Hard-line beliefs, despair over democracy, proclivity towards violence, hatred of Jews: this could well be an apt description of Islamist extremists. It could also quite fittingly apply to another group – right-wing extremists, or specifically, in the German context, neo-Nazis.
In Germany, both groups are the target of one organisation working to help rehabilitate violent offenders of these persuasions, who seem like polar opposites, but are actually similar in many ways.
In 2001, the Violence Prevention Network, a German non-profit, began work to help rehabilitate neo-Nazis. Their numbers had grown since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the spurt in hyper nationalist sentiment in some quarters. Violent offences were taking place with alarming regularity. And so counsellors and activists from the group began making prison visits, speaking to the offenders and seeking to understand what drove them to violence and how they could heal themselves.
Counselling and group sessions
However, in 2007, the group found that their target audience needed adjustment, as a different kind of radical belief and behaviour pattern made itself apparent: religious fundamentalism among Muslims. Since then, the Network has been working with both sets of groups, though as recruitment by the terror group Islamic State has become a serious threat, the second group has been in focus.
“We saw many similarities between the two groups,” said Cornelia Lotthammer, head of communications for the Network, at a meeting in their Berlin office. “They both think they have historical missions, they think they are superior, they have certain hyper masculine ideas.”
So, how does the Network intervene?
“Our approach is to be non-humiliating,” she said. “If you killed someone, we condemn the killing, not you. It starts by understanding the deed, and the client has to see how they were misled.”
Working with extremists involves different kinds of projects: group sessions in prison and one-on-one interactions with a counsellor. These essentially revolve around questions and answers that aim to lead the person from the narrow echo chamber of their own beliefs into seeing the world more reasonably. So if a neo-Nazi believes Jews caused the economic crisis, they might be asked to name how many Jewish people head the big banks? That leads them on a process of actually finding out the facts.
The counselling sessions vary, depending on the context, but Lotthammer estimated that it usually took about two or three years for people to disengage from extremist beliefs. In case of those who have been in prison during the counselling sessions, once they leave prison there is usually a follow up with the counsellor. “We help them develop an intrinsic motivation to change,” said Lotthammer. “They have to feel it and they have to live it.”
The counsellors get people to talk about the offence they committed, their role and the lead up to it. During group sessions, through conversations with their peers in the group, each individual begins to understand where they went wrong.
The group also runs prevention programmes – it works in schools on inter-religious issues and operates a helpline where friends and family members can call if they feel they know someone who is suddenly showing an affinity for Islamist or right-wing extremism.
The problem is real. One newspaper reported that more than 800 people from Germany left to join the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.
The number of calls to the helpline has spiked, and the group is also running a crowd-funding campaign to collect money to especially work on identifying and targeting potential women recruits to the Islamic State.
The Network claims that small-scale studies have shown that their prison interventions were successful. The re-incarceration rate for those in the control group they had worked with was 13.3%, compared to the national average of 41.5% in cases of ideologically motivated violent offences.
A quest for identity
And though there might be similarities in the thinking of both types of hardline groups, and in the approach applied in counselling, one thing is markedly different. “You can approach Muslims on a theological level,” said Lotthammer. “But neo-Nazis have no religion. When you take away the ideology from them, they have nothing left, but Muslims still have their religious identity.”
But what is it that leads these people, mostly young men, into extremism in the first place?
Usually, it is a quest for identity. With neo-Nazis, there are often incidents of childhood violence that shape their thinking, the influence of drugs or alcohol and the spectre of unemployment. “Gangs provide support and a sense of a mission,” she said. “The way of belief becomes that the government is bad, the media is lying and you want to install a strong figure.”
As the Islamic State continues its dangerous march through West Asia and remains seductive for disengaged young people across the world, identifying and reaching out to the group’s potential recruits is becoming more and more urgent. That is not to say right-wing extremism is any the less, given that populist right-wing alternatives are emerging throughout Europe.
“At the moment our work is very important,” said Lotthammer. “We cannot see the end of right-wing extremism or the jihadi movement any time soon.”