the debate.

Gilles de Kerchove then highlighted the sensitivity of the subject, ‘’It took 13 years for the European Council to dare issue a communication on radicalisation.’’ The Council greatly feared the stigmatisation of Muslim communities. Like Mr Conesa, he spoke of the complexity of addressing radicalisation and the manifold reasons why individuals have gone to Syria, and said we need a strategic approach that trains people on the front line, such as social workers, to catch early signs. We must also monitor and remove dangerous content from the Internet and create content to educate and deter. Mr De Kerchove indicated that foundations were key, providing a way for NGOs to work independently of governmental links. He believes we need better understanding, more critical thinking and an improved connectivity between cultures that provides an alternative narrative. He emphasised the need to undertake big intercultural projects − currently he is pushing for the European Commission to help provide a virtual Erasmus programme inspired by a US programme that connects young Americans and Arabs.

Providing a philanthropic perspective, Luc Tayart de Borms admitted that there was nervousness in the sector around working on this issue, but that for him philanthropic actors must act responsively and responsibly. Often foundations are risk averse, but as trusted organisations foundations have a duty to work on these key issues. One practical example he gave of a foundation working directly on radicalisation is a current King Baudouin Foundation project that provides support to the families of children who have left Syria. He noted that to work on this issue foundations must find existing systems for tackling problems such as radicalisation, and adapt them to the specific context in which radicalisation is being played out today. Foundations must step up, especially as funding for NGOs is tight. But the role of foundations should not simply be monetary – they must employ their convening power to exchange ideas and move forward and should not be afraid to act.

Tehmina Kazi was critical of what she called “a racism of low expectations” that has solidified damaging narratives implying Muslim communities are not ready to act progressively. To counter this, Ms Kazi gave examples of how powerful certain Muslim groups have been in their positive actions, for example in the UK challenging extremists attempting to disrupt Remembrance Day services in 2011. Still, many Muslim communities (and communities in general) have plenty of room for improvement, and progressive politics must be upheld without perpetrating hatred towards the faith. Common ground must be forged on contentious issues such as LGBT rights, interfaith and women’s rights –communities have a responsibility to act and cannot rest on arguments that lay out their perpetual victimhood. Furthermore, public bodies should not legitimise their positions if against the law, and while not forcing communities to change – ensure that they can expect to be challenged on their positions.

Questions from the floor asked what the challenges were for foundations working on this issue. Mr de Kerchove responded by asking for foundations to help identify and empower activists and build critical voices around the issue. Ms Kazi emphasised the importance of independent funding – noting that challenging extremism with government money was difficult because you are seen as representing the government.

Statements from the audience indicated the feeling that Islam was still painted as “the other”, and that this must be acknowledged for progress to be made. The effectiveness of monitoring the Internet was also questioned, however Mr de Kerchove defended the need for this, supporting the removal of unlawful content and the promotion of success stories and support for young people.

This session was a catalyst for debate, with diverse viewpoints highlighting the complexity of an issue at the heart of European anxiety today. What seemed clear is that we can no longer wait to act, from community actions to international policy, a critical dialogue must be fostered and young people must be protected at every level. Mobilisation on the provision of effective counter-radicalisation policies is vital. These range from strengthening security measures to supporting better integration policies. The philanthropic sector can and should be a part of this.