German Program Helps Families De-Radicalize Members Prone To Extremism
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
While traveling in Germany for our series on Muslim identity in Europe, we came across a curious program, one based on the idea that neo-Nazis and Islamist extremists have something in common.
DANIEL KOEHLER: They talk a lot about justice. They talk a lot about freedom. They want to change the society into a positive direction. They believe that they're doing something good for humanity.
CORNISH: Daniel Koehler has heard this line of thinking a lot. He's the founder of the German Institute on Radicalization and De-Radicalization Studies. Fifteen years ago, Koehler started working with the program called Exit that helped young people leave neo-Nazi groups. Now in the last few years some 600 people have left Germany to fight in Iraq and Syria, and Koehler says the Exit help line started getting phone calls from Muslim families.
KOEHLER: You have practically everything, from very traditional German families saying, my son converted two weeks ago and he's stopping drinking alcohol and eating pork - I'm afraid he's turning a terrorist, until, my son has already been fighting in Syria for IS for about a year, or he's thinking about returning, or he just left.
CORNISH: Many of these families are too scared to contact authorities but feel helpless as they watch their son or daughter embrace radical Islamist extremism. It's a tense mix.
KOEHLER: Everything from highly emotional, very unstable, very panicky, of course, until very stable and calm. When fathers call, they're usually very calm. When mothers call, or sisters or daughters call, usually they're very much in emotional pain. They're crying, they're very afraid that they will lose their relatives, their loved ones, forever.
CORNISH: What kind of counseling, what kind of advice do you give them, right? I mean, kind of where do you start?
KOEHLER: Well, first of all, I try to identify my risk assessment, the stage within the radicalization process, if there is any. And then I try to figure out the individual driving factors, what I call the radicalization recipe. It's a combination of positive and negative aspects. Positive aspects like quest for significance, justice, help, poor, defend, women and children, Syria, delivering humanitarian aid. So this is a very strong positive urge. The negative aspects - lack of perspective, problems in family, problems in school, and their employment, whatever - they have not felt that they are part of a society. And these positive and negative aspects are bound together by radical ideology.
CORNISH: So, then how do you stop it?
KOEHLER: As soon as you have identified the individual driving factors, you can try to counteract it. If there's a conflict in family, you help the family to avoid conflicts to solve any particular argumentation, fighting, debating within the family. You give them the tools to de-escalate the situation. For example, if they have a quest for justice and want to help people in Syria, I would, for example, recommend to the family why not helping your son and daughter collecting funds through a legitimate foundation? Show alternative solutions to the problem, which is the suffering in Syria. There are many, many things that add color the picture. Radicalization process always sucks out color of the picture, it's the typical black-and-white picture because then it's very easy to make the decision to leave your family and go into Syria and kill - potentially kill - other human beings. What I do with a family is add more alternatives, more colors to the picture, which makes it harder for the potentially radicalized individual to make that decision.
CORNISH: People would hear this approach and they'd think that it is too soft, you know, that basically this is a dangerous problem that the security forces involved should be able to kick down those doors and go after people. Maybe they perceive it as being expensive. I know in the U.S. that would be a question, you know? What's your response to that?
KOEHLER: Well, first of all, radicalization can happen to anyone. And as soon as you are, in your family, affected by someone thinking about going to Syria or being in Syria, I promise you will change your thinking because you want to save your loved ones. Second, I do not stop the police in their work, I make it more effective by simply helping to sort out the non-security relevant cases from the security-relevant cases. I help to provide another angle to the authorities' work.
CORNISH: The Muslim-focused version of the Exit program is called Hayat. In Arabic, the word means life. And Daniel Koehler stresses that they do not try to argue about religious text or theology. Counselors might for example help families write emails or coach them on how to talk to their loved one over the phone, or serve as a go-between for families and police. To date, they've taken in some 1,600 calls and worked with 600 counseling cases. As Daniel Koehler explains, these cases are time sensitive and labor-intensive. It can take months. I asked him what drew him to this work the first place.
KOEHLER: Well, at my high school in Brandenburg when I grew up, basically there was always a strong neo-Nazi skinhead presence. So they were a normal part of the youth subculture. They were around, you know? Skinheads were next to hip-hoppers or skaters. They were just there.
CORNISH: So after you had been to school and started working in this area of research, were you thinking of those kids in the back of your mind? Were you kind of thinking like, how can I stop this somehow?
KOEHLER: Actually, I was. Actually, many times I asked myself why these persons radicalized the way they did. I even met neo-Nazis that were in jail for murder, so I saw where this kind of radicalization process could have led. But yeah, obviously as you have some form of human relationship with other persons you ask yourself, you know, why? What happened? And what could've been done, and what could've been done by the teachers, what could've been done by their families? What could've been done by their friends to avoid that?
CORNISH: You know, how did you make the leap from neo-Nazis to Muslims? I mean, did you encounter kids that you thought, this kid is Muslim, he's into an extreme ideology, but you know what, he has a lot in common with the neo-Nazis that I was working with?
KOEHLER: Yeah, absolutely. In the beginning or in the middle stages of the radicalization process, the same topics - it's pride, it's honor, it's justice, it's freedom, it's changing the society for something good.
CORNISH: So, Nazis say that and Islamic radical extremists say that?
KOEHLER: Absolutely, yeah.
CORNISH: Looking forward what's your advice to countries like, say, the U.S. where they're trying to create counter-radical programs and there have been civil liberties groups and Muslim advocacy groups who say, you know, this is just criminalizing us, this is a vehicle for government surveillance? I mean, there's a lot of distrust between this community and, obviously, security officials. So, kind of what's your suggestion? What are you going to be looking for going forward?
KOEHLER: Of course there's a lot of trust-building needed and this can take years. But you need to start somewhere. The process of radicalization will not go away. The Syrian conflict will not go away that quick. And groups like IS will stay. They will continue recruiting and as more Americans or Canadians join the fight, they will produce specific propaganda. The problem will stay, the problem will grow.
CORNISH: Well, Daniel Koehler, thank you so much for talking with us. We really appreciate it.
KOEHLER: Thank you.
CORNISH: Daniel Koehler, he's the co-founder of Hayat, a German program to de-radicalize Muslim extremists. We spoke to him in Berlin. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: During this interview we mistakenly say that Daniel Koehler started working at the EXIT program 15 years ago. In fact, he began working with the program in 2010. We also say that the Hayat program has "taken in some 1,600 calls and worked with 600 counseling cases." Those figures are Koehler's estimates for four organizations, not just the Muslim-focused Hayat program.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.