Using colourful notes pinned to a washing line, the participants of the second international expert dialogue on preventing radicalisation visualised their many expectations and inputs. Experts from Tunisia and Germany had travelled to Frankfurt am Main for five days to discuss their respective approaches towards prevention. Upon arrival on 23 September, a densely packed agenda awaited the highly motivated participants – for over the next few days they would learn about new approaches, exchange methods, and visit prevention projects.
Some participants had already met at a prior exchange in Tunis while others met for the first time at the Frankfurt event, which had been organised by Club Culturel Ali Belhouane (CCAB) and IJAB. First, they got to know each other and their respective projects in a round of introductions, giving everyone an idea of potential common ground and differences in regard to the prevention work being done in both countries. For instance, the Tunisian delegation were all employees of Tunisia’s Ministry of Youth and Sports while the German participants came from either public-sector organisations or NGOs. What all of them had in common is that their job is to support practitioners in their work with young people, which includes providing training and counselling on extremism prevention.
Young Tunisians will help shape the future
Once the introductions were over, many questions remained open. How is youth work managed in Tunisia? What is the political situation? What challenges are there? To close the knowledge gap, the Tunisian group rounded off the introductory session by delivering a brief presentation on current developments in Tunisia since the 2011 revolution. It demonstrated how relevant the subject of radicalisation is in Tunisian society, and how closely primary prevention is connected to democratic participation.
For the Tunisian experts, the last presidential elections were of particular importance given that Kaïs Saïed, a constitutional law expert and non-mainstream candidate, has no political experience but attracted many young votes. This, explained the Tunisian experts, was another indication of how frustrated and suspicious the younger generation are in regard to the political establishment – a situation that could potentially lead them to seek out radical groups. The election outcome was a big surprise and even quite moving, they added. “These elections may help to demonstrate to young people that they need to participate if they want to bring about change,” explained CCAB’s Naceur Mehdaoui.
Closer cooperation needed between practitioners and researchers
The Peace Research Institute Frankfurt then provided an overview of extremism in Germany, along with insights into recent research in this field. Manjana Sold reported on the role of social media when it comes to radicalisation among young people, while Clara-Auguste Süß outlined her research project on Islamist radicalisation in Tunisia. This was followed by a discussion above all on how to create a closer link between research and practice. Both the German and the Tunisian experts expressed their wish for more dialogue, which would help both sides to learn from each other’s experiences.
This German-Tunisian exchange certainly helped to explore research as well as practice, for next day the group visited the Anne Frank Education Centre, which offers exhibitions and workshops that encourage democratic participation and reflection on stereotypes and narratives – an ideal opportunity for participants to experience preventive education first-hand. The centre’s approach holds up a mirror to visitors in a number of ways: they are asked to wear “racist spectacles” to experience how everything is a matter of perception; a card game teaches players that that quintessential German garden gnome is actually Turkish; and they see a map of the world visualising the history of migration, illustrating that the movement of people – in more directions than one – is as old as the world itself.
The participants enthusiastically tried out all of these activities and more before sitting down to discuss how these methods could be transported to their own spheres of work. Inspired by the visit, they resolved to put together a handbook of methods for everyone to use, with each participant contributing some of their own tried-and-tested approaches that could potentially work in other contexts, too.
The role of religion
The group gained further insights into the work being done by German NGOs during a visit to KUBI, an organisation providing support to young members of the immigrant community and to refugees. Participants sat down with KUBI staff to learn about how crucial it is to adopt holistic approaches to prevention. Inspired by one of KUBI’s projects, the group started to discuss working with mosques, a subject that would provide plenty of input for the debates that followed once back at the venue. The group split into smaller groups to discuss a number of matters, including this one, specifically: what role does religion play in prevention? And to what extent are partnerships with mosques a good idea?
The next day’s morning session started with this very subject and it quickly transpired that in Tunisia, there is a clear dividing line between youth work and what happens in mosques. As one Tunisian participant put it: “For me, engaging in youth work in a mosque is an alien concept.” While religion is of course on the agenda and although imams are regularly invited to discussions at youth centres, she added, none of these activities take place in a mosque setting. In Germany, said the German experts, it was considered important to encourage Muslim youth work activities in the Muslim communities. “After all, Christian youth work is quite normal here and hence we should consider how Muslim communities can be assisted in building their own youth work structures,” said one participant. However, care should be taken to draw a clear line between youth work and prevention activities; if this does not happen, they said, the communities may be stigmatised. The group agreed that something had to be done to help young people understand that Islam is indeed a part of Germany – which, suggested a German participant, also requires giving non-Muslims in Germany a better idea what Islam is all about.
A neutral dialogue
The Violence Prevention Network (VPN) seeks to provide a space for debate about matters such as religion and identity. On the last day of the meeting, the group met with two VPN coaches who told them about the services they provide, such as workshops for school students and teachers and interventions involving at-risk or already delinquent individuals. Using case studies, the coaches told the group how they interact with radicalised individuals largely through dialogue. “Ultimately, all we do is talk. But we remain neutral. We don’t get drawn into discussions; instead, we try to understand. The best outcome is one where the person we are talking to starts to reflect and understand their own actions,” they explained. This session was particularly valuable for the Tunisian delegation, given that this kind of approach is virtually unknown in their country. “We work mainly through primary intervention and have little contact with individuals who have already been radicalised. Responsibility for them lies with the police. So it’s all the more interesting for us to learn about this kind of work,” said a Tunisian expert.
The project visits, such as the one involving VPN, inspired the experts to reflect on their own work, too. What can they do? What could they do better? What can they learn from each other? Besides these impulses and fresh insights, one valuable outcome of this meeting is a network that now extends across borders. This network will hopefully be brought to life through the experts’ shared work on the method manual – and will help them to learn from each other.