The police in Aarhus, Denmark’s second largest city, are trying an unusual approach to combatting Islamic radicalization and terrorism: a program offering a helping hand and an understanding ear to radicalized youths and adults instead of treating them as criminals, according to Australia's SBS.
The Danish police believe that treating "young extremists" harshly and with suspicion only makes them more of a threat because it contributes to the sense of alienation the would-be terrorists claim to feel. The media have unofficially dubbed the program the ‘hug a terrorist’ model of deradicalization. "So far," SBS claims, "it’s been remarkably effective," although no numbers were offered to support that.
In Denmark, many Muslims whose parents were born overseas complain that they are outcast from the rest of the population. Police in Aarhus suspected that this discontent might be driving young Muslims to extremism. Superintendent Allan Aarslev and his team decided to work that angle.
“We could prosecute them all if we can find evidence," he said. "However, those we couldn't prosecute, what should we do about them?” The answer was to extend a helping hand.
Thus began the "Aarhus Model, a series of phone calls to police from parents whose children had fled to Syria.
For an episode of the network's Dateline, SBS reporter Evan Williams met with Jamal (not his real name), who said that several years ago he surrounded himself with other young Muslims who shared his feelings of isolation and who had been made to feel like criminals just because they were Muslim. “In my mind I was like, ‘they treated me as a terrorist. If they want a terrorist, they will get a terrorist’,” he says. He and his friends watched radical sermons online and pumped each other up about waging jihad. Eventually they decided to leave Denmark for Pakistan.
But then he got a phone call from one police officer asking Jamal to meet with a Muslim mentor. "After several meetings and long conversations about the unique difficulties of being Muslim in Denmark, Jamal began reconsider his views. All it took was someone to reach out and offer empathy and understanding. In Jamal’s case, a punitive, disciplinary response from authorities to suspicions he was becoming radicalised, only further radicalised him. What turned him away from extremism was the offer of an open hand."
Three of Jamal's cohorts ended up in Syria, where two were killed. Jamal believes if it wasn’t for the Aarhus Model program he would be there as well.
But this approach has sparked criticism, of course. Danish politician Naser Khader, a Muslim born in Syria, believes the ‘hug a terrorist’ models tells young Muslims; “Go out and do something criminal, be jihadis, you will get a lot of privilege from the society. That’s wrong in my opinion.”
And in ours.
Full Dateline program below: