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German schools tackle extremism

December 2, 2016

Bringing de-radicalization projects into schools is a major new challenge for European governments. Now the international media platform "Extreme Dialogue" is offering a new approach in Germany.

Deutschland Schulen und Internet im Unterricht
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/W. Kastl

Extremism is about much more than simple ideological indoctrination - it's rooted in all the many complex factors that make up people's lives. That's why understanding and countering radicalization among young people needs to take a much more personalized, localized approach. This is the central insight behind "Extreme Dialogue," a major new anti-radicalization initiative that launched its German arm this week at an event in the small northwestern town of Vechta.

"The academic studies of hate crimes often tend to conclude that this is an ideological issue, or a religious issue - something on the level of philosophical thinking - which you then counter, discuss and debate," said Harald Weilnböck, de-radicalization director at Cultures Interactive, the German partner in the project.

"If you talk to practitioners, you know that this just does not work," he said. "We've all met extremist people. Whenever you discuss with them, you realize you just don't get anywhere. We have to think of a different approach in our methodology."

The methodology developed by this project is based on stories, emotional intelligence, real-life experience, and trust - brought into classrooms and workshops with the help of different kinds of media.

Christianne Boudreau
Boudreau works with other families affected by extremismImage: privat

This is all supported by Extreme Dialogue's internet platform - run by the UK-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue and co-funded by the European Union - that offers free educational resources in various languages and various formats. Central to it are a series of short films about people whose lives have been affected by extremism of all stripes. These films tell the stories of people like Billy McCurrie, who joined a Northern Irish paramilitary group after his father was murdered by the IRA, or Daniel Gallant, a former Canadian neo-Nazi responsible for countless acts of violence, and who tells of how Islamist extremists co-opted far-right material as part of their recruitment among young people.

Critical thinking

One of the most moving videos is about Christianne Boudreau, whose son Damian Clairmont left their home in Canada and was killed fighting for "Islamic State" in Syria in January 2014. She has since begun working with families facing radicalization around the world as part of a network called "Mothers for Life." Boudreau says the crucial part of the Extreme Dialogue project is the critical thinking it brings into the classroom.

"The kids are set free on the internet - you can try to block whatever information you want, but they're still going to be curious," she told DW. "So by introducing the topic in a safe environment and giving them the critical thinking skills, it allows them to experience the types of feelings they would encounter if they were approached by someone from an extremist group trying to recruit them. Then they can recognize the thought processes that are involved in recruitment."

Boudreau's experience with young people has shown that they often already know a lot about it. "People often don't realize how much thought they've already put into [extremism], because it's so prominent in the media," she said.

Schüler befasst sich mit Propaganda der radikalen Salafisten in Deutschland
Dealing with radicalization has become a new focus in schoolsImage: picture-alliance/dpa/B.Roessler

Because the Extreme Dialogue films are so emotionally engaging, she added, "it often opens them up with an awful lot of questions which they just haven't found an appropriate place to ask before. But this is a safe environment where they won't be judged, there won't be stigmatization, and it allows them to ask difficult questions that most people shy away from."

New dimension

To back up these films, the website offers a whole raft of educational material, including a series of lesson plans for teachers to draw on - which is what, according to Weilnböck, sets Extreme Dialogue apart from the work of other German de-radicalization organizations, notably the Berlin-based Violence Prevention Network (VPN).

"[VPN] are strictly focused on face-to-face work," he said. "Germany has been doing it since the 90s, really, and since 2001, when Chancellor [Gerhard] Schröder put it into law that 20 million euros [$21 million] a year would be put into fighting extremism - but that was mostly put into preventing neo-Nazism, especially in the east."

Personal counseling, he added, was the focus of most de-radicalization projects in Germany, but Extreme Dialogue's videos and materials added a new dimension: "They do not do any media work of the kind that Extreme Dialogue does. These are designed to be used in classrooms as triggers of real-life discussions."

But the work has only just started: "It's one thing to have a good method on the shelf, but you need a pool of trainers and facilitators to teach it."