Charlotte, you just released your new book, Far Out: Encounters with Extremists, a fascinating dive into the extremist realm. One of the themes that emerges from your encounters is a sense (real or perceived) of grievance and alienation from mainstream society. Can you talk about how this acts as a gateway to radicalization?
Yes, it was fascinating to see how that sense of alienation was common to all the people featured in the book, no matter how different their personal circumstances and demographic profiles. This was one of my key motivations in writing Far Out: to look beyond our preconceptions about who or what an extremist is and delve into the individual stories of people from across the ideological spectrum. By putting the stories of people drawn to the far right, the far left, and Islamist extremism side-by-side, we can see really the commonalities in the individual and in the broader societal and political context that transcend religion, ideology, and nationality.
And one of these commonalities is a sense of alienation from the community the person feels they are supposed to belong to. What that community is differs depending on the individual: it can be as simple as feeling alienated from your family. It can be a specific institution or group of people that you feel alienated from: your peers at university, for example. It can be alienation with a culture or religion. In the most severe cases, people can feel alienated from the whole broader society they are meant to be part of. The book features the story of Ibrahim Kamara, a British teenager from a refugee background in Sierra Leone who experiences horrifying levels of racism and Islamophobia. This, coupled with institutionalized racism and prejudice, made him feel rejected from the community in which he and his family were desperately trying to belong. Conversely, the book also features the story of a Norwegian woman named Cathrine. Her background could not have been more different from Ibrahim’s – she was born into a wealthy family in one of the most equal societies in the world – but she too felt alienated within her family and group of friends.
So whatever the specific community is, that feeling of apartness, of otherness, of a lack of belonging comes out very strongly in all the cases.
What is the role that the search for community (and a sense of utopian idealism) plays in radicalizing individuals? How does it form organically and how can it be weaponized?
I think one element we often overlook when looking at the causes of extremism is that the underlying motives can be positive. The desire to make a difference and to have an impact in the world can be so overpowering, especially when we are young. That feeling was strong across all the people featured in the book, and it can be easily exploited, especially when coupled with a sense of powerlessness. When you feel powerless, anything that gives you that sense of power and that feeling that you are in control not only of yourself, but of something big and important, is incredibly seductive. That can include a sense of community and belonging. Two of the people featured in Far Out ended up as recruiters for extreme groups – one for a neo-Nazi group and another for an extreme Islamist group – and it was fascinating listening to their insights into the kinds of people they sought to recruit, and how making that person feel special, wanted, and important were cornerstones of their recruitment strategy.
And yes, this idea of being part of a utopia runs through many of the case studies in the book, and again it is fascinating to see the commonality in the underlying motives between an Islamist extremist who wants to create a religious utopia, and a neo-Nazi who wants to create a white-only utopia. These are all deeply harmful ideas based on the exclusion of other groups, but it is idealism that first draws people to these ideologies rather than a sense of hatred towards people who are different from them. But then the dehumanization of people outside the imagined utopia happens, and this is when we see great harm being done in pursuit of these ideologies.
You describe the relationship that right-wing and Islamist actors have with legacy media organizations as being quite similar. Given what we now know about fighting radical Islam, what can governments do to prevent similar occurrences among those on the political right?
This role of the media in radicalization is both crucial and very complex. There are some obvious examples where mainstream media coverage can alienate communities, particularly if we look at people from migrant and refugee backgrounds, or people from the Muslim faith. The conservative British media, for example, has been openly hostile to these sections of the citizenry and that certainly doesn’t help people feel like they belong. It exacerbates that sense of alienation which is driver for radicalization.
But it is more subtle than that. Many of the people featured in the book consumed more liberal media, but a tendency to oversimply wars and tragedies and paint a very black-and-white picture of right and wrong, and good and bad, had an impact too. There were two specific cases in the book. Firstly, two people cited the Ethiopian famine in the 1980s as an event in their youth that had a profound effect on them. The media coverage was incredibly simplistic – they were bombarded with images of unimaginable suffering but offered no real solutions – and felt utterly powerless. One ended up becoming a left-wing extremist, the other an Islamist extremist.
