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  • Elliot Grainger

Addressing extremist, hostile ideology.

Six steps for Governments in addressing extremist, hostile ideology.

When looking at the way people rationalise the world, there is a need to be aware of the differing ideologies within sections and subsections of populations, especially when they are hostile or even antipathetic to the mainstream ideology or existing political state order. This might sound obvious but all too often the nuances are lost in government need to rationalise their response and requirement for a one-size fits all communications message.

Governments must resist the urge to engage in a direct counter-ideological approach.

While there are a variety of policy options to consider as part of the response to these concerns, we believe that strategic communications is a robust approach to understanding and addressing the challenge of hostile ideology within communities.

This paper was written in response to a request to explore recommendations for governments on how and why strategic communications can be used effectively in response to addressing hostile ideology. It explains why we advise governments not to engage in a direct counter-ideological approach - but rather an offensive “prevention communications”.

The recommendations were developed from insight developed in our consultancy work. This is supplemented through research insights from our own research as well as research from wider think tanks and stakeholders looking to address this issue.

1. Understand the ideological threat in the local context.

Across Europe there are variations in the way that the challenge of ideology is conceptualised. For some governments there is a focus on the national security threat and the perceived link between certain ideologies and violent extremism. For other governments, the concern lies not only in the potential for an immediate security threat, but in how these ideologies advocate a radical interpretation of politics or religion that is at odds with the values of cultural and religious coexistence (thus contributing to the polarisation of society). There is also the risk that those with an extremist mindset may provide a fertile recruitment ground for violent extremist groups.

Research is needed to contextualise the differences, not seek to replicate between governments. A Strategic Communications approach fits this, as it places a research-led approach at the heart of the policy response.

It is important for each government to conduct research that helps them to fully understand and define the ‘threat’ in their local context. Our wider recommendations for strategic response can then be tailored to meet this specific need.

2. Governments should not engage in a direct counter-ideological approach.

Governments should not engage directly in a counter-ideological approach. We believe such a strategy risks exacerbating the problem and further isolating individuals and communities vulnerable to radicalisation.

A direct approach to countering ideological arguments plays into isolating ideological narrative. Additionally, liberal, western, democratic governments are not credible voices in an ideological debate. However, we do advocate supporting moderate and reconciled voices in the religious community (these voices are organic expressions of religion and identity) when utilised to promote positive narratives, not focused on countering negative narratives.

The nature of many extremist ideologies is that they function in black and white, reducing the worldview of the individual and his or her role within it to a simple good vs evil paradigm. This is a large part of their appeal among many followers and as such there is little space or appetite for nuanced debate. This renders counter-ideology an ineffective approach.

3. But, there is a (very specific) place for a counter-ideology.

We acknowledge that there is a place for counter-ideology in some very specific P-CVE interventions, primarily around disengagement and deradicalisation. The most effective of these are one-on-one engagements with individuals, as part of a carefully curated de-radicalisation programme (and, as such, just one of a variety of measures being taken). Such interventions should be carried out by experts in the field. Government would not be an effective or appropriate actor in this role - though they may well of course be the funder and implementer of such programmes.

4. Governments should engage with vulnerable communities and address their grievances.

It is important for governments to engage with religious or polarised communities. The isolation of such communities can be a contributing factor to their vulnerability to ideological narratives, and the mistrust they have in government stems from its distance and alienation.

To mitigate this isolation, governments should reach out to these communities. Not only does such action undermine the narrative of rejection and isolation, it also gives governments the opportunity to understand the experiences, concerns and grievances of these communities, which are often exploited by recruiters. Governments can then work to address these grievances and as such reduce the vulnerability of the communities to such communication. It is important to understand not just what, but how and why certain narratives are taking hold. This must be done at local level and both answers and solutions may differ between governments.

There are multiple ways to understand and support these communities, but we believe that an effective method is through partnerships with local civil society organisations. These actors have a nuanced understanding of the realities faced in their communities and may already be engaged in addressing identified issues. Rather than creating new programming, governments should support CSOs to improve and expand what is already there.

5. Governments should support the proliferation of moderate, reconciled voices.

While the government should not engage in ideological debate, they should work to proliferate the voices of moderate, reconciled voices, which help promote the mainstream national ideology, and the reconciled life all people can have within the European, liberal-democratic tradition. Strategic communications projects that support credible community voices to reach wider audiences can challenge the prominence of the ideological narratives in the communications space.

These voices exist and are desperate to be heard, but are often drowned out by the more activist voices. Furthermore, government support often requires scrupulous due-diligence - which is needed - but a realism on who might be possible to work with is needed; with a recognition that in a democratic, liberal society, they don’t need to agree on all points to help in the battle against radical ideology.

6. Further research is always needed, and is an ongoing process.

Further research should be conducted into how the proliferation of hostile ideology is impacting wider integration and prevention activities. For one, it is constantly changing, and each input a government has will prompt a reaction, either good or bad which will impact future interventions.

Further research is needed on the impact that the proliferation of hostile ideologies is having on government work more broadly, and community integration in particular.

The nature of the ideological threat needs to be better defined in order for governments to develop more targeted approaches to increasing communities’ resilience to damaging narratives. It is also important that each government considers this threat on a hyperlocal level, understanding how and why the ideology is spreading (on not) in different contexts.

Given the sensitive nature of the challenge, and the importance of not problematising a religion or isolating communities further, all initiatives should be constantly tested and refined to ensure their effectiveness and mitigate any harm.

This paper is a revised version of a previous paper we originally wrote for the European Strategic Communication Network (ESCN) in 2019. The ESCN was an EU funded project tasked to support Member State governments in addressing radicalisation, violent extremism and terrorism in the EU which ran from 2016 - 2020.


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