Cartoon: A hand closes protectively around a girl as meteoroids fall to earth.
"The ultimate goal is always to renounce violence"

It is estimated that there are more than 50 extremist groups worldwide. What role can cultural relations and education policy play in preventing violent extremism? Asiem El Difraoui talks about the potential of the AKBP in this field.

The interview was conducted by Juliane Pfordte

ifa (Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen): Mr. El Difraoui, you explored the potential of the German cultural relations and education policy in preventing violent extremism for the ifa Research Programme "Culture and Foreign Policy". What are the strengths of the cultural relations and education policy for the prevention of extremism?

Asiem El Difraoui: The cultural relations and education policy certainly cannot replace security policy and development aid, but it can and must complement them! In certain countries, cultural and educational policy is the only means available to reach people at all. Culture and education can promote tenacity in the face of extremist ideologies through building social networks, fostering critical thinking, and building resilience. Resilient people and societies find support in personal and social resources, making them less susceptible to simplistic extremist ideologies that are often based on simple black-and-white explanatory models. In certain countries, such as Senegal, jobs can be created through promotion of cultural and creative industries.

In other regions, however, it is important to create cultural offers, for example, in places where no other entertainment options other than Salafist mosques are available. The German cultural relations and education policy has the advantage of not being associated with neocolonial superpowers like France in Mali.

It is estimated that there are more than 50 "official" groups worldwide and no continent is spared.

Which countries are the focus of your study – and why?

El Difraoui: To begin with, I would like to point out that carrying out and evaluating cultural relations and education policy projects is an extremely difficult task. It is even more difficult to evaluate the projects we looked at here, namely in Afghanistan and in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region: in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and the Sahel region. Many of these countries are so-called ''failed states'' and are among the poorest in the world. In these countries, extremist groups exist amidst a power vacuum and they know how to exploit social grievances and experiences of exclusion, especially those of young people. 

Which extremist groups currently pose the greatest threat?

El Difraoui: The greatest extremist threat is posed by Sunni jihadism, which encompasses far more organizations than the so-called Islamic State, Al-Qaeda, and the Taliban. It is estimated that there are more than 50 "official" groups worldwide and no continent is spared. This ideology has recently spread strongly in the Sahel, more so than anywhere else. But extremisms along other ethnic, ideological, and religious lines of conflict (for example Shiite, Alawite, and Christian militias) also pose a threat.

For the study, you examined various preventive measures that have been proven effective in preventing extremism. What criteria did you use to analyse them? And what conclusions were you able to draw?

El Difraoui: We developed our own model and examined the projects according to the following criteria: target group identification, access to the target group, target definition, impact mechanism and benefits for the target group, results, sustainability and evaluation.

For example, interventions/measures for the youth are important, because they constitute the majority of the population in most of the countries we examined in our study. The youth often feel neglected and are therefore potentially at risk of being influenced by extremism. An important criterion for the measures is the direct benefit(s) to the local population. It should be possible to continue projects without external material support, for example by applying the "train- the-trainer" approach. Given the difficult security situation, the initiatives implemented in the countries examined in this study can often only be implemented at the macro and meso levels, i.e. for the society as a whole and for vulnerable groups.

In this case, the education sector offers the most opportunities for support from foreign cultural policy, for example, through the development of online libraries. Hybrid measures such as media initiatives that personally involve the local population also hold great potential.

Illustration: A small blue figure runs between long legs.
The youth often feel neglected and are therefore potentially at risk of being influenced by extremism. photo: CDD20: pixabay

Could you please explain this in more depth and give an example?

El Difraoui: In the Sahel, there is an important initiative for the Fulbe, a long-neglected nomadic group of about 40 million people, mostly Muslims, who live in several countries in the Sahel. They have increasingly joined various jihadist groups due to resource conflicts with settled farmers of other religions and ethnicities. In 2019, French foreign broadcasting station Radio France International (RFI) launched two programmes for the Fulani youth.

Hybrid measures such as media initiatives that personally involve the local population also hold great potential.

Until then, there had been no radio station in their language, leaving a vacuum for sectarian and dangerous disinformation. The radio programmes were broadcast on FM in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Senegal, among other countries, and combined educational resources with live sessions. Young people were able to contribute to the programme by suggesting topics they were concerned about, such as high unemployment and illegal migration. During the initial broadcast, more than a thousand listeners called in, which shows the immense need for such projects. Unfortunately, there are far too few projects such as this one.

What is the greatest difficulty in implementing the abovementioned preventive measures/initiatives?

El Difraoui: Sometimes it is necessary to negotiate or at least establish a working relationship with extremist groups – in other words – with people whose values we do not share. But there are successful examples that show how this could be useful. In 2019, the government of Mali managed to reach an agreement with a jihadist group to reopen state schools. In return, the regional administration funded development projects and teaching positions in the madrassas managed by the jihadists. It is important to find some form of minimal consensus; the ultimate goal is always to renounce violence.

Have you identified any weaknesses in these measures?

El Difraoui: All the projects discussed have great strengths, but also weaknesses. There are still not enough projects for women, whose role in extremism and in combating it has long been underestimated. This is gradually changing. Especially women in the "jihad academies" (that is, in the IS camps in Syria and Iraq) need support. So do Afghan women under the Taliban. A major weakness of many projects is that no independent evaluation is included from the outset. What is more, too few hybrid projects are being devised. Most importantly, we need to be more courageous to avoid stereotypical thinking and to constantly explore new creative approaches.

English copy-editing by Rachel Hinterthan-Nizan


About the Author
Portrait of Asiem El Difraoui
Asiem El Difraoui
Political scientist, economist, and documentary director and producer

Dr Asiem El Difraoui is a political scientist and author of books and documentaries. His areas of expertise include prevention and deradicalisation issues. In 2019, he was head of a project for the BAMF to develop a qualification course and a non-fiction book on exit work from Islamic extremism. In 2021, his book "Die Hydra des Dschihadismus" was published by Suhrkamp. He is co-founder of the CANDID Foundation in Berlin and co-editor of Zenith magazine.

Recommended Reading