Australia has started to acknowledge that a hardline approach alone is not the answer to tackling youth radicalisation. This is because it responds to the symptoms rather than the underlying causes.
Focusing on harsher penalties for those inclined to engage in terrorist activities driven by Islamic extremism, in Australia or overseas, is unlikely to deter young, disenfranchised people on their newly discovered pathway to social status, meaning and perceived heroism.
The answer should instead be sought in preventative measures that offer education, social and cultural integration, positive role models and a sense of belonging.
In implementing such programs, Australia should be looking at international best practice for early intervention strategies that target young people at risk of joining violent gangs and right-wing extremist groups. What can we learn from these?
Preventing youths from joining gangs
Canada and the US have long been working on tackling the problem of youths joining violent and often racially motivated gangs. These approaches may have some merit when trying to understand and prevent Islamic radicalisation of young Australians.
Young people susceptible to Islamic radicalisation are often described as disenfranchised.
Being disenfranchised – in a social, cultural or religious sense – seems to be what makes young people susceptible to the voice and instruction of extremists who promise social or religious status and a sense of integration and belonging. The same is true for young people at risk of joining violent youth gangs.
Disengagement from family, community and education – along with social and cultural marginalisation – are frequently quoted reasons why youths join gangs. The gang offers social status and a sense of belonging through joint anti-social actions and achievements.
Preventative strategies in the US and Canada have therefore been tailored around approaches that address the issue on an individual, family, educational and community level. The recent cases of young Australian Muslims joining terrorist networks and agendas suggest that they are not necessarily disengaged from education or socioeconomically marginalised. Rather, they seem to be disenfranchised by a social, cultural and family environment that is perceived as unsupportive and misunderstanding of its young Muslim population.
Drawing on components from an approach similar to the ones targeting young people at risk of joining gangs in North America therefore seems useful.
Preventing youths from joining right-wing extremist groups
Right-wing extremist groups and organisations have been a long-standing social problem in a number of Western European countries. Social marginalisation and the framing of foreign cultures and foreign religions as a threat to personal safety and well-being are often the key draw factors.
Young people who join right-wing extremist groups often lack social status and a sense of belonging. This is often as a result of being educationally or vocationally disengaged.
Right-wing extremist groups promote an “us against them” mentality. By joining such a group, young people find a sense of belonging and a way of achieving social status in its hierarchical ranks.
Based on this knowledge, Western European countries affected by right-wing extremism have developed a strong focus on early intervention strategies.
Similar to those targeting youths at risk of joining gangs, these approaches focus on addressing the underlying causes at multiple levels.
Given the similarities in underlying causes associated with young people joining violent gangs and other forms of racially and religiously motivated extremist groups, Australia’s response to Islamic youth radicalisation can benefit from knowledge on international best practice in engaging with socially and culturally disenfranchised young people.
The issue to be targeted is not religion. Religion may be the angle extremists are using to capture the attention of young Australian Muslims. But, the underlying problems are social and individual risk factors that make young people susceptible to joining violent, extremist organisations that promise social status and a sense of belonging.
The response therefore needs to be an approach, informed by best practice, that engages young Muslims in an educational, social, communal and religious context.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s signalled willingness to work together with Australia’s Muslim community and young leaders offers a chance for Australia to prevent radicalisation by re-engaging its socially and religiously disenfranchised young Muslims.