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How communities and governments can come together to counter violent extremism

By Anthony Bergin and Keith Thomas

How do we stop people becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism?

The Australian government’s Living Safe Together program gives the States the responsibility to tailor and deliver intervention activities and processes to counter violent extremism.

It is state governments and local community organisations that are at the frontline of countering violent extremism (CVE), with New South Wales and Victoria, in particular, working actively to engage community organisations to develop programs and deliver messages that try to disengage participants from violent extremism.

However, one of the criticisms of CVE, both here and in the UK, is that they are more intelligence-gathering exercises.

On top of that, CVE programs are, it’s suggested, driven by a security-focused agenda, rather than a prevention-oriented one that supports youth in general, as well as vulnerable individuals.

Recognising these concerns, the Islamic Council of Victoria, which has had a long-term relationship with Victoria Police (and one which the Council wants to continue) has urged State and federal governments to improve the quality of their consultation with Muslim communities on CVE programs. These sensitivities explain why activities, programs, and services that try to prevent violent extremism may not be best marketed under the banner of CVE and why efforts to prevent violent extremism are necessary but alone aren’t sufficient. Many of these programs are tailored towards individual needs for high-risk youth. They include religious and ideological mentoring, employment and educational support, family and relationship counselling and psychological or other clinical support.

There is also a need to rethink the language of ‘risk’ that is currently heavily influenced by violent extremism. As an example, rather than youth being a source of peril they may also be a solution, with a growing body of evidence that shows young people can and do play active roles as agents of change. In addition to providing their own mentoring and intervention services, state governments are tapping into a range of community and local government services that aren’t connected to CVE. Facilitating positive interactions with this broader community, through employment or study, and by supporting a positive family environment, can strengthen a positive identity and build resilient and safe communities. In May 2015, the Victorian Government allocated $25 million over four years to enlist young role models to engage with people at risk of radicalisation, and fund programs to tackle this issue. It also established a Social Cohesion and Community Resilience Taskforce.

In November 2015, former NSW Premier Mike Baird announced a $50 million suite of CVE measures around supporting schools, building community resilience and cohesion and ensuring coordination and best practice, including establishing a Premier’s CVE Expert Council. Top-down CVE oriented policies won’t succeed; these programs must be inclusive of local communities. The language of inclusion and social connectedness is important. Local knowledge about communities is also critical to both CVE and also to building cohesion-oriented outcomes. Individual client needs may be different in Sydney, Melbourne or Brisbane. It’s important, therefore, that prevention efforts leverage the distinctiveness of specific communities to build inclusive communities and weaken extremist messages and recruiters. How might community-based approaches to prevention and intervention work to increase the resilience of communities and individuals to radicalisation toward violent extremism? And how do we measure the effects of providing nonviolent avenues for expressing grievances and educate communities about the threat of recruitment and radicalisation to violence?

Pending field-based research in the Australian community, prevention, a well-established principle in public health, offers a useful way to focus approaches at the individual, family and community level. Action across multiple levels at the same time is needed as we can’t really predict when and how an individual will act on violent impulses. This public health approach is more likely to sustain prevention than any single intervention. Objectives might include minimising the impact of risk factors, such as drug use, school-based issues such as bullying, and unemployment. Non-violent behaviours such as bullying, substance abuse, and other anti-social behaviours are useful predictors of violence. There is also a strong relationship between age and crime. The research indicates that late childhood and early adolescence (from the age of 10-14) is when criminal behaviour begins, the middle years of 16-17 years is when it peaks, and the early twenties is when it tapers off. This tells us that primary and secondary prevention is needed to build resistance to all forms of extremism, but also violent and antisocial behaviour. This must start in the early adolescent years, before violent and anti-social behaviours become entrenched.

Prevention at the individual level can include improved problem-solving skills and life-skills training, and the development of shared values. Close relationships and peer influences on behaviour are important, hence parenting skills and mentoring is suggested. At the community level, action is needed to reduce social isolation and improve economic opportunity, while at a society level, the aim must be to create social and cultural norms that prevent violence, and policies that reduce social and economic inequalities. In other words, preventing violent extremism can work better if it’s about strengthening and improving communities so that they’re hostile to extremist ideologies: CVE isn’t just focusing on groups or individuals. Objective metrics are also necessary to maintain the integrity of our CVE programs. These will help focus and set priorities for community-based prevention. While difficult to measure, as the benefits may not be immediately visible and hard to quantify, an evidence-based approach is required. As in public health, it may reveal that not all prevention measures are wise investments.  More generally, public health perspectives are underexplored in Australia in terms of providing ways to understand violence and what motivates it.

CVE actions are necessary, but we need to build social cohesion through prevention and we should look for and critically evaluate community-based efforts in Australia’s rich CVE ecosystem in order to develop evidence–based CVE policies. At the end of the day, it won’t be the Commonwealth or state governments that will be the main face of the efforts to build social cohesion and prevent violent extremism, but rather local communities, working with civil society, with appropriate guidance and resources. 

Dr Anthony Bergin is a senior research fellow at the ANU National Security College, and senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI). 

Originally published by: APPS Policy Forum on 03 Jul 2017