Rehabilitation or Retribution? Tackling Violent Extremism in America

October 24, 2014

Global terrorism has created concerns for governments around the world regarding their citizens traveling to countries such as Iraq and Syria to fight with groups like ISIS.  According to FBI Director James Comey, only dozens of Americans have gone abroad to join the fight with ISIS whereas those traveling from Europe number in the thousands. Focusing on access to social services, including mental health services, education and employment opportunities serves both as an intervention and prevention approach to tackling countering violent extremism head-on.

Issues like mental health services, employment and other social service resources need to be invested in, especially for immigrant communities. The growing concerns and questions regarding young people traveling abroad to fight with terrorist groups is what to do with them once they return to their home countries. “Some of the foreign fighters may not return as terrorists to their respective countries, but all of them will have been exposed to an environment of sustained radicalization and violence with unknowable but worrying consequences,” wrote Richard Barrett of the Soufan Group’s report, Foreign Fighters in Syria.

The notion of simply locking up returning foreign fighters without rehabilitating them is now being questioned in Aarhus, Denmark where 30 individuals traveled to fight with ISIS and other extremist groups. Much like the (I)ntervention aspect of MPAC’s PIE model in our Safe Spaces Initiative, the Danes are approaching dealing with returning fighters like “wayward youths rather than terrorism suspects, because that’s the way most of them started out.” The idea behind this town’s approach is to provide psychological counseling, job opportunities and access to schools and universities -- akin to the at-risk youth approach to gang violence and intervention. Essentially, these individuals being given a second chance can be the strongest mouthpiece against extremism and work as productive members in their society.  

Why is it that we are witnessing more European than American Muslims falling prey to the extremist message and becoming foreign fighters? When it comes to dealing with social integration, American Muslims have an easier time than European Muslims especially due to the diverse nature of Americans as a whole. In fact, American Muslims comprise the most diverse faith group in the country. Diversity actually helps the integration process for American Muslims whereas by contrast, European Muslims generally comprise of one or two dominant groups. According to Pew Research Center, the diverse nature of Muslims breeds tolerance. Pew found that most American Muslims think that their faith is open to multiple interpretations making social integration much easier.

While diversity, higher income and higher education levels all contribute to an easier integration narrative, our co-religionists in Europe do not experience the same easy path. In Denmark for example, Muslim immigrants experience higher levels of unemployment -- especially among the youth -- compared to their fellow Danes of other faiths. Furthermore, Muslims in Europe generally tend to live in marginalized ghettoes with bad housing and road conditions leading to a harder time for integration.

The longer governments and communities ignore these resources and access to mental health services, employment and education opportunities, the easier it becomes for young people to feel disenfranchised and even disconnected from their societies. In the context of dealing with extremism and violence, prevention is defined as dealing with the problem by “nipping it in the bud” through efforts that focus on developing communities. It is like taking care of oneself and being healthy so one doesn’t get sick. Should an individual or individuals fall prey to the disease of extremism, then intervention efforts should focus on rehabilitation rather than simple retribution.

Help us continue our work with a quick
one-time or monthly donation.