As the Syrian conflict winds down and more of the so-called returnees — those who joined the Islamic State (ISIS) and other terrorist groups — embark upon a journey back to their home countries in Europe, putting aside whether or not they will be allowed back in, the time is ripe to take a critical stock of the dominant discourses and counter-radicalisation strategies which have defined the field, and societal life, over the past decade or so in Europe. This is especially the case simply because the threats of radicalisation and violent extremism are here to stay, and might well climb to dangerous new heights as the reciprocal radicalization dynamic proceeds, with far right and anti-immigration movements and political parties in the European Union using the jihadists as a foil, feeding off the anxieties they cause.
Two major discourses have come to define counter-terrorism planning and discussions in Europe even though the intensity with which they have been debated has varied from one country to another. One is radicalisation in the aftermath of the US-led war on terror and the subsequent rise of homegrown terrorists, and the other is the importance of societal cohesion and common national identity for deflecting terror attacks on home soil. The former has been mainly justified via a national security discourse and hence has focused on the role of education, while the latter has been largely fought out in the public arena and thus has revolved in and around the emotionally charged topics of immigration and integration which have been tainted with a heavy dose of populism.
Across Europe of late, immigrants and their cultural-religious practices are being poinyed to as a cause for the erosion of national cohesion and social resilience to the point that an increasing number of political activists and politicians, whether intentionally or unintentionally, have begun to problematise the concept of immigration. This is troublesome because Europe has constructed an economy that requires immigration and a sense of itself where diversity is an embedded value — where diversity is held to be a strength, certainly as compared to uniformity. The global mega cities, places like London and New York, are magnets for talent, and amidst all their differences share a common feature: a liberal immigration policy.
What should be problematised instead is governments own discourses in selling their immigration policies to the public and, more importantly, failure of host countries to ensure the smooth integration of the first generations thanks to their ill-informed focus on the second generation. Regrading governmental discourses, it is best if European governments begin to promote an honest discourse on why they accept immigrants; that is, one that highlights the actual economic and demographic necessities of doing so, instead of colouring them in egalitarian terms thereby presenting their policies as a show of national generosity towards the less fortunate others. The fact that both Germany and Sweden had specific target numbers when they opened their boarders to Syrian refugees, not to mention the support of big corporations for such policies, should go a long way to demonstrate that immigration policies are not solely based on humanitarian considerations.
As for the integration of first generations, it matters immensely because their stagnation has both economic and social consequences. If the parents are not accustomed to the dominant norms and cultural practices of the host community and/or if they cannot fulfil their potential in the economic life of their new country, chances are that they will not be able to provide a safe and caring home environment for their children. Worst of all, their children are likely to end up living a double life in that they are exposed to two different sets of norms and values at school and home which could cause some degree of ideational distress thereby making them more prone to seek acceptance in other, perhaps cult-like, circles. The fact that a good majority of homegrown terrorists in Europe have grown up in unstable home environments with divorced parents should be taken as a sign for a renewed focus on the integration of first generations. Failure to do so, needless to say, could hamper deradicalisation efforts.
While the focus on the role of educational systems and schools as the best place to ensure national security has been a worthwhile one conceptually, the practice, or more accurately the policy side of it, has been misguided at best and ineffective at worst.
Based on a human capital concept in which individuals are seen as commodities or assets which are to be nurtured in the service of the state, European states have commonly introduced a high degree of policing and indoctrination into their educational system which not only pose serious legal challenges but also stands in sharp contrast to the dominant values of freedom of thought, speech, and expression. In other words, programmes such as PREVENT in the UK or Conversation Compass (CC) in Sweden have had the adverse effect of securitising educational system thereby depriving governments of a great opportunity to understand the whys behind radicalisation. Such programmes tend to be solely concerned with detection and hence treat vulnerable pupils as suspects rather than victims. Consequently, they not only they erode trust between pupils and teachers but they also lead to self-censorship whereby pupils refrain from expressing their thoughts and opinions out of the fear of being singled out. This, in turn, stifles freedom of speech and thought while burdening teachers with a task — surveillance — for which they are not trained.
Worst of all, the focus of such initiative is limited to a number of students from certain ethnic and/or religious groups/communities — read: Muslims — which in essence creates a sense of discrimination and prejudice, both of which are precursors to radicalisation. Equally problematic is the recording procedures which could jeopardize a pupil’s future career because s/he has happened to express an opinion that are deemed to be extremist. The facts that National Agency for Education, a teachers union in Sweden, has come out against the government’s CC initiative and questioned its legality, while both Sweden and the UK, in spite of running such programmes, have produced the largest number of active foreign jihadis in Iraq and Syria, is, or at least should be, indicative of their utter ineffectiveness.
Looking ahead, one can only hope that governments across Europe begin to redesign their pedagogical policies with the sole objective of aligning them with the tenants of human security concept; one that seeks to understand the socioeconomic reasons behind radicalisation and promotes critical thinking so pupils from different background can feel safe to discuss, debate, and reformulate their ideas and opinions without the fear of being labelled or accused. Alas, electoral politics and the rising tide of populism across the pond will most probably forestall such a policy reevaluation in Europe in the foreseeable future.