We see this pattern repeated with the Arab Spring and the Syrian civil war: the news reports of attacks on civilians and children dying from chemical weapons attacks were heartbreaking, and there was little being done by Western governments to intervene, so again we had this collective feeling of powerlessness. Media outlets were also slow to shift the focus of their coverage of the Arab Spring, even when reports of atrocities by some anti-government groups in Syria emerged. Until then the coverage had been very much “good guys vs bad guys,” with the rebel groups in Libya and Syria lauded as heroes. But, of course, the reality was much more complex.
In terms of what media outlets can learn, we cannot overestimate the impact of normalizing xenophobic or racist language in the media. Since the refugee crisis of 2015, the language used by many European politicians and media commentators has got successively more polarized, and we must recognize that this has a role in fueling extremism.
There have also been many missteps in the coverage of far-right extremism. After the election of Donald Trump, a lot of outlets wrote the ‘neo-Nazi next door’ type story to try and understand the mainstreaming of racist rhetoric. But they often missed the mark and gave little insight into the hugely complex process of radicalization, while simply normalizing extreme ideas. Today, we still see outlets publishing tracts of manifestos by far-right attackers, which simply disseminates their message.
Much of the disinformation we see today has found a home on social media. What can be done to prevent radical actors from using social media as a radicalizing tool? How can we overcome the incentives that social media companies have to leave incendiary content on their website because it is good for their bottom line?
Social media has indeed allowed divisive, false and polarizing information to spread like never before, and it plays a huge role in radicalization today. We see in Far Out how the YouTube algorithms led one young man down the path to far-right extremism, while in another of the book’s case studies, hate speech on 4Chan plays a key role.
Today someone can radicalize all alone behind a computer screen. How we tackle this is such a huge problem facing governments and society. We must keep advocating for better regulation, and for social media companies to take responsibility for the content they publish on their platforms. But it is wishful thinking to believe that some magical change to the technologies that dominate our lives will vanquish extremism. Efforts to combat the phenomenon must therefore recognize that online hate speech is a part of our lives now, and work on how we inoculate future generations against its insidious effects.
This means introducing classes on critical analysis of the media we consume so that youngsters will be better able to separate fact from fiction. It means a fresh look at what we want to achieve from our education systems, and moving away from purely results-based models and towards education that is more responsive to the needs of the students. In such an environment, curiosity and crucial thinking would be encouraged, building the resilience needed to recognize and stand up to divisive rhetoric.
We also need to understand the underlying reasons why some people find polarizing online spaces so seductive, and work on these root causes.
Last but not least, can you describe the Aarhus Method of deradicalization? How is it different from other methods, and is it part of a viable strategy for countering extremism, or are there better ways for governments to tackle the issue?
There have been so many different approaches to deradicalization around the world, some of which have been disastrous. But the Aarhus model in Denmark has proved to be one of the more successful ones. The idea is that you look at all aspects of a person’s life – their mental health, their relationships, their education, housing, employment – and work on addressing the underlying problems which led someone to an extreme belief in the first place. The least successful ones focus on just changing someone’s mind or refuting an ideology, and they tend to backfire and have little impact.
As a deradicalization expert in Belgium told me once, it’s not like a washing machine where you set a program and a person comes out deradicalized. Every person has a unique set of circumstances which led them down the path to extremism, and you must unravel those reasons to really start the process of de-radicalization. And it is a long process. There seems to be an expectation that a person can be de-radicalized quickly, especially in the case of far-right individuals, where society’s expectation appears to be that a person should do a complete ideological U-turn and become socially liberal. But this is unrealistic. De-radicalization is a process that takes years, if not decades.
All of which means it is so important that governments work on stopping people from becoming radicalized in the first place and look at the root causes of extremism. This means addressing inequality, increasing funding in education and healthcare, improving mental health services, battling hate speech in politics, and tackling institutional racism. Of course, these are huge issues facing our societies which we see so little progress on already. But recognizing that all these factors contribute to extremism is important, because many government counter-extremism programs are reactive: it’s about deradicalizing a person once they are in an extreme ideology, and that is too late.
We should look at preventing that from happening in the first place, and understanding the complex set of circumstances that lead people to the extreme is a crucial first step.
Charlotte McDonald-Gibson is a journalist and author of Cast Away: Stories of Survival From Europe’s Refugee Crisis, a critically-acclaimed examination of the refugee crisis facing Europe, told through the eyes of those who have survived the journey. After 20 years working as a foreign correspondent on three continents, she is now based in The Netherlands and has just published her second book, Far Out: Encounters with Extremists.