The rise of Islamic radicalism has prompted many observers to seek a greater prominence of moderate Muslim voices. The difficulty has been in identifying those voices and finding ways to steer practitioners of Islam away from extremism. Recent efforts in Europe are demonstrating innovative approaches to the problem — which could provide a model for others seeking workable solutions.
Kemal Bozay, a son of Turkish immigrants living in Germany, observed that the radicalization of young Muslims takes place early, and “[s]o far, as a society we've only reacted when it was too late.” He created a program called Wegweiser, which means “signpost” in German. Three Wegweiser centers in Germany send social workers to intervene when youths are approached by radical Islamic recruiters. These social workers, engaging with the families of these youths, offer an alternative to fundamentalism. In an encouraging development, Bozay told the Associated Press, “This is the first time we're approach[ing] the problem pre-emptively.”
Officials across Europe have seen a significant rise in Salafism, an extremist strain of Islam that has over 6,000 adherents in Germany alone. "Salafism is a lifestyle package for young people because it offers them social warmth, a simple black-and-white view of the world, recognition by their peer group — basically everything they lack in real life," said Burkhard Freier, the head of Germany’s domestic intelligence service. Radical Islamists prey on the real needs of teens and guide them in a socially destructive direction. Wegweiser offers a different path.
Wegweiser is not the only program taking this approach. Two years ago, Germany launched a national hotline for people who are worried that neighbors are engaged in Islamic radicalism. Although operated by the government, it refer callers to four civil groups who handle the actual casework.
One such group is called Hayat, which means “life” in Arabic. Hayat was founded by Bernd Wagner, a former police investigator who noticed that law enforcement was spending too much time locking up radicals and not enough time addressing needs before they become dangerous. Wagner and Hayat work with the families of young people to create positive alternatives. Hayat is preparing to create pilot programs in London and the Netherlands this year. They are considering a similar program in Canada.
The fact that youths are seeking spiritual guidance ought not be surprising. The hunger for acceptance and the yearning for the spiritual are universal constants. It’s appropriate and normal for young people to turn to religion for answers. These various programs are helping young Muslims recognize that Salafism and other radical variants of Islam are not the only available outlets for religious engagement. These welcome efforts demonstrate that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.